Write a letter to your younger self, they urge: It’s cathartic. Be kind, be supportive, guide her gently toward better choices. Fat chance she’d listen. Pearls of wisdom, cautionary tales–she heard them all. And what, precisely, to offer? Don’t settle? Don’t worry? Stay out of the sun? I wouldn’t listen to me either. If I took another tack, told her she was strong and worthy, capable of anything, she’d only shrug and look away. Not for a minute would she have imagined a soft landing in her sixties, four-bed/two bath, a steadfast spouse. In any case, who am I to interfere– she got me this far, didn’t she? Better to leave her hurtling into plight and fervor and folly so that she can show up here and astonish me. “See?” she would have said.
“Hot flashes?” my friend said. “They don’t bother me. They’re mostly gone now anyway. And the other stuff—dry skin, weight gain. What can you do? No one stays pretty forever.” She paused, frowned at the drink in her hand. “But the thing that does bother me? Loss of libido. I gotta say, I have a grudge against that one.” She looked at me. “It’s excessive, don’t you think?”
I blinked at her. I knew what she meant. Of all the subtractions that come with menopause, loss of desire has to be the saddest. “Makes you realize what biological beings we really are.”
She nodded. “It does, doesn’t it?” She was a silent a moment. “You know, I don’t think I miss the sex so much as I miss the need for it, the appetite. Why should that get taken away, too?”
“Maybe it’s a kindness,” I offered. “Maybe we lose our desire because we’re no longer desirable.”
“Well, that’s brutal,” she said. “But you’re probably right. Nature thinks of everything.” She looked up into the tree that shaded our table. “Damn men. All they lose is their hair. Bill still wants sex—not as often, but it’s there. It’s retrievable. For women it’s like a door slamming shut.”
No, I thought, not slamming. More like closing, quietly, so quietly you don’t notice. One day it occurs to you that sex has not occurred to you.
You might chide yourself, resolve to put mundane matters aside and focus on love. The problem, you think, is fixable, laughable, temporary. There is the destination, clear as day—all you need to do is show up. Only you can’t. You’ve lost the map. Occasionally you forge ahead, determined to prevail, and occasionally you do, arriving at a finish line barely worth the effort.
I do know of one woman, 84 years old, who claims she is still interested in sex, who would jump in the sack “in a hot minute” if she found an appropriate suitor. When she told me this, I laughed. “I’m not kidding,” she said flatly.
“Lucky you,” I replied, wondering if having a sex drive in your eighties is a lucky thing. Finding a willing and able partner would certainly be lucky.
This woman is exceptional—most of my female peers have shed their amatory lives and moved on. Yoked to the plow of destiny, we have found other ways to entertain ourselves: birding, gardening, charity work.
“The Change,” people used to call it, ominously. It was an event discussed in whispers, a bane that befell our mothers and aunts. I wasn’t sure what it meant, only that I didn’t want it to happen to me. Odd that the transformation still came as a surprise.
Focusing on the compensations can be helpful, like my newly-sprung ability to notice the ways I’ve been blessed or spared. I can tell you that most everything I see now has significance, that I ache for this beleaguered planet every day, that I can no longer regard a caterpillar on my cabbage without considering its right to be there. Each day I can feel the thrilling edge of something I have yet to learn.
Still, I mourn my libido. The loss of it, after all, is a sort of death, an ash-filled urn in the top of my closet, alongside those size 6 jeans I will never wear again. I am, as nature would have it, changed. What is there to do but shove on my sunhat and go out to the garden, tend to other lives as assailable as my own.
Her eyes are clouding with age, and when she peers at my face, I see confusion in hers: How do I appear to her now?
All I can do is lean forward and kiss that small patch of white just above and between her eyes, the star she was given by a god who foretold this moment. She bows her head slightly, allowing my reverence, knowing her worth all at once.
It was the 70s.
No one had cell phones,
and cameras were for
“Selfie” wasn’t even a word.
So when you came across
that ancient photo
tucked in a book,
your stomach jumped.
There you were,
sitting on your dorm bed
hunched over a small typewriter,
looking up, surprised.
that’s to be expected.
It’s the details that fascinate.
The blue eye shadow—too blue,
and eyeliner—too much.
You’re wearing jeans and one of those silly
peasant blouses—all the rage for half a minute.
Long straight hair parted down the middle,
same as the rest of the herd.
A poster on the wall of naked lovers,
red satin sheets. Good god.
A really ugly desk lamp.
You can do that now,
tell your censor
to shut up,
leave this innocent alone.
She dogged you then too,
that old nag;
nothing you did
She was with you
from the start,
braiding you with doubt,
cloaking you with dread.
Age has carried off
what you no longer need,
left you something
to fight with instead.
Now you have your critic
pinned against the ropes.
Let her rail all she wants,
you don’t need to listen,
you slow walking,
Sometimes while shopping, I experience a flush of satisfaction as I cruise past the items that don’t pertain to me: baby food, condoms, curling irons, hair coloring kits. Ignoring all that energy and advertising confers what feels like power. I also snub the cosmetics, aisle after aisle of them (though I do brush a little color on my cheeks each day to appear more alive). I did use makeup when I was a young woman—mascara, eye liner, eye shadow, lipstick—the whole mob; even streaked my hair. Ironic that now, with my shrinking eyebrows and gray hair, I have turned my back on the props.
In a culture that values youth and beauty, aging is not easy, particularly for women. As toddlers we begin to perceive the sovereignty of Barbie and Cinderella, and woe to little girls who are not conventionally pretty, who will be molded by this knowledge in ways they will not understand. I like to think that compensation awaits these girls, that having less to lose, getting older will be a bit easier.
Stopped in traffic one time, I looked to my left, at an elderly woman behind the wheel of a Mercedes coupe. For a moment our eyes met and she tried to smile—perhaps she thought she managed it; what I saw was a grimace, the skin so taut it appeared to be covered with cellophane. Her eyelids were drooping under the weight of false lashes, her mouth was a fire red gash and her hair—the color of cantaloupes—was elaborately rigged on top of her head. She was fierce, this woman. She had time in a stranglehold and she was not giving up an inch. She was losing, she knew it, but she was not giving up.
I don’t have that kind of fight in me, don’t want to battle the years I have left. As far as I’m concerned, the only practical response to aging is forgiveness, excusing each new erosion as it appears. What can we do with our body but love it, love it all the more for its diminishing street value.
In arming themselves for public view, women in the United States spend more money than any country in the world, yet rank 23rd in the “Satisfaction With Life Index.” Japan comes in second in cosmetics spending, with a satisfaction ranking of 90. Two countries that spend the least on cosmetics and hair care — Netherlands and Sweden — have the best rankings in the SWLI.
From an early age, we receive the message that we are not good enough, and the volume only increases as we get older. Accepting this notion, we harness our lives. We spend our days hiding from ourselves and each other, never imagining there might be a better way to live. The cost of accepting our natural selves? Nothing. Nor does it take any time. Wake up, slip on some love, and walk out the door.
Recently I watched a video, a movie my brother-in-law made of a family reunion three decades ago: my sisters and I, along with our partners. The video lasted about an hour. I did not take my eyes off it.
I had never seen myself from such a distance. There I was, along with my beautiful sisters, young again. Our hair! Our skin! Along with the physical disparity between my former and present self, I was struck by the tension in my movements and expressions: the diffidence of youth at odds with its daring.
Women at thirty are powerful. We have not yet reached the zenith of our bloom and we are aware of this. The mayhem of our teens and twenties is over, and even if we have not fallen in love for keeps, or made much money, there is time enough ahead. The best is yet to come, we are sure of it. Old age is out there, inevitable but not pertinent.
Ironically, this faith in the future makes us vulnerable to the present, unable to claim it. The feeling that we are unworthy, unready, seeps in like smoke. We spend our days trying to hide our fears, from ourselves and everyone else. We can’t be blamed for these doubts, or for squandering those precious years with bad bets and detours. Youth has its price.
Examining the girl I was in that video made me more compassionate than nostalgic, and I felt kindhearted toward my sisters as well. I’ve been practicing tough love on myself a long time now, forgiving my body’s cave-ins at the rate they appear. As our spiritual leaders tell us, pain is resistance. The bloom is off the rose, time to tend other parts of the garden.
When the video ended I felt altered, agitated, a confusion that lasted all evening. I was not the woman, I was not the girl; I was caught somewhere between the two and uncertain how to proceed.
I’ve always thought of memory as a portal. Nudged by a thought, a scent, an image, we can reenter the past, if only for a second. This fusion is unmistakable, delightful, reminding us that time is only a construct, a handy device for organizing our lives. The truth of our existence lies in these fleeting junctures, when we are back at a place we never actually left.
Joan Didion wrote: “I think we are well-advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were.”
It wasn’t until the next day that I understood what had happened to me, why I felt so lost after seeing my younger self. I had not stayed on nodding terms with that girl, had all but abandoned her, figuring we had nothing left in common, nothing of any use. What a surprise to see her again, not behind me but beside me.
A friend of mine is turning sixty, and she is not having an easy time of it. I want to give her a birthday card that will lift her spirits, remind her of the blessings that come with age. Looks like I’ll have to create one myself.
If I were searching for something crass and mocking, I’d have no trouble at all. There is a plethora of cards that poke fun at getting older, most of them illustrated with repulsive photos or cartoons. Somehow it’s easier for us to laugh at old age than to say anything nice about it. I do have a sense of humor, and there is no denying that laughter is good medicine. I just wonder why the difficult and tender process of growing older has become a joke.
“I hope I become a sweet old lady,” I once told a friend, “and not a cranky one.” He looked at me and shrugged. “You’ll just become more of what you are.” I’ve thought often about that remark and I believe he is right. How we grow is up to us. We bestow on ourselves our own largess or meanness, and we are all, every moment, setting an example.
There are elderly people who routinely disparage their lot, reminding anyone who will listen that being old is a cruel affliction filled with pain and devoid of pleasure. Is there anyone at any age who wants or needs this message? Isn’t the expression of these thoughts a cruelty in itself? If we can’t serve as inspirations, might we at least offer comfort?
“Dirty Harry” was once a favorite movie of mine. Now it is far too brutal. My friends tell me that they have become similarly sensitive. As our actual skin thins, so does our emotional armor. This keen awareness of the suffering of others strikes me as something of value.
It’s not so easy, in our days of youth and vigor, to experience this sort of empathy. Compassion seems to require a certain number of years. From it flows kindness, another gift of age. With these two qualities, the world around us expands, becomes suffused with a sudden heart-breaking beauty for which we are inexpressibly grateful. Compassion. Kindness. Gratitude. For some people, these hard-won talents are all the compensation they need.
A woman in her eighties gave me the best lesson in aging I ever received. Every time I see her she is wearing a gentle smile. I praised her for it one day, and she touched my arm and said, with perfect seriousness, “Oh honey, you have to smile—it makes you feel better.”