Sunday, September 28, 2014

Determined to Age Gracefully

When I was young and imagined growing old, I was determined that I would age gracefully. What does that even mean? Graceful means "characterized by elegance or beauty of form, manner, movement, or speech." To me, aging gracefully meant having an inner beauty that shines through despite the inevitable wrinkles. Even more than that, it meant being comfortable in your own aging skin.

Now that I'm most certainly over the hill, can I honestly say that I am aging gracefully? No, I cannot. With regular exercise, I have maintained my youthful figure for the most part, though my body aches more often these days. But truthfully, I am not yet comfortable with what I see. When photographed, I tell myself that my eyes are too squinty, my teeth not white enough. I examine my face from every angle, not happy with the wrinkles around my eyes and lips or with the changing texture of the skin on my neck. I can relate to Nora Ephron, author of I Feel Bad About My Neck, a book I clearly need to read at this stage of my life.

I saw some photos on a Facebook photography page this week posted under a "Rusty, Dusty, Busted" category - old houses, old cars, old farm machinery. I appreciate the beauty of faded objects that have seen better days. So why not look at myself in the same way? Why do I struggle to accept what is completely natural and unavoidable? Did my role models struggle to accept their aging faces? Did Meryl Streep figure out this aging gracefully thing all at once or was it a challenge for her too? Did my grandmother, one of the most beautiful people I've ever known, look at herself so critically?

My Grandma, a gentle and quiet spirit
I mentioned my struggle to a friend who is a couple of years older than me. She said that accepting yourself as you age is about changing your expectations. An aging face is a face with character. Having been married almost 28 years, I have often thought how fortunate it is that as we grow old together, we've changed our expectations about physical appearance. We love each other more for what's on the inside than what's on the outside.

It occurred to me that perhaps for some of us, aging gracefully is the final step in a process that follows the stages of loss and grief - denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. I spent most of my forties in denial of my lost youth. People told me that I didn't look my age. Then as I approached fifty, I bargained, embracing the "don't deny it, defy it" approach. I exercised more to counter the effects of declining metabolism. I bought moisturizers and revitalizing night creams and under-eye creams, attempting to reverse the effects of aging. I started taking hormone replacement therapy to thwart the effects of lower estrogen levels. This year, I even got braces to improve my aging smile.

But even after doing all of those things, time is still taking a toll on my body and my skin. My wrinkly neck is a reality I can't negotiate away. I am not going to get angry or depressed about losing my youth, just a bit sad. It happens to everyone who is fortunate to live this long. Every day is a gift and I know that I have so much to look forward to in my later years. I'm ready to move on to the final stage of aging gracefully - acceptance.

Peter, the disciple, said that your beauty should not come from outside adornment but should instead be a reflection of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit. Physical beauty does fade over time, regardless of how much effort or expense you put into your appearance. But kindness and gentleness never stops being beautiful.

1 comment:

  1. I work in a job in which, at 55, I'm still one of the youngest people at work, and a job in which I don't have to worry about "age-ism". And I'm a guy which means that to a certain extent I've never, ever, worried about how I look, sound, dress, or smell :)

    I loved Grandad Pet Tooey because he was such a gentle soul, and he loved me, his great-grandchild. I loved Grandpa Cramer and how he enjoyed playing with us grandchildren, and though he was old and bald I thought he was awfully handsome. I love my parents, and the fact that they look their age makes me worry more about the day they will no longer be around, but hasn't affected my love for them in any other way.

    I look at myself and I see my father, even down to the way I walk when I first get up after sitting down too long. I see my mother in the way I try to treat strangers. I see Grandpa Cramer in how I try to treat young children. And I try my best (not nearly good enough) to maintain Grandad Pete's a simple, trusting view of life.

    None of what I treasured in my elders had anything to do with their outer beauty, and everything to do with the character of their lives.

    We all grow older and our bodies "betray" us. And eventually we will die, just like everyone who has gone before us. And that's kind of sad, and kind of scary, but that's life, we all go through it. And we live the best lives we can, and, Good Lord willing, there will be a resurrection and we will see all those we loved again. And if not, we will live on for some short time in the memories of those who remain behind, not as "glamour queens" but as people whose spirits they knew and loved.