finding beauty, silencing complaints — two stories

About 35 members of the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP) heard my talk last week as the last of a week of free workshops. RSVP “connects individuals who are 55+ to meaningful volunteer opportunities throughout New York City.” Since people who do meaningful work on a regular basis aren’t retired, RSVP is a lousy name, as director Meredith Gemeiner readily admits. But it’s a good program, the volunteers liked what I had to say, and two of them told great stories during the follow-up conversation.  


In This Chair Rocks, I talk about aspirational ideals of beauty: how we can choose where we find beauty and don’t have to stop at 25. My friend Colin seized on a picture of Samuel Beckett years ago and said to himself, “That’s how I’m going to look when I’m old.” Now in his 50’s and white-haired, he still doesn’t look much like Beckett, but the playwright’s fierce, engaged, face continues to sustain him. An African American woman named Sarah described growing up on the Lower East Side, where she still lives on Jackson Street, when it was truly an international melting pot. The people who fascinated her were the older Jewish women with deeply lined faces, elaborately braided hair, and mysterious smiles. “You know what I mean by Mona Lisa smiles?” Sarah asked. “Those women knew something. They were beautiful, and I learned later that most of them were Holocaust survivors and yet they were smiling, and I decided that when I was older, I wanted to be like them.”


I also talk about my aches and pains, and how I try not to talk about them to anyone besides my GP, physical therapist, kinesthesiologist, orthopedist, chiropractor, and acupuncturist (hopefully people are laughing by now) because it’s boring. That summoned a story about a woman who lived overseas but who made an annual pilgrimage to visit old friends. She’d call beforehand to remind them that she was coming to hear what was happening in their lives, not about their maladies. Five or ten minutes into the visit, the medical litany would begin. She would remind the friend of his or her promise, point out that she wasn’t a doctor, and leave. “It took a few years, but she broke them of the habit!” the RSVP volunteer recounted with a grin. I actually want a quick briefing on friends’ health—the “organ recital,” as I’ve heard it called—but I bet my friends and I can condition each other to make it snappy. 


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