Flexing the Surprise Muscle

Are you someone who likes or dislikes surprises?  This isn't usually an either-or question.   Dealing with the unexpected can slow down efficiency but pushing on without self-awareness can result in a bad case of, "We may be lost but we're making good time!"   The real question is, how nimble do I want to be with the unexpected? What have I learned?  My Tai Chi teacher has us chant:  “I am flexible!”  All together, now.

Today I had a chance to use these STAMINA Balance Scan questions on a surprising start to my day:

How did this little surprise throw me off balance?

How did I respond as a first reaction? 

How did I achieve a new level of balance? 

How would I rate my surprise muscle?

Here's the story.  

I recently upgraded my computer; therefore I now have a steady flow of new tech surprises and puzzles to solve.  All this improvement is slowing down my efficiency.  Passwords are a fact of life for all the new bells and whistles.   Recently I had the bright idea that I would put all my passwords in a Word document to which I can refer whenever I need to--a crafty memory management strategy.   This morning when I restarted my computer I was surprised to find I now needed a password to get into my own computer.  Oh no!  The crafty new document was on the computer, the one I couldn’t get into without a password. 

How did this throw me off balance? 

I was dumbfounded.

How did I respond as a first reaction? 

Yelping ensued, along with an instant list of worst-case scenarios.  Along with a good pinch of self-criticism for my short sightedness I enlisted my husband in the panic.  (Note to self:  irritating husbands may point out the same flaws.)  

How did I achieve a new level of balance? 

I have been grinding through quite a few new computer challenges lately, so I figured that, with patient determination, I could slog through every password I’ve ever scribbled on my desk blotter until I got the right one.  Groaning, I scanned the jumble.  I started with my best guess and voila! Lucky me.  First try was a charm.  Back in  action.

How would I rate my surprise muscle:  a) Pretty Darn Good, b) A Little Wobbly, c) Sluggish, or d) Wilted?

Wobbly but flexible, I guess.  I did meet surprise with my old friends Shame, Blame and Panic.  Not great.  But as I think about it, I did draw upon my increasing experience in tech problem solving and that gave me hope and patience.

How can we build strength or more flexibility with surprises?

Instead of fighting the need to deal with these onerous cognitive skirmishes with my computer, we can take on new computer projects with the attitude that they can provide strength training in patience and build our muscle strength for meeting the unexpected.   (It is also called reframing an irritating 21st Century fact of life.  Might as well meet it with a grin.)

It does help to strengthen the grin muscles at every opportunity.  It’s a vital element in maintaining flexibility and balance.  Surprising people can be even more fun.  How about making a pact with yourself to do something out of character every day?  Take Wendell Berry’s advice in his poem called Manifesto of a Contrarian.   You  can hear himself reciting it here

In fact, surprise yourself as well as other people.  If you're mindful you can take time to spot life's surprises:  enjoy the pleasant ones and roll with the others.


Sunlight      glints on leaves.

Clouds        amaze the sky.

Wind           howls in awe.

Birds           sing just because.

Actively Growing Older Gracefully

This past year we took out a membership in the local YMCA.  We discovered that we can each get in 2-4 exercise classes a week there in their Active Older Adults program.  At first we looked at all those grey-hairs convinced we definitely don’t look as old as they do—until we got into the studio with those darned mirrors. 

But that studio with the mirrors turns into a packed expression of joy when the Tuesday-Thursday exercise class teacher puts us through our paces with old time rock and roll and I can just time travel back to what we were probably like at parties in our teens.  It’s a real experience in community.  People greet one another with pleasure and many share a cup of coffee in the little lounge area after class.  The women sit with the women and the men sit with the men, the latter hatching up their next plan for lunch out as the ROMEO’s (Retired Old Men Eating Out). 

Although I gave up maintaining my tone and curves on a circuit of ladylike equipment at my beloved Curves after nearly 10 years, I have taken up stretching in some interesting new ways through water aerobics, cardio exercises, and Tai Chi.   Strength training takes on new meaning for AOA’s as we work with weights, build our biceps, keep the quads and ham strings vibrant, and generally work up a sweat.  Or as we stretch toward the ceiling and bend low like wild geese, getting to know our own points of balance and fluidity, repeating after our Tai Chi teacher, Janet Aalfs, “I am flexible!” 

From this new adventure in finding just the right stretch points for active older adult bodies for both maintaining but also gaining strength, I have come to think about the many ways this can be a season of strength training for mindfully aging always.  As a metaphor, strength training is great way to think about how to prepare for and move around in the closing and probably most challenging marathon of our lives—aging as gracefully as possible with the least suffering possible for ourselves and our loved ones.  Opportunities abound for strength training in the area of balance, bowing fluidly and gracefully, sweating out some tough stuff, keeping the heart, hands and brain vibrating, having fun and seeking community, and--perhaps most of all—being able to stand and face the mirror with acceptance and a good sense of humor.

For about a year now our co-housing neighbors have been meeting monthly to talk about aging.  We spent several sessions on advance directives, dying wishes and fears about a future that may be outside our control.   Even though we laced the conversation with poetry and jokes some of us wondered whether we could ever grow up enough to face these last challenging years with the grace and courage to which we aspire? Living the last years of one’s life seems likely to be a kind of marathon that will call for true fortitude.   Wherever we are in the aging process, I propose seeing every part of life as an opportunity for preparing for this marathon. 

“Let’s talk about how we are living right now and how we want to live in whatever time we are given,” we said to each other.    “We may not be able to control our ending days since by definition life is no longer in our control, but we can know one another more and more deeply and we can know ourselves better and better; we can know one another’s desires and dreams.” At one of these Gracefully Growing Older gatherings we collected our thoughts about what we want in our remaining time.  Collected into four statements, here is what we found we held in common:

“I want to exercise, learn, connect, feel useful, and make the world better.”

“I want to remember how fortunate I am and enjoy life more.”

“I want to grow to have more compassion for myself and others.”

“I want to be kind, creative, and leave a legacy of love for my loved ones."

Strength training for aging mindfully can be a rich, life-long practice, never begun too soon, never something anyone can graduate from.  We can look in the mirror, build our mental, relational and spiritual muscles, keep the old heartstrings and sense of interest in life vibrant, and we can generally work up a sweat as we exert ourselves to keep making this a trustworthy world.   We can stretch toward the ceiling and bend low like wild geese, getting to know our own points of balance and fluidity, repeating, “I am flexible!  I am alive and I am the only one who is me.  In the end, it is the only gift I have to give.”

The secret to being eternal is love.  

Thornton Wilder said,  ‘and we ourselves shall be loved for awhile and then forgotten

but the love will have been enough, even memory is not necessary for love,

for there is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love.’

Love teaches us how not to perish. 

Bernie Siegel, Spiritual Aspects of the Healing Arts, Kunz, Ed.