We all know the expression “to grow old gracefully.” I have been thinking a lot about why we would need “grace” to accept something that is so natural. What is it in us that rebels against the aging process or, at the very least, worries about it? When I was in my 20s, I had already started worrying about the one or two lines that appeared like a dark magic overnight on either side of my mouth. “Laugh lines,” my mother called them, when I complained. “We all get them; still, it is good to keep laughing.”
My mother at 80 had a face nearly devoid of wrinkles, and her hair was only gently salted with gray. Nevertheless, she felt sad at aging and often complained, “Why do we have to get old?” My father was worse. He went around quoting T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” a poem about the sufferings of middle age. He’d mutter to himself, “I grow old…I grow old… / I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled,” as he struggled with the pains of middle age to get himself up from the sofa. He would say, “Oh Resa, it’s terrible getting old.”
At that faraway vantage point of my 20s while looking at laugh lines in the mirror, I wondered what 50 would feel like. Half a century! How could anyone be happy being that old? I felt afraid of age and thought about ways to resist it. Would I be one of those people who opt for plastic surgery? Facelifts? Eyelifts? Growing up in L.A., I saw these procedures as normal and accepted. “It’s good to do something to make yourself feel younger,” people would say.
This thinking changed abruptly when I was in my mid-30s and diagnosed with a rare cancer. Suddenly I didn’t know if I would get to see 40, let alone 50. The aging process looked very different to me when I was faced with the possibility of not getting to experience it. After my diagnosis and dealing for more than a decade with the repercussions of recurrent sarcoma, I have made it my goal to become as old as I possibly can and find ways to revel in the sheer fact that I get the chance to age. The Tibetans say it is good to have as long a life as you can. We don’t know when we will get to be in human form again and must make the most of this rare opportunity not to be a frog or a goat and to develop our human consciousness, our reason, and our heart.
As I was facing my first surgery, I found myself wishing very strongly to know what it feels like to live a half century and well beyond. I had 3 surgeries in a 12-year span and I’m still here and on the other side of 50. I am now reaching for 70, 80, 90. My aunt Pearl will turn 90 soon. She lives a vibrant life filled with friends, grand- and now great-grandchildren, and is greeting this milestone with joy. I want to greet 90 without regret that I don’t look or feel as I did at 20.
Sometimes I catch myself unhappy with the things that come with aging: problems with eyesight, changes in mobility, lowered energy, and I do feel pangs of longing each time in bright sunlight when, catching my reflection, I see more and more gray and fine wrinkles appearing on my forehead and neck. “Turkey neck,” I can hear my mother say. Should I hide my turkey neck in layers of brilliantly colored scarves? Or let it be another sign of my triumph over cancer, that I have now lived long enough to have the neck of a turkey?
In celebrating the triumph of still being here, I have devised 5 practices to rewire my way of thinking about aging that I’d like to share with you:
1. Live Without Comparison. Tibetans say that unhappiness arises in comparison. There will always be someone younger, prettier, richer, happier, more successful, more brilliant than you. So let go of comparing what you were like when younger with what you are like right now. Revel in the moment of being still here on this earth. For me, right now it is this perfection of the slightly oversteeped Earl Grey I am sipping as music nostalgic to me plays in this café as I write these words. First Lou Reed, then Bob Dylan. What is this moment for you?
2. Revel in Experience. Embrace the wisdom that comes with aging, with the accumulated experience of having lived so many years. Celebrate your experience and wisdom by writing in a journal or sharing your wisdom, stories, struggles, and the challenges you have overcome with friends, family, and those younger than you. Write a list of your major life experiences, both positive and negative, and revel in all these steps that have brought you to this moment and the person you are right now.
3. Search Your Heart. What do you still want to do in life? There is so much to do, to learn, to create! Search your heart and mind and come up with a list of your dreams. Perhaps you want to learn a new language, travel to see where your grandparents came from, learn a new skill like weaving or pottery. Take up the drum or piano. Dance, keep a journal, paint. Write poems, sing in a choir, adopt a dog. Go someplace quiet and let your mind go wild with possibility. Let the dreams unfold, write them down, and see how many of them you can reach!
4. Heal Something. We all have regrets, unfinished business, places in our lives where we don’t feel healthy enough, strong enough, wise enough. We haven’t joined the gym or are afraid of trying yoga. There is a pile of books still unread on our night table and a friend we had a falling out with and we feel sadness and regret. There is always something to heal. A need to eat more healthy food, get out into fresh air, recharge your career, declutter your home, begin or restart a meditation practice, ride a bike to work or walk instead of using a car. Now let yourself dream about small improvements you can make right now. Make a list and let the healing begin!
5. Create a New Idea of Beauty. A lot of what makes us (especially women) sad about aging is connected with our concept of beauty and our current culture that reveres the young. So start actively seeking the beauty in aging itself. Trust that nature knows what it is doing. Just as we appreciate an aged wine or the rich reds and golds of autumn leaves, let’s appreciate the deeper beauty of a face carved with wrinkles that is like our map of experience, akin to a tree trunk with its many rings that show how many years the tree has lived. Revel in the beauty and wonder of silver and gray and don’t always feel the need to cover it with store-bought colors of youth. Enjoy the beauty of slower rhythms that we can fall into as we age. Be slow and still, so you can better notice and appreciate the wonders of this amazing life.