Before, the only thing I thought of Old Age was that it was the better of two choices (the other being, obviously, dying young), but now that I am about a foot and a half (or more) into the Matter, things are looking differently.
Old Age does not come overnight, at least not in my case. I remember clearly when I was about 50 things began to make noise, things -I mean- like joints and bones and what-not. I called it the “Rice Crispies Age” because everything went “Snap-Crackle-and-Pop”, and that reference might make sense only to persons reaching the same “ripeness” as myself who have heard the advertisement in their youth. After the noise subsided, the small occasional pains began: a joint here, a vertebra there… My second partner reminded me joyfully that, after 50, if you wake up in the morning and nothing hurts it means you died in your sleep.
But unless you have done the Dying Young thing, Aging is inexorably progressive, although there are many, many days when one is allowed to forget it (as long as you don’t look in the mirror).
The Powers that Be, however, are kind and they soften the way as best they can. They take your eyesight away as fast as they put the wrinkles on so, unless you are stupid enough to approach the bathroom mirror with your eyeglasses on, you really don’t notice all that flabby crinkly skin around your mouth and jowls. They diminish your physical energy at the same time as they add aches and pains and physical danger to exertions beyond a simple walk to the supermarket two blocks away.
Nevertheless, things do change and by “things” basically I mean the body. As my grandmother used to quip: ‘”If it’s not one thing it’s another” said the woman with the nosebleed.’ Things ache: if it’s not the ankle, it’s the knee; the neck gets stiff and cracks when you turn it too sharply; no sooner has the shoulder stopped hurting than you get a pain in the right hip before dawn that has you twisting and turning in bed to find a position that alleviates the twinge. Sometimes everything comes at once (the ankle, the hip, the shoulder, the knee) or everything suddenly disappears and you feel like 20 again until it creeps back in.
Photographs stop being fun, although for heaven knows what reason, Skype seems to improve one’s looks. Good hair days become fewer and fewer, and if you have my fine straight hair, you begin to feel “holes” on the top and sides of your scalp where the hair barely covers and you curse the Universe for not abiding by your belief that only men go bald. There is, however, the advantage of being blond which makes grey hair almost, if not totally, invisible… unless of course you look at my eyebrows which I have to color over every morning to hide the white ones everyday more numerous.
Hands are a good measure of how much you have aged. You can make up a face, brush over the balding spots on your head, pretend that your joints don’t hurt, but there is no way -except gloves- to hide the devastation of your hands. I remember entering my father’s studio one morning when he was in his late 70’s and suddenly noticing his hands and realizing that he was going to die some day in the not too far future. It was a shock and my heart squeezed into a painful ball at the thought. Today I look at my own hands and feel tenderness towards myself, for the beating I have given this body and the noble way it has not buckled under the punishment. Nothing is as wrinkled or splotchy as my hands, bless them: I do love them so.
So for quite some time I had the attitude of ‘grin and bear it’ in the face of advancing deterioration, but suddenly I realized I was making a very grave mistake. This Getting Old business is actually very exciting. First of all, I have never done it before and I have no idea of what comes next. Everything is so new, from the wrinkles to the flab to the pains to the sun spots. Everything belongs to the This-Never-Happened-Before world.
I have become very conscious of my body and find myself dedicating much more time to its care and its observation. I catch myself feeling extremely grateful to it when a pain that has been around for a few weeks or months suddenly disappears as incomprehensibly as it had appeared. I talk to it alot more, making sure it understands how much I appreciate its capacity for endurance. I almost broke down crying with gratitude when it threw every fiber into allowing me to take all the walks and do all the climbs when we went on the trip to Machu Picchu. And recently, during the silent retreat with Jeff Foster in Belgium, when I slipped going down the slate stairs and my body flew into the air landing with a resounding thump on the pavement on my right hip which had been hurting anyway for the last 6 months, what a difference it was to think ‘Oh my goodness, I am sure this blow is going to knock everything into place and all pain will be gone’, instead of ‘Oh shit! Now I’ve really messed up this time!’ I was so grateful that I hadn’t broken a bone, that the tearing of a ligament in my knee seemed a small price to pay for the experience of flying through the air with both legs flaying about wildly. Today, one month later, the pain is still there, although it doesn’t stop me from doing anything I want too. When I feel it as I walk into town or even through my apartment, I think to myself: ‘Well now, there is my body letting me know that I’m still alive.’
There is also a new liberty and a new comfort in growning Old. I allow myself to do things that I didn’t allow before like taking short naps when I feel tired or playing a few games of solitaire on the computer when I’ve worked for several hours or watching a tv series while eating homemade popcorn. I am kind to myself and exercise patience; I don’t push anymore; I have stopped believing that “I should be doing something purposeful”. And I follow the wise advice of whoever created the following cartoon:
And there is something else: I am happy, happier than I ever thought I could be when I thought about being happy. I have no idea what I have done to deserve this, like María in the The Sound of Music, perhaps somewhere in my youth or childhood, I did something good. I know what serenity is, I am not trying to change anything, and much less myself. I live in a state of astonished, unending gratitude, absolutely in love with this incredible Universe that parades itself before my eyes instant by vibrant instant.