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TOO YOUNG TO BE OLD: CHANGE IN THE SIXTH DECADE OF LIFE



I’ve been thinking about the difference between loneliness and aloneness. I vacillate between the two – ironically, I often feel more lonely in a group of people than when I am physically solitary. The balance between feeling good just by myself and feeling good with others is something I still haven’t been able to achieve yet in this life, except in very small increments of time.


For example, I often wish people would reach out to me and ask me how I am. Yet if someone does, I feel awkward telling them, as if I don’t deserve that attention, and more often than not, I chase away that good reaching out with my unfriendly exterior. My husband (who is very good at relating to other people) says if I want people to reach out to me, I have to reach out to them. I try to do that, but somehow the balance just isn’t right. He also says that people are “busy with their own stuff”, so quite often they don’t notice people who are quiet and stay on the sidelines.


I never thought of myself as a “sidelines” type person, but these days I feel this very much. Together with many people, my life took a sharp left turn last year. I’m one of the lucky ones, but still, jobs I had for years have melted away, and I don’t know how to get paid (even a small amount) for things I really want to do. There seem to be so many people on the same type of game; I don’t want to be lost in the shuffle. And I am not good at self-promotion. Even this website/blog was a dream I had for years before it finally eventuated at the request of my publisher. I feel wise, and I want to impart many things, but I don’t know how.


How much of this feeling is “real” and how much is the fault of negative labels I put on myself? And can turning those labels around help me to find my tribe, my new reason for living? I’m 66 years old. That’s too young to be “old”, yet my body is telling me that “old” isn’t that far away. Also, I’m a grandma (3 times over), and grandmas are “old”. I think the 60s are an age when one is in transition, somewhat like the teen years. Teenagers are pining to be older so that they can do more things. But people in their 60s don’t usually pine to be older. Unfortunately, time runs only one way. The future doesn’t hold as many lovely surprises as it did when I was 17.


Some things about being older, I like. I generally enjoy deciding when to get up in the morning and what to do with my days, now that I no longer have the imperative of even a part-time job. I’ve always hated having to be somewhere or do something at a specific time, deadlines of any kind make me very tense – and my location means that I have to travel for a long time to get anywhere, so if I do go somewhere, I have to worry about train times, arrival times, etc. For me, meeting other people in person is a treat that I allow myself quite seldom, like chocolate cake. (Social media is different, and I’m glad it’s available whenever I need it. But Zoom is very uncomfortable for me, I will never be a “techie”.) Organizing my own time feels good, after years of getting up at 5:00 am to make my husband’s lunch and see him off to work every weekday. Still, I’m not a layabed, I’m usually up by 7. The difference between being told when to get up by an alarm clock and deciding that for myself is enormous. Those two hours are golden for me.


But sometimes I feel like an old rubber band that will break if stretched. Having NO commitments, having no one who is waiting for me at work or event, can be stultifying as well. I have to create situations using my own ingenuity, where people may be glad to see me. This after years of thinking “Leave me alone!” It’s a big change and one that involves retooling my whole idea of myself vis-à-vis other people.


One problem is that people label us, and once we accept these labels as the truth, we live our lives in a cramped pigeonhole of other people’s making. The people I live among think they know me and they have, for the most part, dismissed me. I’m a foreigner – already a formidable barrier for most people around here, and mostly, not worth crossing. To boot, I’m kimuzukashii (difficult, high-maintenance), I’m quiet and no good at small talk, I don’t know what to talk about, I don’t like gossiping about others. What they don’t know is that I am hiding many interesting things about myself because to expose them would make me feel too vulnerable. To winkle those things out is just too much trouble for those around me.


A few years ago I was on a TV program, “Why I Live in Japan”. I got quite angry with the producers because they only wanted to show the part of my life that is about taking care of an old house in the country. Even when I mentioned things I did that I thought were interesting, such as painting or publishing books, they only wanted to show the parts they had already decided would be my “story”. That’s one of my problems living in rural Japan – people around me decide what part of me they will relate to, and that I could change is unthinkable. How dare I try to change myself at age 66? Maybe that’s the way all people relate to each other. How would I know? I’m still in kindergarten in this field.


It’s time for me to start thinking about how I will live my life in the 20 years or so I may have left. Maybe I can’t change the minds of the people who think they know me. But maybe I ought to start thinking about how to change my own mind about the people around me.


I still love my solitude, but maybe it can be a source of strength so that I can face others with more equanimity. Maybe I can be less prickly toward others and concentrate less on how to avoid having my space invaded. Maybe – who knows? – I can even become lovable, and relate to others more naturally. It feels scary. But pushing the envelope of who we are is always scary, and usually yields big dividends.


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