One of the most inspiring things I've read in years is this story about swimmer Diane Nyad's planned swim from Cuba to Key West. Now, Nyad is no slouch. She holds the world's record for the longest ocean swim.
But here's what's interesting about the story: She is now 61 years old. The last time she attempted this swim, unsuccessfully, she was 28. Listen to what she says about the difference: “Physically, I am much stronger than I was before, although I was faster in my 20s.”
This is exactly the way I feel at 51, though I am by no means an athlete. I'm fascinated by my own sense of increasing strength, because this is not what we were told about aging. That as we grow wrinkled and ornery and opinionated and impatient and cussed…we may also be gaining physical toughness. There is someting about having survived a certain amount of discomfort in life that helps you understand, you can survive a certain amount of discomfort.
But no question, some things go in middle age. I flatter myself that it's not my behind, though it's probably that, too.
What's really striking to me is the loss of an ability to learn easily, from books, things that involve labels and fine visual distinctions. When I was in my early 30's, I visited an enchanted garden in the Hamptons owned by friends of friends that has been published many times. The rose lover of the pair was amazed that I could identify every single rose in his garden, just from seeing photos and reading about them.
But this week, I picked up Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast: A Field Guide by Peter Del Tredici. Now, I am fascinated by my local weeds. I've been eagerly reading the book before bed.
Then I wake up in the morning and remember almost nothing and wander around looking at the weeds in my yard as ignorant as ever. Alas, I am really not taking in those photos of distinct leaf and flower shapes and certainly not connecting them with a name. I'd be no good now at that art history class in college where I had to identify the cathedral just by the shape of the interior arches, and I fear I will never become a bird watcher at this stage of life.
Whatever mental acuity I have now seems to run on another track. Or maybe my brain is just too busy at the moment.