In an Age of Social Media, the Voices of Our Elders are Overlooked
Have you ever spoken to your grandmother, or great uncle, or even an older person at the bus stop, and noticed the careful pauses they take between every word? When asked a question, they don’t rush to answer, they may pause, ponder, and then they’ll reply. Thoughtfully.
During one of my first jobs, I worked at a local jewelry store as a sales associate. I was fifteen, and spent most of my time thinking about getting into college, playing sports, & talking to boys — and not necessarily in that order. The job was a summer gig, and I would spend my mornings working out early to prepare for my field hockey season, my days tending to customers at the jewelry store, and my evenings rushing from work to see friends. I lived my teenaged years as many do — thinking about what’s next. During my morning workout, I thought about work. During work, I wondered what my friends were doing. And during my evenings, I contemplated my workout the next day (and if I’d actually wake up on time.) In between all of that, I was thinking about my future: college, a potential boyfriend, and AP classes I had to sign up for. To summarize: I lived life fast.
At the jewelry store, I had waited on hundreds, maybe thousands of individuals during my three summers working there, but I was only completely captivated by one individual. It had been a slow day, and an older woman walked into the shop. She may have been in her 80s or 90s. She was dressed beautifully — she had blushed cheeks and lipstick, white hair clipped back in a silver barrette, and gold jewelry that laid effortlessly on her neck. I looked at her and wondered if she was a woman of the same generation as my grandfather, a man who always dressed well regardless of where he was going; he never left his house without a hat, a tie, and his suit jacket. She moved slowly through the shop, a cane in her right hand.
The woman had come in to pick up some of her watches that needed a battery repair. We had usual small talk — a note about the weather, a joke about not knowing the time without her watches. I smiled, and then retrieved her repairs from the safe, and went to log in the order, and print her a receipt. I worked the computer quickly, printed the receipt in no time, and handed a pen for her to sign. I had watched many people sign their names, most just scribbling two letters at most. But not her.
The woman placed her hand on the receipt as you would a family cat. The paper curled up in front of her, still adjusting to life outside of the roll. She patted it down, and greeted it with openness, as if to indicate to the receipt that it was okay to stay put. Once acquainted, she slowly wrote out her full name, her first: Annmarie. She built her “A” with vigor, asserting itself on the page. Letting everyone know she wasn’t to be messed with. She carefully finished her first name and paused to dot her “i.” She continued her middle and last names with patience and poise. I thought about the hundreds of other customers who signed their names, barely giving it a thought. Once she had finished, she handed me the autograph, carefully folded her own receipt in her hands, and looked up at me. She softly smiled, wished me a good rest of my day, and moved along to leave the shop.
I am not sure why this short interaction stuck with me for nearly a decade. It could have been the juxtaposition of my life and hers at the time — mine: fast, rushed, and always looking to the future. Hers: present, patient, deliberate. After this experience, I was 15 years old and signing my receipts like I was John Hancock — just as she did. This lasted a few months, but when life got fast, I slowly went back to my old scribbles. But from time to time, I will remember Annmarie during my checkout, and will sign my name on the bottom of the receipt as if I was Michael Jordan signing a basketball for a fan — a full autograph.
Over the years, I’ve had experiences like this one, and have noticed a calm, patient, presence from our older generation. It’s an energy, a feeling, a peaceful ease. I am not sure when it happens — it’s not a specific age, or the greying of hair, it’s not some scientific phenomenon. It’s just a vibration through the room, an alert existence — like magic. It’s like the world is taking attendance, and they’re saying “here” to each and every day and each and every moment of life. It takes place when they welcome silence instead of shutting it up with words. It lies in the soft smiles when watching children play. It is the deliberate actions of care. It is the thoughtful replies. It is the wonder and awe in the everyday moments.
I read Outliers this past year. For those who haven’t yet read it, Gladwell argues that the most successful people in the world, the "outliers," usually have had a string of circumstances and blessings that put them in a perfect position to use their talents to succeed. He finds there are more patterns and explanations than we might think when looking at success. In one chapter, he writes about the "10,000 hour rule," and talks about how to truly become an expert at something you must practice it for 10,000 hours. The rule explains why Bill Gates became an expert with computers so young — he was able to put in hours of coding early in High School at a local library, and in college he was able to hack the login mainframe of the computer lab so he could have unlimited hours to code. At first, I thought about this rule for specific talents: coding, gymnastics, hockey, guitar playing, painting. Then it occurred to me, maybe this elusive, unexplainable presence that I feel and see with our older population isn’t some string of magic. Maybe they’ve reached their 10,000 hours. But these hours aren’t measured by soccer practice or guitar lessons. They are measured in moments of presence, and have been difficult to add up. They've spent their lives go-go-going for their jobs, families, and children, only working in moments of absolute presence when time wasn’t fleeting in front of them. But at their old age, they’ve finally accomplished their 10,000 hours and became experts. Experts at life.
When you are a young person, you may play soccer and think “Wow I would be really cool to spend some time with Abby Wambach, I could learn from a professional.” But we don’t think about learning how to live, peacefully, and presently. We'll take advice from business professionals, but once a person hits a certain age, we turn off our listening ears. We certainly don’t consider our own grandmas or grandpas to be professionals. But why shouldn’t we? They are. They have put their 10,000 hours in. They know life. They know how to come to this earth and be absolutely there. They even sign receipts with intention. You should see my grandmother make me a cup of tea. She treats everything — the cup, the tea bag, the spoon, the sugar — as if it were her dear friend.
I think we can learn more from our elders. I think there are so many experts around us that we keep in nursing homes and assisted living centers. I think that with social media around us, we are consumed with all these voices, but none of these voices know life. We’re little guppies immersed in a pool with other guppies, while full fish are swimming around in waters nearby. I want to give a voice to our senior population, because they have value. More value than we give them credit for.
My goal is to take social media with the voices that tell stories. Eyes that have been there before. Voices that pause to consider rather than showing immediate opposition. My hope is we can spread joy, spread human connection, feel unity with one another. We’ve seen through the past year that this world is a crazy place, full of uncertainties and unknowns. We’ve seen politics split our world in half. Children are our future — that’s for sure. But are they any good if we don’t compare notes with the past?
I will be (safely) conducting interviews at senior apartment areas or via zoom. Do you interact with someone that holds this elusive 'magic' ? I want to hear their story. If you have a connect, would like to set up an interview, or get involved — please email: firstname.lastname@example.org