I turned 75 this August. I celebrated with Richard, my husband of 32 years, at Cliff River Springs, a Shangri-La of an oasis about 60 miles north of Santa Fe with a spring-fed pond deep enough to swim in, endless hiking trails, grazing deer, fabulous yellow hummingbirds and 1200 acres of serenity. As a hospice worker I was always fascinated by my patients in their 90s who couldn’t fathom how they had suddenly become so old. When I asked how old they felt, they almost always named an age somewhere in their 40s. I understand now.
What struck me as I celebrated this milestone was how there were no rituals to greet me, to drum, whistle, applaud, foot stomp, even tattoo me into elderhood.
It’s scary to come out as 75 years old. Our culture I think does not appreciate older women (insert eye roll). The makeup tips for older women on Youtube go up as far as 60, and then we fall off the screen. Gah…who even wants to think about a 75 year old woman applying makeup. Maybe coming out as an elder now is as scary as it was for my friends to come out as lesbians 50 years ago: The fear of rejection, no place to see yourself positively mirrored in society, a skin-crawling sense of shame.
But I’m feeling an uprising, a yearning to embrace this age, to finally grieve the loss of fertility and youth and all its endless possibilities, surrendering to all I’ve fought so hard to resist. My skin has wrinkles in places that surprise and shock me, there are white spots on my shins I never noticed before. What the hell are they anyhow?? Then there are the increasing short term memory losses…for the life of me I could not retrieve the word watercress yesterday as I stood looking down at the acequia that flows through this land. Watercress. I had to ask Richard.
I think I have many more years to live, but who knows. What I do know is that I want to live them as a flourishing elder, not someone scurrying to look younger, wearing spandex and texting with my thumbs.
I think about Toni Morrison who wrote for an African American audience, who described the experience of blackness, not in relationship to the white gaze, but apart from it, whole and entire in and of itself. She said: “Racism keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining over and over again your reason for being.” I think about the male gaze, and how it has defined me, kept me from doing the work of validating myself… fixing my hair just in case, checking in a pocket mirror for food in my teeth, dabbing on a bit of lip color…certainly not the scarlet red of youth, but something the counter girl (girl!) at Lancôme suggested was a shade flattering for mature (mature!) skin.
Am I mature? Have I matured beyond lusting for the male gaze to reflect youth, fertility, the call to sexual adventure in a sleek body? And if that gaze turns away because it sees an older woman? Can I put down the burden of my need to be seen through the lens of desirability and claim my age without flinching? Without adding that cloying tagline…but hey, age is just a number.
Age is more than a number. It’s battle scars and wounds so deep they never really stop bleeding even if they no longer show. It’s having survived back alley abortions; some of us didn’t. It’s having fought for Roe v. Wade believing it would end the horror of illegal abortions. It’s having witnessed our parents dying old or young, fulfilled or despairing, by grace or by their own hands. We raised children, stayed up with them as they moaned with the flu, split the air in two as they howled with an earache, waited up beyond curfew night after night and then watched them fly away and settle new lands. It’s enduring illness and having parts of our bodies cut away. It’s a lifetime of caring for our friends, our family, our community. It’s outliving our best friend. It’s accepting how all these experiences have shaped and modified our sense of self. Age matters. How we age matters. Honoring all that made our worry lines, remembering the joys that etched our laugh lines, even finding loving mercy for our breasts that sag from nursing our young. Or for one breast. Or none. It all matters, and it’s up to us to make holy our aging with love and not shame.
I want a community to sing and chant me into elderhood. I want a hawk to perch on my shoulder, dragonflies to adorn my feet. I want to enter the natural world as part of the life cycle, maiden, mother and crone. I want to give the word crone a softer edge, a lovelier face, one tempered with grief and loss, patience, wisdom and unexpected delights. I want to comb out her hair and crown her with a wreath of sage, dress her in silk and satin. I want to look in her eyes and welcome the reflection of my original radiant face.
“Nobody grows old merely by living a number of years. We grow old by deserting our ideals. Years may wrinkle the skin, but to give up enthusiasm wrinkles the soul”. Samuel Ullman