To say that Linda’s childhood and adolescence was one of turmoil is an understatement of major proportions. And to fail to acknowledge the gracious way she has overcome these early tribulations and passionately embrace her life would be equally remiss. Linda has gone from being brought up in humble surroundings by parents with substance abuse problems in New York City, to become a happy saxophone playing, sea kayaking, poker playing, regular hiking, party throwing Red Sox fan with surrogate families and myriads of friends on Cape Cod, Massachusetts.
Linda left home after incessant arguing and distancing from her family, with $100 in her pocket and strong desire to get to college to be a teacher. She started what became a pattern in her life – interspersing academic work with corporate life. She put herself through night school by working for a liquor company and an airline and got to be the elementary school teacher she dreamed of being. “Teaching was my big life passion”, she tells me over Skype. “And I was a successful teacher because I respected the child first, before they knew how to respect themselves, or me or any other adults”. This life came to an end in 1975, as New York City went bankrupt and laid off 17,000 teachers, with Linda being one of them. She survived by learning to tend bars – not a great job when you also suffer from the same tendency to addictions witnessed in your own family.
Linda had eating disorders, was a substance abuser, and a heavy drinker, and her search for happiness and love “was as manic as my other addictions”, she tells me. This search took her to the West Coast for 10 years. “The 80s were a fun time for me, that whole disco attitude was great, and I was really wild and had a lot of fun”, she tells me. “But I never forget that I’m only one drink away from my old life, so now I fill my life with like-minded spirits, people like Sean and Muriel, my neighbors next door.” I recall that after I first met Linda, a meeting we’d arranged had to be called off when a tree, blown over in Hurricane Sandy, landed on her house, bringing down power lines, and it was Sean who was on the scene first, offering help. “Oh yes”, she say, “Sean and Muriel and their kids Collin and Emily, and their dog, are my new family. We spend all the holidays together, and this sense of family, and my relationships with friends keep me sane and stable. I’ve been able to create family no matter where I live.” I tell her that I think this is a remarkable trait.
Working as a property manager in San Francisco in the 80s (complete with corporate clothes and company car), Linda acknowledged and embraced her love of and for women, something which brought her joy and pain in equal measure. She lost her job when she came out to her boss, warning him that her name was about to appear in the papers linked to her girlfriend who was serving in the Navy at the time and who was being charged with having “homosexual tendencies”. “Never in a million years did I think I’d be on my own at this time of my life, age 66. My future plans always included someone. But I’ve been single for over 12 years now, and just occasionally I get the feeling of being washed up. But then my friends tell me, “You’re the one who’s doing it right. You are the happiest person we know!’ And I do have so much love in my life from my friends and my created family”, she tells me with no bitterness.
I ask Linda to tell me about her work. “I left teaching 7 years ago, age 59, because I didn’t agree with the way public education was going in this country. But when I left teaching, I lost my vocational passion. At first I’d take computer-consulting jobs, but these dried up. I was 60, single, with terrible arthritis, a bout of Lyme disease and I gained a lot of weight and I was in a lot of debt. I took some time to sort myself out, going to a therapist and making sense of my early life. And she made me face the facts and told me I had to get a job. But I wasn’t ready! So I renegotiated my mortgage and managed a year and half without working. What I really wanted was to be a housewife, and a mother, with a girlfriend with lots of money. I’d often been the one who supported my partners. But finally I did face the facts. I saw a job coach, and she helped me focus on what I liked doing and what I was good at.”
“Is this when you got the job at the Gestalt International Study Centre, where we first met?” I ask her. “Yes. I’ve always enjoyed office work, and here was an organization which was about education, and involved counseling and psychology. I felt right at home straight away. I’m the mother/housewife of the Centre. As well as doing admin, I do the shopping, the coffee, the meeting and greeting. I change the toilet rolls. I do everything and anything! And I get to do some of the courses, like the Next Phase Program where we met”, she tells me enthusiastically. “I’ve realized that as well as the money, this job gives me a little routine. I do two days a week, which is just right. And I work with people who value my opinion. “How was the Next Phase Program for you?’ I ask. “It gave me validation”, she tells me firmly. “It helped me make sense of all my family, my marriage, my romantic partners, coming out and all my dashed dreams.”
She is thoughtful again for a moment: “I was lucky enough to have been born with the happiness gene, and I’ve given myself permission to be happy in my older age. Now I’m glad I didn’t have children – it was an ideal, not my reality. But now my passion for teaching is no more, I knew I needed to find another passion. And I’ve been so lucky to find in my older age that I love playing music with other people.”
I invite her to tell me about the music, and she overwhelms me with her obvious passion. “I play alto sax, piano and accordion. I play sax with the New Horizons Band – that’s for people age 50 or over – and this gave me the courage to play in my church orchestra. And every Thursday I perform with the Saxy Ladies in one of our homes, and the average age of this group is 75! And at age 65 I experienced by first sleep away camp. I went to Band Camp and it was a fabulous experience. As well as the music, I saw wonderful wildlife, including my first loon which is a magical bird!”
She tells me that the church in nearby Brewster went out of its way to welcome gay and lesbian people into the fold, and she’s enjoyed playing there, attempting to get over her performance anxiety.
Solemnly she tells me, “One of my fears is dying alone. But the band and the orchestra and the Saxy Ladies are groups who would miss me if I didn’t turn up.” I am amazed by Linda’s fears, as she is someone who has an enviable gift for friendship and family (newly created families at that). “But you have such a rich life!” I exclaim, and she replies, “I have an ordinary life, but I try to live it in an extraordinary way”.
I ask her what, if anything gets in the way of doing this. ”I have longevity in my genes so I need to work on my health. I walk and I’m a fair weather kayaker, which means I get to see raccoons, chipmunks and all kinds of birds. And my mother has dementia, so I work hard at keeping that at bay, by having lots of contact with different people with different ideas. And I make sure I laugh every day, whether it’s at something out there or whether it’s at my own foibles it doesn’t matter, because you have to enjoy it no matter what”, she tells me.
“And there’s a lot of bad stuff about getting old. You can become invisible, and a 30-year old car needs much more maintenance than a new one. I’m not going to perform at some things as well as I did in my thirties. But”, she yells loudly, “At 65 you also don’t have to put up with the bullshit either! If a friend tells me what to do I say, ‘Thank you for your unsolicited advice’ which usually shuts them up! And I don’t put myself down now, and I accept compliments and I’ve learnt to show my sad and angry feelings and not isolate them like I learnt to do when I was younger, and now I can say ‘No’ to people – and you know what, being able to do that is really good for friendship.”
Finally she tells me, “You know the secret of aging? Continue to live your life as you’ve been living it, but more so. And laugh. And help other people laugh. Make sure you really feel ALL the feelings. Face them, and face up to what’s happened to you. And then bring it all on!”
Linda’s Prime Time Tips are:
- Show up!
- Laugh. See the humor in things and enjoy it when other people laugh
- Face your fears about aging, and don’t run away from them
- If work was your passion, find a new passion
- Live up to your rules. Mine is, “Be kind”
- Don’t let yourself be limited by the language of aging – who wants to be a senior citizen!
- It’s important to have a community
- Allow yourself to feel love from others and love yourself