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Thursday, 23 November 2006

Letters About Aging and Changing Body Image

Written by  Felice Kahn Zisken and Ellen Kahn

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Dear Ma,

One of the questions on my mind these days is the body and aging. I'd love your input. Does one accept the natural changes of the body? Does one fight them, go with the flow or find a way to stay firm and fit and invest the necessary time and effort? I was thinking about your running the New York marathon and the kids telling their friends with great pride, "My grandmother ran the marathon."

I loved talking to you after you trained. You sound energized and full of the spirit of the thing. You told me once that it had helped you build stamina and discipline for other challenges of life, and that the marathon people stressed that what was important was doing one's personal best.

Ma, what made you decide to run? How old were you when you ran the first marathon? The second? The third? Did it make you think about your body in a new way? Does exercise affect how you think? Does it keep you young? I know that for me movement is really a way of being and in movement I sometimes reach new clarity and new decisions.

Lots of love


Dear Fe,

Thanks for your letters, the poem, the thoughts and questions -- to which I am sure there are many and varied responses . . . . I will try and be succinct and only preface my writing with the following.

Every person is many faceted and all of us are in great measure the result of our background -- how we were brought up, the influence of our parents, families and experiences -- but we are influenced most of all by our own "life force," by how we view life and by how we have been able to master life in its entirety.

Each birthday is unique and it has always been my wish to celebrate the day by including all that is meaningful to me -- starting the day with exercise and adding something unique and wonderful that will make me feel the day has indeed been well spent.

When I started running I was well into my 40s. It was a challenge which afforded me the greatest satisfaction -- adding lap after half lap. Realizing the stamina and feeling of well-being were wonderful. Exercise has been a very important part of my life. It gives me tremendous joy, allows me to do good thinking and helps clarity.

Training for the marathon was most exhilarating -- and absolutely wonderful, being with people from so many backgrounds and geographic areas, all working together toward a common goal.

Yes, indeed the credo is you're ALWAYS a winner, for you do your personal best -- a wonderful lesson in life!!! Aging is the normal process of life. Aging gracefully is a gift. Changes in the body are normal. One prays for a long and healthy and productive life.

I believe there are two aspects (at least) to aging. One is the physical and one is the mental and I believe they go hand in hand for is it not said "A healthy mind in a healthy body"?

I try to change what I can -- and work very hard at it -- and love each given day. I believe positive thinking is one of the most important ingredients -- being an optimist rather than a negative thinker -- and I believe that my work has taught me that EVERYTHING can be phrased to bring out the positive. It is so easy to be negative. Aging is a state of mind, which one can dwell on only when there is too much time not used well.

You asked how old I was when I first ran the marathon. I ran the first one in my 50s, the second and third in my 60s -- at the beginning and towards the end, respectively. Each race was exhilarating, an enormous challenge and each one was unique for different reasons.

They were all important and all had one message -- that achievement is how one sets one's goals -- the ability to substantiate expectations of self with a point well proven.

Got to run...much love...a hug and kiss...


Dear Ma,

Exercise -- swimming, jogging, biking, tennis, dance -- has always been structured into your life and into the life of the family. Involvement with sport was pretty intense and a high priority. Your discipline, your background helped you implement your exercise regimen, even if you weren't in the mood or it was cold out or you didn't feel great.

But how does one include exercise if one is not disciplined to exercise, if one is not in the mood and a hundred good reasons not to do it come to mind? How does one get started? Keep it going?

I'd love to hear your perspective. These are ways that have worked for me -- visualizing the activity, auto-suggestion first thing in the morning -- "I am a runner, a jogger, a swimmer" -- and then going for it: not thinking too much about all the possible reasons not to exercise, but diving into the water and swimming -- and then thinking afterwards. The thinking is usually better, too.

Another effective way has been learning a new sport with a friend, each helping the other to get started and stay motivated; then even if it feels like a major hassle, another person is in there with you, counting on you, encouraging, and you do the same for the her.

Life in an industrial and technological society distances us from our instinctual modes of moving and stretching. It can alienate us from the experience of our bodies as part of nature. Recent attempts to structure walking, bicycling, exercising into our daily schedule has been a way of restoring our connection to nature.

Movement provides an opportunity of living in one's body afresh, of recapturing sensations vaguely remembered, of remembering one's first dance and is a safeguard against taking one's body for granted. Movement connects us with the greater cosmos, on one hand, and on the other, revives understanding of our primal being.

Looking forward to your response.


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Felice Kahn Zisken and Ellen Kahn

Felice Kahn Zisken is a writer and translator. Ellen Kahn was an Eldercare consultant and recruiter in New York. She passed away since the writing of this article.

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