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The Cartography of Getting Old

A few years ago, I went to Montreal by myself. I was a little nervous, but the first thing I did was go to the souvenir store on the corner to buy a map of the city. Then I felt better. I know I could have used my phone, but I’m directionally challenged anyway, and the view on that little screen is too limited. Plus, I’ve always loved city maps. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve stopped at gas stations over the years to buy one of those cheap paper maps that holds all of the city's treasures, but is impossible to refold properly.

I just need to see the whole place at one time to get my bearings and figure out where I’m headed. I’ve never been a big explorer, happy instead to travel on those predetermined routes, not venturing off much into uncharted territory.

I would say it’s how I approached my life for many years. My mother convinced me early on that there was a way to be and a way not to be. I was never sure of the details of either version, but I figured if I just followed the prevalent life map at the time, I’d be on the right track. I did my homework, didn't talk back to my parents, went to college, found a career, bought a house, and paid my bills. Growing up in the 1950s and 60s, being gay was definitely not on that map, so I kept it inside of me for a long time. When I couldn’t do that any longer and still be on good terms with myself, I tried as hard as I could to not draw any extra attention. I put one foot in front of the other, kept my head down and followed the acceptable path as well as I could.

I wish these days that I’d left those maps in the glove box more often and just gone off on my own a bit more.

It wasn’t until I started getting older, and then old, that I began to realize how irrelevant those maps had become, and maybe always were. As I familiarize myself with this new terrain of life with open time and no work, I notice I'm occasionally longing for a clearer road. Still, I see now that this isn’t the point. If anything, maps are a suggestion more than they are set-in-stone guides. Granted, you can’t drive on roads that aren’t really roads, but in the bigger picture, you can go where you want to. If you explore life on your own terms enough, you can discover more about the world and yourself than any map or almanac could ever reveal.

Beyond the popular activities of golf, coffee dates, afternoon naps, and sitting on the porch, getting older is like coming into a city you’ve never seen, late in the afternoon, with the sun beginning its descent. There is a familiarity to it, a kind of nostalgia and deep appreciation that hangs in the air. But much of it is new in its own way. We aren’t the same people when we don’t begin every conversation by mentioning our occupation, or when we aren't planning the fun part of our lives around our annual vacations.

I have lived in the same city all of my life, so I don’t need a map, but one of the first things I did when I retired was to start reading books and articles about how to have a successful retirement. The ideas mentioned were good, but nothing I hadn’t considered before. What I did realize was that I needed to look at my life in a different way—not so focused on what route I was supposed to take, but which looked interesting on any given day. This is not my go-to approach to life, but the simple fact that a prescribed route is so comforting to me makes me know that this is the time to chart my own.

If anything, I feel freer knowing this. I’m having fun just thinking about the day and the season as they come. I can feel my shoulders relax for the first time in many decades. I wish these days that I’d left those maps in the glove box more often and just gone off on my own a bit more. I’m beginning to feel the power of that finally, the excitement of not knowing how far the next corner is, or what’s around it. I feel like myself now, maybe for the very first time.


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