On Aging

It's an interesting thing, this aging business. It reminds me of this little one-armed girl in my preschool class. I struggled between wanting to be as close to her as possible (yet recoiling if I brushed up against her highly contagious prosthetic) and wanting to watch from afar, perhaps hidden behind a teacher or a tree, secretly observing her because I was told it wasn't polite to stare. I wondered how I could become her best friend without being awkward around her, constantly fighting off the urge to ask: "So how does it feel to be missing an arm?" and "You know that one isn't real, right?" And oddly, part of me was envious of her. Our teachers were the untrained pitt bulls of the preschool world; mean, aggressive, snarling; yet this girl seemed impervious to them, up on her one-armed pedestal. She was at once someone for whom I felt both envy and pity.

Aging is like that for me: simultaneously filling me with dread and wonder; revulsion and hope; fear and longing. I want to be its best friend while keeping it at arms length. I want to tell it to ignore the ignorance out there but be honest about how that skin-toned plastic really doesn't make it look anymore like a real appendage than say bright pink might. And I want it to respond kindly, as if it hadn't thought of that before and now everything will be much better because my honesty and I exist. And secretly, I want to be impervious to it, watch it happen to other people but perhaps have it go easy on me because, hey look, I eat right and exercise and am nice, sometimes..... Or perhaps I'll just take my mom's approach and be too busy to get old.

I overheard a couple of guys at the gym the other day talking about their basketball team:

One guy said to the sympathetically nodding other guy: "Yeah, it's all old guys playing this year. Other than a couple of us, they're all like 34 and 35. I mean, for sure the majority of them are over 30."

I know, right? Just thinking about those elderly 30-somethings trying to do anything other than rock in their rockers with their knitting and crochet needles nearby makes me cringe, too.

I almost stopped in my tracks. Should I offer to take them for a spin on my treadmill or make them attempt the craziness that is my Ashtanga class first? Initially, I felt a defensive disgust. I am 35 but I am certainly not old by any standards, well, except perhaps those of my five-year old or Hugh Hefner's (which would explain why I have never been asked to the mansion....that and um, other more notable issues....) But then.....but then, I had to pause. I remember, not too long ago, wondering how it felt to be 30, 40, 45. You know, older. Numerous times, I have asked my own parents: "Can you grasp the fact that you are the age you are?" and "How does it feel knowing I am now beyond the age you were when I was born? Isn't it surreal?" I am curious because I know that they were in my shoes not too long ago. And before that, just teenagers, courting each other in the moonlight on a soft mid-summer's eve. Or something ancient like that. And this year, they will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. I can recall when my grandma and grandpa had their 50th anniversary, not so long ago really.

Recently, as I was sitting on the floor of the women's locker room, having just completed one of many tough workouts in my marathon training (which I am fairly confident young basketball boy would struggle with), an elderly lady looked over and, smiling kindly, told me I looked like a ballerina. Although deeply flattered, I had to laugh. I assured her I was not a ballerina, that although I learned the basic steps in childhood, my gracefulness, or lack there of, had made sure to keep me off the dance floor. She chuckled.

"Well, you are at least sitting like one," she declared.

I tried to picture what she saw: my hair, tightly pulled up in a high bun; my sharp jawline, now tense and angular, perhaps from too many stressful, sleepless nights of nurturing children; high-ish cheekbones slightly flushed from exercise, color that perhaps hides the laugh lines beginning to etch near my eyes; a long, slender neck cradled by tediously sculpted shoulders; and one leg casually bent as I slowly pulled up a compression sock onto the other leg extended before me. (Because apparently we old ladies need compression socks!)

"Hee hee, sure....just like a present-day Degas," I joked. She laughed as she carefully turned and started toward the pool. I watched her go: her body, withered and worn; the arching hump up one side of her back barely concealed by a thinning black swimsuit that couldn't quite hold her all inside; her legs, splotched and dimpled, one twisted and unstable, left her unsteady, painfully slow and dependent on a walking stick. Her ankles ballooned over her feet which had been carefully tucked into simple, ballet-pink slippers. And oh, that unruly mess of wispy charcoal hair that was plastered to her wrinkling head. Yet, she smiled warmth, and her good humor was welcoming and full of grace.

I wonder about her, about her life, who she was and is, what she sees when she looks in the mirror; what she feels. Her eyes and smile twinkle with fullness. Her body doesn't seem to be playing along. But like the rest of us, she is much more than a body, as the person we are is certainly not determined by the condition of the vessel. And while I don't know her, I can tell you I'd much rather spend an hour with her tattered and used-up self than with that trim and muscular basketball baby. She could teach me a thing or two about life I am certain. Her trophies, as my grandmother likes to refer to her wrinkles, were as grand and numerous as the stars. I can't say the same of that poor ball-playing child.

But, I can say, if it is true that you are only as old as you feel, sometimes that makes me like 17....or 12. But mostly, I try not to think about these things. Because my mom might say the same thing. And my spritely, 94 year old grandma, still living on her own, well, she too might say the same thing. The waning body begins the process of decline, but if you are lucky, your mind remains fresh and your feelings of who you are, well, it's as if you could still run and cartwheel your way through dew topped grass in the crisp morning air.....if it weren't for that darn cane getting in the way.

Yes, it is an interesting thing, this aging business. It's a tough act indeed, balancing our desire for vitality, and our resolve to have fun while living fully and well. And if we are fortunate, we have plenty of time to struggle with it and plenty of time to realize how very little time we truly have. (Which is why I plan on going for the hot pink hip replacement next year.....you might not be able to see it, but its very existence will surely make this old gal merry and bright! And who knows, maybe I'll even take up basketball now that I am over the hill....)

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