I think the magic age is fifty. That’s when the AARP sends you your first dummy membership card and an invitation to join. If you happen to have teenagers living under your roof at the time, this can become the source of unlimited family fun. Let the derision games begin. Your teenage son, for instance, may take to calling his father “Gramps” or he may helpfully and loudly remind you in a checkout line that you should “whip out your granny card” and see if there’s a discount. In a calm voice, wise with experience and years, you tell him that since grannys do not need expensive size 13 basketball shoes, he can put the pair he’s holding back on the shelf. Score: Aged Mother 1, Callow Youth 0.
At the AARP card’s first dawning, so impossibly early, it’s easy to make a little crossover move in your head and convince yourself that there must have been a computer glitch. A bit of erroneous code that attached itself to your name in a batch of marketing data. You may even chuckle, as you toss the mailing into the recycle bin.
But denial has a limited run. My age came home to me not long ago when I discovered (via Facebook, how else?) that a boy I knew in high school is now head of the AARP in my home state. I haven’t seen him in 4o years, but we were once members of a high school debate team, coached by an extraordinary teacher named Freeman Frank. Yes, the debate team was nerdy (according to the nerd/geek scale my favorite librarian touts). But I remain grateful to our now deceased coach who was both a brilliant speaker and a remarkable teacher of oratory. He called himself one of the last Abolitionists, (because he believed the work of ending racism had barely begun) and he spoke with an Abolitionist’s passion. More Sundays mornings than not, I think of him when I stand up to preach. And it wouldn’t surprise me if the boy I knew in high school also thinks of him when he stands up to speak on behalf of older Americans.
Once you get over the shock of having arrived there, older age is not a bad place to be. All in all, our faith tradition deals with aging rather generously. Older people in the Bible get to travel (Moses), laugh (Sarah) and bless (Simeon). Standing in the Christian tradition, but speaking to even wider audience, Joan Chittister writes thoughtfully about aging in her book The Gift of Years–a book everyone ought to read when the first AARP card arrives and continue to reread over the decades to follow. My copy is underlined to a fare-thee-well, making it hard to pull a single quote, but here’s a sampling of Chittister’s wisdom:
Old age is the time to be dangerous. Dangerously fun loving, dangerously honest. Dangerously alive…This is the time to do every single thing we can possibly do with all the life we can bring to it. This is the time to live with an edge, with strength, with abandon. There is nothing for which to save our energy. Now it is simply time to spend time well.
Except for a week or two at church camp, I did not go to sleepover camp as a child. During what would have been my prime camping years, it wasn’t yet part of my family culture. Later on, my family worked its way and its means around to the notion and I’m glad my younger brother and sister got to breathe in balsam and forge friendships lakeside in New Hampshire. Camp remains a foundational experience for them. Please don’t misunderstand. I don’t feel deprived. As an oldest child, I had a different (and equally rich) set of experiences.
Still, I would have told you at the time that my favorite movie was one set at summer camp–The Parent Trap (with Hayley not Lindsay). And I listened with intense fascination to the stories a neighborhood friend told when she got home from her month away at camp. I especially liked to hear about “Christmas In July”—a week when cabin mates became Secret Santas and the dining hall twinkled with Christmas lights.
I still think about Christmas in July. Sometimes I wish we could do Advent in July. I might be better at the spiritual discipline invoked by Advent during the summer than I am in December. Advent is the season of waiting and I don’t wait well in December. Give me a present early and I’m likely to sneak a peek. I over identify with Mary and want her to hurry up and get past labor and delivery so she can hold that sweet little baby in her arms. Liturgically speaking, I am not one of those ministers with strict Advent sensibilities. Don’t tell the Advent police, but in Hancock we cheat. We sing Christmas carols well before Christmas Eve. One simple reason—lots of our folks travel to be with family on and after Christmas and not to sing carols before they go means not to sing them at all with the people who are part of our family of faith.
But I don’t want to lose out on the spiritual discipline of waiting. I’m just more attuned to waiting in the summer. Maybe the lengthy days help. Everything stretches out and elongates in the summer. Conversations. Visits. Projects. My patience with a God who is only partially revealed.
This summer my waiting is focused on a certain plant in my garden. Orphaned at a church plant sale last year, it was an ugly, papery, bulbous thing tagged with a set of finicky instructions. I coaxed a little greenery out of it last year, but nothing more. I waited. I put it in a heavy pot and lugged it around all winter, keeping it away from cold drafts and curious dogs. I waited some more.
But the plant seems to be blossoming this summer And yesterday I got to see one in full bloom in a garden in Cambridge. A prophetic Agapanthus. And what do you know? It looks like my plant will be wearing blue. Mary’s color. One of the colors of Advent.
We are all waiting for something. To be waiting is to be alive. Or as Joan Chittister puts it: “Waiting is an education. It tells us who we really are and how we really go about the great adventure of life.”