“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
– Mary Oliver
I called my grandmother 10 years ago to wish her a happy birthday—her 80th. She laughed and said, “Oh, Annie. I don’t feel 80.” I had recently turned 30, and I was just beginning to see how this whole time thing works. Still, I understood her sentiment: We’re all 24 in our own minds.
Now here I am giving 40 a big old smooch hello, and I feel that truth even more keenly. I don’t feel the way I thought I’d feel at 40. Getting older is not at all the way I imagined it.
I can see the signs of aging, of course—that crease that’s made a permanent home on my forehead, the skin on the back of my arms giving way to gravity, the straggly gray hairs that pop up out of nowhere and refuse to lie down and an ever-growing urge to wear comfortable shoes.
Those things are just the surface of the body that houses me—they aren’t me. I am not aging—my body is. I’m all for staying healthy and trying to maximize my body’s usefulness in this world, but eventually it will grow old, break down and die. I know this. We all know this, even if we don’t like to think about it. Our bodies in some ways betray our spirits.
I just spent some time with that same grandmother, now almost 90 years old, and I could see that she sometimes gets frustrated that her aging outsides won’t cooperate with her youthful insides. I totally get that. She still feels young. At 40, I still see myself as a “young woman.” Years don’t affect the spirit the same way they affect the body. The spirit doesn’t age.
Because our physical and spiritual beings get all mixed up, there’s a tendency to grasp our youth with both hands, to attempt to fight time, to try to reverse the natural course of things. I imagine some of this tendency is born out of a fear of dying, some is born of our society’s obsession with youth and beauty, and some is born from a sincere desire to make our outsides match our insides.
But I don’t want to waste any part of my one wild and precious life trying to stop a river from flowing. I’d rather ride the current, work on my navigation skills and soak in the beauty of the scenery as it goes by. Time is not guaranteed. I want to spend the time that I do have truly living, not trying to find ways to fool myself or others into thinking I’m not dying. Dying doesn’t scare me; not living does.
And beauty—it’s such a tricky thing to balance sometimes. Did you see the story of the woman who didn’t smile for 40 years so that she wouldn’t get wrinkles? So sad. I think part of our stories get written on our faces. Laugh lines speak of a life lived with joy and make aging beautiful. Admittedly, my concentration line doesn’t sit well with me because it makes me look cranky, so I do what I can to minimize it. But even that line says something about who I am—a soul that continually contemplates, a mother who worries about her children, a writer who struggles to get the squirrelly words in my head to line up properly on the page. So I don’t loathe the lines on my face; they help tell my story.
Those physical manifestations of time passing don’t necessarily contradict an ageless spirit—they are simply storytellers. So our outsides do match our insides when viewed through that lens. Lines and wrinkles and gray hair may simply be surface changes, but they also symbolize the mystery and wonder of being human. There is true beauty in the stories they tell, in the marking of time passing and all of the life lessons that go along with that.
As I celebrate another glorious ride around the sun, I watch the fear of getting old fall away. No time for that nonsense. We all grow old, but we can choose how we do so. I choose to grow old with grace, to live life with joy and to embrace my age with open arms—drooping skin and all.