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  • Courtney Ellis

Birding Is for Old People (Like Me)

The ads in my birding magazines are geared toward senior citizens. Every once in a while, my husband Daryl picks one up from the coffee table and flips through it, chuckling.

“I’m thinking about getting you a lift recliner,” he says. “Maybe for your birthday. Or would you rather have the alarm button you push when you fall down?”

“You can enjoy birds,” I tell him, “and also not be elderly.”

“Can you, though?” he asks.

I once heard a pastor describe old people as “any people who are older than you,” and he’s not wrong. The calculus of who qualifies for which adjective shifts as we age.

In college, friends and I eschewed law school or med school because we knew we wouldn’t graduate for a decade or more. Never mind the fact that this decade would go by just the same, the only difference being that by the end of it, none of us would be lawyers or doctors.

We are all eternally young in our own minds.

We are all eternally young in our own minds. Our false narratives pause only when we spot a gray hair or a new wrinkle or our own reflection in the mirror.

“I keep wondering, who is that old lady?” my great-grandmother once told me, gesturing to the hallway mirror with a gnarled, 101-year-old hand.

“It’s YOU,” I wanted to shout, but even then, in my early twenties, I knew this wasn’t the thing to say. I pitied her for her failing eyesight and muted hearing. She really should have planned to not get so old.


After seminary, I worked as a hospice chaplain where the nurses and doctors regularly spoke about a good death.

“We are all going to die someday,” they said. “We can help others do it well.” I watched them gather residents’ favorite poetry and fill hospital rooms with lilies and bring in beloved animal companions for one final visit. I watched one smuggle in German chocolate cake to a diabetic.

“Death comes for us all,” she told me. “Strong arming it away at the end doesn’t help anyone. Dignity is dignity. Comfort is comfort.”

Dying well is one thing, but what about aging well?

We run from aging, ignore it, pretend it isn’t happening.

I live in Orange County, California, home of the beautiful people. Plastic surgeons and shiny sports cars and eyelash extensions abound. I regularly spot women carrying purses that cost more than both of our family’s cars combined. (They’re old cars, but still.)

Thirty is the new twenty, people say. Fifty is the new forty. Eighty is the new sixty-five. We stave off aging with juice cleanses and hot yoga, seaweed wraps and knee replacements. Clean eating will save you. Crossfit will save you. Meditation will save you.

We run from aging, ignore it, pretend it isn’t happening.

Yet the time keeps ticking.


Daryl turned 40 last week. My turn comes at the end of August.

“We’re going to get old, Court,” he says, flipping through my newest magazine, pausing to giggle again at a lift recliner.

“You say that like we aren’t already,” I tell him.

“It’s all a matter of perspective.”

Much of the foundation for the house of my life has been poured in concrete, never to be moved.

The start of life is all option and possibility, but the older we grow, the more paths are closed to us for good. I’ll now never be a professional figure skater or fencer. Pilot is out. Astrophysicist isn’t in the cards. I will never be as fluent a Spanish-speaker as my son who began learning it at five. Much of the foundation for the house of my life has been poured in concrete, never to be moved.

There is grief in the loss of a myriad possibilities of things I will never be or do or see or learn. Mary Oliver wrote of the singularity of our lives, wild and precious, to be spent with both care and abandon. And herein lies, I think, part of the solace.

Endless possibility isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. The pressure to do and be and own and achieve is a quickly burning fuel. We can’t sustain the fire that will take us through the winter of our lives on birch bark and newspaper alone. We need something more substantial.


I threw Daryl a handful of simple parties to celebrate his fortieth. Coworkers helped me surprise him with ice cream and balloons at church. Buddies kidnapped him for a Saturday round of golf. I arranged childcare so he and I could spend a night listening to the waves down in San Clemente (and the traffic, too, since I mistakenly booked a hotel on the wrong side of the highway). Friends and family from near and far sent in video clips saying happy birthday.

“Forty is big,” I told him. “I wanted you to know how loved you are.”

“What do you want to do for yours?” he asked. When it comes to birthdays in our family, I’m the party planner and he’s the support vehicle. But I’m also the introvert’s introvert, and all the parties I plan are for others. I told him early in our dating years that if he threw me a surprise party—ever—I’d leave him. “You don’t want parties, do you?”

I texted him a link. He opened it and laughed.

“You want to go hold an owl?” he asked. “For your fortieth birthday, you want to go hold an owl?”

“I do.”

“Birding is for old people,” he said.

“I know.”



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