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What We Learn as We Age

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A friend asked me what I had learned over 94 years of intense living. What a question! Since I will be 94 on Feb. 21, she thought it was time I gave the idea some attention.

Actually, the only thing I can say I've learned is: "No experience is wasted." And that has become my mantra. "If only... " is a fantasy. I remember a film called Outward Bound (1930), which I saw in 1944. I thought it was about a ship caught in a dense fog, and the people on board are given an opportunity to live part of their lives over again. They are delighted to have a second chance to change their lives -- to learn from their mistakes. However, they all make the same choices they did the first time. The circumstances change, but the emotions governing their choices are the same, and they repeat their behavior. After checking the plot on the Web, I discovered I was wrong. I simply remembered a small section of the film and ignored the rest!

When I reflected on all the "mistakes" I made during my lifetime, I decided to let go of the "If only... " fantasy. I thought about how World War II changed my life, and how I blamed the war for the destruction of my dreams. If I hadn't married in 1941, my life would have turned out differently -- but maybe not! As I look back at the three men I married, I realized that they were all the same man, in different bodies. They were all brilliant intellectuals; they were great storytellers, and wonderfully in tune with their bodies and with mine. They were enthusiastic, impulsive, exciting to be with, and none of them got along with their mothers. I was nurturing and forgiving, sure of myself and positive that they would change. I was mistaken, of course. However, each marriage and/or relationship lasted 12 years or more, and the love between us was deep.

I don't regret any of it, and that's the key. I find myself thinking back over the six careers I have had, and I was convinced that the methodologies I espoused for training teachers to teach English as a second or foreign language all over the world were absolutely the best methodologies around. I am now re-thinking a lot of the ideas I proposed so strongly. I am enjoying a surge of semi-humility.

Age, of itself, is not a good measure of learning. In certain parts of the world, once an individual reaches the age of 60, that individual is considered "wise." While I like that idea, and while I realize that for women in those parts of the world, being 60 is liberating, I'm not so sure I would consider every 60 year old I have met automatically "wise."

Donald Hall, in a recent article in The New Yorker magazine (Jan. 23), writes about being old and sitting reflectively in front of a window in his house, watching the weather change and enjoying the interactions between the birds, squirrels and cats he observes. He writes about how irritated he is with people who patronize him, and I really sympathize. I remember how I hated being patted on the head by patronizing elders and now I wish people didn't have to bolster their own sense of virility by discounting me.

However, being pushed around an art gallery, and driven places by somebody makes me feel privileged! The other sensation I enjoy is liberation. I have entered the land of the "old old." There are no expectations of me at this age; if I feel like reading all night and sleeping all day, I can do it. I can drink wine but no martinis, and I have the sense that I have somehow crossed an invisible barrier. I can do whatever I want to do -- or feel capable of doing physically, and as long as I don't deliberately endanger myself, I'm not being unfair to my children and my friends.

Learning is an ongoing process that doesn't end with old age. Learning anything requires discipline, practice, humility and hard work. It's intensely rewarding, and the process is invigorating. One of the important elements is accepting the possibility of failure. In fact, I have learned more from my failures than from my successes. When my efforts at writing a short play succeed, I am delighted, but when they don't work, I really start figuring out the reasons for the failure. That's a vivid learning experience.

Finally, reflecting on what I've learned, at 94, is the following:

• Acceptance is more important than understanding;

• "If only" is a fantasy;

• We learn more from our failures than our successes;

• No experience is wasted.

Learning new skills is empowering -- even at 94!

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.

For more by Rhoda P. Curtis, click here.

For more on aging gracefully, click here.

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