Comment: The old and young give the best pandemic life advice

Kids don’t know about the things they might get wrong, and older folks know not to fixate on the past.

By Charley Locke / Special To The Washington Post

Like most Americans in their 20s, I almost never talked to kids or older people before last year. T

Then the pandemic began. Driven away from my home in Oakland, Calif., by suffocating wildfire smoke, I moved far from friends and family; laid off from my staff job, I started freelancing. Stringing together gigs for the “70 Over 70” podcast and the New York Times’ Kids section, I found myself mostly talking to people over 80 and under 12 years old.

For me this may have been a professional accident, but I can’t recommend the experience highly enough. These two groups of people — the old and the young — have been uniquely affected by the pandemic. They’ve lost some of their first or last years of life. But they still manage to feel wonder and tenderness and an energetic curiosity, when so many of us feel lethargic and lost.

As I’ve interviewed seniors over the past year, my conversations have taught me equanimity; basically, how to be more chill. As Donalda McGeachy, a 101-year-old living in a nursing home, told me, the pandemic may be bad, but it’s been only 18 months. That’s nothing compared with the isolation and uncertainty she experienced during the six years of World War II, gathered around the radio with her family in rural Saskatchewan to listen to Winston Churchill’s speeches, hoping for news of Canadian soldiers.

These conversations have also encouraged me to avoid the paralysis of regret. Peter and Sjanna Leighton married and divorced in their 20s, then found each other again in their 50s and remarried. For them, regret over the shared decades they lost comes with the miraculous happiness of their remaining time together. And these conversations have reminded me about the genuine joy of putting in effort and taking pride in your work: Travis Mayes spent years struggling to develop his brisket recipe and prove himself to his Dallas-area customers. Now the self-described “barbecue man of Garland” won’t stop just because he’s approaching 80.

But often, the most striking moments have come outside the interviews, as older people show me how to find delight when the world feels bleak and uncertain. Whenever I called Donalda, she’d always turn down the opera, which she listens to all afternoon in her retirement community. When Peter and Sjanna told me the hard parts of their story — how their insecurities pushed them apart, how they hurt each other in lasting ways — their voices held each other with such care. Each time I talked to Travis, he would interrupt our conversation every few minutes to chat with his customers, neighbors turned old friends whom he asks after and laughs with. During long days shaped by isolation and uncertainty, I’m trying to relearn how to live this way; how to move through my days with levity and grace.

The focus on delight was echoed by the other population I spent time talking to this year: children. Even while isolated and anxious, they overwhelmingly gravitated toward the positive.

Lily, 11, and Anna, 8, sisters who live on remote Adak Island, Alaska, spent the year extraordinarily separate from the world. But mostly, they wanted to tell me about how their teacher got chocolate-glazed Krispy Kreme doughnuts specially flown to the island for them.

“We each got to have two doughnuts and wear pajamas, because it was pajama day too,” Anna said. “It’s really special, because there’s not that many treats on the island.”

Kristoff, 13, watched his parents navigate unemployment in Southfield, Mich. “It’s really hard that I can’t help them,” he said. But the hardship also brought his family closer together. “At first we didn’t talk about our emotions or whatnot, but now we do.”

Kai, 13, lost a year of playing basketball with his friends in Honolulu, but focuses on what he learned. “It was really sad, because basketball is my favorite thing to do, and I couldn’t do it,” he said. “I think now I’m really appreciative of having friends and how they make my life better.” These kids fully, unabashedly felt the weight of what they were going through. Missing your childhood really sucks! But at a certain point, it sucks even more to fixate on what you’ve lost.

When we’re young, we hear that we’re supposed to turn to our elders for advice. But the elders I talk to have no patience for polished proverbs about how to build a meaningful life. Instead, the lessons I take from them are similar to those I learn from kids: to stop fixating on the big questions and enjoy what’s wonderful.

This was especially valuable in the winter, as a reminder to turn away from my monotonous dread and focus elsewhere: a friend’s specific laugh, how good fresh-baked apple cider doughnuts smell, my boyfriend earnestly stumbling through the Hanukkah prayers with my mom over Zoom. But it’s applicable now, too, as my generation tentaively steps forward from the pandemic. Who cares if I don’t know where I’ll live in six months or whether I’ll get married or if journalism is a sustainable career? I’ll live out the answers eventually. For now, I just need to find some delight in today.

It’s hard not to sound corny when I talk about the way these conversations with kids and elders have changed how I think. But that’s partly the point. Maybe being called corny is a huge insult in your 20s and 30s, when you’re chasing ambitions and trying to build a meaningful life. That’s where my peers and I are, deep in the muck, preoccupied by making the right choices. My conversations with older people and kids remind me I shouldn’t be fixated on all that.

These two populations, standing on either side of the middle-of-life churn, share curiosity and delight and earnestness. Kids don’t know about everything they might get wrong yet, and older people know better. After all, the remarkable elders I talk to haven’t all made a million dollars, or been profiled in a magazine, or reached a global audience. They didn’t all live impressive lives. They weren’t always perfect or productive. But they’re not thinking about that very much. Instead, they’re un-self-consciously living lots of days with wonder, right now. Who has the time to live any other way?

A month ago, I had lunch with Lucia DeRespinis, a 94-year-old interviewee who has become a friend. I was nearing the end of a week-long visit to New York, spent with many friends around my age. Seeing them for the first time in more than a year had brought home how fast our lives are moving. We had entered the pandemic in our 20s, rooming with housemates and figuring out how we wanted to live. A year and a half later, we’re exiting the pandemic in our 30s, as my friends become engaged, graduate from business school, buy houses. I thought I would talk to Lucia about how I feel like I’m standing at an inflection point, worried I’m going to take the wrong step. Then she’d give me some sage, aphoristic advice.

That’s not what happened. Instead, I spent five hours laughing and noticing. She cracked up as we repaired the bridge of her snapped bifocals with Scotch tape; she grinned conspiratorially as she cracked open a beer at 3 p.m.; she noticed a young guy struggling to tie his tie on the street and smiled as I helped him straighten the knot. At one point, she insisted we go out of our way to see a 30-foot sculpture of a Dalmatian balancing a taxi cab on its nose outside a pediatric hospital. She looked up, laughing, and said, “Now, isn’t that fantastic?”

I didn’t leave my visit with Lucia with a clear sense of purpose. Instead, I left feeling interested; in the people around me, in the afternoon behind me, in the days ahead of me.

Charley Locke is a writer often based in Oakland, Calif.

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