Year of Grace, Day 137. Creative ageing: Alexandra David-Néel

One of my heroes on creative ageing is Belgian-French writer, explorer, and one-time opera singer Alexandra David-Néel (1868-1969). At the age of 56, she achieved her goal of living and studying in Lhasa, Tibet, then forbidden to outsiders. In the 16 years leading up to this, she had studied the Tibetan language and Buddhism, and trained as a yogi. After 9 years as a Buddhist practitioner in Lhasa, she returned to France, writing about her travels and Buddhism. Drawn back to her beloved Himalayas, she returned to Tibet, aged 67, braving arduous travel over snow-bound mountains. Stranded there throughout World War II, nevertheless she survived near-starvation, epidemics, and extreme hardship.

She wrote over 30 books on her travels throughout India, China, Nepal, Sikkim, and Tibet, as well as books on Buddhism and Oriental philosophy for the average reader, a pioneer in this field. She was keen to emphasize that her books were not for academics and classicists.

Her advice: A part of every day must be dedicated to intellectual work. Despite rheumatism that kept her in near paralysis, she spent 18 hours daily on her writing, and continued to do so to the very end of her life.

To show just how extraordinary she was, here is a letter written by her father in reply to a marriage proposal by Philippe Néel:

Mister Néel, I am extremely surprised by your letter. Until the present day, my daughter has always expressed a firm reluctance to give up her freedom  and has always protested against  the inferiority which is imposed by the law on a woman after she’s married. Today your proposal has made me believe that she has radically changed her ideas. If this is true, then, Mister Néel, I see no good  reason why I should refuse you permission to marry my daughter. (Source: Alexandra David-Néel website).

Alexandra was 36 years old when she married Néel, but took up exploring on her own after a few years. At the age of 100 years and 6 months, she renewed her passport, aiming to return to Asia and travel around the world in a Renault 4 CV with her secretary as chauffeur. She died soon after without realizing this final project, yet still dreaming and yearning for more adventure and exploration. Her home in Digne, in the mountains of Provence, is now a museum. For more on this remarkable woman, click here.

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