a little birthday perspective
It's happened - I have officially entered the last year of my thirties... my fortieth year even. Woah.
Apart from wondering when this all happened, I have also been worrying about whether I look as old as I am, or (heaven forbid) perhaps older than my age! Over the years many have thought me younger than I am, but lately not so much - a bit too much grey hair, a few too many crinkles at the edges.
Whatever anyone else thinks, I feel I don't know myself anymore, my face isn't what it used to be... I just don't look young anymore and I've lost my bearings. This has been bothering me so much that I, a strong advocate of graceful greying and 'original highlights', have even been contemplating dying my hair. Because that will make me younger. Ha.
I'm not sure which I find more confronting, the signs of aging or my obsession with them. I've never been one for hiding my age - what is the point of being coy when we're all on the self same journey? I am the age I am and no point pretending to be eternally 21. What is there to be embarrassed about? Time passes, I get older, so do you. It's all very simple. To find myself so caught up with appearances is, frankly, disappointing. I thought I was better than that! I thought I was brave and strong, practical, and not given to (too much) superficiality, yet here I am quivering over an ever increasing head of grey hair, constantly assessing those around me to measure how I look for my age in comparison to them, considering giving up talking and smiling in order to preserve the smoothness of the skin around my eyes and mouth. What is the source of such ridiculousness?!
I have a few thoughts on what my angst may stem from. The first is not having children but wanting them. I am fast running out of time - if I look older, I must be older, and that does not bode well for those ovaries and their precious eggs. Some romantic part of my brain seems to think that if I keep looking young then I just might be young and that baby is suddenly more likely. Ah, the games the mind does play.
The other source of my angst is probably the obsession of our society with eternal youth. You just don't see many women who look their age sashaying their way around our screens and magazines. Now I'm not one to spend a lot of time looking at screens and magazines, but the values of our culture have still seeped their way into my brain such that I feel a whole lot less worthy if I look older. I look at a world full of young women and I want to shout at them, 'Don't just walk around without noticing how fabulous you look. You are young and lovely. Your skin is smooth, your hair lush, your eyes bright. It won't last, so relish it while you have it!' I also look around and see a plethora of gorgeous women (and men, but mostly I compare myself with women) who are aging gracefully and I think they look lovely and just right. Age doesn't detract from their beauty. But somehow, when it is me we're talking about, I worry that I might not be aging gracefully. The rational part of my brain knows this is ridiculous, but I can't seem to help it. In short, I have double standards.
Today I discovered something of an antidote to my obsession with appearances. I bumped into a work colleague I haven't seen for a few years. We were buying fruit and vegetables next to each other and she turned to say hello, only I couldn't really understand her because her words slurred so much. I thought she told me she had had a stroke and I was hopeful for her recovery, but once she gave up on my poor abilities to decipher her words she pulled out a note pad. She hadn't had a stroke, she has motor neurone disease and has resigned from work because she is dying. Slowly yes, but whichever way you look at it she is dying. I cried after we said goodbye. It was quite a shock to see her like that. She might be in her fifties but she only has such a short time left. Where is all my worry about appearances now? Relegated to the dust bin I hope - people in the real world, outside of the movies and magazines, get sick and deteriorate and die, sometimes when they are old and sometimes well before their time. When it all boils down, appearances don't count for that much really. I'd rather be fit, healthy, grey haired and wrinkled than disintegrating or dead. When you put it like that I have a whole lot to be thankful for.
Yesterday I read something else that also gave me pause. I found it in 'Art as Therapy' by Alain de Botton and John Armstrong, part of a discussion about the moral messages of art.
Moral messages - messages that encourage our better selves - can be found in works of art that seem, initially, to have little interest in 'saying' anything to us. Take a Korean moon jar. Aside from being a useful receptacle, it is also a superlative homage to the virtue of modesty. It stresses this quality by allowing minor blemishes to remain on its surface, by being full of variations of colour and having an imperfect glaze and an outline that does not follow an ideal oval trajectory. Impurities have found their way into the kiln, resulting in a random array of black dots all over its surface. The jar is modest because it seems not to mind about any of this. Its flaws merely concede its disinterest in the race for status. It has the wisdom not to ask to be thought too special. It is not humble, just content with what it is. For a person who is give to arrogance or anxiety about worldly status, and who frets about recognised at social gatherings, the sight of such a jar may be intensely moving as well as encouraging. Seeing the ideal of modesty so clearly may make it obvious that one is in exile from it. All the same, here it is, waiting for us in the jar. It would be understandable if a person who was at heart sincere and good, whose arrogance was only a habit built up to protect a vulnerable part of themselves, shouls, as they contemplated the moon jar, find themselves yearning to make a change in their lives under the aegis of the values encoded in a piece of ceramic. (2014, p42)
The words that struck me most were these: The jar is modest because it seems not to mind about any of this... It is not humble, just content with what it is. I dearly want to be like this. At the moment I am caught up in minding all my seeming imperfections which aren't really imperfections. I grieve the loss of youth while forgetting the pleasures of increasing age such as a broadened outlook on life. (This is exacerbated by not having had children to mark the years and remind me of their passing.) I don't want to waste the rest of my life moaning that I am no longer young. I want to not mind about any of this, to be content with what I am - grey hair and all.
So as I stare down the path of the next year to the big 4-0, I'm going to work at giving myself permission to stop worrying about the aging process. Whether I can do this is a whole other question, but for now I'm going to embrace every one of my 39 years and who they have made me to be. I'm alive and a whole lot bigger and wiser and better than I was the day I was born. That's something worth celebrating!