Positive Aging

Jennifer James on the Bittersweet Reality of Being 80

Jennifer James at 80.


Imagine: You are giving a talk to an audience of executives at a swanky resort. The keynote speaker at this conference is the Dalai Lama, but that’s not on your mind, because you’re focusing on your presentation. The room you’re in is rectangular and long, and you’re standing behind a podium at the end furthest from the door.

And then, in walks the Dalai Lama and his retinue. Your instinct is to duck down behind the podium, panic for a few seconds, and then rise back up and continue speaking. The Dalai Lama and his people stand in the back and listen politely. Afterwards, he approaches you. He puts his hands on top of yours and says, in his unadorned English, “You are a powerful woman. The world needs more powerful women.”

This was not a nutty dream I had. This was something that actually happened to Jennifer James, during the period of her life when she was a sought-after motivational speaker—a period that came after her career as an award-winning radio personality. And her career as a professor at the University of Washington, and as the founder of the Committee for Children, the pioneering nonprofit developer of social-emotional learning programs.

The story of James’ encounter with the Dalai Lama had nothing directly to do with our topic for an afternoon of conversation in the book-lined library of James’ beloved Burien home overlooking Puget Sound. James had agreed to talk about the bittersweetness of reaching 80. The plan was to focus on what we gain and what we lose as we navigate the last chapters of life. But she’s a great storyteller and you know what, the Dalai Lama episode might just fit right into what James has to say about what it feels like to reach 80.

The Dalai Lama is a great believer in happiness and kindness. And one of the first things James says is that she has never been happier than she is now, as she and her husband prepare to put their home on the market. James has lived there for 34 years. She built it with her previous husband, who died of cancer in 2002.

She also kept coming back to the importance of kindness. “Believing, at 80, that I may not always have been loved, or even good, matters little because I have always tried to be kind.”

When the Dalai Lama episode actually happened, James was at the apex of a full and fulfilling life. She was a powerful woman. Is a powerful woman. Though now her power has nothing to do with jetting to far-flung conferences and giving talks to CEOs.

Now her power lies in setting an example, for all of us, of the joy to be found in letting go. No more guilt. No more meetings. What you gain at 80, says James, “is yourself. And I think it sounds self-centered, selfish, egotistical—but it isn’t any of those things. It’s that you have one life. And it’s wonderful if you do good for everyone else, but you don’t want to get to the end of it not knowing who you are.”

This means you may need to do some work before you get to 80, especially if you have regrets. Otherwise, those regrets will “dog you all the way to the end.” What she’s talking about is acknowledging that all your desires and dreams didn’t come true. And that you weren’t always good, let alone perfect.

“I wasn’t a good parent in the earliest years,” James says. She was 20 when her son was born. “I was working, and going to school, and didn’t have time. But I’m so lucky. I have this wonderful son, who in his late 40s came to me and said he needed to process that. So many parents don’t want to be told that they weren’t a good parent, but I’m not like that. We processed it over about two years. I would say it took me another five or six years to forgive myself. And you don’t really forgive yourself. You understand.”

James’ son now lives in Hawaii with his wife and two teenaged children. And that’s going to be her next chapter: Hawaii. “I never knew that being a grandmother was going to be the very best thing to happen to me,” says James.

She’ll be halfway round the world from where her life started. Jennifer James was born in London during World War II. Her parents, both on the London police force, were often called in to clean up bomb sites during the Blitz. When she was four and her brother was seven, they immigrated with their mother to Spokane, where they started their new American life on a chicken farm. Their father, a detective, closed his cases and followed soon after. But he never seemed to belong here, James says. Once a “wonderful, charming Welshman,” he became abusive, and an alcoholic, and died by suicide when he was 56.

Meanwhile, her mother “wanted a new world, a new chance. She was incredibly resilient, intelligent, loved animals and plants. But she was totally disinterested in parenting or housekeeping, and she was cold. I think that’s how she survived. I think a bad childhood is either a gift or it destroys you. And I’ve been able, after a long slog—it’s still very hard for me—to see it as a gift.”

The gift, for James, was her thirst to understand what makes us who we are. Why do we do the things we do? She earned her PhD in cultural anthropology, holds master’s degrees in psychology and history, and has never stopped reading, writing, seeking, and questioning. Hence her library, with its floor-to-ceiling books, including the 20-volume edition of the Oxford English Dictionary.

Will it be hard to let go of all those books? No. Because James is ready for a lighter life. “I love this house, but I don’t want to live here anymore. It doesn’t make sense for the new free me.”

The new free me. “When you’re a certain age, you get to do just what you want. Total freedom.” Because, James says, “You’re invisible.” But she means that in a good way. “You can dress the way you want to, you can be irreverent, even silly—it’s just a freedom to be and feel.” Jennifer James says she’s always been a hedonist at heart, the kind of person who doesn’t just smell a rose, she “smashes it into her face.” And she loves humor, too—it’s “a wonderful tool for adaptation, because the minute someone laughs at something they’re releasing tension.”

But she has one qualifier, and she puts it bluntly: I came from poverty. I somehow made money. If you don’t have money and you are ill, a lot of what I’m saying is just …” Just noise. Not everyone gets to feel new and free at 80. “I will tell you I have been very lucky.”

And whether we have money or good health or we don’t, there are going to be challenges (one of James’ is rheumatoid arthritis) and there are going to be losses. Which is why, as Susan Cain wrote in her book Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole, we want the time we have left to be “charged with love and meaning.”

In an email after our conversation, James added this: “Acceptance of who we are and how we have lived … is the supreme gift of aging that eliminates any fear of death. Examining regrets, choices, fixing what you can, making amends when you can, opens the door to a special kind of peace of mind.”

“We all want happiness and do not want suffering,” the Dalai Lama says often, and that is why he urges the cultivation of “warm-heartedness,” a wonderful word which I’d like to believe includes much of what Jennifer James is getting at—kindness, humor, and the brand of hedonism that has to do with smashing your nose into roses.

Ann Hedreen is an author (Her Beautiful Brain), teacher of memoir writing, and filmmaker. Hedreen and her husband, Rustin Thompson, own White Noise Productions and have made more than 150 short films and several feature documentaries together, including Quick Brown Fox: An Alzheimer’s Story. She is currently at work on a book of essays.

Jennifer James wrote the “Honor Your Life” column in 3rd Act for 7 years. Here’s her first column.

“The Bad Dog Fall,” by Jennifer James.

More on Bittersweet aging here.

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