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Excerpt: Women Rowing North: Navigating Life’s Currents and Flourishing As We Age



“One of the secrets of a happy life is continuous small treats.”
—Iris Murdoch

“Habit has a kind of poetry.” —Simone de Beauvoir

When I was a six-year-old living in Beaver City, Nebraska, I read an advertisement for a dog in a teacup. It promised that if I sent a dollar to a post-office box in New York City, a tiny puppy would arrive within ten days. I begged my mother for the required dollar. She warned me that the ad was a hoax, and I would lose my dollar, but I insisted. I wanted that puppy!

After I mailed my envelope, I named the puppy Caramel. Every afternoon I waited on my front porch for the mail carrier. When he showed up without a box, I was deeply disappointed. After ten days my mother suggested I give up hope, but I didn’t. I anticipated that puppy for months. In fact, I think a part of me is still waiting.

I no longer send money for puppies in the mail. Most of the time I can manage my expectations. I don’t give my adult children unsolicited advice and expect them to appreciate it. I don’t expect anyone, including myself, to be good-natured all the time. I love who I love, not only in spite of their flaws, but also because these flaws are an essential part of who they are. And I’m aware that the people who love me are equally merciful.

I don’t look at my horoscope; I know what I need to do to be happy. Building a good day is about making good choices involving our emotions, thinking, and behavior. We can craft days with meaningful activities, satisfying routines, and time with friends and family, and acquire coping strategies that allow us to deal with stress. We can cultivate our sense of humor and, as we sense the fierce urgency of time, we can learn to see our own life in proportion to the whole of life in order to feel grateful simply to be alive.

To be happy we need to learn how to structure a day that is rich in meaning and joy-producing activities. How we spend our time defines who we are. There is no magical future. Today is our future. Our lives are events that unfurl in real time, minute by minute. Right up there with the need for oxygen, food, and sleep is the need to have a reason to get out of bed every morning. We want to be able to think of events we are looking forward to and activities that will give the day a sense of purpose. If we can envision these things, we can find the energy to face even a difficult day.

Many of us wake up grumpy with negative first thoughts. We are likely to think about our worries or our to-do lists for the day. We may have aches and pains. If the weather is gray and cold or we are anticipating unpleasant events, we can be gloomy. However, it’s possible to do a mental reset by asking ourselves what we are looking forward to and what we are grateful for.

In life, as in writing, it is as important to know what to delete as it is to know what to add. We don’t want our lives to be one long to-do list filled with shoulds and musts. If we are overscheduled and rushing, everything becomes one more chore. When the sunset blazes copper and gold, we don’t want to be checking Facebook. When our grandchild asks for a story, we don’t want to be preoccupied with paying bills.

We don’t want to trudge through our lives doing one dreary chore after another. We want small treats in every day. When times get tough, we want to buy ourselves roses or chocolate bars, make sure we play with our pet or see our best friend for coffee. These breaks give us time to reconstitute. We can teach ourselves to simply sit down for fifteen minutes and rest or read.

We need space around space. We don’t want too many appointments in one day. We want to move in ways that allow us to be relaxed and content. We can allow ourselves puttering time and hang-out time. We can mark out appointment-free days in our schedules and give ourselves days with no cell phones, social media, or news of the world.

As we age, our goals can be greater than our energy levels. Many of us find ourselves with high needs for stimulation and engagement, but limited stamina. Our energy is a valuable resource that must be wisely allocated. Pacing is key. Otherwise, we can collapse with exhaustion and find ourselves in the doldrums for a few days.

There are many polarities in our lives that call for balance and perspective. We try to balance our needs for solitude and companionship, work and relaxation. We want to be health-focused but not health- obsessed. We want to be both spontaneous and disciplined. These sound like rather abstract issues, but this kind of balancing work comes up every day. Do we spend some time catching up on our chores, or do we go with a friend to a concert? Should we read books we loved but haven’t read in decades, or do we read new ones? Should we visit our favorite places from the past, or do we travel to new places? Should we work more hours to build up our retirement account, or cut back to spend time with our grandchildren?

To be calm and happy we need multiple reliable ways to cope with stress. We will either develop good habits for dealing with stress or we will adopt self-destructive habits, such as drinking, drugs, or compulsive shopping or television-watching.

Laura, who cares for an ill sister, sings in her church choir. The rehearsals and the Sunday services take her to a joyful and connected place. Reina works in her garden. If she has a difficult interaction with her husband or adult children, she goes outside and pulls a few weeds or waters her roses. Cara picks up a sketchbook and draws whatever sparks her imagination.

Excerpted from “Women Rowing North” by Mary Pipher. Copyright © Mary Pipher, 2019. Published by Bloomsbury USA. Reprinted with permission.

This excerpt was featured in the March 3rd edition of The Sunday Paper, Maria Shriver’s free weekly newsletter for people with passion and purpose. To get inspiring and informative content like this piece delivered straight to your inbox each Sunday morning, click here to subscribe.