Today, I think I might finally have accepted the concept of aging with grace. For you to fully appreciate how astonishing a moment this is for me, you have to understand a couple of things: first, if there is any such thing as ‘age-anorexia’ then I suspect I have it. You know how anorexics look into the mirror and are incapable of seeing that they are a rack of bones? Trust me, I lived with one, I know to what extent the mind is capable of playing tricks on your health and sanity. I used to watch with varying degrees of shock and disgust as my sister would litter our room with the detritus of uneaten meals, food that she pretended to eat, only to slip it into the cuffs of her clothing in order to dump it later in her desk drawer in the room we shared.
I’d find it weeks later, green with mold or dessicated into unrecognizable forms. At her lightest, my sister got down to 88 pounds, so thin she could push a bracelet up her arm and over her shoulder. I can recall with perfect clarity the day she proudly announced that all she’d eaten was an apple and a cracker. I was aghast. “All day?” I asked.
“No!” She was indignant. “All week!”
I knew it wasn’t normal, and I knew my parents were trying to deal, and I even knew that they’d decided for the two of us to share a room because in some way, I was supposed to be her keeper after a fashion. But I was twelve, and could only shake my head at such strange, self-imposed restrictions. Later, when Karen Carpenter put a name to my sister’s condition, and the media began posting pictures of skeletal women and the distorted images they saw in the mirror instead, it began to make a little sense to me. A little.
It wasn’t until I was much older that I discovered I had my own form of anorexia–only it involved aging instead of weight. My mother had always had a mania for not looking her age and refusing to let anyone know the exact date of her birth. I used to think it was rooted in vanity, but that was only part of the story. My father, who developed dementia in his later years before the cancer set in, required full time caretakers. He was on my mother’s insurance policy and her organization had a mandatory retirement age. She lied about her age to her employers to retain his insurance. Her elaborate efforts at hiding her real age stemmed from a need to keep her job so she could take care of him–and a deep fear that she would not have the financial resources to do so.
My father frequently told me that getting old sucked and to not do it. (As opposed to what? It’s not like there are many other options…) As a late bloomer myself, I found that I constantly perused my reflection for signs of aging–and was guaranteed of finding them. It wasn’t fair, I thought, to finally start putting my own needs and desires first in my life, only to be faced with the fine lines of crow’s feet, the sagging of skin around the lips and eyes, the hair that grayed early and refused to hold color. My friends jokingly said I could look into a mirror and see an old woman looking back at me–and I know that the joke wasn’t really that far off.
I’ve blogged about this before, I know. I deeply resent the fact that I put my life on hold for good, altruistic reasons, yet when I finally starting living my life, that time where I could really enjoy my relative youth was pretty fleeting. Not that I put my life on hold, mind you. I made the only choices I could live with. But that when it became ‘my time’, that time flashed by in a nanosecond. These days, like most people I know, I deal with chronic health issues. I struggle with pounds that refuse to drop and neck pain that prevents me from getting a decent night’s sleep, and I can no longer eat my favorite foods. In short, I’m becoming the cranky old woman I’ve always feared.
Oddly enough, it was during the time I spent coloring my hair this afternoon that I began drafting this post in my head. Despite my best efforts, my hair is stubbornly refusing to take up dye these days. Double or triple the time, it doesn’t matter; when I rinse out the dye, you can scarcely tell I’ve applied color. I foresee a day where I will just have to give up and accept the gray, and I’m not ready to do that yet. Sure, I can pay someone to get it right, but with the price of a professional dye job these days, and the fact that in less than three weeks the gray skunk stripe is evident again, it’s just not worth the cost.
Many years ago, I saw an episode of Oprah that made a big impression on me. An incredibly beautiful woman had just turned thirty-six. Her husband threw her an elaborate party, pulling out all the stops to make sure she knew how much she was loved and adored. Instead of spending her special day celebrating with family and friends, she spent the entire day in bed sobbing because she’d turned thirty-six. I was in high school at the time, but this woman was more beautiful than I would EVER be in my entire life and I thought she was being incredibly stupid. I also thought that some day soon, her loving spouse would probably find someone who would appreciate him more.
So today, as I was cursing my ineffective dye job, I found myself thinking back to what I was like at twenty-five, the age that seems to be the magical one in my memory. The one that I would revert to in a flash if I found a spell book and a wand. You know what? At twenty-five, I was a lot like the woman crying in her bed–I thought I was ugly, so I acted like I was ugly. I assumed I would never find anyone to love me. I did not have the faith in my talents or abilities to pursue my dreams. I wasted those years because I thought I wasn’t good enough to have the things I desired. How stupid is that?
Yeah, so I can’t eat anything I want anymore. I strongly suspect a diet that consisted largely of Pepsi and peanut butter crackers wasn’t exactly balanced anyway. And yes, I’m carrying around a few extra pounds. But I woke up this morning beside someone I love, someone who tells me in a thousand small ways every day that he loves me back. The day was unseasonably sunny and warm, so I set up fences and jumped my horse. My trainer shook her head and told me that most people can’t go six months without riding over fences and retain their form the way I can, and that I should value that. Later, I walked my dog across stubbly grass fields, the stalks of the last cutting of hay crunching under my boots, climbing until I could see the Blue Ridge Mountains in all directions.
No, I’m no longer young. I’m not a huge success in my chosen career, I’m not financially well-off. Sometimes, the thought of my future old age scares the crap out of me. But I am very wealthy just the same.
I’ve been discussing with various people lately the difficulty in accepting compliments with grace and what that means (and I will be blogging on this later), but one of the things that kept coming up is that when you reject a compliment out of a false sense of modesty or feelings of unworthiness, you are in effect insulting and rejecting the person who gave you the compliment. I’ll have much more to say on this subject when the time rolls around, but suffice to say that it occurred to me today, as a direct result of this online discussion, that when I look in the mirror and reject my years, wishing I could turn back time to when I was twenty-five again, I am in effect, rejecting me. Me, the person I am now and everything I’ve achieved since that time.
At twenty-five, I said I could never be a published writer and set aside my passion for over a decade, calling it impractical and childish. It would never have occurred to me to submit a story for publication. Hell, I had never even finished a story. Trufax. I didn’t have the slightest concept of how to carry a story to completion, develop characters, construct a plot, write believable dialog.
At twenty-five, I sold myself short. No, I couldn’t have published anything then, but I assumed that because I couldn’t get published, that I shouldn’t waste my time writing either. I shut myself out of my passion because I didn’t think it would be a profitable use of my time.
What I’ve learned since then is that life isn’t always about making the decisions that are the most practical or profitable. Life is more than mere survival. That there is nothing wrong in doing something that makes you happy. Life is too short for a lot of the bullshit we think is important and necessary when our youth is like a fat bag of gold to be spent at will.
And somewhere along the way today, I realized for the first time that my twenty-five year old self wouldn’t have appreciated this fact. Because it takes losing things that are important to you, and fighting like a lioness to keep things you cannot bear to lose, and in general just plain living to make you truly appreciate life. My twenty-five year old self wasn’t the writer she wanted to be because she had nothing to say.
Every single one of the lines on my face has a story.
It’s a trade-off I’m willing to accept because I have stories I want to tell. That’s my fat bag of gold now.
That doesn’t mean I’m ready to stop coloring my hair. Dyeing my hair is something I do because it makes me feel better about the way I look, like wearing eyeliner or buying a rocking pair of boots. And that’s okay too.
While I’m here, I want to let you know that I have a guest blog with Nessa L. Warrin coming up later this week, and that Dreamspinner Press is closing out the year in fine style! From their website:
Dreamspinner Press is celebrating the end-of-the-year holidays in style! All in-stock paperbacks and all audiobooks are 20% off through Dec.5. All holiday ebooks will be 25% off Dec 6-12. All short stories (Daydreams and Nap-size Dreams) will be 20% off Dec. 13-19, Everything in the store will be 25% off from Dec. 20-25. All series will be 20% Dec 26-31!
In addition to our sales, we’ll be giving away a Kindle to one lucky customer during the week of Dec 2-8, a Nook to one lucky customer Dec 9-15, another Kindle Dec 16-22, and an iPad Mini, Dec 23-29!