Well, it’s here: my 75th birthday. It’s been a long time coming—75 years to be exact. I would like to say I’ve enjoyed every one of them, but that would not be the truth. The truth is, I’ve enjoyed most of them and the ones that weren’t quite like-able were certainly educational and worthwhile.
The fact is, few people expected me to live this long. When I was born, the expectation for children with my disability was about 20 years. I certainly spent a lot of my first few years being sick, but, probably in part because I had a mother who would not let me feel sorry for myself or wallow in self pity (hat tip back to you, too, Grandma!), I kept a good attitude. In fact, it took the stares of other children to make me aware that I might be “different.” I didn’t feel “different” so I just got over the pneumonia or asthma or whatever, and got back to work being a kid.
There were a few people in my life who tried to discourage me, When I told the lady who did our hair occasionally, at about age 8 or 9, that I wanted to be a dancer when I grew up, I overheard her telling my mother that she should really discourage me from that dream. To my mother’s credit, she never did that.
I think the driving force in my life may have been my father’s attitude, though. His philosophy about life was, “if you can do a lot of something, I can do a little of it.” He tackled projects most never would. He built his own buildings and campers (He loved traveling and camping.) and tools of all sorts. We still have an air compressor he built out of odd parts—it still works, too! The things he built rarely looked finished, but always functioned as they were expected to. It was this “can-do” attitude that, in part, drove me to compete and to stretch myself.
I learned early on that one area I could not compete in was neighborhood sports. I was too small and too weak for anyone to want me on their team. So I turned to areas that seemed to be my strength to get the recognition all children crave—I wrote. I started my first novel at age 9 (no, I never finished it). I put together multiple copies of a neighborhood newsletter by copying articles from the real one and drawing “photos” to adorn the pages. Plagiarism, smagiarism—I had no clue about that. I wrote my first “editorial” at about age 12 or 13, at the height of the “sit-in” movement. It was not an assignment; it was something I wrote because I felt so strongly about it. Growing up in a highly segregated society, I couldn’t understand why black people were not allowed to eat at a lunch counter. My dad, who told racial jokes with the rest of his cronies in the oil field, read it and seemed genuinely surprised and pleased at what I had written. That was the beginning of a series of intense arguments we had throughout my high school years over various aspects of politics. My interest in both writing and politics continues to this day.
So, after 75 years of living, what’s the take-away? Here’s where I bestow you with my accumulated wisdom. If you don’t need or want it, you can stop reading now.
1. What they told me about how the older you get, the faster time passes? It’s true! When I was a freshman in high school, my teacher assigned an essay on what we wished for. I don’t remember all I wrote, but I started it out by saying, “I wish I was already 21.” Her comment on that line was, “Don’t ever wish any part of your life away!” Although I didn’t accept that in the way it was meant at the time, I have come to realize the wisdom of it. Each moment is precious, even the uncomfortable and/or painful ones.
2. There’s a saying: what goes around, comes around. The Bible says, “you reap what you sow.” Both are saying the same thing. If I sow selfishness and bitterness into my life, I will reap selfishness and bitterness from others. We are all human, under the “curse” of original sin. My view of original sin is that it represents our innate nature for self protection. When others hurt me, I try to understand their actions in terms of how they see their need for self protection, more than as an attempt to specifically do me harm. This view makes forgiveness easier. I know that over the past 75 years, I’ve hurt others. Periodically those incidents come to mind, and I wish the people I hurt were still here so I could tell them I’m sorry. Often they are not, so my “penance” is to forgive others, in a kind of “pay-it-forward-and-backwards-at-the-same-time approach. But it’s really a “penance” that benefits me more than those I forgive. Lack of forgiveness is too heavy a load to carry for 75 years!
3. Never retire! Okay, let me rephrase that: only retire if it’s from something you’re tired of doing to do something you really want to do.The idea of retiring so you can take your retirement pension and go home and sit in front of the TV is an anathema to me! If you can no longer do the job you earned your retirement doing or the job has become something you don’t like anymore, then “retire” from that job. But don’t retire from life! In 1996, I was finally able to take on the job I knew I had wanted to do since fifth grade—teach. I taught for ten years in Texas; I loved it and I learned so much! In 2007, my husband’s job change forced me to take an “early retirement” from Texas. Long story short, six months later, I started a new career as a teacher educator at a regional university. This is, I believe, what I was meant to do all along, and I didn’t even get to start it until I was 65! Like I say, only retire if you’re going to something better.
4. Be a lifelong learner. This is a phrase I picked up in grad school, but the fact is, I was living by it long before I heard the phrase. When I was a kid, my parents bought a set of the World Book of Knowledge from a door-to-door encyclopedia salesman. That was absolutely one of the best investments they ever made, at least for me. When I had nothing else to do, I would pour over these books, studying the photos and graphs when I couldn’t understand the text. My experience is a testament to the research that shows that the availability of books in the home is critical to create young readers. The fact is, reading those encyclopedias, I discovered that the world is unbelievably interesting and fascinating! There is always something new to learn about, and every piece of information we take in helps form our world perspective. It is essential that our world perspective be at least as broad and deep as the world itself.
In 75 years, I have been a lot of places, done a lot of things, and made a lot of wonderful friends. I have a family I am inordinately proud of. I have tried to raise my children and grandchildren to be their own persons and I think they have/are. Most of all I’ve tried to let them know that there is always forgiveness and always hope. And that’s the message I will leave with you, dear reader.