Written by Kami Pohl, OblSB
On a crisp fall night in Dallas, TX in the late 1970’s, I gathered with my grandparents, parents, brothers, aunt and uncle for a specialcelebratory dinner. I don’t remember if I was excited because this was a nicer restaurant than we normally patronized, but I vividly recall that as we settled around the table in our seats, my grandfather started unbuttoning his shirt! I can still picture everyone’s momentary stunned reactions. As we all focused on my grandfather, he used his big, strong hands to quickly unbutton his thinning cotton button-down shirt to reveal a navy blue t-shirt with yellow lettering. I can still hear the laughter as he held open his shirt and proudly proclaimed what the t-shirt said, “I’m half a century old!” The sparkle in his eyes and the big grin on his face was full of joy. Here was a man who was grateful for his life.
Ask most women my age who are our mentors for aging well, and I think many would mention a beautiful celebrity. However, after realizing how unachievable their version of a certain age is, maybe they then turn to a family member, a work colleague, a friend, a neighbor, or a beautiful person from church. I doubt many women would name their aging mentor as a balding man who regularly kept a toothpick behind his ear. What might it look like in my own life to embrace the age of fifty with the same spirit? Could I learn to be grateful for all the parts of my life? To see it as a gift?
As I look back, I think I started preparing for this birthday a couple of years ago. My late forties reminded me of that big salad bar at the restaurant where we celebrated my grandfather. There were some delicious partsI was excited to dive into like the extra time and freedom that comes with being an empty nester, more opportunities for travel, and extended time and space for spiritual practices and volunteering. There were some things I felt like I should try because they would be good for me like running, coloring my hair less, and going through Oblate formation. Then, like all of us, I was served a big helping of some unchosen events like the pandemic, some serious health challenges with both of my parents and foot surgery. What kind of growth might come from repeated trips to the salad bar of aging?
Once I decided to let my hair go gray, it was obvious that I was getting older every time I passed a mirror. If I was going to release the first half of life and embrace the road toward becoming a wise elder, I needed to spend less time looking in the mirror at my exterior self and spend more time focusing on my inner being. Going through Oblate formation during this time was a gift. The Sisters at St. Paul’s Monastery are amazing mentors for aging beautifully and gracefully. Their inner beauty and character radiates outward in their shining eyes, caring smiles and words of wisdom. Studying and applying the Benedictine values to my life offered encouragement and direction for possible next steps to this new life stage. The opportunity to leave a full-time job to focus on spiritual direction created some helpful margin in my ordinary days. Foot surgery and giving up running slowed me down and helped me see that I could still be healthy and exercise at a slower pace with walking and weights. The invitation to focus on my inner life encouraged me to enhance the letting go practiced during daily centering prayer and release worries and anxieties during the active parts of my days. Learning to live with the attentiveness and savoring that Lectio Divina teaches has been a way of embracing the spaciousness of these years.
“Now that I am old and gray, do not abandon me. Let me tell of your faithfulness to all ages, praise your strength and justice forever,” (Psalm 71:18-19). I am grateful for new opportunities to celebrate the gifts of this stage of life. Whether it is facilitating an Oblate practice group, helping with initial Oblate formation or meeting with people for spiritual direction, there is still good work to be done and many ways to serve. Loving my life and being grateful for the small ordinary moments of each day and year is a way of receiving love from God and then offering it back to the world. And while my birthday t-shirt didn’t proclaim half a century old, my fiftieth did include hiking with my husband in a beautiful new location, sharing the story of my grandfather’s birthday with family members, and joy and gratitude in the core of my being for the gift of this life.