AARP

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You sign up for the discounts,
those measly wins you have to ask for.
The clerk eyes you, stalls, maybe calls the manager,
but your card is in your wallet,
you’ve got him on the ropes.

You can’t in fact keep up
with all you’re earned:
free coffee at McDonald’s, 10% off at Denny’s,
early bird specials at Golden Corral.
And all for just staying alive!

Paradoxically, the AARP magazine
(which comes uninvited each month)
will ward you off these places, advising healthier options.
Remember: your arteries are harder now
and don’t spring back anymore.

Are there others like me,
who opt out of the journal, who don’t care
to use the symptom checker or
read about scams at the gas pump,
who just want to call a truce with the world?

Don’t tell me how to fend off death,
tell me how to live with its arrival,
how to claim wonder,
how to stay open,
how to give myself away.

Inner Critics

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It was the 70s.
No one had cell phones,
and cameras were for
travel, holidays,
bigger things.
“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.
Younger, prettier—
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.

STOP!
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
pleased her.
She was with you
from the start,
braiding you with doubt,
cloaking you with dread.
Not anymore.

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,
white-haired champion.

Face Value

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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.

 

Photo credit: Foter.com

Our Younger Versions

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.

As if I could have managed without her.

A Postcard from Ted Kooser

I love this poem by Ted Kooser. It is among the many poignant “postcards” in his collection WINTER MORNING WALKS: one hundred postcards to Jim Harrison.

Fate, here I stand, hat in hand,
in my fifty-ninth year,
a man of able body and a merry spirit.
I’ll take whatever work you have.

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Small Repairs

Once again I have said goodbye to my mother. She lives in New Mexico and each November I travel from California to visit her. Last year she broke her hip, and so I was there twice.

Each time I visit my mother someone accompanies me, a sister or my partner, though once I did go alone and it wasn’t easy driving across the desert wondering what might happen to me if the car broke down. About forty-five minutes from my destination I had to take a comfort break, and reluctantly I pulled into the only rest area on that desolate route. I had not seen another soul for many miles, and you can imagine my unease when another car pulled up right behind me—a man of course. Men can relieve themselves pretty much anywhere, so naturally I was suspicious. I deliberated behind the wheel a moment but my need was too urgent, and as I hurried into the building I imagined him right behind me. My last five minutes on earth, that’s what I was thinking. No one would ever know what had happened to me. I’d wind up in his trunk, or out there somewhere, my lifeless body withering behind a clump of sagebrush. False alarm. I passed him on the way back to my car and he didn’t even look at me.

Getting to Carlsbad is never easy, requiring two plane trips and a long drive. Other than the famous caverns, this hot dusty place has little to recommend it. Still, my mother likes the town, and my sisters and I no longer encourage her to move to a more accessible area; I wouldn’t want to be pestered either. And I understand the comfort she must feel living in a town she knows and trusts. Our senses dim as we age, and this inability to perceive things as clearly as we used to can make the world a threatening place.  Familiarity is invaluable.

Much is accomplished on these yearly visits. One of us takes my mother’s car in for servicing and stocks up on supplies, while another tackles the household chores and yardwork. My mother has limited mobility and can no longer manage tasks that involve strength or dexterity. She should not in fact be living alone, which is something we don’t discuss because we all know the difficulties involved in a transition. For one thing, she is not wealthy; the sort of the retirement home she could afford is the sort we wouldn’t want to see her in. Nor does she wish to live among others. She is a lone wolf and has managed so long on her own that cohabitation would likely finish her off.

So we do with her what we can. We buy easy-reach tools, install grab bars, replace the nonskid stickers in her shower. We change the ink in her printer and order foam mattress pads to ease her aching shoulders. We clean her bathroom floors, hem her pants, bandage whatever wounds she’s acquired. And we try to do these things tactfully, to make light of them. To spare her.

At the end of each day we watch some TV, play card games, share stories (carefully avoiding politics and social issues; a dyed-in-the-wool conservative, my mother can’t fathom our liberal views.) Struggling for common ground, we retrieve mismatched memories and laugh over many of them before falling into silence. Time is running low and we can’t think what to say. If our feelings are hurt by some offhand remark, we don’t let on. Intent on minimizing damage, we skirt any trouble and keep an eye on the clock.

At the front door we say goodbye and this is the moment when my mother seems to shrink. I look back and see a tiny bent-over woman gripping the doorknob, lifting the other hand to wave. She is scared and relieved at once, sad that we are leaving and eager to reclaim her solitude. And so are we. Flying home, we will think of questions we meant to ask, things we should have done. There is more to do here, there is always more to do, but for now she is okay. We will also wonder if we have just seen her for the last time, but this thought is too painful and we push it away. As many times as it returns, we push it away.

My mother can be harsh, no question about that. I am a dutiful daughter, I’ve been told, for making this trip each year. I don’t see it that way. I feel no moral obligation to visit my mother. I go there because she is a frail woman whose life has not been easy and it makes me feel better to help her. She should be living in more sensible housing, with a walk-in tub and nonslip floors and no stairs, but she is not. She is where she wants to be. What is there to do but pick up our tools and make the best of it? Ongoing, seemingly futile, what matters more than these small repairs?

Timely Gifts

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.”