Time marches on. And gravity is real.
My local community theater, on a fresh high from its hit winter production, has been brainstorming possible small-ensemble plays we could cram into our upcoming season. My heart quickened at the casual mention of The Importance of Being Earnest, one of Oscar Wilde’s funniest farces—and a rite of passage for any actor. Might I really, finally have a chance to play one of its hilarious, bird-brained unmarrieds, Gwendolen Fairfax or Cecily Cardew? What delicious names! What delicious dialogue!
Humming a hopeful tune one morning, I caught sight of myself in the mirror, and my spirits took a swan dive. The eyelid droop has been progressing nicely. My neck is sporting several new rings this year. I have age spots on my cheeks, hands, and decolletage. And hell—my sub-chin turkey waddle has been burgeoning ever since they put me on steroids for mononucleosis in 1994. What was I thinking??
My inner age is stuck somewhere around 29, but I am, in real years, not an ingenue anymore and haven’t been for several decades. Gwendolyn Fartfax! Cecily Crapdammit!
I don’t know why, but this one hit me kinda hard.
Even if the rest of me continues to droop—and it will—I would almost make a pact with the devil if he promised me that I could keep a reasonably defined jawline. Sadly, that ship is leaving the port. I come from a long line of double chinners and jovial but jowled Germanic types. When I look at pictures of gleeful grandmothers and clean-shaven uncles, yeah—I know exactly where I’m headed. And it ain’t Hollywood.
I’m staring it in the face. And its face is only going to get saggier.
Serious Thoughts on Aging
Is there, oh is there even such a thing as “aging gracefully”? Surgeons, cosmetic companies, and health-product entrepreneurs would have you believe, “Why, yes! Yes, there is!”
Does it depend on how fit you are? Which creams you use? What you eat? How much you hydrate? Which hormones you’ve correctly balanced? How many times you got sunburned as an idiot youth at the pool? Or how much bone broth you can choke down?
In the end, doesn’t “aging well” come down to being blessed with more forgiving genetics? Or in the grand scheme of things, is aging gracefully the result of a more forgiving attitude? The latter seems to be the part we have more control over.
Is there an age when we truly stop worrying about what we look like? And I don’t mean we give up on ourselves—that we stop playing pickleball or eating spinach or meditating or washing our hair, but that we just stop obsessing about our neck—or how good we look in, or out of, clothes. Wouldn’t that be a relief?
What would it take to love the skin (and arms and legs and hair) we’re going to be hanging out in for seven or eight or nine decades—if we’re lucky? And to love ourselves even deeper than that skin.
I don’t have the answers. But according to a hippie friend of mine, the question itself—what would it take?—is enough to make a shift toward a little more self-acceptance. Forgiving ourselves. Thanking ourselves. I can only imagine a body that receives messages of compassion and kindness is going to be a healthier body, no matter how much nacho cheese you put in it.
The way I see it, self-compassion, self-acceptance, and self-forgiveness are almost revolutionary acts. Bear with me here as I launch into a tangent.
There’s a saying I’ve heard bouncing around for a decade or more. It’s truly annoying, and annoyingly true: “You spot it? You got it.” Meaning when we judge each other for stuff—what we perceive as ugliness, dysfunction, bad behavior, whatever it is—it’s usually because we are resonating with a nugget of that same yuckiness within ourselves. We are spiteful, we are scared. We are cruel, we are ashamed.
I think about Dr. Ihaleakala Hew Len. This man cleared an entire high-security prison ward of severely mentally ill inmates by practicing the ho’oponopono prayer. He took time to recognize his own story in each of his patients’ stories and heal his own wounds with this practice of unity, forgiveness, and gratitude: “I love you. I’m sorry. Forgive me. Thank you.” This Hawaiian prayer of humility, taking responsibility, and leaving room for the Divine seems to have transformed the lives of everyone in his ward, making its “high-security” protocols obsolete in the space of four years.
So the equation also works in reverse: “You got it? You spot it!” Got love? Got acceptance? Got peace? Got clear spaces inside you with no traumatic story attached to them? That’s how you’re gonna start seeing the world.
That’s gotta be good for a body. That’s gotta be good for everybody.
Aging gracefully aside, the ho’oponopono prayer seems to be a beautiful recipe for living gracefully.
Not-So-Serious Thoughts on Aging
A quick Google search will tell you that having hobbies and learning something new are high on the list of things you can do to stay sharp and keep happy as you progress in years. My mom is a great example—her appetite for creative crafts is insatiable. And she is forever young at heart.
Every Friday, she and I get together with a group of ladies who love to knit. I don’t have much talent for it, so I bring along socks to darn or buttons to refasten—any excuse to be in their company. There is a lot of comfort to be found sitting in this circle of my elders (and my betters), just chewing the hay. I’m often a fly on the wall, which suits me fine. We eat well, we take our coffee with Baileys, and we laugh hard.
One afternoon I posed a question to the gals—all boasting an age between 60 and 85. A few have survived breast cancer. Some have known the loss of a spouse. One still runs five miles a day. Another is a self-proclaimed nudist. I figured they’d collectively know a thing or two.
I flung it out there. “Got any advice for aging gracefully?”
They were so excited to share their thoughts, a few of them almost shot out of their seats.
“You’ve come to the right party!!!”
“I’ve got one! I’ve got one!”
“Wait wait wait, me first, me first!”
I didn’t expect such an enthusiastic response, soon to be followed by a lively exchange of ideas, gut-busting guffaws, and blushing faces. A word to the wise: our conversation was anything but graceful—so names have been changed to protect the guilty. The dialogue was so entertaining, I’ve formatted it as a play.
Deirdre: My advice? Tell everyone to stop wearing their glasses! Then you look great!
Joanne: Don’t wear your glasses, then everyone else looks great! Ha!!
Mary: Get rid of your mirrors!
Lily: No, no, it’s important to have mirrors, so you can see those little whiskers and deal with them. Cuz everybody else is gonna see ’em!
Joanne: They’re not gonna see ’em, cuz they’re not wearing their glasses!
Lily: Don’t give up your glasses, ladies—you need them so you can be safe and not fall over things. I think that’s important if we’re talking about aging gracefully.
Joanne: Well, how close do you have to be before you start seeing somebody’s whiskers? Just keep your distance, I say!
Mary: My son says he’s gonna let my chin hairs grow and he’s gonna braid em.
Jan: My husband and I were sitting out somewhere while we were traveling, and the light was hitting me just so, and Dave said, “Jan! You have a nose hair that’s like an inch long!” And I said, “Get out of the light!”
(Hysterical fits, wiping of eyes.)
Deirdre: My husband came in while I was Zooming. He saw my face on the screen and thought that I was a relative of mine, a younger cousin or something, because I had turned on “Full Fuzz!” You can’t see the details! So turn on your “Full Fuzz,” girls!
Joanne: Well, I was going to video chat with my granddaughter, but when I saw how awful I looked, I hung up on her!
Meredith: You hung up on her??
Joanne: I didn’t want to scare her!!
Jan: Oh, when you’re Zooming, you have to be at the right angle.
Mary: It’s hard to find the right angle anymore!
Jan: Just be prepared. It’s going to happen to you. You think, I exercise, I eat well, I’m just not gonna fall apart, but it happens anyway. I was shaving, you know, because I had a swimsuit on, and I’m like—I’ve got gray hair down there??!!
(Eruption of knee-slapping shrieks.)
Joanne: Well, I don’t wear bathing suits anymore if I don’t have to . . . Swimming naked is much better.
Deirdre: But at what point do you decide to go grey up top? A lot more have since Covid. Or are we just at that age?
Lily: My plan was to buzz my hair off and go to the desert or something while it grew back. But my husband died and I just stopped dying it. I so wish I had done it sooner.
Deirdre: I have a friend who decided to let her hair go grey, and her husband freaked out because he didn’t know she’d been dyeing it! He thought he had married a redhead!
Mary: How do you not know your wife is dyeing her hair!
Cathy: Didn’t he notice the drapes didn’t match the carpet?
Joanne: Maybe he wasn’t wearing his glasses! Baaaaaa!!!
(Another wave of chortles.)
Meredith: Anything else you wish someone had told you about aging?
Joanne: Do your exercises.
Mary: I would agree with that one.
Jan: But carrying 40 pounds of wood chips—all that weight-bearing stuff—takes a toll on your body when you hit 60. So don’t abuse your body when you’re exercising it.
Deirdre: Boy, I really thought I was old at 52. Nope! Uh uh!! That is young!
Joanne: At 52, I was a hot tamale.
Deirdre: But I’m definitely doing the mirror battle these days.
Cathy: The mirror battle?
Deirdre: Sometimes I look and I say, Who is that!? Why can’t we really accept?
Mary: It’s like, such a speedboat transition.
Jan: It seems to take a lifetime to learn to be content with yourself.
(There is a pensive pause, followed by a collective sigh.)
Jan: Well, I have a knitting question.
Lily: Thank you for changing the subject!!!
Mary: Thank you, God!!!!
(Final round of laughter.)
My favorite piece of advice that day was probably the very first suggestion I got on the topic.
“Oh! Oh! I know! I know,” one woman said, waving her hand in the air like a second grader with the burning answer to a math problem.
“Please! Share!” I said.
“Just give it up early, while you still have time!” she said, leaning forward, making full eye contact. Her wording had me a bit puzzled.
“Wait. Give what up?” I asked, observing her mustard and vermillion colored outfit, matte-gold bangles, fine silvery hair fastened in a tiny clip, and red-framed glasses hanging on the tippy tip of her tiny nose.
“Just give it up! Forget about it!” she said, like it was the simplest thing in the world. “Quit worrying and have a good time!”
I was Harold to her Maude in that delicious moment. Cynicism and morbid sadness were no match for her shining eyes and exuberant joy—a childlike wonder that I want always to remember.
Nobody has the magic answer about aging gracefully, if there is one. But I bet quality time spent in good company like theirs will take at least a year off.
And so what? Maybe, just maybe, the ebullient 18-year-old Cecily Cardew is going to have a double chin and eye bags this year. It’s community theater! Who gives a shit?