“Do not resent growing old, many are denied the privilege.” – Irish Proverb
After my first yoga class in two years without a daily practice, I tell the instructor how much I enjoyed her class. This young woman’s gentle, affirming style was perfect to help me return to what was once an important part of my morning. I also tell her that I am still healing from a fractured shoulder four months ago, so I was glad to have alternatives for my now broken starfish pose.
As we talk, another young woman stands by listening, nodding.. Then she decides to add her own advice to me:
“It’s important to move some every day,” she begins. “It doesn’t have to be a lot, just do something to get yourself moving every day.” I appreciate her good advice, her enthusiasm, and her desire to be helpful.
When she finishes, I smiled. “I run three miles almost every day,” I say. “The days I don’t run, I walk the three miles of hills. I think that counts.”
“Oh, good for you!” she chirps. “That’s great. You’re an inspiration,” she gushes. I choose to believe that she means well, and is only trying to help and encourage an old woman. Even as I write those two words I have trouble believing that they apply to me. I do not see myself as an old woman nor do the words “old woman” define me.
In two months I’ll turn 73-years-old. In the last three years, I have noticed how many of the younger generations, the 30-somethings to the 50ish-year-olds patronize, dismiss or erase people – especially women – my age. I’ve also come to understand something my good friend, Susan, frequently observed after her 70th birthday: “70 is nothing like 69.” I didn’t understand what she meant then, and unfortunately, Susan did not have the privilege of growing old.
I’ve been told by a younger woman that my standards of professional conduct and ethics are “a generational problem.” I’ve been called “hon,” “sweetie,” and other inappropriate pet names by complete strangers. I’ve had younger people enunciate slowly as they talk to (not with) me. I’ve also heard from other women my age who are experiencing the same treatment. Have we become invisible? Expendable?
Now I understand what those 70 and 80-year-old women were saying when they marveled at their age and declared, “I still feel like I’m 40 or 50.” I get it now. Did I dismiss, erase, and devalue them? Probably, at least part of the time. I hope not, but being human, I’m almost certain that I did. I wish now that I could apologize to every one of them.
Most days, I’m intrigued by this aging process. It’s certainly not what I expected. But then again, I don’t know what I expected. Wisdom? Not yet. Grace? I can only hope for moments! Peace? The world is still too much with me. There’s still so much I want to do, explore, learn about. I’m amazed that I’ve managed to live this long – many years in spite of myself – and still remain in good health, able to run, hike, garden, dance, swim, and almost anything else I want to do. I giggle like a teenager and dance with a four-year-old in the middle of a public building. Yes, I notice physical changes, a slower running pace, and less stamina for strenuous work. My hair is no longer red or auburn (“Redhead is a state of mind, not a hair color,” Ed reminds me), nor is it that elegant snowy white that I admire on many women my age. My hair seems to be a reflection of who I am becoming as I age: changing and growing in interesting ways.
And just when I begin to despair that growing old means being erased or vanishing in the eyes of younger generations, a few young women I love tell me they are grateful for the way I’ve lived my life and the work I have done for equality and justice. After the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, I heard from some of these young women who shared my deep sorrow, who had been watching while I worked for and spoke up about reproductive rights.
It is both gratifying and humbling to know that there are younger women who are watching, who appreciate the work that so many of us have done, women who listen to the way we use our voices.
When I first moved to Yancey County, in 1992, I was 42-years-old. The women in the writing group that took me in were 20 years my senior. They were vibrant, active women who were involved in their community. They were still learning, growing, and curious. I admired them and the way they lived their lives became my roadmap for growing older. I admired them at the time and still admire them today. Only a few are still alive, but they are still strong women, involved in their communities. They are still the women I look to as I navigate this landscape.
by Julia Kasdorf (b. 1962)
Among the first we learn is good-bye,
your tiny wrist between Dad’s forefinger
and thumb forced to wave bye-bye to Mom,
whose hand sails brightly behind a windshield.
Then it’s done to make us follow:
in a crowded mall, a woman waves, “Bye,
we’re leaving,” and her son stands firm
sobbing, until at last he runs after her,
among shoppers drifting like sharks
who must drag their great hulks
underwater, even in sleep, or drown.
Living, we cover vast territories;
imagine your life drawn on a map—
a scribble on the town where you grew up,
each bus trip traced between school
and home, or a clean line across the sea
to a place you flew once. Think of the time
and things we accumulate, all the while growing
more conscious of losing and leaving. Aging,
our bodies collect wrinkles and scars
for each place the world would not give
under our weight. Our thoughts get laced
with strange aches, sweet as the final chord
that hangs in a guitar’s blond torso.
Think how a particular ridge of hills
from a summer of your childhood grows
in significance, or one hour of light–
late afternoon, say, when thick sun flings
the shadow of Virginia creeper vines
across the wall of a tiny, white room
where a girl makes love for the first time.
Its leaves tremble like small hands
against the screen while she weeps
in the arms of her bewildered lover.
She’s too young to see that as we gather
losses, we may also grow in love;
as in passion, the body shudders
and clutches what it must release.
From Eve’s Striptease by Julia Kasdorf, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1998