Category Archives: Life

Why we should perceive death as liberation

At 90, my friend Gina still lives a youthful life. She tells me how the older she gets, the younger in spirit she feels.

When I was living in Italy in my early 20s, I used to volunteer at a retirement home. There I came to terms with a different reality to the one I was exposed to as a happy-go-lucky university student. Twice a week, I would spend my mornings at the Casa del Pensionato attending to old people’s needs, be it feeding, cleaning, going for a short walk or having a chat. It was both demanding yet rewarding and gave me a lot of fodder for reflection about ageing.

We seem to age on multiple levels: internally and externally, individually and culturally, physically and spiritually. Unfortunately, most of us soldiers of ageing trample through the process as if it were a war zone, laden with fear. We fear what our bodies might become: frail, wrinkled and ugly. We fear loss of strength, vision, agility, stamina, independence and loved ones. These fears are real. But living in fear of ageing will keep us from living our lives fully.

Academics explain that the problem might not necessarily be ageing, but rather ageism, the discrimination we face based on our age. Our personal narrative of who we would like to be is often blurred by society’s norms and values. In our culture, ageing is perceived as an undesirable phenomenon, one which reduces beauty and brings us closer to death. But what if we were to stop perceiving ageing as a threat and affirm it as a significant part of life?

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Gina Dall’Aglio with the paintings on her garden wall. 

One of the friendships I formed at the retirement home was with a former volunteer. At 90, Gina Dall’Aglio is still fully engaged with life. She lives alone in the house she built with her late husband straight after World War II. She still shops, cooks, and takes care of her front garden. Whenever inspiration strikes, she paints her favourite flowers: papaveri, gira sole and margherite. But mainly, she spends her time nourishing her spirit in prayer.

Gina is an ageless soul. So many people limit their own capacities by allowing their fear of ageing to take over. Most of the time, this leads to a negative self-fulfilling prophecy which could further accelerate the ageing process.

Gina is humble and grateful for all the hardships she has been through and celebrates the beautiful moments, even if it’s merely sunshine on a cloudy day or a piece of cardboard she may come across on the street which she can use to paint on. Spending time with her taught me what it means to live a long and youthful life without the fear of ageing.

“Our body is like a dress,” she says. “And a dress you wear every day will naturally have a hole here and there, especially after 90 years. My body may be frail, but funnily enough, I seem to be ageing in reverse, because the older I grow, the younger I feel. My spirit seems to be more youthful than ever.”

We could call this the paradox of ageing, where our bodies and spirits age inversely proportional to one another. As our bodies become frail, we tend to feel we are growing younger. In fact, a 2009 survey on American attitudes towards old age showed that almost half of the respondents aged 50 years and over reported feeling at least 10 years younger than their actual age.

“I have no idea where these past 90 years have flown,” Gina says. “Mamma mia, I’ve had a long life and survived the war and poverty. I was so poor I had to borrow a pair of shoes to wear for my wedding. I’ve had a lot of loss, pain and pleasure. But having faith and focusing on the beauty of life has kept me grounded.”

As we get older, we seem to become more familiar with our daily routines and this seems to make the seasons roll by quicker. The fact that we live our lives forward but understand it backwards means that the older we are, the easier it is for us to connect with ourselves on a deeper level.

“I find it hard to be friends with other old people because they aren’t always in a good place,” she says. “They prefer to spend most of their time indoors, moping. I try to pass on a bit of my energy but some prefer not to listen. And so I’d rather spend time with myself in that case. I’m never alone. My spirit always keeps me in good company and gives me the inner strength and energy to spur on. I nourish it with prayer every day.”

Society has constructed a stigma surrounding ageing. As women especially, we tend to grow concerned about becoming invisible or sidelined in life, while men may mourn their loss of strength. Messages in the media repeatedly tell us to fight ageing and so we start to believe there is an age limit to certain things.

“Because I ride my bicycle everyone thinks I’m some kind of phenomenon. It isn’t every day you see a 90-year-old on a bicycle, yet here I am. It’s way beyond the norm, but it’s my only means of being mobile.”

Gina cycles to mass every morning and later visits her friends and husband at the cemetery. On weekends, she has lunch with her daughter, grandson and great-grandchild on their farm in the countryside. She doesn’t allow her age to stop her from living her years filled with adventure. Despite having lived for almost a century, she is still busily engaged, connecting to the world and immersed in her faith.

“Life is a gestation for eternity. I’m ready to leave this body behind. At least I’ll stop worrying about all the pain it causes me. I have no teeth, so I can’t eat whatever I want. My legs are fragile, so I can’t travel long distances without my bicycle. Once I’m dead, I won’t need my glasses to read my beloved gospel – I’ll be free.”

She admits to having lived a full life and is ready to let go of her body or “worn out dress” as she calls it. She perceives death as liberation from any physical pain.

I guess this is the gift that comes with age. You start to become more comfortable in your own skin, even if your body doesn’t quite fit so well. You learn who you are and who you aren’t.

And this is why we shouldn’t give in to ageism.

Embracing our age without feeling ashamed of it is the secret to ageing gracefully. Perhaps we do remain in some sense all the ages we’ve once been, as well as the age we are now. We find ourselves acting more like the old selves we were in certain situations, sometimes playful as a child and rebellious as a teen, but it’s still us. We need to look at ageing as part of a process, because if we’re going to keep thinking like soldiers battling against ageing, we’ll never be happy, because it will happen anyway.

Originally published in the Times of Malta in October, 2015.

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Does luck determine making the right choices?

As I clambered onto a parked Maltese Bus on a Wednesday afternoon, I was overwhelmed – almost suffocating – by the intricacy of its internal decoration, just as if it were a holy shrine.

My eyes darted from one relic to the next: attached below the dashboard was a large silver horse-shoe with a “good luck” painted neatly in a curvy blue script, bestowing upon the passengers an immediate sense of security. On either side of the centre-mirror, glowing above a flickering sort of light surrounded by a halo of plastic flowers were the peaceful staring faces of Jesus and Mary.

I was intrigued by all this, especially by the humoristic Maltese element of the crass slogans “don’t follow me I’m lost” and “meet me half-way” painted in tberfil across the windscreen.

Malta Bus Tberfil 3

Considering I was early and there was no one else on the bus, I sparked up a conversation with the two bus drivers on board. I mustered up the courage to divert from the usual useless small-talk about the sudden change of weather and dived into the topic of superstition.

One of the two drivers seemed taken aback by my curiosity and bluntly stated there was nothing for me to know apart from the fact that he was a very unlucky man. The other driver, also the owner of this four-wheeled embellishment seemed in the mood for a chat and keenly sympathised with my genuine interest. He passionately explained that his bus has been decorated in this manner for almost twenty years and does not intend having it any other way.

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Superstitions have been among us since recorded history and are based on outdated facts that have been handed down from generation to generation. There are still many who believe that it is bad luck to see a black cat, open an umbrella indoors, or walk beneath a ladder, but whether all these beliefs hold is an entirely different story, and, ultimately, subject to an individual’s interpretation.

Common sense would tell you not to walk through a ladder because you would risk having something fall on your head; it is quite curious actually how this superstition is associated with religion. For instance, the triangle that is formed when a ladder is propped against the wall used to be associated to the Holy Trinity and walking through it would mean that you are “violating” this space.

The “lucky” driver’s clear blue eyes looked through me and I could easily tell that he had a more positive attitude towards life in general. He is a firm believer of good fortune, compared to his colleague. Whenever good things happen to him, he feels endowed with luck and thanks God; whenever good things happen to others, he wishes them all the goodness they have received and more. Perhaps this bus is indeed his luck charm.

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The conversation with these drivers was smoother than the ride back home; they helped me realise that a belief in good or bad luck might actually transform a person’s life. From what I gather, “lucky” people tend to construct this positive framework within their minds. They make the best out of their misfortunes by spontaneously trying to imagine how the bad circumstances they encounter could have been worse.

These people are solely predisposed to expect good things to happen and will work hard in order to seek out for opportunities that would help them achieve and eventually be successful. Someone’s fate cannot possibly be determined solely by whether or not a person considers him/herself to be lucky. Fate is all about choosing the path of least resistance but then again, our freedom of choice is actually quite illusive. When several possibilities are open, we consider the risk of having to choose one.

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Does luck determine making the right choices?

Luck is that enigmatic and unpredictable thing resulting in a good or bad outcome. Whatever it is, and wherever it comes from, it is something which we are still unable to rationalise. Whether you believe in luck or not, it is always there lurking somewhere, immiscible within our lives.

Let’s face it – none of us choose our ascribed characteristics or our parents’ occupation – impersonal luck is something we are born with. Luck might not necessarily be a force that guides our fate, but merely an attitude framed within one’s mind; it all depends on how much importance you give it.

Things will always fall into place, no matter how implausible the idea might sound.