I remember being nineteen and having a crush on a married man who flirted with me just enough to get away with it. As I sat, bikini-ed on the beach, contemplating the unfairness of other peoples’ marriages, his wife, a woman in her forties, took my arm with affable firmness and walked me along the beachfront. We chatted about bluebottles and sunburn and the price of a decent perm, and then she said in a different sort of voice: ‘It’s obscene to grow old.’
I can still remember the look she gave me. It was a look that took it all in – the way I silently scorned her pubic hairs sticking out untidily from the crotch of her bathing costume, my vain comparison of our limbs – hers speckled with varicose veins, mine smooth and browned by the summer’s sun; my proud pitying of her, unfairly advantaged as I was, she so past it all, and I so utterly gorgeous. She generously let me wallow in the privileged limelight of my youth, only alluding to the inevitable justice of it all, that someday, I too, would be the forty-year old mother with a husband hankering for a glimpse of an unwrinkled cleavage. And that’s all I was back then, an unwrinkled cleavage. I understand that now.
These days, I find myself wondering more and more about her warning. Is it really obscene to grow old? I mean, what are a couple of white hairs, a bit of sagging skin, leathery arms and the odd stray facial hair? Really.
King Alobar, in one of my favourite books, Jitterbug Perfume, by Tom Robbins, secretly leaves his castle each night to examine his reflection in the water and to pluck out his grey hairs. In his kingdom, a king was to be put to death at the first signs of ‘enfeeblement’ or ‘decay,’ indicators that his powers to rule were waning. Fortunately, not being a king-‘n-all, I’m spared the anxiety of compulsory beheading. And there is, of course, hair colour. But the horror when the first white hairs pop up is, I can assure you, no less. My mum once told me ‘you know you’re growing old when your pubic hairs start going white.’ That bought me a couple of months.
Lately, I’ve noticed these little lines around my mouth. Folds. I think the official term for this is ‘puckering.’ Puckering, while a perfectly benign term in the context of clothing, is hardly innocuous when applied to one’s face, inspiring in even the most brave-hearted an arsenal of hysterical pharmaceutical purchases. In my case, I returned armed with expensive ‘skin-firming’ creams and ‘wrinkle-vanishers.’ Lies, all lies. Nothing firmed and not a single wrinkle vanished, though admittedly, the puckering felt much smoother.
Apparently, there are seven signs of ageing: lines and wrinkles; dullness; dryness; blotchiness, age spots; roughness and visible pores. And that’s just the skin. Let’s not talk about organs south of the equator, or trying to remember where you left your keys. There comes a time when the phrases ‘after-party’ ‘recreational drugs’ and ‘unprotected sex’ seem otherworldly as if you’re peering through a looking glass, receding from life-as-others-are-living-it. ‘Ah, I remember those…’ you might muse as you don your not-in-public slippers and look forward to an early night with a good book.
At a certain age, no matter your previous objections, Botox seems alluring. Hair colouring is a monthly appointment and expense. Certain dress lengths are … well, wrong. And you’re fighting a futile war against puckering.
I have expended rather too much consternation, time, energy and angst on the unfairness of this inevitable decline into decrepitude. I wondered, during the dog posture in my Pilates class as I came face to knee with the puckering on my thighs for heaven’s sake, what it would be like to stop fighting. To surrender. To do the Buddhist thing – and embrace old age as a teacher, one of life’s ‘messengers’ (the friendly trio being, illness, old age and death).
There must be some joys available to the aged. A couple of benefits the geriatric can celebrate over and above knitting and purple rinses. Surely it’s not all downhill from puckering? In the poem by Jenny Joseph ‘When I am old and wear purple,’ the poet celebrates the freedom from ego ageing brings and the deepening of a sense of fun and freedom from the tyranny of doing what is proper, expected, civilized and socially acceptable. I have finally understood old ladies in curlers.
No matter the vanity ageing takes from us, it doesn’t come empty-handed, bringing with it a confidence and sense of personal clarity we’d have killed for in our early twenties Armed with just this inner strength, and despite an entire childhood of taunts about the size of my nose, just before my fortieth birthday, I got a nose stud, no longer caring that others thought it would only draw attention to the size of my nose.’ With age, I’ve stopped listening to what others say and think because I’ve realised that – well, what others think about how I look doesn’t matter to me all that much.
Ram Das, the spiritual teacher believes it is possible to age ‘consciously’ claiming that ‘what it means to be a person becomes apparent in old age.’ The journey of ageing, he says, has to do with how we handle change. Those of us who’ve navigated the rapids of puberty or pregnancy know how alterations in our bodies inspire fear and uncertainty – but they’re situated at the front-end of the experience of life, and old age a little less comfortably at the other end. The lesson – as is so often the case with things spiritual – is one of non-attachment and a release from over-identification with the body (which is inherently unstable and unreliable). The poet Yeats described humans as ‘a soul fastened to a dying animal.’ One needs a strong absence of denial to fully inhabit that identity.
Perhaps then, it is not so much that our bodies change that is crushing, but that we identify these particular changes of old age with … you know… kicking the bucket.
So how do we manage the problem of over-identification? Spiritual teachers suggest the trick is to find the part of ourselves that is changeless and timeless, unaffected by cataracts, incontinence and osteoporosis. It’s in there somewhere. Some call it soul, some call it divine energy. It requires a bit of work, but then again, all things worth doing do. Spiritually, then, ageing is a challenge to grow, for us to ‘be with the changes’ (even those as testing as arthritis, high blood pressure and liver spots) with equanimity and grace.
Ram Das optimistically suggests we can use the spaces that old age opens up for us resourcefully – deafness or blindness allow us to retreat into inner work and spend time meditating; the slower pace due to impaired mobility gives us a chance to reconnect with Nature; we can use pain as a teacher to help us with mindfulness and peace. Above all, he exhorts that we should embrace ageing as a creative act. There is no drama to ageing, except what we make of it.
It seems that we have a choice – we can spend our time and money on tummy tucks, face lifts and whatever else falsely promises to keep the tidal wave of old age from engulfing us, zimmer-frame and all. Or we can turn towards old age as if it were an old friend, embrace the discomfort of our changing features, interrogate the experience for what it lays bare and truthful about the nature of life and surrender to the unknown with faith and trust.
What is certain is that unless I change how I feel about my changing face and body, I am destined from hereon in to always be disappointed when I look in the mirror. That amounts to thousands of disappointments spread out before me like a mocking red carpet leading to personal misery and self-disgust.
I’m opting, like Cate Blanchett who claimed that her wrinkles are the ‘songlines of her identity,’ to reframe my cellulite as the dimples of meals-gone-by; my flabby belly as the sacred pouch of my little peeps; my wrinkles as the canals of my laughter and my tears.
In my little ‘rage’, in the words of Dylan Thomas ‘against the dying of the light,’ I’m on a scavenger hunt to find every last gift – including the fact that men now look me in the eye rather than in the cleavage. That when people are interested in me, it’s ME they’re interested in and not the fraying packaging. That no matter how dry my skin gets, I get juicier on the inside as, in Emerson’s words, the ‘beauty steals inwards.’ And on a shallower note, I find that the puckering around my mouth disappears when I smile.
And if this spiritually mature approach fails, I plan to go down fighting like my eighty-nine-year old granny Bee, who, being wheeled into surgery, for what would prove to be her final surgery for the life-threatening and painful condition of necrosis of the stomach, took one look at her young handsome doctor and with a gasp of horror, lamented to the nurse, ‘Oh my goodness… what my hair must look like!’
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