It's much more than waking up, mentally ready to spring out of bed, and then discovering that everything hurts.
It's much more than a shrinking Christmas card list, with more names of deceased family and friends disappearing every year.
It's more than answering a survey and finding oneself checking the last age box -- 65+ -- or finding that the women's magazine no longer offer makeup advice for your age decade.
The surprises are, like the rest of life, filled with positives as well as negatives.
You feel new comfort in your aging body. Yes, along with the pain and limitations, comes a new acceptance. Gone is the tendency to focus, laser-sharp, on defects both real and imagined: those "thunder thighs" that the magazines decry (on perfectly normal weight young women), that nose that is distinctively yours. The reality of a bad hair day ceases to be an emergency and reason to hide from the world, and is, instead, a reassurance that, at least, you still have enough hair for it to look bad.
You feel new ease with the person you are. It's so much easier and more pleasing to be who you are -- simply and authentically. You worry so much less about making an impression, about what other people think. And, with this ease, comes a singular beauty.
I was struck while reading a feature in The New York Times Magazine yesterday about the actresses who had been prominently featured in James Bond movies dating back to the early 1960's. All were slim and more attractive than average, even as they reached 70 and beyond. Some were obviously dressing and grooming themselves to look like much younger women -- and the results were at best, a little sad and, at worst, ridiculous.
The most beautiful woman of all was Honor Blackman who looked like a 70-year-old woman who took good care of herself, dressed in simple classic lines and radiated joy and self-acceptance. Those qualities defy time in preserving or creating beauty.
You lose your insulation against mortality and gain a new appreciation of life. Time seems infinite when you're young. You can't imagine -- not really -- losing parents and, especially, friends. These losses happen to other people, but, deep down, there is this lingering delusion that it can't, it won't, happen to you.
My delusion was challenged relatively early in life when one of my closest college friends was murdered in a horrifying act of domestic violence. The crying and the shaking that marked my days in the immediate aftermath had mostly to do with the loss of a treasured friend and horror at what had happened to her. But a part of that was a realization that life is a fragile gift and that death for all of us is a matter of when not if. This realization gained clarity with the loss of both my parents when I was 35 and when, by the time of my 40th college reunion, three of my four college roommates as well as ten of my other close female friends from college, had passed away.
The reality checks have gathered momentum as I age in a community of peers. One neighbor, who had never had a day of illness in his life, ended up in the emergency room the other day, bleeding from a previously undiagnosed perforated ulcer and, at the same time, suffering a heart attack. He is currently in the hospital, in ICU, getting blood transfusions and awaiting triple bypass surgery. My neighbor Phyllis is getting chemotherapy for cancer and, three times a week, has kidney dialysis. The dialysis treatments are both life-saving and life-limiting, preventing her from doing the traveling she used to love. But she accepts this new way of life with gratitude, realizing that her only other alternative is to let go of life.
With these experiences of friends and neighbors I know and love, I realize that my own health, now robust in comparison, will fail. I will have pain and limitations. And someday -- maybe tomorrow, maybe some years from now, I will die. Having death closer both in time and possibility has brought a new appreciation for each breath I take, each day of good health, each day of life.
You learn to let go, savoring memories and finding new passions. When I was young and lithe, dance was my passion. I wasn't an especially talented dancer but I loved dancing and kept taking lessons in ballet and tap well into my thirties. When I started gaining weight in midlife, I stopped dancing and went on to other forms of exercise that didn't exacerbate my worsening joint pain. But I always dreamed of losing the weight and getting back to this passion. However, time took a toll that even losing much of that weight couldn't undo and I found, to my disappointment, that it isn't possible to do the kind of dancing I so enjoyed earlier in life. But I love exercise -- swimming inspires me. I emerge from an hour of lap swimming feeling refreshed and, more often than not, with some good ideas for writing or for living. I'm finding that I have more of a passion for animals now than I did when young. And how much I love admiring the strengths and adventures of others. Generativity kicking in is part of it. But I also enjoy being inspired by the wisdom, emotional generosity and caring of friends both old and new.
You gain perspective on what really matters. Gone are the junior high-esque ruminations about cliques, exclusion, mean girls and no invitations to the prom. You gain new ease with aloneness. When you see aging cliques or mean girls, it's a surprise and you feel a little sad that some people have not been able to grow past power plays and exclusion to the joy of inclusion and discovering the courage and the integrity of others -- whether or not they're like you. You may be less concerned with whether a friend or neighbor is a Democrat or a Republican, whether he or she shares your religious beliefs, your ethnicity or your socio-economic status and more about the content of their character.
My next door neighbors seem, at first glance, to be the most unlikely of friends: they're conservative, Republican and evangelical Christians. But... they're conservative Republicans who work tirelessly on local campaigns, evangelical Christians who live their faith with love rather than judgments. They have become two of my favorite people in this community because of their passion and integrity, both of which I respect greatly. I love and admire who they are beneath all the labels. I enjoy their caring, their humor and their acceptance of who I am, albeit liberal, Democratic and agnostic.
As time goes on, I find myself much less concerned with whether I made a good impression and more focused on what matters. Was I helpful to another? Was I kind? How can I help someone else to feel his or her own strength and wisdom by seeing these qualities through my eyes?
Living mindfully in the moment comes easier. When you know that this physical life isn't forever, savoring the moment becomes easier and more pleasurable. When I was younger, I found myself puzzled watching Aunt Molly exclaim over a perfect rose or a lovely sunset or the delicious shock of being drenched by a cool Pacific wave. But now I find myself immersed in the joy of a warm, velvet desert evening, a dramatic sunset, a timeless afternoon laughing with a friend, the joy of a purring cat, the deep pleasure of hearing loving words or seeing love in the eyes of another. After years of racing through days, through seasons, through years of unnoticed beauty in ordinary and extraordinary moments, it's a blessing to have moments when time stands still and the beauty of living in that moment is all.