The Third Act Organ Recital

Most Mondays, after my yoga class, I drop in for tea and conversation with my older sister and her husband. We haven’t lived close enough for regular visits since she graduated from high school in 1965. A year ago this month, they moved from Virginia to Washington and live twenty minutes from me. I envy those who have been close to their siblings their entire lives—perhaps in spite of physical distance—but there is no point in dwelling in that particular house, I can only live in this one. Time, now, is growing short. Onward.

I’m tempted to say we have little in common, which would not be untrue (though I wonder, if we all recognized we have humanity in common with every other person and went from there, could this be a better world?). Here’s what we undeniably do share, other than DNA: A childhood (the first act of life) and the fact of elderhood (the third act). It’s interesting that in this last act, recalling the first act and exploring our differing recall and experience is ongoing fascination. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle to piece it all together into something resembling a whole. (Someday, I suppose, it will be all we can remember.)

Last week, over tea, we had our bit of the requisite “organ recital.” I was telling her about the excruciating back pain I’d had the week before, what with hiking—and the seven hours in the car, which the three hour hike bisected—and rebuilding my meadow garden, with heavy lifting (e.g. bags of sand, bark, and soil), along with digging out hardened mole hills and laying down cardboard and landscape cloth between the raised beds. I worked through the pain, determined to finish the job before the rain returned for the next many days. In other words, I did not listen to my body and what it should not do that particular day. For twenty-four hours, I could barely walk, get up from the chair, or turn over in bed.

The interesting thing was my thoughts—as I am drawing my foot back to kick down the gate into my seventy-third year next month—went like this: “Well, this it it. I’m going to have chronic back pain from here out. Hard work is done, hiking is done, this is my forever now.” The next day, when it was much better after rest and an ibuprofen/acetaminophen regimen, I wondered had I known I would get quickly back to normal, might I have been more tolerant of the pain and inconvenience the previous day? Along the same lines, the tendinitis in my hand, which began more than a year ago, took much longer to get better. I was making my peace with it being something I would have to live with. I won’t say it’s 100% pain free, but I’m back to using two trekking poles and everything else I need hands for.

As we talked, I recalled having sciatica in 1980. It never occurred to me at 28 that it was my forever. It was just a “shit happens” thing. Now, everything feels like a potential crisis. That is what I least like about this time of life.

What I am most loving about the third act—so unlike the second act when we are often just trying to get through the days and sometimes looking forward to the far off future—is learning to enjoy this moment, this day, this sunrise, this rainstorm, this hike, this flower, this conversation. As I write this, I’m watching a dark-eyed junco on the deck rail. Is it questioning the empty feeder, or just enjoying a moment in a spot of sun on a dark day?

What I am wondering: what if I approach the set backs with the same kind of observation and interest? Oh, my back hurts today. How can I change my plan for the day to accommodate what is happening in this moment? Maybe I need not clean out the flower bed or power wash the patio, and instead just sit in the sun or take a nap—or both.

I am sensitive to the fact that many do have chronic pain and illness. My father did, both polymyositis and heart disease, along with the complicating effects of the treatments. It was brutal. If you are living with a chronic condition, I hope you have found what brings you joy in whatever your body is able to do.

How are you caring for your beautiful self on the good days and on the challenging ones? Let me know in the comment section. I would love to hear from you. [A note about commenting on a post: Click the subscribe drop down arrow at the top of the comment section and provide your information (it is private) to receive an email when someone replies to your comment. I, at least, will always reply!]

Notify of
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

O i love that you got me started on this subject! Moving…its the answer to everything…soreness, sourness, stiffness, seething, surreality, spirituality…did i leave out anything?

Thank you for such outstanding thots on moms day ❤️


I did leave out something…sadness.
Best on mons day ❤️

Mary Noreen Bucklew

Wow, such a pregnant invitation on some similar/different levels! Since we (me and my 3 sibs) lost both our parents when they were relatively young (Dad was 63 and Mom 73), we have lived most of our adult lives with no parents except for Aunt Josie, my Mom’s youngest sister. It was quite unnerving turning 73 last year, and living since knowing I have ‘outlived” the memories of Mom at my (now) age. Talk about feeling ancient and in unchartered territory.

So, we ‘four little diamonds,’ as Mom frequently called us, banded together despite our various moves and circumstances. Baby Brother lives the farthest, in Austin, TX, and Lynn, Ann and I live close enough (2-3 hrs) to get together centrally for lunch and holidays. Jeff comes up in summer for his birthday and Ann’s annual crab feast bacchanalia.

All of which is to say, since I have lived alone most of my adult life, my sibs are and have been my closest friends and confidants and partners in almost all of my major milestones. It is a great comfort, knowing I have a trio who ALWAYS HAS MY BACK. I have my ‘ride or die’ tribe here at the beach, but my sibs are a different bond, nearly umbilical.

My being the oldest (and feeling every year of 74, lately) means I am Dora the Explorer vis a vis how well we sibs might age into our elder years. They are all more active than I am, but my good stock shows in dynamic ways in every major physical medical test I endure. Perfect scores for bones, blood and organs! My arthritis is my only major ache and pain and not much helps that.

But the golden thread or lesson that connects all of us ‘of a certain age (cough *70+* cough) ‘ is this line of yours: “learning to enjoy this moment, this day, this sunrise, this rainstorm, this hike, this flower, this conversation.”

Staying in the moment and being unabashedly grateful for small mercies rather than being dragged down by the vagaries and nits of the moment, is key to what I believe has helped me age more pleasantly than I might have. I keep my strong feelings for the page, and not for friends, the odd stranger or myself.

I have learned that, if JUSTICE is getting what I deserve, and MERCY is not getting what I deserve, and GRACE is getting what I don’t deserve, most, days, I live in a constant state of GRACE.

Be well, Gretchen, in all your humanity. And hug your sibs!

Fae Marie

Naps are good.

Grace R Evans

Ah, Just what I needed to read Gretchen! Disruptive foot, back, hand and eye issues have been part of my life lately and the same thoughts occurred to me .. is this the way it is here in out? (Yes and no) taking a break plus other interventions help me realize my adventure isn’t over yet! Your words are giving me the affirmation I need to R&R when necessary and respect my body in what I take on. Think of you often! ♥️


Gretchen, I related to so much of your organ recital and visits with your sister, as well as the aches and pains of third act. Thank you for posting this, it’s hopeful, and offered me a more positive outlook on dealing with stiff, achey hips on a given day.

Dave Eatwell

Your comments about the alterations we make to meet the limitations of our aging bodies hit home for me this week.I had to sell the 1988 Jeep Wrangler that I had purchased to fix up as a daily driver, with dreams of enjoying the summer sun with the top left hanging in the garage. Unfortunately, the neuropathy in my feet has advanced to the point that I cannot feel and delineate between emergency brake, clutch, and brake pedals confidently. In recent weeks there were episodes of stepping on multiple pedals or no pedals, with either outcome causing disruption to peaceful navigation. So I was forced to sell the Wrangler with all the new parts and scores of hours of work, knowing that the buyer will be driving it far into the future fault-free.
I am now 74 and since the age of 15 I have enjoyed driving manual transmission cars since my first car, a 1959 Austin A-40, up through multiple MG’s, Rovers, Triumphs, diesel pickups, a couple of Jaguars, and a dozen or so Jeeps. I do not feel fully in control a car with an automatic transmission, but lately I have had to confront the reality that I am less in control with a stick shift.
And so it goes . . . . .

Nancy friedland

Thanks for this as I nurse my sore arm after… what? Too much of this or too much of that or… I was just saying I feel much older on gardening days. Is it forever? Maybe. Feels like it. But I’ll keep on anyway, treating myself better when I can, nursing myself when I can’t, and hoping it’s not forever. Will we know when it’s the last time we _________________?


What an inspiring and thought-provoking essay? Your words really touched my heart in many ways and on many levels. Most of my life I have dealt with autoimmune issues, multiple ones but Rheumatoid Arthritis and Lupus with many pressures to always be positive and cheerful and secretive too. Then several people on our family developed chronic illness that had a huge impact on every aspect of their lives. Next, my big strong husband, before he was fifty had a massive saddle pulmonary embolism that caused a heart attack and massive damage from blood clots. No amount of totally cheerful attitude and fierce determination slowed down the progress of this, even with excellent medical care. People get puzzled and almost angry, that a very healthy and strong person could have something like that happen to him!

However I had to learn how to care for myself after my RA and Lupus landed me in hospital many times and almost took my sight. My gentle gardening and baking, keeping close to those I love and lots of books and quiet times under the beautiful night sky help keep me still loving the world and life and people.

And now I gently try to help folks that are much newer on this road of trying to live and thrive when the body and treatment and medications take up so much energy.

Bonnie Rae

The chorus becomes louder and louder, aay? I feel every bit of this. It begins well before seventy for some of us, but age and aging have always befuddled me. I match up best with those who live fully into the age of their minds. In years, some are younger and some are older, but for those I connect best with, we all seem to inhabit the same emotional or spiritual age. I think I linger somewhere in my thirties “inside”, which is why physical aging can seem so shocking. Do you know what I mean? Thanks for this post. It inspired one of my own and I linked yours.


Thought provoking read Gretchen!
I am someone who suffers from chronic pain & conditions… never knowing what a day will bring. I too, have learned to read my body and adjust my plans….often putting my to dos aside for a day to relax and de-stress. I could do it better I confess. Things have changed for me…weed whacking was my thing but now it’s too much strain. So instead I practice my ukulele and listen to my son in law mow down the weeds. I hope I can always go on walks. Daily adventures for my ❤️! I hope you feel better & better Gretchen!