What the Doctor Ordered

When I count my blessings, way high up on the list is my sister Gail. She is ten years my senior, and that age difference meant I had a sister half way to adulthood when I was born. The older siblings in my family (I also have twin brothers thirteen years my senior) felt like trailblazers to me. They had cool, and they had perspective, and they were MINE.

vergilThey are still mine, of course, and they are still trailblazing for me. Yesterday, my sister Gail defended her doctoral thesis on the subject of (I’m probably messing this up): the images of the helmsman and the charioteer in Vergil’s Aeneid. To hold forth knowledgeably on this topic, which is in truth about differing theories of how to govern Rome (or any large, diverse confederation of peoples–ahem), first Gail had to grapple with the nearly 10,000 lines of Latin poetry itself. Then she pretty much read everything else by Vergil in the original Latin.

THEN she started in on the scholarly commentary on the poem, which goes back more than 2000 years to its original publication. THEN she had to get up to speed on Roman politics in the ancient world. Learning Greek somewhere along the way probably helped, as did reading the major English translations of the poem, which began piling up about 500 years ago.

libraryOf course, a thorough knowledge of the scholarship on Vergil’s other works was to be expected, and… Well, we all knew getting a PhD was not a walk in the park, but here’s the part I cannot absorb.

Gail embarked on this challenge in her late 50s, which is older than I am now. She could have wandered off into her sixties, planting daffodils and reading mystery novels (both of which I enjoy), but no, she had to tackle the highest academic hurdle there is, and all while dealing with Type I diabetes. She did this because… she loved the subject matter. If you ask this woman about Vergil’s use of imagery, her hands flamestart waving and the paragraphs come flying forth, and you will soon know all kinds of neat little facts about some old Roman poet dude you last heard about in high school.

I want that. I want that sustained passion later in life, that flame that may not light up the night sky, but it can illuminate a long and interesting journey that begins when most people are looking for a place to set down their anchor. This is not fire in the belly, it’s fire in the heart and mind and it can keep you warm for a long, long time.

Dr. Gail C. Polk, Ph.D.  at the Grand Canyon

Dr. Gail C. Polk, Ph.D.
at the Grand Canyon

I hope I’m genetically set up for this. When my grandma’s third marriage went bust (long before third marriages were popular), at the age of sixty she opened a candy store and supported herself on its revenues for the last 20 years of her life. My dad was still doing good science when he turned eighty.

These are the people I want to grow up to be just like.

Who’s blazing that trail for you, and holding out the promise that, “the best is yet to be”?

To one commenter, I’ll send a $25 Amazon gift card.


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51 comments on “What the Doctor Ordered

  1. What a lovely post! My dear friend, Maria Elena, is almost 30 years older than I am, and her outlook on life is so positive and sunny. She’s traveling all over the world, has many, many friends, and is so independent. I want to be like her. Unfortunately, my own parents have resigned themselves to old age and infirmity–I don’t want to end up like that, but Maria Elena’s inspiration keeps my own goals in sight.

  2. I don’t have someone that I personally know like that, but I always think of Betty White as what I want to be like when I’m in my 90s. She’s still doing something she loves and is in great mental shape.

    • I add PD Chang to my list–still writing beautiful mysteries in her mid-90s. How does she do that? I compare her to the late Nobel Laureate Doris Lessing, who grumbled something about, “use it while you have it, because once it’s gone, it’s gone…”

      To the extent that creativity comes from love of life, I hope for me, it’s never entirely gone.

  3. i do not know that it is anyone person that has shaped thoughts and goals. I do know that I’ve seen great people that wish they could continue on in their pursuits yet have been cut short by poor health or failing minds. So these are the things that help me – taking better care of myself so that I can still pursue the fire well into the later years of my life.

    • Vickie, you make an excellent point: We have a lot of control over how the equipment holds up later in life–up to a point. My dad smoked for thirty years, from about age 20 to 50, then the Surgeon General’s warning came out, and he stopped.

      Why stop at age fifty? There’s already been so much damage done?

      Because he wanted a healthy old age. Not everybody gets that much return on their common sense (one of my nieces died at age 23 of a stroke), but it’s worth doing what we can.

  4. Congratulations to Gail! That is a wonderful and joyful accomplishment!

    I feel very blessed to have met and become friends with a number of older folks throughout my life — they are an unending source of inspiration:

    My friends Margie and Dave, who retired 12 1/2 years ago and took over the care of their stroke-stricken daughter, but still find time for concerts, plays, and travel…

    Cheryl and Rick, who decided after retiring from their careers (corporate world and landscaping, respectively) to open a kitchen store downtown — a place that, in three years, has become a thriving business that draws food-loving people from all over the area…

    Mike, retired from academia, who spent several weekends this year crewing on a tall ship (including during a reenactment of the Battle of Lake Erie) — while in his 70s!

    Bill, who has only slowed down in his dancing and teaching of dance in his mid-to-late 80s due to a fall this summer…

    There are many others, but they all share that enthusiasm for life and a passion for learning and sharing their knowledge with others. They are some of the most positive, open, happy people I know, and being around them is always sunshine to my day.

    • When people have near death experiences, they report a renewed commitment to two things: love and learning. The more you know, the more you can participate in solving our many problems, the more fun you can have, the more connections you can make in your head and your heart.

      Here’s to lifelong learning!

  5. I am blazing a trail for myself. After many years of stumbling my way through dead end jobs, I decided that it was the right time to finally go to college and get my degree in history. After six long hard years of being one of late night study session, writing papers on the fly after work and being, the older “kid” sitting in a University Class room I’m eight courses away from earning that degree. I applaud anyone who graduates let alone earns their doctorate. Congratulations to your sister for a job well earned.

    • Misty–hang in there! A couple more laps and you’ll cross that finish line!

      My siblings and I had a tremendous advantage in pursuing academic goals, because my father taught at Penn State during our college years. We got a terrific tuition discount, and we could live at home during college (unless we wanted to pay for housing elsewhere, which I did). The gravy train came to a halt with the bachelor’s degree, but what a boost to get in this life!

      I like going to school, in part because I like being around people with lively minds. Those, however, can be found in many venues (like on a blog, say?), not simply the classroom.

      • I would make a could easily be the lifetime student. I love sitting in a class room listening to others teach. I live off campus which I consider a blessing at almost 40. I’m not sure I could live with the young ones attending school these days. Those lively minds can also be found in authors like yourself.

  6. I have a friend who is 20 years older than I am.
    We both have an interest in dogs and she is my mentor and good friend.
    She is a good listener and always provides solid advice.
    For the past 15 years, we have travelled to National Speciality shows, Regional shows and local shows. I have learned so much about people,family and of course dogs during this time.
    I admire the relationships she has with her family members and friends and her independence!
    I hope in 20 years that I am surrounded by my family, friends and corgis, too. πŸ™‚

    • Susan, my daughter is a certified vet tech, and says Dog People tend to be like dogs: Cheerful, friendly, loving, constructive, good problem solvers, easy to be around.

      I haven’t asked her about Cat People or Horse People…

  7. Congratulations to your sister, Gail! That is amazing accomplishment. Way to go!!

    My great-grandmother is a woman I strive to be like each and everyday. She is almost 96 and has spent her life helping her community and family from a young age. Grandma has been playing the piano by ear since she was three years old. Growing up on a ranch in North Idaho there wasn’t always people around but she would make sure there was music for everyone. From her early teens she would play the piano for assemblies (dances), weddings and get togethers. During the depression her family always had enough to eat and she would take food around to others that didn’t have as much. When she had children (four boys) her home was the hangout. In her older years she and her band (made up of long-life friends) would play at the community center for the retired community to have dances or just a little music. When she wasn’t playing her piano she was in her flower garden; growing flowers and preparing the most beautiful bouquets for her community. She would remind us that your Community is part of your family and there is always ways to help your community. She has spent a life full of community service and really treating her community as part of her family. I can remember from a young age her door always be open and people just dropping by to say “hello” just because they could.
    She inspires me to be open and love my community and give back.

    • Wow. She sounds like a treasure! Oddly enough, my candy store grandma also played terrific piano, and accompanied dance classes when times were hard (which they nearly always were, her mama being the single parent of two girls).

      I didn’t know this about my grandmother until a few years ago, when I was reminiscing about accompanying ballet classes as my first real job out of high school, and my dad volunteered the connection.

      Amazing ladies, those grannies!

  8. My grandfather was a Philadelphia lawyer and the President of a well know bank in that city. I was 16 when he entered the lives of his grandchildren having been absent from his daughter’s life for many years. He came with an open mind and an open heart and the love of learning that he shared with us. H was very much on my mind and in my heart when I graduated from college at the age of 50!

    • Well done, Betty!

      I have a friend who graduated from law school at the age of 47. She’d worked her whole adult life, raised two boys, contributed steadily to the family coffers, and more than pulled her share of the load.

      When her mother (a doctor) died, her mother left her enough money to get through law school, and instructions to fulfill that lifelong dream. My friend is a more than seventy now, and still handling the cases that appeal to her.

      Wow on you both. Don’t suppose you’re considering pursuit of a master’s?

  9. Yesterday, a friend and I were talking about the difference between when her mother was widowed and when her sister was. Her mother has spent forty years trying to recover the past and nothing in the present engages her. Her sister is spreading her wings, exploring new frontiers, and discovering who she is on her own. My friend and I talked about wanting to be like her sister, someone who is learning and growing and striving and thriving and what that takes.

    • My grandmother was like your sister. The last six years of her life were in some ways the happiest. After waiting on a diabetic husband hand and foot for decades, Grandma finally got to be the center of attention and the life of the party. I can’t help but think my Grandpa was proud of her for seizing those few years, too. I certainly was.

  10. Miss Grace you have been my trailblazer. You have made me want to try to be a better person. You have made me see there is more to the world than what I see from a wheelchair and you have made me want to be part of it. You are what I want to be when I grow up. With you as my friend/mentor I know for me “The best is yet to be”

    • Thank you. I want more videos of you strutting up that church aisle, Gail (figuratively, at least). More videos of you grinning from ear to ear as you tell us about the books you love. This inspiration thing works both ways, you know.

  11. My grandmother died in March of this year at the age of 97. When she was 40 she went back to school and became a nurse. She graduated 2nd in her class, which were all 20 years younger then her. She had such amazing stories about her life and always was and always will be my inspiration in my life.

  12. Wow! What an accomplishment. My head hurt just reading about her doctoral thesis.
    While I have no desire to do anything quite so grand as your sister, I do have a desire to do something of my own and not just raising my boys. Getting to know authors like yourself has given me a hope that it isn’t too late to pursue a dream, that I can stay home raising my boys and still pursue something all my own.

    • Sarah, it is never, never, never too late. My writing idol, Joanna Bourne, is another author who didn’t hit her stride until well after age fifty. It’s not your grandma’s fifties anymore, or her sixties or seventies or eighties…

  13. Congratulations to Gail! What an inspiration for all of us!

    While I do not have a lot of good long-life genes in my genetic pool, my dh’s grandmother who lived to be 97 is one of the biggest inspirations for me to continue on even as I approach a milestone birthday (60). Nannie was active and busy up until the last 3-4 months of her life. Nothing slowed her down. She always told me to “look after yourself, because no one else will do it for you.” Boy, was she right!

    Being told at 58, when I’m finally getting our last child graduated from high school and looking forward to having a little more time for me, that not only do I have breast cancer, but it has also spread to my bones, and I am in the fight for my life, caused me to totally stop and appreciate not only what I had, but what I want from now on in whatever time I do have left in this world.

    Thankfully, I was told recently by my oncologist that they consider me “cancer-free” at this time as they can’t find any signs of the cancer through scans. Of course, I will have to have these scans periodically from time to time, and I know that there is always the possibility of the cancer re-occuring.

    But while I have always specialized in teaching music with the youngest of the young up through high schoolers, at this time anyway, I can’t get down in the floor as I used to with my toddlers & preschoolers, which was the joy of my life.

    So I’m thinking of returning to college to add music therapy to my resume’ and shifting my attention to the older generations that I’ve not spent much time with. Music has always been the joy of my life, and I know how it has helped me through the cancer journey. I want to share it with others who are struggling with whatever health issues they may have.

    • Merri, DO IT. I considered music therapy when I went to school because performance clearly, clearly was not my thing, but the focus was mostly on physical skills–acquiring manual dexterity, coordination, that sort of thing.
      Now, my legal cases include many adults who are under public guardianships, so I see the nursing home population a lot. They have a very high per capita consumption of anti-depressants, despite evidence that in the aging brain, these drugs aren’t as effective. Music hath charms… even my 93 old dad will get up and dance with his walker when I put on some Dave Brubeck.

  14. So proud of your sister, and seems like your entire family has great genetics. I am so glad your genetics are for writing wonderful historical romance….. congratulations to your sister and may you write many, many more books….. thank you.

  15. I have an aunt who is almost 80. She still does almost all her own stuff around the house ( yard work, shoveling snow, helping to take care of her nephews and nieces- even though we ate old enough to take care of her.) S

    • Louise, there are gals like this in my neighborhood. They’ve been on the same farms for decades, and they are not leaving any time soon. A nephew or grandson will come around every so often to split some kindling, but that’s about the extent of the help they’ll accept. Not all the pioneers moved west.

  16. What an extraordinary accomplishment. It sounds like your entire family has excelled and what must have taken a lot of work but also passion.

    Sometimes I think circumstances get in the way although that’s not so much as an excuse as large hurdles to be crossed and so many of us just down’t have it in us I guess. I do look to my mom when it comes to perseverance. She is 91 and is still going strong with just a little bit of help here and there.

    • Circumstances, or as was mentioned above, genetics, illness, bad economies, divorces… I sometimes think my dad would have an easier time of it in old age if at any point in his life, he’d had the kind of setback that makes you rethink everything.

      But he didn’t. He never saw combat in the war. His family has all been fairly healthy (as has he), his career advanced magnificently in large part thanks to good mentors, his marriage never gave him much trouble… and now he’s kinda… un-resilient.

      Those large hurdles might be building blocks, Jeanne, maybe not to the kind of success the world hoots about, but to the kind of final laps your mom is knocking off without even getting winded. Those court for A LOT.

  17. That is truly awesome! What a lucky lady to have a passion and the guidance and ability to follow that passion. I so want one. If you haven’t seen the Fab Fashionista video that’s been lurking around on YouTube, you should watch it. It is not so much about fashion; it’s about living with passion: “Interest in life generally. Once you lose interest, well, I don’t know what you do with yourself.” I’m rapidly approaching 50 and I haven’t found passion and I’ve started to lose interest. If I could just read all day…:)

    • Maybe this is the link?


      Lea Ann, you CAN read all day. You can start a book review blog, you can be a professional beta reader for published authors, you can create series bibles for them (ask Sarah Christie Rosenbarker about that), you can do first reads for professional editors so they don’t have to wade through the enormous slush piles…

      Or you can write, copy edit, proofread, format… The book publishing industry has never had as many points of entry.

      I know what you mean about losing passion, though. This befell me in my middle thirties. NOTHING on my to-do list had any appeal. More drudgery, more duty. Phooey.

      I had a small child to keep me moving forward, but some part of me had sat down in the middle of the wagon trail and was refusing to budge. So I asked myself: When was the last time I was HAPPY?

      The answer turned out to be when I was a kid on a horse (pre-boys!). I got a horse, despite not having ridden for years, and that helped a lot.

      If books make you happy, stick with books.

  18. I think my grandfather would have to be my role model. Born in 1899, he died alert and engaged with life at the age of 97. He warmly embraced each new phase of technology, from radio to television to personal computer, from party-line telephone to mobile phone, from communication on land to communication from space; he was fascinated and enthralled by what would come next. Living in the country, he and my grandmother were sky-watchers, too, and noted Sputnik before it was every formally announced. They KNEW there was something different in the sky!

    • WOW. THAT is paying attention. There’s a book in that one small observation… and I will go look at the sky tonight too. A few weeks ago, I noticed something fuzzy on the eastern horizon, and sure enough, turns out a comet was in the neighborhood. But what would I have thought, if couldn’t verify the presence of a comet?


    • Tell her you’re proud of her, Geraldine! I think Gail’s spouse, while he is proud of her, has been living with “The Dissertation” for so long, he’s mostly glad it’s over. I think for many women, there’s a sense in which our accomplishments come at the cost of our relationships, and at some points, that’s just not fair to us.

      Tell her you’re proud of her-more than once.

  19. My father went to pharmacy school at Temple University on the GI bill and graduated at the age of 33. When he started, he had two daughters and when he graduated, he had three daughters. Dad ended up with four daughters but, alas, no sons. However, he did have two successful pharmacies until the chain stores took over. My father and stepmother moved to Myrtle Beach and Dad took a job at KMart in the automotive and sporting goods depts. The thing is, he didn’t know anything about either one of them! Dad worked for KMart until he was 85 and my stepmother passed away. He earned several awards from KMart and a small retirement as well. I wanted to be like my father and work until I was at least 70 but that was not to be. Health problems prevented that from happening.

    • Good heavens! He must have thrived on work–and not all of us do.

      I’m fortunate that writing is sedentary, because I have about enough energy to pother around the house most days. If my livelihood depended on my mucking stalls by the hour, I’d be in… deep doo-doo.

      Then too, our society values those who bring in paychecks, and I could rant at length about what a skewed priority that is. Go into the business of dispensing kindness, encouragement, and smiles, Trudy. You’ll be employed full time, seven days a week. Promise!

  20. Grace most of my older relatives have passed on, most of them many years ago, at the present time my sister and I are on the outs for the first time in years. I’ll soon be sending her a box with a few things that I hope will bring her back into contact with me.
    The oldest person I know right now is a lady of 102 who lives near me, by herself believe it or not, and still has all her mental abilities in good order.
    Your older sister sound like one awesome lady and it’s wonderful that she isn’t content to sit back and do nothing and doesn’t blame everything on her illness. Type 1 diabetes is a terrible illness, I lost my brother to it in 2004 though he lived many years beyond what the doctors had predicted.

    • I’m glad you’re patching things up with your sister, Molly. Siblings know us longer than anybody, and in some senses, better than anybody. I’d be a hurtin’ pup without mine, my sisters especially.

      And yes, Type I diabetes is a curse, despite advances in treatment. This misery befell Gail at age 44, in the middle of a lot of family upheaval, not to mention the challenges a lot of ladies face at that age.

      So in some ways, this degree is Gail shaking a fist at the disease, and saying, “Not yet, you bastard. Maybe not ever!”

  21. My younger brother is my trailblazer. He is a botanist, has his master’s in agriculture and actually works in the field of his education. He loves what he does and knows it inside and out and he’s only 39. I envy him because he sets goals and follows through.

    • What a wonderful sort of younger brother to have! One of my older brothers is that kind of biologist–loves the entire biosphere. I’m not so partial to nematodes myself, but his passion is still inspiring.

      And you should tell him how proud you are of him. Plants are lovely, but doting big sisters don’t grow on… trees.

  22. Sometimes, I think it’s me. I’m the oldest; I’m the one that should lead the way. I feel like I’ve shown them that you do what you want, what’s right for you, and damn the torpedoes.

    I went to college and majored in history for pity’s sake. Later, when my sister was afraid of disappointing our parents with her choice of study, I blithely told her to do what she wanted because I had the disappointing, useless major category all sewn up. And she’s made a marvelous engineer.

    My brother hem-hawed around (do other people even know what that means?) and almost led me and my sister to fratricide before realizing that his first dream was thing that he needed. The person that he became after entering the Air Force is someone that I am proud to tell other about (the guy before was someone I was a little embarrassed to even know, much less call my brother).

    Or maybe I have it all wrong. πŸ™‚

    • No, Sabrina, you have it all right: Follow your dreams, because they’ll lead to the accomplishments that matter most.

      But our parents got a different message: Work hard, keep your nose clean, and you’ll get ahead.

      When did ahead ever equate to happiness? I guess in their book it did, but we’re a different cohort. First, working your tail off is now necessary rather than sufficient to pay bills, and second, we’re living so darned long that the brass ring is no longer sitting on your tuffet for a few years at Leisure World before checking out.

      You set the example, thank goodness your sibs found the courage to follow you.

  23. Wow. What a clever sister you have! Congratulations to her. What a huge sense of achievement she must be feeling. And how lovely for her to be done and dusted before Christmas so that she can really enjoy and celebrate her success at this special time.

    Hopefully one day I’ll get there (or somewhere close)too. My life was set for a path of study but since my teens (I’m now in my late thirties) my life has been “hijacked” by M.E. and the only achievement I have nowadays is finishing a book (my JOY that I can still read- I know so many who can no longer do that). But one day… I can only hope that my life is meant to flourish and blossom in later years and that now I’m just meant to rest to gather momentum πŸ˜‰ That’s what I’m aiming for at least πŸ™‚

    • Rest. I wrote a whole blog on my (ex) distance runner husband learning the hard way, “rest is a part of conditioning.” Often, writing a book, the hardest thing for me is to take a rest–walk away from it for a few days because what’s hitting the page now lacks…something.

      I’m getting better about letting go, but it’s hard. You could probably tell me all about the challenge of allowing yourself to just REST.

      And don’t forget audiobooks, Carrie. That industry is booming, and the available titles growing by leaps and bounds.

  24. Please congratulate your sister for me. What a fascinating subject and what an amazing journey for her.

    I was fortunate enough in my singing career to encounter an amazing voice teacher completely by accident after finishing my undergrad degrees in Vocal Performance / Music History (B.A.) and Music Education (B.S.) I never intended to go to grad school in music. I assumed I’d find a job teaching music in public schools, put in my 25 years and retire. My husband was accepted to grad school at the University of Southern Mississippi and I got a job in Hattiesburg to support him. I auditioned for a solo in the local chorale’s performance of The Messiah on a lark. Dr. Vivian Woods was there and at the next chorale rehearsal I received a note to come by and see her. As a result I got graduate degrees in Opera Performance and made my debut as a professional opera singer in Austria at the ripe old age of 29. I met her when she was in her 60’s and she lived her life with such enthusiasm and such certainty when she believed in you there was no room for doubt. Life has knocked me about since, but I try every day to live my life the way she did.

    I started writing seriously again in my late 40’s and I have been fortunate enough to have some really great ladies my age and older in my corner. And as each of them has sold their first books I tell myself it isn’t too late for me!

    And you, Grace, have become a big part of getting me back on that path. Your encouragement, kindness, insight and yes, your challenging me to become a better writer have renewed my desire to continue trying and to keep writing, keep learning, and keep believing. Thank you!

    As Dr. Woods used to say “Remember, sweetie, nothing in life – neither success nor failure – is ever final. You’re not done until you’re in the ground and after that, even God negotiates!”

    • What a wonderful story, and yes, of course great productivity and creativity is available once the kidlets are launched. Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ “Women Who Run with Wolves” hit that one on the nose.

      I had a similar mentoring experience, though it was more fleeting. I’d fallen out of love with music halfway through college–my back hurt, I was on the piano bench for hours and hours and hours each day, and my social life (musicians….) was amok. So I figured, what the heck, I like to argue and I’m no good at math…. maybe study law?

      I added a Political Science major to the music history major. I went to my advisor one day to get permission to drop an accounting class, and he cut me a deal: Take a constitutional law class instead–his class.

      I ended up taking three, and loved each one, though they were HARD. A year later, I asked him if he thought I’d make a good para-legal.

      Mind, this was 35 years ago. He rose to his six foot three height, sent his chair rocketing back, and hollered at me. “YOU ARE NOT BECOMING A PARA-LEGAL. YOU GO TO LAW SCHOOL, DO YOU HEAR ME?”

      He ranted about women and confidence and the law needing good lawyers of any gender, and how dare I sell myself short, and did I know how few people did as well as I did in his classes…

      Our paths never crossed again, but I’ve wondered how many female undergrads got the same sermon, and how many of us had meaningful careers in the law because of it.

      Teachers (ARE YOU LISTENING SABRINA?!) are some of the most important people we meet.