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Time, Scholarship“Gravity” would be a great name for a girl, like “Charity” or “Felicity.” And you know, Gravity used to be my friend. We could hang, she and I. But lately, she has not been kind to me. Just like Time used to be on my side. Now, he just keeps rushing past, like he doesn’t even recognize me!

To tell you the truth, my old pal Gravity has just been bringing me down. As you get older, you realize that “the tincture of time” only applies to broken hearts. Not faces, hands, and…other assets. 

But Gravity’s just doing her job, and Time is on the clock, too.⏰ They all work for Providence. Nobody can play a role for which they’re not designed. The same is true of humans; we were made to live the full spectrum of experiences, including aging. 

At least it rolls out slowly, like a grey carpet of sorts. At first, you think, “Grey? Where’s the red carpet treatment?” On second thought, you realize that grey is a great choice for a carpet. Hides the dirt. Goes with every kind of decor. It’s soothing.

So, eventually, you’re going to look older as you age. I know that’s no great newsflash, but until you experience it, you may not realize it can affect how you feel about life. 

But you’re still the same person you always were. Gravity and Time may be contractually obligated to do their jobs (as an older person, I’ve realized they must be Teamsters), but Providence is ageless, and there’s no expiration date on Grace.

It’s been said that “life is short,” but, what if it turns out it’s long?

I looked in the mirror as I was smiling one day and realized I had a dimple. Oh! That’s nice. Always wanted to have dimples. Two weeks went by before I realized that it wasn’t a dimple. It was a wrinkle! 

Horrors!

It’s actually a laugh line. Hmm. That’s not a bad thing, is it? To have laughed in life. And to have lived a while. Both good things. After a moment, I shrugged. You know what? It’s okay to wear your life on your person. Some may choose to erase their lines with a nip and tuck or an injection, and that’s their choice. I wouldn’t judge them for it. If I had the means, I might even make the same choice.

But self-acceptance is a life-long process. When I was younger, I was always self-conscious about my appearance. Wanted my make-up just so. Clothes to be in style. But as your body changes, your outlook changes. 

Just as you’ve got a favorite comfy armchair, a lived-in body can be a comfort. You know how to adjust as you bend to lift up a package as you get older. You’re grateful that, despite health conditions, you can still get around reasonably well and take care of yourself.

The true wake-up call is that you’re still you. It’s hard to explain to younger people, but you feel like the same person you always were on the inside, even as your features change with age. The fact is, there’s still so much to look forward to in life, and, God willing, you may live to a ripe old age. You might as well become your own best friend.

Sometimes I look in the mirror and wonder just whom I’m looking at. The face, the body…none of it seems familiar to me. I don’t just mean the wrinkles that cross the bridge of my nose or drag down the corners of my mouth. It’s more than that. I find myself looking for recognizable signposts: the purple mark above my right knee, the scars from a childhood double-whammy of chicken pox and rubella. Getting older is scary. Good thing we don’t have to do it alone.

The hands I know, but they are my mother’s;
the square face an artifact from Germany, I think.
My hair — impossible curls after a lifetime
of lying listlessly but reliably straight.
I cannot find myself in my own face,
though I search for traces like a dog
sniffing clues. Who is this strange woman
haunting my mirror like a cautionary tale?
I have not chanted “Bloody Mary,” yet here
she is, her visage a map of days, of years.
Where was I during this time? Asleep?
But Sleeping Beauty never aged like this.
Or perhaps I was inside, cleaning house.
I hope I was. One day, my soul will rise
to meet me, as familiar as the ache
in my ankle when weather turns cold.
She will lead the stranger home.
And I will know myself at last.

Done in by the heat of setting up for the parish’s Cinqo de Mayo dinner, we sank gratefully into folding chairs. We talked about work — at 64, she figured she’d work “three more years. No, maybe five.” Then she laughed. “I like my job.” On the following Thursday, she showed up for the year-end banquet of the altar society (the same altar society she’d confessed to me she’d avoided joining for years because she felt she “wasn’t old enough!”), posing in a photo with all the other ladies. On Sunday, Mother’s Day, she was dead.

I tell this story not to cause panic, but to induce thought. None of us knows the day or hour of our death. So live big. Love hard. Don’t let things ride. Deal with your inner demons. Choose joy. Phone a friend.

We haven’t got time to dilly-dally, so let’s concentrate on loving one another. Okay?

I’ve just returned from a long car trip, a trip whose sole purpose seems to have been to remind me that I am old. Well, older, anyway. For instance, I remember how easy it was to genuflect when I was a child — a quick bob with one knee and right back up again. I was as bendable as new grass, as light as a reed, so thin my sister and I were not allowed to look into the windows of the local health club (out of sheer childish curiosity) because it offended those inside. How on earth, I used to think, can it be difficult to genuflect?

The words come back to haunt me as I use the pew to lever myself into and out of that once-effortless pose. It’s not so easy anymore.

It’s funny to imagine a God who is ageless. Wasn’t he my companion as a child, as a 20-something, navigating the newness of adulthood, and now an aging friend who provides a shoulder to lean on as necessary? Won’t God still be there as I totter into old age? And all the time, always, God is my friend, my compatriot, the pal I vent to when my shoulders ache and I realize that typing 100 words a minute was less a feat than a doorway to carpal tunnel. God grows old with me, yet is eternally young, ready to support the next new life and the next and the next.

My body announces itself
with pops and groans,
a one-woman band of
complaints and aggravations.
Ankle, knee, neck, feet.
Bones aren’t built to last.
They snap like chalk, crumble
to dust. My foot comes up,
senses a thousand ways to stumble.
Yet at my elbow, a light touch:
lifting. My foot comes down;
God gives me ground to stand on.
Each step’s a new wonder;
with practice, I’ll fly.

(for my mother)

“I hope you never go through this,” she says, but there is no other way.
All roads lead here. All things must pass.
Think of life as a beautiful bird,
watch as time plucks your feathers one by one.

You sail through childhood like a happy ship
until you hear, “Girls can’t do math.”
Or “girls aren’t strong.”
You are young enough to wonder why. Pluck.

You grow into womanhood, revel in newness
like a just-born foal, kicking up its heels.
The world notices in strange new ways.
You learn fear. Pluck.

Then — when did it happen? You’re not so young
and it comes to you at once that your worth,
the price tag of your being, was bound in what you were.
You disappear like vapor. Pluck.

Menopause takes what you’ve finally learned to love,
memory, ripeness, uncanny feminine ability.
You ask yourself, what are you now?
Thinning bones and lost days. Pluck. Pluck.

When does it dawn that you are mostly chicken flesh,
shivering and practically naked?
When do you know that you
no longer know?

Perhaps when the last feather falls you see:
God was there all along, collecting your plumage,
saving it, knitting it into a most fantastic garment.
And when you die, you wear your feathers anew, this time as wings.

And you soar, at last.

We try to tackle the big topics on this humble little blog: life, death, spirituality, peace, love, justice, mercy. So, in comparison, my topic today seems ludicrously flimsy and terribly vain: I am going to write about my recent decision to let my hair go gray, as it has been wanting to do, lo these many years.

I started going gray — white, really, if I’m honest — in my thirties. I’ve been dying my locks ever since. I consider being brunette part of my identity. I could never wear colored contacts, for instance. My brown eyes are also part and parcel of who I am. A good deal of this identity is wrapped up in pop culture: Brunettes are serious. They’re smart. My earliest role models were Mary Tyler Moore, Marlo Thomas on “That Girl” and Catwoman — all brunettes, all “making it after all,” on their own terms. That was my tribe!

So why change now? Why not go to my grave with my roots intact? Well, for one, my husband recently encouraged me to go natural. And if he doesn’t care, why should I care what the rest of the world thinks? Secondly, it’s a drain of time and money to continue to color my hair, and the chemicals involved are not as healthful and innocuous as one might think while watching a Clairol commercial. Third, why lie, even to myself, about what I look like? I like to think I embrace truth-telling. My white hair is a truth about myself.

But here’s the big one: I truly believe the purpose of life is in embracing the little “yesses.” After all, at the end of our lives, there is going to be a huge “yes” that we will have to embrace, like it or not. By accepting and welcoming each little “yes,” I prepare myself daily for the big “yes.”

And this is, despite being firmly entrenched in female vanity, a tough yes. I look at other women who are letting their hair go natural and I judge. It looks slovenly. Like a lack of self-care. And yes, I know that’s a horrible thing to think. I’m appalled at myself. But there it is. And this is what I will have to see in myself as my “skunk stripe” covers the crown of my head and extends, inexorably, downward. I will have to confront the worst in myself. I will have to deal with my own feelings about aging and about how women are judged and valued on their beauty and youth. I will have to see myself lacking.

And I will have to find God in all of this. I will have to grapple with a God who loves everything about me, but who created humans to love what is aesthetically pleasing. I will have to align myself with a God who expects my power to come from something bigger than a bottle of dye. I will have to say “yes,” not just once, but over and over again, every time my fingers itch to solve the problem with a box from the drugstore.

I am hoping all of this will be good for my soul. Because that’s the part of me I care about most. And it doesn’t need anything artificial in order to be beautiful, does it?

The middle-aged among us are in a curious position: We are becoming caregivers to our parents. This is certainly not a new phenomenon, but it is more prevalent these days — in the past, people simply didn’t live as long as they do now. My longest-lived grandparent was in her early 70s when she passed away. My beloved friend Marcelline is 101 and still doing yoga.

This shift presents real moral and spiritual dilemmas, as grown-up children navigate the line between respecting their elders and celebrating their independence and wanting to make the path smooth for their parents in their later years. It is not easy.

My mother lost her mother when she was barely 20. I know it was traumatic for her. But it also makes it hard for her to understand my concern for her: She never watched her mother live into her 80s. But in this period of adjustment, I have stumbled upon an important piece in the puzzle of my own aging — letting go. Because that’s what getting older is — the process of letting life go, piece by hard-won piece.

I have to let go of my hopes and expectations for my mother’s “golden years.” Of course, I’d like to see her waited on hand and foot, tempted with fine food, made to do little more than recline while being fanned by palm-bearing attendants. That’s not going to happen. None of us gets to write the ending of her own story, let alone someone else’s. And there is my mom’s own tenacious will to contend with, too.

In the end, God will bear us up, as God must. In the meantime, there is poetry.

She never had to do it, so she doesn’t know
how it feels to touch the bird bones
of her hands, feel blood click a pulse
through ropey veins, the flat of her hand
a creased map of a strange valley,
each gnarled finger a beloved isthmus.
What to do with this hand when I cannot
take its lead, but equally cannot force it
to follow? I can only love it, seeing in it
my own hand marching quickstep, just
inches, really, behind it.

 

 

photo-1444116877118-6da0ed3c879aCross my mind, Lord,
when all I see
is a hard road and a heavy load.

Cross the bridge with me, Lord, 
so I can leave the past behind and clear my mind.

Cross my heart, Lord,
I’ll hold fast to the last.

I wrote this prayer a while ago, but didn’t post it, because I thought it seemed hokey or old-fashioned. Today, when I came across it, I had a different perspective and thought it had a simplicity to it and now I appreciated it more.

It’s amazing how your view can change over time, and how words can be spun in many directions.

One of my favorite t.v. programs is “House Hunters,” a series that follows the process of buying a home. On a recent episode, a realtor pointed out that the “vintage” house’s “original molding” kept it “true to the era.” She said that there were some “restored” features, but updates were done sparingly, so as to “keep its character.”

And it made me wonder…why has no one has come up with a way to spin aging in our youth-obsessed culture? We could market our later years with direct mailings, touting the joys of “moving more slowly in a fast-paced world.”

The things normally considered negatives could be re-jiggered with clever copywriting. You, too, can embrace your “Mirth Markings” (formerly laugh lines) and highlight your “Silver Crown” (formerly grey hair.)

For me, the best part of growing older is that you eventually come to realize how important peace is in your life. In younger days, it may have been about the late-night hang-outs and life in the fast line, but now? A quiet night in with a good book and a warm cuppa makes it all worthwhile. Maybe these really are our “golden years!”

Last week, Ruth wrote about a phenomenon that spoke to me: Women, after age 49, become invisible. (Coda: Not to each other. There is still awkward judgment involved in our interpersonal interactions, uncomfortable sizing up — “Is she as far gone as I am?” — that seems to continue until about age 65, when all but the most vain of us finally settle down into the reality of our looks. I wish it weren’t so, but it is.) I’ve got no problem with that. In fact, as I wrote in the comments section, it is oddly freeing.

Women spend most of their lifetime being judged on their looks. Fact. When, suddenly, the world seems not to care anymore, it can be something of a relief. Will anyone notice if I don’t put on makeup to go to the store? Probably not. Cool; that slices three minutes off my (obviously not terribly arduous) “getting ready” schedule.

At six feet tall, I’m used to being gawked at. Used, even, to being called “sir,” “dude,” even “big guy,” from a distance or to my face. But while I don’t mind disappearing as a woman, I’ve never had any interest in “showing up” as a man. It is hurtful to be desexed in public. Invisibility is infinitely preferable.

Invisibility has other plusses, too. It allows long, intimate stretches of “alone time.” What better way to get to know one’s self — deeply, truly — than enforced solitariness? And at 50, it is high time to find one’s self, if one hasn’t already done so. Also, as Ruth so ably pointed out in the comment section, it’s rather nice to disappear from the radar of advertisers and the media. They never authentically cared about me, anyway.

But you know who does care about me — about all of us? God. Becoming invisible deliciously accentuates this. The world may not see me, but God does. Without the distraction of the world’s eyes on me, I can focus more readily on my Creator. I can begin a renewed relationship with God, something richer and deeper than anything I’ve experienced before. God loves me post-50. God loves that I know myself better, that I’m starting to really think about the essentials of life — and less about my career, my status, my appearance. God is here for me in my journey. And I don’t miss being seen by anyone else. The most important eyes in the universe are on me. I am basking.

The last dance, the final shedding of our lives on earth, is still to come. That’s a dance we must all each undertake alone. I thank our youth-obsessed culture for withdrawing from me; I embrace invisibility, because it gives me needed practice for that final dance. Just me and my God. And that (to reference another song) really is the way I always heard it should be.

Have a Mary Little Christmas

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