Growing up I was acutely aware of death. My grandfather died in 1945 at the age of 55. My father was only 14 years old at the time. When I reached 14 years I was keenly aware that I was the same age my dad was when his father died. When I reached my 15th birthday I breathed a sigh of relief, my dad was still alive. My dad was 50 years old so I still had some time before he was the same age that his dad was at the time of his death. When my dad reached 55 years old I breathed another sigh of relief, we had made it – I was 20 years old and he was still alive. My grandfather’s death had a tremendous impact on my dad’s life experience including where and how his family lived. I knew my dad thought about his mortality – a lot. And, I knew he worried about dying young like his father. He rarely mentioned it but it was always omnipresent.
My grandfather’s death had a tremendous impact on my dad’s life experience including where and how his family lived. I knew my dad thought about his mortality – a lot. And, I knew he worried about dying young like his father. He rarely mentioned it but it was always omnipresent.
My dad had his first stroke 10 years later. It was followed by two more strokes, kidney failure, and total system failure. The saga lasted for four years. He made it to 66 years of age. I was 30.
My immediate response shifted back and forth from fear of illness to fear of health. My migraines became intense and frequent, my weight climbed higher than it had ever been, and my neck hurt most of the time. I knew I was out of kilter when I went to the doctor one month after my father died and for the first time in life my blood pressure was elevated. This was when I found yoga. I hoped it would help release my mind and my fears. It did. I began to learn to leave it all on the mat.
Slowly I began to discover how to live my life in a way that supports longevity and health. I didn’t want to live a long life if the quality was poor. And I didn’t want to live a quality life that was short. I wanted to be able to sit on the porch with my children and grandchildren and teach them the stories and the traditions of our family. But most importantly, I wanted to be able to still hike, canoe, swim, ride waves, play, etc. with them. I wanted to be able to inspire in them a love of the natural world that can only come by deeply interacting with it. I wanted them to know me to be like the 70-year old Outward Bound instructor I met who could still run rings around all of us much younger instructors.
To do that, it meant that I had to look deep inside and figure out what needed adjusting. This took a long time. I continued to be a vegetarian, and then I went back to eating chicken and turkey, and then back to vegetarian. I became a vegan when I discovered that dairy was causing my adult acne. I exercised, and then I didn’t, and then I did. I targeted what I believed to be the areas for change based upon the traditional notions of diet and exercise that I had been exposed to my entire life.
I gradually began to understand that I needed to think of my body as an ecosystem and my health and wellness as indicators of ecosystem health. Each decision I was making had its own impact but if I could think like a system and create a plan for myself I could improve my overall health and wellness. As I began to listen to my body and to understand the cues it was giving me I began to see how to move forward.
I continue on this journey because I believe it is a lifelong journey, especially as a woman. I believe that as we age and our body changes so too does our need to reassess the ecosystem and to make adjustments to support it. Right now, it looks a lot like whole foods plant based. I continually struggle to achieve the optimal distribution of vegetables, beans, fruits, fiber, while maintaining the protein levels I need as well. This includes striving to avoid processed foods, refined sugars, caffeine, toxins, and minimizing gluten. I avoid them, not because a health and fitness expert told me to avoid them, but because I have discovered that my body does not respond well to them. I’ve learned to eat in a way that my body responds to positively. This is what is working for my ecosystem right now. I no longer fluctuate between craving and withholding of certain foods. I have more energy, no migraines, my skin is clear.
I have discovered how important intention and listening are to my health and wellness. I practice yoga and meditation. I swim and run. I listen to the signals my body is sending. I remain active doing things I enjoy like gardening and walking the dog. I haven’t hit the age that my granddad was when he died, and I’m quite away from my dad’s age. But now, I am hopeful, not fearful. When people see me swimming and ask me what I am training for, my answer is simple: I’m training to be 85 years old.