Beginnings, Endings, And Transitions As We Age

January is the month for new beginnings; December is the month for endings and how we manage the transition between December and January is the subject of this essay.

For elders like me, December, not April, is the cruelest month (apologies to T.S. Eliot). Eliot was writing about April, in his bleak, cold environment in England as a deadly period before spring in May, which would herald rebirth. December, on the other hand, in California, is rainy and wet, and February is the month when the hills turn green.

December is the cruelest month for us old folks because there is often no beckoning of new beginnings. For us, there are only endings--endings to friends who have died during the year; endings to independence; endings to physical ability, and for some, deterioration in mental ability. It is hard to deal with endings, and we light candles, go to parties at which we struggle to stay awake, and try to think of cheerful, encouraging things to say to friends and family.

However, I look forward to January with pleasure and anticipation. It means that, with luck and careful attention to where I put my feet, I will live another year. It means changing my mind-set, and being comfortable with that. I'm not saying it's easy, it's just that I've done this mind-set changing before in my life, and this is simply another area in which I have to do this.

I am a cautious optimist, not a Pollyanna, nor Voltaire; I do not believe we live in the best of all possible worlds. I do believe, however, that we are capable of adjusting to changing conditions. Sometimes our adaptability works to our detriment--we are too passive when it comes to political changes, and we wake up to an erosion of our privacy and the democracy we live in when it's too late.

I am reminded of the fable about the frog. Drop a frog into boiling water, and it will leap out and live. Drop a frog into cool water, increase the temperature gradually--the frog adapts, and drowns.

I am as active politically as my body will allow--no more protest marches and demonstrations for me, but the Internet offers some outlet for my pacific passions. What I was referring to above was the importance of changing my mind-set regarding my own physical and mental survival. It's too late to leap out of the boiling water, but I can still swim.

The mindset I'm talking about is this--giving up the idea of independence. I don't mean giving up my car--my license is still valid, and I'm still able to drive well--I simply choose not to drive by myself. It's too much of a hassle to park, haul the walker out of the trunk and slowly move into the grocery store, the bank, or wherever. I have to practice sitting in the passenger seat of a car, and when we park, wait until the driver comes around, opens the door for me to a waiting walker, and wait while I pull myself painfully upright. I have to practice happily accepting the arm that is offered, the railing that is at hand, and accepting the assistance that is offered. This is not easy.

However, when I decided to enroll in a play writing class at Stagebridge, an organization in Oakland, California, dedicated to bridging the gap between elders and youth, it became a commitment that helps me look forward to the New Year. I think we need goals, no matter what our age may be. It doesn't matter whether we achieve those goals or not--that's for December to decide. In January, it's the choice of a goal that's important; it's the process that counts--achievement is great if and when it happens.

A friend of mine, in her seventies, retired from a life in the corporate world, decided to learn to paint. She joined a local community college last year, and enrolled in several classes, applying the dedicated time and passion with which she acquired a top management position in her previous life. For her, December is a happy month. She has several compositions worthy of an exhibition, and this may come about in January.

December is a time for looking back, and it's possible to concentrate on the good times--on the accolades of grateful students; on acquiring whatever managerial position we aspired to; publication of a novel; performance of a piece of music we have composed; whatever goal we met during the past year, or any year of our lives.

With that sense of achievement, we can look forward to January with confidence. That's the kind of transitional attitude that will move us from December to January with relative ease.

Rhoda P. Curtis is the author of "Rhoda: Her First Ninety Years," a candid memoir of a first-generation American woman who was willing to change the direction of her life every 12 years, and "After Ninety: What." To buy Rhoda's books and to read her blog, visit her on Red Room.