A class at school had a relief teacher today, and the kids didn't cope so well:
'He won't let me...'
'He's making us...'
and (this is the clincher I think) 'He's old!'
There were other remarks linked to his age that do not bear repeating. I tried my best to broaden the student's outlook:
'He doesn't know you, so he might not be sure he can trust you.'
'He has been teaching a long time, and his way of doing things is different.'
'That thing you made with him looks interesting.'
'Just because he's old doesn't mean he's __________. Why don't you try and find out some things about him. Ask him about ___________.'
It didn't work. To them this guy was just an old man sent to torture them for the day and no amount of talking would convince them otherwise.
I find myself looking at older people differently lately. I've just about clocked up 20 years since finishing high school, and I have no idea how it happened. For years I've known I'm in my thirties but felt like I'm about 28. Suddenly my mind is jumping to catch up with my body and I seem to think I'm already 40.
I peer closely at the mirror and study the wrinkles. 'You have no wrinkles,' says my beautician, 'that is superficial dehydration!' Call it what you will, no one says I look young any more and they certainly don't mistake me for being in my twenties. Occasionally I catch myself feeling hysterical about this, which is ridiculous, because I've never been one to fuss about age. But the skin on my neck is changing, my hair is more grey than I care for ('original highlights' I try and say), I have creases around my mouth, my eyes look tired.
It's possible I am obsessing over this too much. Amy Grant and Kaz Cooke
sagely advised in their respective books that leaving the glasses off when looking in the mirror was helpful... but I'm not so old I can't see myself clearly in the mirror yet.
As I puzzle and puzzle over this passing of time, this betrayal by my body, I look at others differently. I smile at the freshness of youth and the promise of a lifetime to come. "Make the most of it," I think, "cherish each moment," as if I missed out on something. But I didn't. I did some great stuff in my twenties.
I look at people my age and think, "are you as stunned by this as me? Are you trying to figure out where the years went? Are you trying to understand how you can feel old at the same time as realising you are far from old?" Because I am not old. I am just older. There is a difference.
I am convinced one of the reasons this bothers me so much is because I do not have children and I want them. Reproductively, I am old
. Heck, if I should happen to have a baby now I'd be what the gynaecologists term 'geriatric prima gravida'. Such an attractive label.
When I stop mourning the loss of my own youth for long enough, I look at people older than me and I feel as if I see into them. I imagine them also reeling at what their body has done. "Why, wasn't it just yesterday I graduated from University?" "Seems like my son was born just the other day, and now he's 50!" Those wrinkles and lines, grey hairs and sun spots are 'recent' additions to their features that may well have taken them by surprise in the same way my crinkly hands have. I look at them as 50 or 60 or 70, but for them they are a continuum. They are more than the moment I catch them in... they are a life and a history all together. This is clearer I suppose, now that I have my own continuum to look back on.
Willem Dafoe as Martin David in the recent movie 'The Hunter'
helped me think through some of this. Now there's a movie star who hasn't resorted to plastic surgery! Large as life on the big screen was the face of a man with lines and wrinkles. Blurring the line between Martin David and Willem Dafoe, I like to imagine they have decided to feel comfortable with the changes to their face and body. Those changes tell a story, the story of a man who has lived and learned and honed his hunting and acting skills. He could not have hunted or acted as a young man the way he does now. Time and experience have taught him what he knows. And you don't get that without picking up a few lines and wrinkles along the way.
Watching Dafoe, I was challenged to keep thinking through what has worth. Youthful features and a blank slate? Mature skin and a wealth of experience? It's not really an and/or. Both have their place at the right time. I've had the youthful features and blank slate, and it was good. (If you catch me on a good day, even I'll admit there is plenty of blank slate to fill. Those 80 year olds? They've still lived more than twice my life time!) Now I'm moving into new phases of my life. And that is also good.
Sometimes I feel embarrassed about it though. Like I don't want my mum to notice I'm looking older because then the joke will be on me. Or that my class mates from those long past high school years are laughing at me behind my back because I'm nearly forty. Except my mum is older too, my brothers are showing their age just as much as me. And the class mates? Ha. They're nearly forty too! We're all in this together people! Nothing to be embarrassed about.
I imagine that soon I will have processed my current transitional stage and I'll stop thinking about age all the time. I doubt I'll lose my new found perspective though. I shall ever feel more respect for those who have seen a few years. I shall wonder about their story, what they've done, where they've been, what they learned along the way. I might even ask them about it.
And in the meantime, I'll keep encouraging kids to be respectful and curious and to see the value in those they consider old. Cause if those oldies learned from life like I seem to be, they are a rich resource we could all benefit from listening to.