This Aging Thing

March 19, 2011 By: Sherry Ruth Anderson Category: Uncategorized

Walking along the marsh with my friend Robert last month, we paused to let a snake pass by. As we were standing there together, watching two feet of lovely green reptile wriggle its way into the tall grass, Robert turned and pretty much out of nowhere said, “Honestly, I can’t see why you’re spending your time on this aging thing.“

I squinted up at him. He’s got ice blue eyes that make women take a second look and then a third. “I just don’t think aging is interesting for people like us.”

What kind of people are people like us, I wondered. I once saw a photo when he was in his thirties and drop dead gorgeous with a head of curly dark hair. Maybe he means beautiful people but I don’t think I would make the cut. He must mean something else. “I’ll be turning 65 in two months,” he said, “and I’m not really different than I was in my 30’s. I’m the same weight I’ve always been …”.

The snake disappeared behind a flat rock, and we resumed our walk with me still wondering about why I wouldn’t qualify to be interested in the aging thing.

I managed to keep quiet long enough to hear Robert out. “I’m still delving into the meaning of life,” he said quietly. And he told me how, at 21, just settled into his first job in London, he’d walk to Trafalgar Square on his lunch hour to sit and look for moments of beauty. He’d been reading Stendhal and had plunged into a deep love affair with life. “For me, life is as great an adventure now as it was then,” he said. “I’m still searching the world for moments of beauty. Age has nothing to do with it.” He grinned, flashing those exotic eyes, “Nothing at all.”

I don’t think I argued then, as I do sometimes, that paying attention to what it’s like to grow old is an adventure. Maybe I just felt tired about the damned black and white either-or split in our culture and language which leaves age always on the gloomy wrong side of things. As if age were an affliction, like polio or cholera or HIV that you could catch but if you’re careful enough and take the right precautions, then you can just take the first star on your right and sail right on through till morning.

Why spend time on this aging thing? It’s a good question, a fair question I think. Sometimes I try to answer by spewing out a lot of facts. Other times I just feel like ranting, “Because it’s happening to us. Because it’s our context, our habitat as much as the marsh is for the grass snake. Because we’re conscious or we should be conscious and who’s going to pay attention and find out what is possible if not us?”

Here’s another answer: Because of the lies. I am spending time on this aging thing because I I don’t want to swallow the lies about what it means to grow old. Maybe the stories we have heard over and over again once were true and maybe they never were true but when we believe them now, we make them true and they are poisoning our future.

I’m getting a little hysterical here. I don’t know if lies about growing old are poisoning our future but they might be. Here’s something I do know: naming the lies smokes them out.

What lies am I talking about? I’ll bet you know. I’ll bet you can name a few right now. And not only could you probably name some, if you had a chance to be with a friends your age and you all named all the lies you know about getting old, you’d probably ignite a fire so hot it would burn away every sticky cobweb of unexamined stories and once-true tales about old women and old men that is in the way of your true vision and actual experience of growing old.

Last week I had a chance to see some of those cobwebs go up in flames. I flew into Mobile, Alabama, to a world about as foreign to my San Francisco Bay liberal self as Marrakesh, for a conference called “Womenspeak.”

“Want to do some workshops for elders?” the conference organizer, Paula D’Arcy, had asked me last year. “We can’t afford to pay you but we’ll cover your expenses. You’ll meet close to a thousand women from all across the South, women from Bible study groups, African Americans and whites, young and old and in between. About half will be on scholarship, from homeless shelters and half way houses, and others will be middle class or well off. We’re flying in Israeli and Arab women who have been creating peace circles and oh, there will be lots of musicians and dancers. You want to come?”

My inner accountant, the one who has been valiantly trying to resuscitate our family finances from my year of living dangerously, was issuing urgent travel alerts: Stay home! But my heart was already running ahead, throwing open its arms to the invitation, shouting Yes!

So I went. (In case you’re curious, the conference was about the best I have ever attended and I am forever grateful to Paula for inviting me and to my heart for outrunning my accountant. )

On the main day of the conference, Saturday, workshops were scheduled in the morning and again in the afternoon. Mine were called, Birthing the New Elders. A couple of hundred women showed up. I started by naming the kinds of impulses in our culture that are prompting us to become elders, to grow into a further maturity than we’ve known before. First, there are the invitations from younger women for maps of what lies ahead for them, for true stories of what it’s like to grow old. And then there are the invitations from our own dreams and longings to take the essence of our life experiences and grow from then. And finally there are the openings left as the women we’ve respected and trusted as our own elders are dying.

It’s our turn now, I said, to take our place as elders. Then I pulled the mike out of the stand and walked up the aisle to the back row, Oprah-like. Reading the name card sitting on the chest of a slim, blonde woman sitting alone, I said, “Mary Ellen…”

She smiled so I figured it was okay to go on. “Tell me a lie about growing old.”

“You get weak and stupid,” she shot back.

I crossed the aisle to lean the mike over to a large woman with the name tag, Mary Ann. “Tell me a lie about getting old.”

She waved her arm grandly: “Your children and grandchildren will surround you constantly with loving attention in all the ways you’ve always wanted.”

The women were laughing now and I kept going with the Oprah routine. Staying with the question, thrusting to mike toward Lottie and Sister Katherine and Trish and Mary and Anna Mae and countless others, I found they hadn’t the least bit of trouble naming the lies. Sometimes their words were greeted with ripples of laughter and other times there were sighs and head shaking. After awhile the women stopped waiting for the mike and just stood up and called out their answers.

When it seemed like we’d dug into the hard packed soil of old memories and stale ideas and fond wishes about growing old, when the Catholic Sister from New Jersey and the school teacher from Baton Rouge and the minister from Chapel Hill and the psychologist from Oklahoma City and moms and grandmothers and daughters in law from Houston and Lubbock and Atlanta and towns I’d never heard of had tossed in their contributions, it was time to take the next step.

I told them how last Sunday morning I had been lying in bed with Paul, listening to the rain beating hard against the windows and snuggling into his chest. And how he looked at me fondly and said, “Sweetie, when you smile at me like that you look so young and beautiful. “

The women began giggling before I could even get to the part where I was feeling really good about the compliment, basking in it, until it slowly occurred to me to ask, ‘How do I look when I’m not smiling?’ And my beloved Paul, because he loves questions as much as I do, paused for a while, considering. ‘Old,’ he told me. ‘You look old.’”

The women roared with laughter, rocking back and forth, patting each other on the back, shaking their heads. Oh yes, they were saying, let’s tell it like it is. And that’s when I asked them to gather into small groups and one by one, tell each other the truth about how it feels to be the age they are now.

These women didn’t have any trouble being interested in what my friend Robert calls “this aging thing.” They were hungry, even starving, to tear the cultural and personal wrappings off the aging thing and get to what is real. They were as passionate and on fire and caught in the adventure of living as any people I’ve ever seen and I know for sure that I wanted to be counted as one of them. People like us, I thought, are definitely interested in this aging thing.

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