The man I want to be now

tree on a riverbank

This summer, for the first time — after passing my 78th birthday and reading a Minneapolis Star Tribune series about grown children who end up sacrificing their careers to care for ailing parents — I felt a jolt of anxiety and a touch of despair, as I face the reality of growing older.

The truth is I can’t “power through” the physical and emotional consequences of aging by trying harder, working longer, walking farther or thinking smarter. Nope, I get shots in my eyes every eight weeks for macular degeneration, wear a wrist brace to compensate for arthritis and exercise every morning to keep sciatica at bay.

And in the past 10 years, I’ve lost many fellow travelers, including old friends, a first boss, a valued mentor and an ex-wife. I can’t escape any of the maladies, nor can I resurrect the dead or escape the approaching end of my life. But I can live the rest of it with grit, gumption and, most important, grace. To that end, I’ve got at least the outline of a plan:

Keep on walking.

For me, walking is more than exercise. It’s salve for the soul. It’s aerobic. It’s interactive. It’s as challenging as I want to make it. I can hike to the bottom of the Grand Canyon — and clamor back up — or I can walk to the grocery store for a bottle of milk or a box of crackers. I can climb the stairs at church. I can hike to the post office to mail a letter. (I know that sounds hopelessly out of step in the time of technology, texting and Twitter.)

When I’m walking, I’m noticing what’s around me. I’m saving gas money. And I’m less likely to be the instigator for, or the target of, road rage.

Keep on listening.

What I’m listening for is music, preferably live. Whether it’s the blues at Bunker’s Bar or Beethoven at Orchestra Hall, music can put a bounce in my step, a shiver along my spine or a smile on my face. I can be lifted up or blown away. I was at Orchestra Hall when they played Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2. It was majestic. I was at The Dakota when Judy Collins sang Send in the Clowns. It was nostalgic.

Whatever the music, when it’s good, it takes me to a place I can’t otherwise find — sometimes hopeful, often joyful and occasionally peaceful.

Keep on serving.

It’s simple enough: Indulging in self-pity is well nigh impossible when you’re helping someone worse off than you are. I’m no Mother Teresa, but I do take an old friend with no driver’s license to the grocery store. I visit a colleague in a nursing home. I write a blog for a nuns’ website. I read short stories at a seniors’ residence. And I do yard work for a few of those who can’t. It’s much easier to get out of a funk when you work up a sweat.

Keep on seeking.

Since I believe this part of life is a spiritual journey, I’ve got to keep looking and learning how others are defining themselves. To that end, I’ve watched a pair of documentaries on the life and times of Fred Rogers and Pope Francis, both men with strength of character combined with a sweetness of spirit.

It was the Pontiff who had an insight I hadn’t thought about in aging gracefully: “A sense of humor is a gift I ask for every day.”

The takeaway from my collision with reality this summer is double-edged. First is that life is indeed more fragile now. However, I’m also freer and wiser now to be the man I always wanted to be.

Dave Nimmer has had a long career as a reporter, editor and professor. Now retired, he has no business card, but plenty to do. Send comments or questions to [email protected].