Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Women I admire

Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be,
The last of life, for which the first was made

--Robert Browning ("Rabbi Ben Ezra")

So the legendary Diana Nyad, now 61, didn't make it all the way from Havana to Key West, stymied by an injury and her first-ever attack of asthma (Diana Nyad Puts Early End to Cuba-to-Florida Swim--Don Van Natta, Jr., The New York Times, August 9, 2011). She's still an exemplar of courage and human potential, of staying vital and claiming your power as you embark upon what Jane Fonda calls the Third Act. Since I'm heading in that direction--the Third Act not, unfortunately, Key West--I went to 92Y last evening to find out what Fonda, the mega-accomplished 73-year-old glamour-puss-with-moxie, might have to share.

Turns out she had a lot to share in what she called her "virgin speech" about her book, Prime Time: Love, health, sex, fitness, friendship, spirit--making the most of all of your life, just out from Random House. Baby-boomers like Fonda are "pioneers in this new landscape of aging," she said. "There's no roadmap." So, she created one.

Jane Fonda

"When you're inside oldness instead of looking at it from the outside, it's not bad at all," she said from the vantage point of her own aging as well as copious research and interviews with experts and the aged. In one treasured moment, a 104-year-old guy quipped to her, "When I was born, the Dead Sea was only sick!"

While go-go American society tends to think of aging as a process of decline, Fonda prefers the metaphor of an ascending staircase, "where our souls and our minds can be evolving upward." Because this is Jane Fonda, you'll find lots in her book about physical fitness and healthy eating and the joy of sex--"Doing the research was really fun!"--but what impressed me most about her talk and Q&A was the breadth and depth of her insight into human vulnerability and emotional well-being. Her project, now, is happiness and, like me, she's a big sharer. If she's happy, like the old song would have it, she wants you to be happy, too.

Hindsight works to the benefit of people over 50.

"We've survived things," says Fonda, remembering youth as, typically, a time of stress and hypervigilance. "We learn that this too shall pass, and we see commonalities more than differences. There is compassionate detachment."

Aside from being gorgeous, charming and very funny, at 73, Fonda really does seem to have evolved a self, one eager for reality and honesty. No longer the no-there-there "chameleon" her daughter once slyly called her, she took time to deeply examine her relationships--from her famous dad to her famous ex, Ted Turner, still a dear friend--to find out how to no longer be that woman who would dissolve and disappear into someone else's life.

"Intimacy becomes easier when you get older," she said, after a necessary period of reviewing and reinterpreting your life when you can "bring your whole self to the table, not just the part that you think is perfect."

Fonda loves the word generativity, defined by Merriam-Webster thus:
a concern for people besides self and family that usually develops during middle age; especially: a need to nurture and guide younger people and contribute to the next generation—used in the psychology of Erik Erikson
and she talks about how Katherine Hepburn took her under her wing and mentored her during the filming of On Golden Pond. Passing on wisdom and tools--that's what Fonda chooses to do now, as she glories in her Third Act, and it's a role I choose to emulate.

Besides, you gotta love this woman. She teaches that to keep our brains healthy, to capitalize on their natural plasticity, we must keep learning new things. And what does she want to learn now?

"I saw Anything Goes last night. So now I'm going to learn tap dancing!"

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