Saturday, December 7, 2013

Getting Old

I’ve been thinking about aging a lot lately.
I turned 40 in August, and I’ve been noticing the changes in my body.  I put on weight more easily these days (though I’ve never been prone to slimness).  The texture of my hair has changed – more fine and thin and wispy than it used to be. My skin gets very dry now, especially in wintertime.  Wrinkles are becoming more prevalent.  Things are sagging.

I see so much fear and hatred in our society about this stuff.  People fight aging tooth and nail, desperate to cling to the attributes of youth.  As a culture, we seem to despise the attributes of old age.  If you are not slim and fit and smooth-skinned and glossy-haired, fashionable and hip to the latest technology and terminology, you are considered gross, foolish, out of touch, irrelevant. 
No one wants to be those things, so we try to stave off aging, we hate seeing the signs of it in our own bodies.  We are offended when people call us “ma’am”, we don’t want to be considered or called “old”. We lie about our age. We spend millions of dollars on skin creams and plastic surgery, fad diets and injecting toxins into our skin, etc....desperately trying to avoid those hideous changes that come with age.

See how hideous she is in the Before picture???

 But that’s a losing game, kids.  No one has ever lived a long life without getting old.  It’s a part of the process.  We change constantly, and in many ways predictably.

You have already changed profoundly throughout your lifetime.  You began as a single cell, were born a plump and tiny infant.  When you grew into a child, did society scorn you for that development?
When you went through puberty and developed adult attributes, were you encouraged to delay that change?  These life transitions are considered natural and normal – they are even anticipated and celebrated.

But once you hit middle age, further progress along this universal path of transition is no longer desirable.  We want the inexorable march of time to halt, or at least to slow down.  We don’t want to continue the journey we began at birth.  We want to maintain our youth, because wrinkles and sagging flesh and less flexible joints and failing eyesight are terrifying, and even more terrifying is that we know what comes next…death…and we are certainly not ready for that!

But die we will.  Maybe in 50 years, maybe today.
And the only thing we can do in the face of inevitability is to accept it and make peace with it.  Even find the beauty in it.
detail from a work in progress

I am working on a piece about wisdom, featuring an old woman, and while studying reference picture of wrinkled faces and recreating them in my artwork, I began to see how beautiful the shapes and contours and textures of aged skin are.  The patterns suggest the valleys cut by rivers through stone, the cracked surface of a dried lake bed, the gnarled bark and fractal branches of trees.
As far as I can tell, our skin just gets more and more interesting as we age.  The smooth, featureless landscape of youthful skin seems incredibly boring by comparison.
I look at my hands now and I see a complex and fascinating network of tiny lines, flexing and deepening, growing more and more intricate as I progress on my journey through life.  I see the result of countless smiles etched into the flesh at the corners of my eyes.

We don’t have to consider wrinkles ugly.  That’s just the popular concept these days.  But I don’t buy it.  You don’t have to, either.
"Laugh Lines" by Karen Walzer

Personally, beyond the physical changes, I’ve found the mental and emotional changes that come with age to be quite marvelous.
The longer I live, the more I experience and seek out information, the bigger my picture of the universe gets, the more I’m able to see how it all fits together, and find the beauty in the whole system – even the scary parts like death, which seems less wrong and terrifying when we realize it is a necessary part of the grand scheme of things.

My perspective is changing from micro to macro.  I’m no longer so focused on myself and my own little world, but able to perceive beyond the limits of my own life and appreciate the greater context.
And when this happens, we realize that many of the things we thought were true and obvious are really just certain ways of perceiving things…and that there are many other ways that are just as compelling, if not more so, than the ones we were raised with. 
And that we have a choice in what we want to believe.
Teenagers look at the plump older lady at the grocery store - no makeup, wearing sweatpants, and think: “Yuck!  How awful, she’s just given up on life!”.
What they don’t realize is that the older lady has actually figured out what life is really about, and it has little to do with looking fashionable.  Perhaps she’s come to the conclusion that comfort is more important to her than what the teenagers at the grocery store think of her.
Younger people can’t understand some of the things older people do, but I think older people CAN understand why the younger folks do what they do, because they have done it, and come out the other side into somewhere different.

Younger people are focused on such things for a reason- they are exploring and learning to navigate the world of their peers, which is largely centered on finding a mate.  In our culture, appearance is considered very important in choosing a mate, and the spectrum of “acceptable attractiveness” tends to be rather narrow, considering the vast array of human distinctiveness of appearance.  Only a small percentage of humans would be considered beautiful if we stick to the fashion magazine standards.  How ridiculous is that?!  These days, even people who do fit the standards of beauty are ripped apart for minor deviations.  “I don’t think she’s that pretty”, they say of some gorgeous actress, “she’s too skinny/fat/pale/etc.”, and they sneer in disgust.  

 I remember thinking these kinds of thoughts when I was younger, and they still creep in today, but I can realize now how utterly insane and dehumanizing such comments are.
These days I see the beauty in peoples’ distinctiveness, how they change and grow, how they express themselves and impact one anothers' lives. 
My concept of beauty has broken free of the cage of societal standards and embraces an infinitely more vast and meaningful spectrum.  


Once we move past the fervent biological drive to mate and reproduce, a whole new world opens up.  We can focus on other things, without worrying about all the rules about impressing others and striving to present ourselves according to such standards.  We begin to be motivated by what we think and feel is right, rather than what everyone else thinks we should do or be.  The consequences of not following the herd become less fearful.  We become less sensitive to the judgments of others, because we’ve come to realize that those who judge us are not necessarily correct.  Everyone has a developing concept of the world and how it should be, and everyone is different.  Once you figure that out, it seems silly to expect ourselves to fit into any one “correct way” of being.  

It is up to us to decide how we should be, and the older we get, the more experience and information we integrate into our understanding, the more clear our personal concept of ourselves and how we want to be becomes.
This can also open us up to accepting others as they are, instead of imposing a false standard on them.

It can take a lifetime to realize how little fitting in to the current paradigm of physical appearance actually matters when it comes to living a satisfying life.
But our modern world is dominated by this younger ideal.
We can either buy into that ideal (which can often result in debilitating self loathing and dehumanizing criticism of others), or choose to discard that ideal and rely upon our own wisdom to determine what has true worth and meaning to us.

This shift in attitude is beautifully presented in this poem by Jenny Joseph:

With a red hat which doesn't go, and doesn't suit me.
And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves
And satin sandals, and say we've no money for butter.
I shall sit down on the pavement when I'm tired
And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells
And run my stick along the public railings
And make up for the sobriety of my youth.
I shall go out in my slippers in the rain
And pick the flowers in other people's gardens
And learn to spit
You can wear terrible shirts and grow more fat
And eat three pounds of sausages at a go
Or only bread and pickle for a week
And hoard pens and pencils and beermats and things in boxes
But now we must have clothes that keep us dry
And pay our rent and not swear in the street
And set a good example for the children.
We must have friends to dinner and read the papers.
But maybe I ought to practice a little now?
So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised
When suddenly I am old, and start to wear purple.

 Personally, I think getting old and “wearing purple” is something we should celebrate. 
It’s an accomplishment, getting this far - surviving all that life has thrown at you over the years, learning so much. I find that age has allowed me to see my life as a narrative - as a story unfolding.  From my older perspective I can look back on my life and see it's patterns and themes, witness the changes I have been through, and anticipate the new adventures and changes that future chapters will bring.

I am not offended at the idea of being an Old Lady.   I consider it a great honor, and strive to embrace that role with enthusiasm. 
I figure I’m far more likely to succeed in that than in trying to resist it.  Fighting a battle one cannot win is a waste of time and energy, and I choose not to spend the rest of my life in such futility. 
Instead, I’ll surrender to the continuation of my journey and work on appreciating it for what it is, and enjoying where it takes me, and practicing gratitude for the chance to experience the "golden years".  

  beautiful old lady

No comments:

Post a Comment

We'd love to hear your feedback - please feel free to leave comments for us!