“If wrinkles must be written upon our brows, let them not be written upon the heart.”
– James A. Garfield
“May you live all the days of your life.”
– Jonathan Swift
My New Year’s Resolution this year: TO BOLDLY GO WHERE NO ONE HAS GONE BEFORE. Wish me luck! And should I happen to get lost in the Black Hole, somebody please feed my cat.
Symbols have always been important to me. They are only imbued with whatever power we give them, but when they are imbued they resonate loudly, penetrate profoundly, and have the absolute ability to shift paradigms. I’m also a perpetual seeker, so I always seem to be in search of life’s answers to the questions that matter; our place and role in the world, our alliances and community with other living creatures and the reasons for them, etc. So, needless to say, tongue-in-cheek resolutions aside, the transition of the New Year has always had powerful meaning for me. Forever, I have practiced certain rituals, usually inward-turning ones, that help me to reflect, restore, reform, renew, and remember. Reflect on the choices I’ve made in the year that is leaving, and whether those choices have reaped what they intended. Restore balance where things have begun to feel out of control, and sanity where insanity has been allowed to rule. Reform habits that have now grown so old and dusty that they no longer serve. Renew, in order to make room for better habits and better mindsets. And Remember Everything, toward maintaining or gaining humility, understanding, clarity, lessons. Because if it’s not about always evolving toward our greatest, god-realized selves and away from our basest selves, whenever possible, and perpetually, then what IS it all for?
New Year’s Day just also happens to be my birthday, so truly this yearly symbol and practice and ritual could not be more perfect for me. Parties, celebrations, candles, champagne, friends and gatherings aside, my birthday has always been, for me, an opportunity to turn inward, to claim some part of the day for solitude, self-inquiry, meditation/prayer, and perhaps even a symbolic deed.
Example: One year (which had been an unusually difficult one) I took the midnight hour moment (after counting down and then singing Auld Lang Syne with the band, of course, because I’ve sung a gig on every New Year’s Eve since 1988) to unfold a list that I had made of every difficult and painful moment that had occurred that year, and I proceeded to ritually tear it up in order to say, to myself, to God, to the Source, to the Collective Consciousness, however it actually works, that I was done with those burdens and embracing a new consciousness and a new energy.
Well, here I am on another birthday, and other than writing this thought I’ve no plans except to watch the Rose Parade on TV with my breakfast and mimosa, maybe take a walk, go get a massage, or do some living room yoga. Perhaps I’ll end the day at the movies (one of my favorite pastimes). Who knows? As I’ve anticipated today, I’ve loved the idea of making no plans, because it is SO NOT me. I’m a planner, an organizer, a connector of dots. There’s something lovely (but a little scary for an anal-retentive planner like myself) in the idea of “let’s see where the day takes me.”
My friend Robin Swenson recently posted on Facebook, in response to all the birthday wishes he’d recently received (Capricorns forever!): “getting older never gets old.” I absolutely cheered to read that, and reflected back to my 50th birthday. Not only had I spoken “50!” out loud, which I realized was a great sin, according to many of my female friends (and especially being in the business I’m in?!) but just three days prior to that Big Day I dared to throw the biggest celebration I could possibly think of, which included an orchestra, a rock star, and a big-ass cake with a big-ass “50” written across it in chocolate-covered strawberries. I know women who slink through their “big one” on tip-toe, hoping no one will notice. I also realize it will be impossible not to sound self-righteous when I say that I didn’t want to be that woman. To each her own, of course, but I just really didn’t want to own shame about turning fifty. And the truth is, it’s a tough quest, but at the very least I figured I would fake it ‘til I make it.
And so, a party. A big-ass, brazen party, which I will remember with a giggle for the rest of my days.
That said, it still wasn’t the simple pill that magically eradicated all my struggles with aging. But it was a damned good start, and a damned good party. And yes, because New Year’s Day is my birthday, those inward-turning reflections often (though not always) ring with themes of aging.
The above quotes came from two really great cards I received this year. When you hit a certain age, the cards start reflecting either good-natured jokes about old age (usually welcomed) or more sensitive reflections on the beauty of aging (never a bad idea, in this fragile, age-obsessed culture). These two have given me particular pause.
We all know at some point in our lives (if we aren’t already there) that we’re going to have to make peace with aging. We are destined for this reflection. At least if you’re from this American culture. Other cultures embrace their elders as the venerated among them. And that veneration being inherent in the very blood, there is no real need for reflection upon it, for it is welcomed as a crown. But in this culture, we have had the great misfortune, shaped and molded by our media, of nullifying our elderly and the very idea of growing old. We’d rather die young and leave a good-looking corpse than to wrinkle, lose hearing and bladder control, grow gray or bald, have to depend on our children for our care, and watch the sexual part of our identity slowly fade away. These are mortifying concepts to most Americans. And mortifying not because it means being closer to death, but because it means becoming society’s invisible. How do you claim thick, opaque, rich, visibility in a society that refuses to regard you?
And therefore, at least if you’re a thoughtful and conscious human being, the time will come when you must reflect on aging, and make peace with it.
I have often referred to my “old age” with a self-deprecating humor, a way to deflect my sense of grief over losing my youth, and to disarm its power. I am often told to stop that. And while I understand the impulse in my loved ones to encourage me to love myself, and I merely say “thank you” in response, what I really want to do is tell them to wake up and smell the coping mechanism, and to please allow me that.
On the other hand, I have lately been observing the heartbreaking tendency in some women, who are hovering around this age, to be mortally unforgiving of their bodies’ age-related transformations, in ways that are not remotely meant to be funny or to share a laugh about. This is not even grief. This is downright hatred of self. It is venomous and venal, the stuff of cautionary tales and selling one’s soul for that shiny piece of youth. I often feel surrounded, and I try desperately to counter the onslaught of self-repulsion I hear with that humor I try to use, to be the voice of irreverence, if not reason. But more often than I’m comfortable with I find myself falling in line with the rhetoric, and the next thing you know I’m spitting my own disgust at my growing thighs in the choir of I-loathe-myself commiseration. Like I said, a tough quest. I feel for women’s restlessness, and I retreat to the comfort and safety of my jokes, and I tell myself that my making jokes about aging is different, very different, and that their restlessness does not belong to me (even if I do borrow it from time to time), that my humor is a positive thing, a way of embracing aging, of not having to desperately cling to youth, of refusing to view old as a dirty word.
If we say OLD enough times, it’ll lose its power.
But I suspect it’s all the same animal, and I am as guilty as anybody.
I have had a recent epiphany regarding this matter. (I love calling these little thoughts and discoveries epiphanies, because it automatically eliminates any contradictory position. There is sacredness to one’s epiphany. You don’t dare touch it.) It is this:
I can either yearn to be young again, a place to which I can never return, therefore the instinct to obsess over it is a complete, self-sabotaging waste of energy; or I can embrace the age I am by simply choosing to be better at it.
One way I can accomplish this is to realize, and own, that my graying hairs, my creeping lethargy, my mid-section spread, my aches and pains that seemingly come from nowhere, do not belong to me; they belong to my body. And my body is not me; merely the house I live in (I have my Buddhist and Eastern-thought studies to thank for that implantation).
And by being able to put that in its proper place, perhaps I stand the chance of forgiving myself these “afflictions,” as I have viewed them. Of recognizing my own power to be empathetic to them, and to ultimately transform them from afflictions into trophies. Of reconciling both the flower AND the thorns of my body. Of claiming the truth that aging isn’t a sentence – it is a call-to-arms. A call for me to wake up and be alert, to realize that the days ahead are more precious than the ones behind, to recognize that the awareness of time running out gives me (a naturally lazy person) a swift kick in the rear and tells me to move, to produce, to achieve, to make my mark and leave my legacy, and to make every moment in the remainder of this life one of quality and vibrancy. I’m in the most thankless business there IS (the entertainment industry) when it comes to the subject of aging. And I’ve watched my comrades, who have been lighting up stages and electrifying audiences for years, suddenly start scrambling to figure out how to stay relevant in an industry that reveres extreme youth. I have absolutely no answers to offer here. Only my own gut telling ME to stop scrambling. Stop panicking. Stop trying to please people who barely see me. Stop trying to fit my square peg in the round hole that is this business. To, instead, make whatever it is I have to make, to create, to produce, to contribute to this world, on my own terms. And if I’ve learned anything from my Eastern pursuits, I’ll learn to simply do the deed, and let go of the outcome. All I can do is my part. With integrity. With clarity. With the kind of self-love that makes me take better care of myself, yet with the compassion to forgive my body’s DARING to get old.
And it means not being afraid of that word … OLD … but instead shouting it proudly to the rafters. Like, say, a birthday party with a rock star? Because while the word may invoke our Western-culture-indoctrinated images of fatter, slower, frailer, grayer, less sexy, invisible … it also, and more importantly, means Wisdom. Experience. Seasoning. AMAZING Grace.
That was 50’s epiphany. Today I woke up with aching joints and cursed God for making me fifty-four.
“Old age is no place for sissies.”
– Bette Davis
Happy New Year, my friends!
Angela Carole Brown is the author of three published books, The Assassination of Gabriel Champion, The Kidney Journals: Memoirs of a Desperate Lifesaver, and Trading Fours, and has produced several albums of music and a yoga/mindfulness CD. Bindi Girl Chronicles is her writing blog. Follow her on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram & YouTube.