In 1971, holding the premier issue of “Ms.” magazine in my hands, I can recall the added thrill of discovering that a fellow-guest editor at Mademoiselle had illustrated its now historic cover.
With early success as a commercial artist, Miriam Wosk ultimately transformed herself into a fine artist who created surreal, vibrant, mixed-media pieces, including the one above. She was noted for her use of materials that “broke a lot of boundaries,” art with “a spiritual undertone.” Her work was, as one critic put it, “definitely a major deal.”
Looking forward to reuniting in LA long after our shared experience in NYC and Mexico, eleven fellow former-guest editors welcomed her advance invitation to come over one night for dinner. The chance to see her artwork in her home and studio, in addition to reconnecting with Miriam herself, excited everybody. Shortly before the dinner, however, her assistant reported that Miriam regretted having to cancel. Just back from Hawaii, she wasn’t feeling well enough to host a gathering. We sent back a collective wish for her to bounce back soon.
Two and a half months later, news of her death due to cancer stunned me. Only a month after that, so did the passing of Barbara Packer, who had been able to celebrate with us. A noted scholar, she was a brilliant interpreter of the work of Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Transcendentalists. The obituary listed her books and awards, but also paid tribute to “her wisdom, humor, and infallible ethical sense—a woman “loved and respected by everyone who knew her.”
Here were reminders not only of the arc of each life, including my own, but of the arc’s inevitable completion. Never mind earlier superficial issues around aging like whether to “go gray,” or how to make peace with bodily changes—hands, for example, now with conspicuous veins and age spots, the skin gradually losing its elasticity. Here instead was a prompt to come to terms with the graver challenges of aging, like its sorrows. And to somehow continue to be able to experience joy.
It’s risky for people of a certain age, in my opinion, to binge-watch the sit-com “Grace and Frankie.” In every episode, between the laughs lie the deeper truths about growing older, best absorbed in moderation. In one, Frankie is puzzling about whether to move to Santa Fe or to stay put, when her heart malfunctions and she ends up in the ER. Informed that she’s already had an earlier mini-stroke, she reluctantly agrees to wear a hidden medical alert medallion in case of a cardiac emergency. She and Grace are pitching their funky vibrator to a potential funder when the medical device beneath her blouse starts loudly beeping.
After fumbling to turn the thing off and assuring the prospective business partner that she’s actually perfectly healthy, she’s mortified to hear a siren’s wail signaling that an ambulance is already speeding her way. Frankie’s “alarming” experience is comical. But sobering, too— with the specter of compromised independence and, healthwise, an uncertain future looming large.
Surgery on my right shoulder, a kidney stone requiring time in the hospital, a diagnosed dairy-allergy, and an upcoming operation on the other shoulder, all within two and a half years, have confounded this typically hale and hardy person. Having to postpone until next year a highly-anticipated trip to Africa, I find myself wondering about future challenges. With a tricky knee, will I be able to get up from my knees next spring when I garden, much less trek miles through the bush on safari? Only for so long, apparently, because plenty of my peers are walking around with new hips and knees, hopeful that the parts won’t wear out before they do.
But these are fixable problems. Bigger challenges also come along, testing us and our beloveds. For twenty-five years, my life partner, Peter, never missed a day of work due to illness. But I returned home from that first GE reunion to a doctor’s diagnosis of his stage-four colon cancer—Pete’s ultimate passing, a heartbreaking, life-altering loss. As time marches on, challenges of this kind, and many others, test the very core of every person.
To me, it always seemed a major oversight by the Celestial Creative Department that, at an age when one is, arguably, physically more fragile and emotionally more vulnerable, so much undeniable shit can happen, seriously and serially. But the Universe knows what it’s doing. It’s a last chance to discover what we’re here for.
Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama spell out in “The Book of Joy” which qualities of mind and heart ensure the presence of joy in any life. Qualities of the mind worth developing include humility, humor, perspective and acceptance, both agree. And which habits of the heart? Generosity, forgiveness, compassion, and gratitude. As the GE crew supports each other via email, I see these qualities in play as each one deals with the hiccups and trials that come at any age— termites, tick bites, assorted maladies, botched endeavors—but also the more age-specific ones.
Memory loss, being a big for-instance. One GE recently wrote, “Probably the most frightening thing is realizing that our mental capacity to operate in the world is diminishing.” She pointed out that this plays havoc with any bucket list and makes it harder to know with certainty what we’ll be doing in five years, much less twenty.
Several of us have been caregivers for older parents or partners with illnesses and/or dementia. Another of this sisterhood is coming to grips with her husband’s recent diagnosis, fearing treatment costs and memory care will eat up their savings. She admitted to worrying about ending up homeless.
From our own experiences with major change and loss, we urged her to focus on the positives, what she’s grateful for—in her case, involved offspring, a history of creative resourcefulness, and that roof still over her head. Unaccustomed to asking for help, she dared to solicit others’ support. A tribe of generous souls responded.
“All of this is my miracle. I HAVE LEARNED TO ACCEPT HELP, WITH GRACE,” she proclaimed in caps, adding, “My mother would be proud of me to have learned how to say ‘thank you’ and to accept all this kindness.”
It’s one example of a range of late-in-life epiphanies, each “aha!” inspiring a deeper appreciation for just about everything. Translating the qualities of mind and heart into practice, we open to a more contemplative lifestyle. One can’t help but feel thankful for any opportunity to take in, with all one’s senses, whatever gift comes our way—a first grandchild for one GE, a trip to Paris for another, with an ex from her commune days, no less! After Pete’s passing, I doubted that I’d ever feel real joy again. I was wrong. At long last, it bubbled up, my joy, oddly enough, richer for my past suffering.
This state is not beholding to—sometimes even at odds with—those achievements listed on the obituary page. Dying to the false self, or ego, is at the heart of the spiritual journey. With perfect timing, the challenges of aging force us to cultivate the very qualities that give us a new perspective on what, in the long run, really matters. And they ready us, I suspect, at the close of our earthly life, for what’s to come.
First, topmost photo: Art by Miriam Wosk.
Second: Her cover for the debut issue of “Ms.” Magazine
Third: The hands that have served me so well.
Fourth: Button wisdom
Fifth: Another Miram Wosk creation
Last: Miriam in her studio