Wild city // Three ways of looking at getting older

First way

I read a short profile of a middle-aged woman. I noticed that her hair was naturally grey, and that she was a few pounds overweight. In the accompanying photograph she is smiling warmly. When asked about her attitude toward aging, she said, “I am just letting it happen.”

I admire her serenity. I thought about her statement one morning recently as I was biking 50 miles on the North Shore preparing for a longer bike ride this fall.

I have come at aging with a mix of denial and defiance. When you are my age, 56, and you go to the dentist or eye doctor, for example, and are asked if there have been any changes in your overall health, you know they expect to hear about what has gone wrong lately. This might make you defensive.

I ride my bike long distances because it is fun, but also because it causes my weight, blood pressure and cholesterol to go down. I get my jollies by telling the medical people about these positive changes in my health. They always look so surprised.


Second way

Diana Nyad, 61, is training to swim nonstop from Cuba to Key West. The 103-mile trip will take at least 60 hours, day/night/day/night/day. She will not sleep. At intervals she will tread water and suck down some nutrient goo, peanut butter and pieces of banana.

The dangers in this venture include dehydration, hypothermia, nausea, delirium, poisonous jellyfish, the drift of the Gulf Stream against her, muscle cramps and bad weather.

Oh, and sharks. They are common in that area. People accompanying Nyad will hold rods in the water that emit electronic signals. This will probably keep the sharks from attacking her.

A top-notch athlete when she was younger, she gave up competitive swimming to become a journalist. But as she approached her 60th birthday she was overwhelmed with worry and regret. She felt pinched by how fast her life seemed to have gone, and how little she had left.

Then she got the idea to do this long swim, a feat she had attempted in her 20s. Poor weather that time had forced her to quit.

After my husband’s cancer diagnosis in 2008 (he is 64 and his is, so far, an inactive form of lymphoma), his mortality got suddenly real for us. It nags at us, waking and sleeping. I keep asking him, how does a person embrace the days, the years we have, live them fully, rather than spoil them by worrying about the end?

Back when he was diagnosed we went into a tailspin trying to understand how serious his condition was, and what could be done about it. Then we signed up to train for a charity fund-raising walk, a half marathon, and we raised $5,500 for cancer research.

Nyad says her training has given her commitment and focus, which is what our training, even for a much milder event, gave us, what my biking gives me. She says it helps her live in the moment. She goes to bed tired every night, certain she could not have packed one more thing into her day. That is the way she wants to live even after she completes her big swim.

My husband says about her swim, “It is a bit extreme.” True, but I admire her guts and her resolve.

Third way

Lucian Freud, grandson of Sigmund, died recently. He was 88. He painted portraits that could be described as harshly realistic.

Lucian was difficult and unpredictable, according to a recent article in the New York Times written by Michael Kimmelman. Modeling for him was a grueling experience. Kimmelman writes that some people thought “that Lucian returned sitters’ patience and generosity by flaying them alive in paint.”

To Lucian, artistic symbolism was phony. He thought “the real world, stripped bare, already presented unfathomable strangeness and fascination. An artistic life should exhaust itself trying to unpack it.”

What I find remarkable is how Lucian spent his last years. He had a devoted assistant who also worked for him as a model. Lucian parked his easel by a window overlooking his garden and had his assistant curl up naked nearby on the floor with his dog.

I am assuming this scenario was to the artist, perhaps to both men, akin to paradise.

Weeks turned into months, which turned into years. According to Kimmelman, “There was the vague hope that the picture might be done before a retrospective of Lucian’s work next year at the National Portrait Gallery. But after a while it became apparent that finishing the picture was never really the point. Lucian seemed content.”

I really admire how — focused on what is real and fully present to what he apparently loved most — Lucian Freud found transcendence.

Mary Jean Port writes at home, near Minnehaha Creek and Lake Harriet, and teaches at The Loft Literary Center.