Monday, September 9, 2013

The Surprises of Aging

It's more, much more, than looking in the mirror and seeing my mother's face.

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.


  1. I love this post since I can agree with everything you say!!!!! As a 71 yr. older, I am truly enjoying my life in EVERY respect much more than I did when I was younger --and trying to prove myself and trying to be everything to everyone... Life was rough back then ---but now I realize that alot of it was ME --and my attitude...

    I've struggled with a weight problem all of my adult life---and that has 'ruled' me totally in all of my life. I was miserable on the inside --but put on a front on the outside... I ignored the situation although it was totally in control of me...

    It was ONLY after I grew to love myself for the person I am that I finally have been able to lose the weight and control it... I'm happy to say that I have lived an entire year now at about 135 pounds --and have NOT gained it back... Hallelujah... I am in control!!!!!!! Why in heck did it take me THIS long to get a handle on this?????? Geeesshh.

    Because of the weight losses and gains all through the years, I have LOTS of saggy skin ALL OVER. But---I'm healthy and happy and it's all okay!!!!! Hubby loves me for me --and I thank God for that... Life is GOOD...


  2. Kathy, you nailed this better than anyone I've ever read has. I've experienced lots of these thoughts in recent months. You are spot-on about every single one of them. Three cheers, my friend! Perfection.

  3. I agree with both Jeanie and Betsy. I've had many of these same conversations and thoughts over the past weeks. This time of life is a blessing. This time of life is a time many got to experience. Each day becomes more of a treasure than the last.

  4. So terrific, all these points. I do find so much to savor now in each day. I love my aging yet fit and strong body now more than ever. I love the place where my mind and spirit are. I wouldn't trade it for a lifetime of 20's.

  5. Absolutely lovely piece. Your writing helps me, now 52, come to terms with what is happening as I grow older, along with my peers. I'm just now having to adjust to the things you speak of, and hearing your perspective is SO helpful and helps me understand that this happens to everyone. Thank you!

  6. Excellent post, Kathy! I've been wishing I could get out of bed just one day with no aches and pains. I'm changing that, getting out of bed grateful for the day.

    Today I went to the mall to buy a new iPhone. I wore no makeup. It was very liberating, and I don't think the young man who helped me with my purchased cared a bit. I probably reminded him of his mom or grandma. And that's fine.

  7. At 55, I assume I'm behind you in age based on what I've read in some of your posts; yet I understand everything you've said. I haven't mellowed as much as you have, but I guess that's because some things in life you just have to "go through;" things that get you to that stage of being mellow.

    Sooo, I continue to go through a few things and not rush my life away. Thankfully, the knowledge that you speak of is knowledge that I am aware of and that helps me to appreciate where I am now.

    Thank you for writing this.

  8. Dear Kathy, you are blessed with wisdom and the ability to synthesize the arcs of so many ideas, thoughts, and reflections into a circle that sums up within itself the whole of a life.

    Perhaps that wisdom is hard won and came from experiencing the death of loved ones and the vicissitudes of life--the up and downs of trying to be. Or perhaps you were gifted at birth with a sensitivity to life. Or maybe you've lived many lives and you share with us the wisdom of the ages.

    I don't know. But then I don't have to know from whence your wisdom came, I just need to recognize that you speak to my experience and my life and I am grateful for that. Thank you. Peace.

  9. So well said! It's something that, despite knowing, I don't practice as completely as I should ... thank you for the reminder.

  10. Along with being 69, I am dealing with very bad scoliosis and am constantly made aware of not just my mortality, but of how my life might change as I get older. Your post is beautiful; it captures the truth as I have come to experience it and see it.

  11. This is a wonderful post, Kathy, and I agree so completely with what you say here. You are so peaking from the place where I am too and I've bookmarked your post fro rereading and reflection. Yes, there are many good things about getting older and being comfortable with who one is is one of the best.

  12. Thank you. That was lovely.

    I've wondered about that, about all the things I don't know. It's all going by so quickly.


  13. Kathy, you have a way of standing back and taking in the full picture. Thank you for such thoughtful portrait of maturity.

  14. Kathy, I'm not very old - turning 28 in October.... but I can appreciate what you write here in the sense of... these are things to look forward to. THAT added a new perspective for me.

  15. "My next door neighbors seem, at first glance, "to be the most unlikely of friends": they're conservative, Republican and evangelical Christians. But..."

    Surprisingly to you, you ended up liking your conservative Republican Christian neighbors?

    What about your fat neighbor? Or the Jewish neighbor? How about the tattooed neighbor?

    Shame on you for the insults.


  16. I have dear friends of all descriptions. The reason these neighbors seemed unlikely to be close friends are not because they are not good people or not good friend material, but one would think that, given our very, very different political and religious views, we would be unlikely to be friends with each other. That's all. And, of course, we are very good friends because we've put aside all the labels that polarize too many people in this community and in the country at large. I'm sorry if this upset you. But it wasn't meant as a blanket comment that people of a certain political persuasion were not worthy of friendship. Neither my husband nor I make any judgments about fat or religion or tattoos or political views. It's simply that, given the high polarization in this county, many people of differing political views don't get along. That's certainly not the case with our neighbors.