We are not taught how to age gracefully. Our culture tells us what has value: beauty, youth, health. Here’s how to mask your wrinkles. Here’s how to hide your gray hair. Never matter that wrinkles come from a body in motion. Never mind that hair losing its color is wholly natural — and happens to some people at early ages. Have some plastic surgery! You’ll be better in no time!
We are not taught how to love our bodies as they get older. We are taught that our peak is a ridiculously low number, that being one of the thirty under thirty is vital and necessary and desirable. If you haven’t published by the time you’re 25, you are surely doomed. If you haven’t found your Dream Job, your Dream House, your Dream Date by the time you’re twenty-one, all is misery.
We know nothing when we’re twenty-one. We know only a little more when we’re twenty-five. The world is vast and we will have seen almost none of it as we emerge from school (if we were so lucky to attend). We are told that what has value is youth! Beauty! We are not taught that experience has its own value, that scars and wrinkles are evidence of a life well and fully lived. Smile lines are not a curse — you smiled so much, your skin made a memory of it.
We rarely see older women in loving relationships, because we rarely see older women. We are shown that they are mothers, grandmothers, and do not have sexual or romantic partners because that time in their life has passed. We are taught that older bodies are not as beautiful as younger bodies. We are taught that slender bodies are the only bodies capable and worthy of physical affection. We are not shown how to operate bodies outside the norm, bodies with fault lines.
We are taught that giving something up because we can no longer do it is a failure. We are taught that coming to the end of a life is traumatic and that by merely becoming older, as is the way of every thing in this universe, we have failed. Physical beauty — the kind that is valued, because there is beauty in so many things — is temporary. Youth is temporary, no matter how we chase it with creams, salves, and ointments. “Youth and beauty are not accomplishments,” Carrie Fisher reminded us. “They’re the temporary happy byproducts of time and/or DNA. Don’t hold your breath for either.”
We are perhaps taught that all things come to an end, but never how to handle those endings. How do you stop doing something you’ve done for most of your life, because you can no longer safely do it? “I am angry because I am old,” my mother says, and when I jokingly say it’s better than the alternative, she now says she isn’t quite so sure. She is tired of everything. Tired of trying to live inside a body that has become a stranger. Tired and perhaps scared, because she remembers her grandmother coming to live with them when she could no longer be on her own; afraid of that old woman in the den who bore no resemblance to the grandmother she remembered.
Neither are we taught how to deal with memory, and what happens when sixty years ago feels more present than what happened yesterday. What did you have for dinner last night — I don’t know, but let me tell you about what it was like to move to a completely new community when I was a new bride, when my hair wasn’t gray, when I could stand up straight and walk across the world without assistance. And so we sit and listen, and keep that memory for when she will no longer be able to.
We are not taught how, but we try every day.