For the past three months, I’ve enjoyed a delightful new Monday ritual. After coffee with my husband and morning prayer, I pack my brown bag lunch, gather my backpack and walk a mile to a nondescript brick building on the UCLA campus. Tucking myself into a corner of the immense lecture hall, I spend the next five hours engaged in “Introduction to Film and Television,” a prerequisite for freshman film majors. I audit the course as a “Senior Scholar,” a program that provides older adults with an opportunity to connect with UCLA’s academic community as part of their ongoing research on and promotion of longevity and brain resilience. At almost 60, I earn no credit but have gained a lot of street cred.
At a June 15, 2022, papal audience, Pope Francis pointed to his own mobility limitations and reminded those gathered of the unique challenges and opportunities of aging. “The vigor of the body fails and abandons us, even though our heart does not stop yearning,” said the Holy Father, who had just celebrated his 86th birthday. “One must then learn to purify desire: Be patient, choose what to ask of the body and of life.”
I am asking a lot of life these days. My heart yearns.
After losing both of my parents in the past 18 months, I thought I had given up yearning. I struggled simply to emerge from a tunnel of grief. On my bad days during those long years of parental caregiving, I did the mental math and was tempted toward despair. Mom died just after her 81st birthday after battling Parkinson’s disease. Daddy, also only 81, followed her months later, debilitated by complications of Lewy Body Dementia. Both were far too young with far too much living yet to do. I rest a bit easier knowing that their way home was made along a path of unwavering faith. But I couldn’t help but fear my own mortality.
Lately, rested a bit and motivated by the ways in which my parents had truly lived every moment while they could, I have decided to embrace my “Senior Standing.” In university parlance, academic “standing” is earned through the accrual of course credit. Over my past few years of matriculation in the School of Hard Knocks, I figure I’ve earned plenty of hours from so many unexpected life lessons.
So rather than giving into the soul-crushing temptation to see aging as loss, I have vowed to make a new course for my life and whatever years I have ahead of me. Surrounded by celebrity culture in our Los Angeles neighborhood, I’ve let my locks grow gray. Unimpacted by the sea of influencers telling me what creams to use to fix my face, I’ve decided to let my smile shine for others to see. I try to live my story rather than chronicling it on Instagram. And when folks ask me why I’m in such a good mood, I’m likely to invite them for a walk to share with them the reasons for my hope.
I’ve always been an adventurer, the type of person to say yes to invitations and to try the crazy stuff just for the pure joy of living. These days, that returned yearning to live life to its fullest is tempered with a bit more maturity, but no less desire to partake of God’s bounty all around me. My faith is childlike and simple, but my prayer life is peppered with the type of intense and trusting supplication that comes with knowing that God understands me and loves me just as I am.
All too soon, my first semester “back to school” will be in the books. Searching the course catalog for next term, I’m determined to give some of the math and science classes I eschewed during my undergraduate years at Notre Dame a try. As a perpetual senior set free of grades and limits, the upsides feel endless. What are you asking of life? Come and let us journey together.