Coming of age

Posted by : | June 21, 2016

Aging is a curious case of wearing yourself in while wearing yourself out.

In the spectacularly paradoxical process of living and dying with every breath, we grow and compete against time — different for each of us, but gaining on us just the same. Death isn’t a popular topic, I know, but if you burrow even one or two layers into human motives and behavior, its significance is clear: Death is the nexus. We want to make a difference before we die. We want to see the world before we die. We want to fix a broken relationship before we die. This race against time is such a pervasive and tacitly accepted concept that we’ve converted it into a pop culture darling: the bucket list. Things to do before we die.

Whether we like to dwell on it or not, aging is a visible reminder that we have a shelf life. 

We resist aging because we fear death. And we fear death because living is all we know, and what we don’t know scares us. We also fear aging because we focus on the physical decay: illness, gray hair, root canals, glasses, arthritis, wrinkles, bunions, and back pain from too much gardening (or just about anything, really). Rarely do we long for seasoned character or wisdom or restraint with the same fervor as we do for our 25-year-old body or taut jaw line or fuller lips. As a culture, we are obsessed to a fault with slowing the aging process and in the process waste precious life hours, days and months in a futile battle against the very thing that makes our earthly life precious: its brevity. I also find it ironic that most of us are desperate to hide and stave off the very natural condition from which we all suffer. Gravity and time and people will take their toll, and no number of reps or night creams or injections or salon visits can change that. If only we accepted our shared fate, we’d spend much less time trying to pretend it isn’t, and we could go about living unencumbered by the vain and superficial worries that obscure our view of real beauty, truth and humanity.

Despite our best attempts to thwart it, aging is absolute and irreversible.

Not only that, aging is the very mark of living. Living is aging; only in death do we not age. Life is full of motion and change, but death is still and immovable. And while aging is certainly better than the alternative, it is not only that. It is good and right. It is both proof of life and reward. Yes, aging is its own reward. And the really good news is, the older you are, the more ready you are for it.

One of the sweetest surprises of my life has been that aging isn’t remotely as terrible as I imagined.

I was far mored scared of being “old” when I was young than I am now. It’s satisfying and inspiring, actually, to mature into a more content and wiser and braver version of myself. And despite having faced cancer and the reality that my body will continue to disappoint, I enthusiastically invite the years to come, dreaming and plotting—just like I did as a young woman—of the adventures I’ve yet to enjoy.

Aging is becoming. 

A funny thing happened on the way to my 50th … I fretted far more about how to adequately celebrate the milestone than about actually being a half-century old. In truth, 50 felt like a victory. A badge of honor and courage. A graduation into another me, one who can more easily laugh off the trivial and instead embrace the layers of meaning and joy I so often missed in my youthier youth. At nearly 52 now, I am better equipped than ever before to maneuver through life, having learned more than a few lessons so far—and to actually apply them.

And that is the ironic truth of aging: While our bodies slowly decay, our souls — the part of us that lives forever — are learning to do life better and better, slowly wearing in. Like balsamic vinegar or a rugged leather satchel or love-making, I’m getting better all the time, so most days, I welcome the physical markers of my personal upgrade:

• Salt-and-pepper hair is the confidence of coming into myself, becoming my 2.0.

• Wrinkles are the patina of a life lived fully and with honest expression, never repressing emotion in exchange for a year or two more of delusion.

• Aches and pains remind me to slow down and absorb the moments—but also to get on with living because time is fleeting.

As a teacher who lives in the northeast, I’m well aware of how quickly time passes. Not only do the seasons and academic calendar mercilessly mark every new term in carefully allotted weeks, but I seem to age faster than everyone else. The students I teach don’t age much because they’re always 18- to 25-year-olds, but I get older and olderer every year, and this requires some updating of lecture material since our frames of cultural reference align less and less. Let me take you into my world for a minute. According to the famed (and cursed by professors everywhere) Beloit College Mindset report that tracks what incoming freshman in the US have and haven’t known in their lifetimes, since last year’s freshmen have been on the planet …

• Princess Diana has never been alive.

• They have never licked a postage stamp.

• If you say “Around the turn of the century,” they may well ask you, “Which one?”

• The Lion King has always been on Broadway.

But despite its annoying tendency to point out what is already quite clear in the mirror, teaching is also the perfect window into the reality of aging because learning is the perfect metaphor. Life is the curriculum, and skills and wisdom the degree, and we earn them by aging—lesson by lesson, challenge by challenge—so that our hard-won hindsight can inform our perspective, and that is, indeed, an undervalued and indispensable gift because perspective cures everything.

And so I sit, bolstered, encouraged and emboldened by the lessons I’ve learned and the truths I’ve embraced along the way, aging mostly with a big smile on my face, knowing well the peace and clarity it brings and settling nicely into my skin and the life around me. Thanks to all the women who’ve led the way and shown me how to age unabashedly, with grace and humor and humility, and who’ve taught me that every moment should be savored and redeemed. I feel especially grateful to have known you. Mom, your endless enthusiasm, joie de vivre and carefree approach to the years were my first hint that aging is beautiful and not such a big deal after all, and now, having just celebrated another big birthday, you continue to inspire me and show me how it’s done. Bettina, you helped me cross the line into becoming the me who could write the note I gave you on your 60th :

How lucky we are to have met now that we are women of a certain age, now that we’ve been properly worn in by life and the people we’ve known, now that we can laugh at ourselves—confident in the humanness of our imperfections—and fearlessly reveal our struggles knowing well the value they bring to others when spoken, now that we are as close as we’ve ever been to becoming the women we were always meant to be, now that life’s meaning and purpose have made their way to the front of the line, now that we appreciate the generosity of each day and the people we find in it. 

What do you love about getting older?

READ BETTINA’S TAKE: Aging with passion

NEXT TOPIC: Gardening

  1. Paulina
    Posted 06/22/2016 at 2:09 am | Permalink

    What a wonderful way to express the beauty of aging. You are always my older sister…but never old! Always the timeless sage.

    • Claudia
      Posted 06/22/2016 at 2:55 am | Permalink

      Thanks for the encouragement — and for being such a loyal reader. :) Love you tons.

  2. Bethany West
    Posted 06/22/2016 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    Great article and so timely :) I hope to always take the opportunity of growing in maturity, grace, compassion and humility that living another year provides.

  3. Sarah Reiman
    Posted 06/23/2016 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

    Lovely thoughts Claudia! Thanks for sharing.

  4. Federica Panozzo
    Posted 07/05/2016 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

    Great article… good reminder of what’s really important.