Dancing in the winds of change: a meditation on turning 85

old-man-writing-1On Halloween 2016, I turn 85, overwhelmed with gratitude. Virtually every step of the way I have been supported and surrounded by love and friendship. I enjoy good health, a place to lay my head, food every day, and work that is satisfying and useful. My beloved wife Billie, with whom I shared most of those years and who did much to fill them with good things, has been singing alto in the choir of angels for two years. Even so my life continues with a loving family and circles of friends across the country. Thanks be to God.

Some of the people I have known over the years have died and others suffer from diminishments of body, mind, and spirit. I too feel the years in creaking joints, lessened acuity of vision and hearing, and easily managed hypertension. What I find in my bicycling is a good example of what I experience in other ways: I ride as hard as I ever did, but with less to show for it. I can’t go as fast or as far.

My doctor has a simple explanation: “As you grow older your heart and other bodily systems slow down and there’s nothing you can do about it. Compare yourself with other people your age and not with yourself twenty years ago.” I am trying to live lightheartedly with the limitations that are settling into place and to adjust my activities accordingly. For a functioning mind and body and doctors to help me stay that way, Thanks be to God.

There’s good reason to believe that life will continue a little longer. Life expectancy tables indicate that there may be six more years; for a few 85-year-olds, 10 years. For any one of us, however, there is no telling how many hours or years of life remain. So the question is this: what guidelines should we use to shape the time that remains, whether short or long?

Earlier in the summer, a friend gave me a little book that proposes a model to consider: The Sage’s Tao Te Ching: Ancient Advice for the Second Half of Life. The author, William Martin, presents a new interpretation of eighty-one poetic verses written 2,500 years ago by Lao Tzu, Confucious’ contemporary and teacher. Although many of the verses leave me perplexed, the central theme as Martin adapts these ancient verses to life in our time is that in their later years people can become sages.

The challenge is stated in the heading for Verse 1, “Older or Wiser,” and is drawn out in the verse itself. “If you are becoming a sage you will grow in trust and contentment. You will discover the light of life’s deepest truths. If you are merely growing older, you will become trapped by fears and frustrations. You will see only the darkness of infirmity and death. The great task of the sage is learning to see in the darkness and not be afraid.

At this stage of life, we face a choice, which Martin presents in the final stanza of Verse 1. “There is one primary choice facing every aging person. Will we become sages, harvesting the spiritual essence of our lives and blessing all future generations? Or will we just grow older, withdrawing, circling the wagons, and waiting for the end?”

In Verse 2, Martin continues to describe the sage. “In the sage, youth and age are married. Wisdom and folly have been lived fully. Innocence and experience now support one another. Action and rest follow each other easily. Life and death have become inseparable.”

As my life continues, I intend to maintain the way of life that I have followed for many years: writing in the mornings, cycling and ordinary activities in the afternoons, enjoying coffee shop culture, participating in the full life of a well-ordered church, and living with and for my family and friends. The details will remain much the same, but  instead of doing these things with the shortening perspective of becoming an old man I hope to do them with the lengthening vision of a sage, “a calm and supple person, dancing in the winds of change” (Martin, Verse 68).

12 Responses to Dancing in the winds of change: a meditation on turning 85

  1. Rodney A. Reeves says:

    Keith, I’ve considered a sage for many years. 🙂

  2. Stephanie Tung says:

    Dear Sage Keith, my teacher,

    Happy birthday!

    Thanking for sharing about your life and wisdom. I really enjoy reading what you write and hopefully come out a little wiser, happier and a better person in “my world”.

    Have a wonderful birthday celebration with you family and friends.


    Stephanie Tung

    On Oct 31, 2016 6:38 AM, “Keith Watkins Historian” wrote:

    > Keith Watkins posted: “On Halloween 2017, I turn 85, overwhelmed with > gratitude. Virtually every step of the way I have been supported and > surrounded by love and friendship. I enjoy good health, a place to lay my > head, food every day, and work that is satisfying and useful. My ” >

    • Stephanie: Thank you for your friendly comment. I miss the regular contacts that Billie and I had with you, Roger, and others in our FCC circle of friends. I hope to be in Portland a few days this summer and look forward to seeing you. Keith

  3. Peggy Lucas says:

    Happy Hallobirthdayween! I have just turned 65 and am trying to reward myself because I used my 23 year old Bianchi to do 2000 miles this year (so far…..headed toward 2016 because, you know). My reward was planned to be a new bike. While wondering if I’m crazy to consider a new bike at this age, I came across your post. You are truly an inspiration. I so enjoy reading your posts. Your daily schedule sounds so blessed! Enjoy being/becoming a sage.

    • Thank you for the birthday greeting. The central question at any age as you think about a new bike is will you ride it. Your tally for the year to date shows that you continue to get out on your bike and spin. The bike I ride most of the time is one I bought five or six years ago, and it is set up to take into account some of the physical changes I’ve experienced. Happy trails.

      • pluglu says:

        Because I’m getting ready to shop, is there anything special I should know about bikes for older bikers? I do want a dropped bar because I’m 5’2″ and could have used one the last 23 years. Other than that, I’m just looking. Any advice?

  4. Diane Spleth says:

    Lovely. Happy birthday, Keith. May we be blessed with your wisdom and grace for
    years to come.

  5. Elva Anson says:

    Happy Birthday, Keith. Everett is 85 and I am 84. Ageing is difficult for many reasons. I am nearly finished with a memoir. You had an impact on my learning journey when we spent time talking about neo-orthodoxy and beginning our long journey of learning about God. I am enjoying your blogs. I wish we could spend a day talking. As we become wiser with age, we get fewer people asking us questions.

  6. Dave says:

    Happy the day after birthday Keith. Wonderful thoughts and ones which I found helpful after days of pushing to “get things done,” which in hindsight of your words, seem more about meeting false expectations rather that honoring natural wisdom. Be well!

  7. Marvin Eckfeldt says:

    Keith, birthday blessings abound. Know you are having a wonderful celebration with family and friends. Thanks for sharing these good insights. I miss seeing you here in the Northwest.

  8. Mr. Watkins,

    Please reach out to me via email at michael@soundcitybiblechurch.com

    I purchased a copy of “Calvins Institutes Vol II” from a used book store in Portland. Inside, I not only found your name in it (you bought it in 1956 for $3 and some change by the way), but your business card from Christian Theological Seminary along with a letter from “Witherspoon United Presbyterian Church” addressed to Marilyn and Sharlon from 1971. The dates on these are a true treasure to me and I wanted to reach out to you and say hi. I’m not sure how they got to Portland but now they reside on my bookshelf in the greater Seattle area.


    • Michael, thank you for your note. I lived in Vancouver, WA, for the past 13 years and have just come back to Indianapolis. It was careless of me not to go through that book when I was downsizing. 1956 was the year I graduated from seminary in Indianapolis. I became pastor of a church near Fresno, later did a Th.D. at Pacific School of Religion, and then was called to the faculty of the seminary where I had studied earlier. Best wishes in your ministry.

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