Aging is a natural development with many benefits such as wisdom, hindsight and the calling to speak out about who you really are
Debbie Clarke Moderow, author and Iditarod Trail athlete
I got in touch with Debbie Clarke Moderow a few years ago, when I wrote a feature on fitness challenges. I was fascinated by her story and her determination to hit the Iditarod Trail for the second time and complete the race after the first failed attempt.
As it generally happens with exceptional characters, Debbie is a gifted person and, in fact, she’s a compelling writer. She proved this in her first book, “Fast into the night - A Woman, Her Dogs and Their Journey North of the Iditarod Trail,” and now she’s working on a new title. I’m therefore happy to share her story the way she presented it.
How do you feel about aging?
I didn’t think much about aging until I neared 60. It’s funny, I suppose coloring my hair beginning at age 40 signified my aversion to the whole progression, but it was my decision to stop coloring my grey hair, at 60, that represented my recognition of the aging process, and my determination to welcome it.
Now that I’m 63, I’m a little more realistic about the fact I’ve lived more than six decades. Of course I’m aware of time passing—and have melancholy moments about the inevitable passage of time. But for the most part I see aging as a challenge: to make the most of the life I’ve been granted.
How does your aging differ from the one of the women of your family that came before you?
I’m in the process of writing about my grandmother and my mother. Their examples give me tremendous inspiration about aging. Both thrived in their last decades. My mother gave birth to me in her forties, and so I was only twenty when she was my age. At that point I considered her young and vibrant. I remember her telling me that I had kept her young. Now, my memory of her as a ‘young’ 63 year old is returning that favor.
How would you describe your philosophy on aging?
My philosophy is that growing “old” is an attitude. That aging is a natural development with many benefits such as wisdom, hindsight, the calling to speak out about who you really are and what you think is important. In that way I consider aging a sort of privilege—an honor not to be taken casually.
Can you tell us something about your approach to aging from a physical and psychological point of view?
I’m more aware now, than I was as a younger athlete, about the need for physical self-preservation. I don’t assume everything will turn out well, for example, when I run a ten-dog team along an icy trail. Now I might choose to run a smaller six-dog team instead, in order to protect myself from re-injuring my shoulder, for example. I walk long miles instead of running these days. It’s not worth it to have an old ankle injury recur. I try to be vigilant about staying strong physically.
From the psychological point of view, I’m a tough-headed New Englander. While I’ve long believed in the mind-body connection, I’ve never fully explored things like meditation. These days that is becoming a new interest for me. I suppose these things are driven by an awareness of aging, and my hope to be as mentally and physically healthy as possible.
When you participated in the Iditarod in 2003 you were 48. How has your maturity helped you throughout the race?
It’s funny, I didn’t consider myself anything other than “young” at that point. Age wasn’t an issue in my mind, although I must admit that I was somewhat more cautious in attitude than I was in my twenties. I mean, the longer you live the more obvious it is that things do go wrong. In my memoir I write much about my internal tension between daring and doubt. There is no question that “doubt” has increased as the years have passed. In some instances doubt is healthy awareness, in others it can pose a road-block to forward momentum.
How has racing changed your perspective on goal setting?
My Iditarod races cured me of perfectionism. Those two 1000 mile journeys were riddled with challenges that I had never anticipated. By the time I reached the finish line on my second Iditarod attempt, I was immensely satisfied. But not in the way I had imagined. My perfectionism was gone. I mean, those trips were messy, and somehow we managed to reach the finish line in good form. Letting go of the idea that success is perfection—that was the gift granted to me from Iditarod.
Has racing changed your approach to aging?
I had been a devout perfectionist before running the Iditarod. Recently I’ve come to believe that it’s impossible to accept aging while being committed to perfection. Challenges along the Iditarod trail cured me of that outlook, offering lessons about resilience and the ultimate satisfaction that comes from doing the best that you can. In hindsight that lesson has everything to do with a positive attitude toward aging.
On the other hand, how has aging impacted on your approach to work and life?
As a 63 year old, I feel an urgency to tap into lessons that I sense I’ve accumulated over the years—to tease out universal wisdom through my writing. As an elder memoirist, I’m called to discover meaning from experiences lived. In that sense, now might be the time of my highest creative potential.
What are the biggest stereotypes about aging that you feel women need to debunk?
Women bear a double challenge in this regard. Women are not given the respect they rightfully deserve, nor are our female elders. But I must qualify that statement with this question: I wonder if elder women are given more respect in American society than younger women? I have no answer, but figures like Barbara Bush gained stature with each year lived.
Because my mother was 43 when I was born, many of her friends were much older than me. When I was born, my sister was fourteen years old. I grew up in a happy family with multi generations of strong women. Gifted with friendships with elder women from my very beginning, I learned early on that our elders hold perspectives invaluable to the upcoming generation. At turbulent times like we are experiencing now, it’s critical to recall where we have been in order to chart a productive course forward. We might be in far less danger today, if our elders—particularly female elders—had been afforded higher respect.
I realize I need to answer this question: stereotypes regarding beauty, physical function, and performance standards of all sorts. Just because a singer’s voice, for example, wanes with age, does not mean there is not a unique and inherent artistry in that voice’s aging expression.
What have you learned so far and what suggestions you would like to share to design a pro-active path to age successfully?
None of us know how long we have on this earth, but I think it’s important at every stage of life to figure out what we are meant to contribute and to attempt to do so. I’ve recently become a grandmother, and have made time to play a major role in my granddaughter’s life. Sometimes that derails my writing (and completing interviews like this one!) but I’ve come to believe that nothing is more important than this intra-generational relationship. Again, I can thank my mother and my grandmother for showing me this way in the world. I must also add gratitude to my father who had the highest respect for all human beings—regardless of age, race, gender, or social economic status.
Who would you suggest I to talk with next about aging?
Alaska Native elder women. A wide variety of cultural and socio-economic voices.