I was reading an article by Vanessa Friedman in the New York Times about the fashion designer, Carolina Herrera, who is shifting her focus from creating outfits for the rich and famous (e.g., Michelle Obama, Rene Zellweger, Caroline Kennedy) to retiring. That is not a word that Mrs. Herrera sees as fitting for her next new venture which she coined “Global Brand Ambassador”. Several things struck me about this article.
First, Mrs. Herrera made it clear that at age 79 she was not retiring, but was “moving forward”. I like this attitude. Moving forward is something not often associated with aging! I think this reflects our ageist bias that things slow down as we age, and an unfounded belief that there isn’t much to look forward to!
Legacy of Values
Second, the article, while focused on the nuance and intrigue of New York high fashion, underscored an essential principle of aging – it is vital that we intentionally explore and leave a legacy not just of things, but of what is important to us in terms of ideas, values, and principles.
Mrs. Herrrera’s legacy includes her designs along with her fashion-sense, her vision of what a well-dressed woman should look like, as well as a model of female business leadership in a world dominated by males. It also includes a skill-set of adaption and accommodation to the demand that something be different each season while retaining a “classic” look that doesn’t push potential buyers over the edge.
Generational Transmission of Values and Ideas
Friedman posits that this is “another generational change”. This is an interesting phenomenon within families as well as fashion dynasties. When is the right time for the oldsters to hand over the reins?
What is more and more apparent in our society is that a pre-determined age (like Medicare) is merely a benchmark. Mrs. Herrera is only now considering transferring creative responsibility at age 79. This is a risky business, as Vanessa Friedman notes, “It’s a complicated, fraught decision, with its intimations of mortality and loss of control – especially for those whose names are above the door. Some have ignored it (see: Azzedine Alaia who died unexpectedly last November without a succession plan for his business), while others in Mrs. Herrera’s peer group have tried to solve it, with varying degrees of success.”
Maybe you are not the scion of an international fashion brand focused on insuring continuation of the name for untold generations to come. Maybe you received special mementos from a beloved grandmother, or are finding yourself sharing wisdom previously shared with you by respected elders. These are as valuable as Mrs. Herrera’s brand. And it pays for you to honor it in the same way.
Curating the Family Valuables
Setting aside time to systematically appreciate and decide what is important to hand down to your children, grandchildren, or other beloveds can be a wonderful shared experience. You can do this by having special ‘storytelling time’ where you tell your story to other family members or to friends. You can create a “life map”, made up of events that are of note in your life, annotated with pictures, drawings, captions, and other creative mixes.
These exercises often get put on the back burner. My husband finally started writing down his memories of childhood summers spent on Lake George in upstate New York when he was in his 70s. These were magical times for him and occurred during historic times for our country. He captured the flavor of the challenges of driving from Connecticut where his family lived during the rest of the year, packing up the car and heading into the wilds of the Adirondacks, where roads were sometimes paved and sometimes not, to the easy days of swimming, fishing, and canoeing on beautiful Lake George. While I had the joy of actually staying in the same cabin he spent his summers in when we made a trip back east, my husband’s children never did. So the only legacy that remains are the brief notes my husband left behind and my memory of the stories he told.
So often that is all we have of those who have gone before us. Fragments from which we construct a storyline. Wisdom shared. Mrs. Herrera makes notes. “The easiest way to look old is to dress young.” and “Elegance is to be remembered.” and “Getting old is all the things you have not managed to do.” How do you capture your wisdom?
We are living in an age of disposable things. I am saddened about this, since it seems to be undercutting an important value that was passed down to me – namely that there are things worth preserving. A fine line exists, however, between curating something of value (ideas, mementos, objects) and accumulating (storing up on things for some future event or some future need). I find it ironic that some of the best sellers recently have been books on how to get rid of things!
Exploring the Legacy
One way to manage this tension between letting go and going on is to explore the legacy of the things you received, weigh their value to you in your life and discuss with others whether they might find it valuable in theirs. Ideally, we would do this intentionally and with collaboration and cooperation from family, friends, beloved others.
If you need encouragement, you can download a suggested activity sheet here from the Center for Aging and Values.