The Backward Glance

by Elsa Bowman

On my mother’s 90th birthday, she told me to stop buying her new clothes because she didn’t expect to live long enough to wear them out. When she blew out 100 candles ten years later, I regretted my decision and bought her a new suit! Then, six months past her 103rd birthday, she made the decision to stop eating and end her life.  She went out her own way, on her own terms. 

Although my mother’s long life was unusual for her generation, a recent survey by AARP notes that by 2050, those over 60 will grow to 2 billion. That’s 22% of all the people on the planet!  Equally noteworthy, those 90 and older will approach 10% of the total population. The challenge will be to discern what might be the purpose of all these extra years—almost a whole second adulthood. 

I recently joined a group of men and women exploring how to become “conscious elders.” As usual, I am the oldest. It leaves me feeling a little prickly because my current experience at 87 is so different from theirs. In truth, I am reporting from a foreign country they may not choose to visit. Those in their 60s like my own children are still finishing the business of relationships and work, only faintly aware that there is a new country ahead. A few in their 70s feel more secure about settling into the new role of elder, but uncertain how to prepare. They are unwittingly moving into what Hindu tradition calls the Forest Dweller stage— a time to detach from responsibilities of career and family in order to scale down, simplify and begin to prepare spiritually for the final stage—that of the Wandering Beggar—who must renounce the world and depend on the kindness of strangers for survival—perhaps in a nursing home.

That’s where I am—in that final stage—the territory of the old-old.  However, I do not see myself as a beggar or a renunciate. For me, the years past 80 have been about learning to work without a net, trusting a kind of inner GPS beyond the old guidance systems of society or religion. The necessary stripping away of treasured belongings, past relationships—even my comfortable place in the world—no longer feels like a sacrifice. Instead it has become a kind of preparation for a journey to new places off the grid both spiritually and psychologically. I don’t know how many years it will take, but I sense it is my final journey and this yearning for the unknown is the final gift.  

I am grateful that some fledgling elders are interested in learning about the new territory I am beginning to explore. They intuit that a map is not the territory, a menu not the meal. They want the concreteness of actual experience. Just as their descendants will look to them for advice and examples, they are scouting out a few explorers of the way ahead. They are looking past all the oldsters—those authorities about the past—who are simply waiting for the hearse-taxi.

Explorers focus on what’s ahead and many ancient tales warn about the dangers of looking back. Lot’s wife turned to a pillar of salt when she looked back at Sodom. Orpheus lost Eurydice again when he turned back to her in Hades. 

In my journey, the backward glance is a symbol of love and encouragement to generations that will follow. I am looking over my shoulder beckoning: Don’t be afraid! There is more to learn, more to explore, more of yourself to discover. Don’t let fear keep you here waiting for death. The new world is ahead! Coming?

Elsa (Midge) Bowman is a third generation Seattleite. She has spent her life devoted to girls education and women’s development issues, the arts and spirituality in all forms.