Eighteen years ago I started a journal to document what I thought would be my last year of relative youth. I was fifty-nine. My sixties loomed, a decade I dreaded that turned out to be quite wonderful. Our children were educated, my career was chugging along, my health was excellent. My husband and I traveled extensively, mostly by bicycle. I studied Spanish for the first time, published several travel articles in magazines and newspapers, discovered a half-sister I never knew about, and became a grandmother.
A month before my seventieth birthday, with the blogosphere in full bloom, I decided to publicly document my journey through my eighth decade. Having been lucky enough to make it to seventy, the odds were that I would have many good years left. But the promise of my seventies was clouded by the realization that my future was getting shorter.
In my opening post, in January of 2008, I invited the reader to “join me on a journey into my seventies,” predicting “some sad things—a given as we age,” but also an attempt to “embrace change and appreciate each day.” I added:
I’ll probably write about my parents and being a parent. I’ll write about the role exercise plays in my life and should play in yours. I’ll share my thoughts about aging in the workplace. I’ll report on my efforts to catalogue my wrinkles. And more. Please stay tuned.
Since I wrote those words, I’ve blogged at 70-something.com twice a week, about 850 posts. Sometimes, only 150 words. But something. And though I don’t have a Beyoncé-sized following, my average daily views have increased exponentially. Considering that I started with about ten followers, exponentially wasn’t hard.
Deciding What to Write
How do I decide what to write? I listen to myself. What has captured my attention? What has kept me up at night? What scares me? What makes me laugh? What do I love? How do I react to new wrinkles? What have I read, listened to, watched that I think people should hear about?
Writing a blog is about noticing the first crocus, or our three-year-old neighbor Christian yelling “good-bye!” in red-and-white-striped pajamas on the sidewalk as his dad goes off to work. It’s about documenting the ups and downs in relationships, and how technology has changed my life. Knowing that I have to have something to say makes me pay closer attention.
When do my ideas come to me? Often on long walks, especially if I am walking with my husband, whom regular readers have come to know pretty well. He gets praised (mostly), kidded (often) and is loved (always) in my blog. Once a year he does a guest appearance–I’m not sure how that started. Sometimes an idea comes to me while I am exercising on my foam roller. Or sometimes I see something or experience something that cries out to be blogged about. One recent example described a trip to the airport and my reactions to two very different bus passengers – a sad, disheveled (probably) homeless man and an adorable toddler who chatted happily with me and bid me good-bye when he got off. My blog closed with this rueful reaction:
One passenger who seems to have lost his way in life. Another, with so much in front of him. Hope and despair on a short bus ride….
Sometimes a snippet of conversation that I hear, remember, and write down turns into a blog post; sometimes it doesn’t. For example, I was astonished to learn that our eleven-year-old grandson had given up drinking soda. Not because his parents insisted. Or because he wanted to be healthy or save his teeth. He gave it up because his soccer coach thought he should. I felt this was a worthy subject. But somehow, it never made the cut.
There are some subjects that don’t get much of my “air” time. For example, only one title has the word “sex” in it. That’s because as a member of The Silent Generation, it’s not something I blab (or blog) about. I also haven’t written much about religion or politics. At least not yet.
Some days, my post practically writes itself. Here’s one that says it all in four lines:
In the middle of the night, the slightest headache is an incipient brain tumor, a child not-heard-from has been abducted, a work concern is a full-blown crisis, and I’ll never have an idea for another blog entry.
In the morning…all is well.
What you Learn
Through my blog I have watched myself age. In the first years, I wrote a lot about my job, but lately I write more about living as fully as possible, about not doing what I don’t want to do, knowing that the arc of my life is getting shorter, and I will be able to do less, not more as I grow older. My retirement was a huge turning point, and my posts reflected how I struggled to adjust to the loss of community. I was able to fill the void in a positive way, but it took a while. Writing about it more than twenty times helped me process all of that. I kept finding new angles. For example, I drew a connection between summer camp, where on the last night they served roast beef so campers went home to report wonderful meals to their parents, and my career, where after retirement I tend to savor memories of only the good parts.
How Personal Should You Get?
I have learned that writing something makes it real. I think that is why it was so hard for me to acknowledge in print that my husband Peter has Parkinson’s Disease. Eight years ago that diagnosis was also a turning point. And although there are some things we can’t do anymore, we focus on what we can do. Here’s an excerpt from that post:
It took a retired doctor whom Peter barely knew to suggest Parkinson’s Disease….
The good news was that the wondering about what was going on was over. The bad news was that we were faced with a serious disease that has a lot of uncertainty related to it. We had no idea about how the disease would progress. Would Peter’s quality of life change significantly? Would we need to move out of our house? Would we have to curtail our active lifestyle? There is no answer that works for everyone, but everyone wants an answer….
Peter used to remind me that we always forget to say “I’m fortunate because my big toe is not hurting today.”
Well, my big toe doesn’t hurt today.
I have learned how lucky I am. I have learned that I shouldn’t take that luck for granted.
Then There’s the Question of Who You’re Sharing With
I don’t know my readers. I was at first sure they were all in their 60s or 70s, but I heard from a young newlywed who said she is taking lessons about marriage from my experience. I have heard from 40-year-olds. Much to my surprise, I’ve heard from a number of male readers.
I keep a “Blog” email file. In it are comments from readers I don’t know who have told me that they relate to or are moved by what I write. Although I started the blog to help myself process growing older, comments arrive such as “Thank you for your lovely posts. I connect, on some level, with almost all of them,” or “Sometimes when I read your blog, I wonder if you know your impact! Thanks for writing.” Or: “All teary (again!) from this post 🙂 Your attitude towards life and living is marvelous – here’s to many more blogging years.” Or: “Lovely beyond words… Thanks for sharing your husband, your accomplishments, your hopes and fears and, especially, your joys. The 70s are full of change and challenge and it’s nice to have your companionship as I begin them.”
Occasionally someone is disappointed, like the woman who commented that I didn’t take into account those who are alone when I wrote about the holidays. I apologized in my next post.
I love that I can connect with people. Knowing that I might be helpful to some as they navigate aging keeps me going. Nobody gave me a “how-to” book for my 70s. It’s a bit like my big belly at the end of my first pregnancy. I knew that there would be a baby eventually. But I had no idea about the experience between the belly and the baby. There wasn’t yet any book like What to Expect When you are Expecting to prepare me for labor or the raging hormones that followed. Everybody experiences childbirth a little differently. So too, aging. But I hope that my experience might give those behind me a helpful preview.
Themes Emerge from Your Life
My marriage is definitely my number one subject, with at least three-dozen posts. If you add parents and children and family, it adds up to about a hundred. Although I’ve had a great career, family has always come first. Here are a few excerpts:
Saturday Morning Conversation
Me: “My egg has a huge crack in it.”
Peter: “Oh, I didn’t see it.”
Me: “ I know you didn’t see it because you would have taken that egg. You always give me the better thing.”
A Legacy for Grandchildren
We have two grandsons, ages 4 and 1½…Sadly, they don’t live nearby, so we only get to see them every few months. But I want them to know us as I never got to know my own grandparents…So each time we see them, I write them a “letter” about how they have grown and changed, how proud we are of them and how much joy they bring us.
I also tell them about us. For example, after Peter’s retirement party a couple of years ago, I “wrote” to them. I told them how I had learned things about their grandfather that night that I never knew… how they named a room after him at Boston College. Even the grandkids’ father and uncle were saying,” Wow, we never knew that about Dad!”
My body stars in a couple dozen.
Wrinkled Like A Skeleton
Until recently, people I met took me for five to ten years younger than I am. But just last week, I noticed that the “bags” under my eyes that I thought were due to a night of insomnia hadn’t gone away after a good night’s sleep.
My 4½ year old grandson informed me on a recent visit that my neck “looked wrinkled like a skeleton.” …On an earlier trip, his older brother had told me that a new face cream made my face look “less wrinkly.”
On the bright side, my smile is still genuine.
I didn’t write about feeling older until 2011 because that’s when I first saw myself as “older.” I didn’t start writing end-of-life thoughts until a year ago, partly because Atul Gawande eloquently raised the issue in Being Mortal and partly because our children need to know our wishes for care if/when we can’t make decisions ourselves.
The Blogging Bonus
What I didn’t know when I started blogging was that writing could be good for my health. According to Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, the benefits of expressive writing about trauma or emotional events result in long-term improvement in both physical and psychiatric health. Of course, you don’t need to have experienced trauma to benefit from writing. An article in Scientific American called Blogging—It’s Good for You claims “expressive writing produces many physiological benefits,” including improved memory and sleep, boosting immune cell activity and more. Although turning seventy is not necessarily traumatic, changes like retirement, loss of loved ones, or health challenges can be. Even keeping a “gratitude journal” in which we regularly record things we are thankful for can make us happier and healthier.
Is There a Downside?
Yes. My friends who follow me “know” what I am up to. But since they don’t write a blog, I can’t keep up with them so easily. There’s also the obligation part. I am compulsive, but sometimes it’s just hard to write. I can look at the numbers of hits I get daily. That’s fun, except on a day when I have fewer reads, I wonder if I am not doing so well or am getting stale. But then my number of reads always bounces back up. At least so far. Even though I don’t want to care, I do.
Give it a try
Getting started is easy. There are many platforms/hosts for your blog, all discoverable through your favorite search engine. Some are free. Others charge based on the amount of bells and whistles you want. The crucial thing is to write regularly. Twice a week works for me and, although I started writing just for me and without a marketing plan, people are reading and responding. One way to build your fan club is to read and comment on the blogs of others so that they read yours.
If you join the blogosphere, you will not be alone. According to Statistica, Tumblr hosts more than 246.6 million blog accounts and millions of blog posts are written daily.
I write about life in my seventies because I love to write. An unexpected bonus is that looking at the ways my topics and perspective have changed over the past seven years helps me process the inevitable changes that come with aging.
We all face an uncharted future. We can’t control what happens to us. But we can control how we react to it. And through good times and bad, the process of writing helps makes it better. As famed author Flannery O’Connor once said, “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.”