Thursday, 30 January 2014
Growing into Old Age
When I was young, 21 was the official age of adulthood. Yes, you could get married before then and young men could join the military but that 21st birthday was when the world accepted and recognized you as a grownup.
And I desperately wanted to be a grownup. As I've mentioned here in the past, I was deeply disappointed when I woke on my 21st birthday in 1962, and did not suddenly know the answers to all life's existential questions.
Equally discouraging that day was that I felt no more like an adult than I had the day before.
Although I'd had my own checking account for four years by then, I was angry with myself for still being secretly proud that I knew how to write a check and balance the account each month. By then, I thought, I should be so practiced that it would be no more a big deal than – oh, dialing a telephone.
And even though I had been working all those same four years, I was chagrined that I was as afraid of my boss as I had been terrified of my dad all my life. Grownups didn't feel that way, I believed then.
At about that time, when I was buying several cosmetic items one day because makeup was still fun at that age, the cashier held up the eye cream I had selected and said, “Honey, you are way too young for this.”
I could feel myself blush, embarrassed because I so wanted to be a grownup and a real grownup had called me out. I still believed then that grownups were always right and I ached for it to be my turn to be right.
It irritated me that whenever I accomplished something new, something real adults seemed to do as a matter of course, my pride in myself overflowed. Booking an airplane trip the first time. Getting my first credit card (very hard for unmarried “girls” in those days). Registering to vote and then not being turned away on election day.
It shouldn't be that way, I thought. I should be as comfortable with myself now, as an adult, as I was with being a child. I never thought then that I was faking being a kid; I just was.
But even getting married when I was 24 seem too grownup for how I felt yet - that I was still pretending to be grown up. But by the time I left my husband six years later, believe me, I felt plenty grown up.
And that is my point. However much I yearned to be an adult at a certain age, it doesn't happen that way. The transition from teenager to adult takes growing into over a period of time.
And now I'm pretty sure that at the other end of life, time is required again to become comfortable in one's old age.
Even if we accept that we've reached the beginning of old age, by 60 or so, many of us are no more able to yet make the internal transition to it than we felt like grownups at 21.
I was 55 when I first realized I was decades older than everyone I worked with and translated that into knowing that yes, I really will get old, in fact I already am doing so. And I wondered what it would feel like just as 35 or 40 years earlier I had wondered what being a grownup felt like.
It's taken me nearly 20 years to settle into old age and I've done it with as many fits and starts as growing into adulthood took.
What I first noticed, in the youth of my old age, was that people treated me differently. It probably wasn't but it seemed sudden that at work, I was no longer automatically included when groups of colleagues – all younger now – went out for drinks at the end of the day.
I knew something age-related as afoot when at age 57 or 58, I could no longer bear the pain of wearing high-heeled shoes.
At about the same time, a friend arranged for me to meet a certain writer she knew I admired who was also single. I was surprised at dinner by how old he looked; how could she think I would be interested. But he was only three years older than I.
More and more frequently, I was happy to stay home on Friday and Saturday evenings. It hadn't been so long before then that I had thought of myself as a social failure without a date or dinner or a party on a weekend.
And as I was chagrined at age 21 to feel a secret pride in little accomplishments that I believed adults handled with aplomb, now I was annoyed with myself for feeling superior to a couple of old women in my neighborhood who “behaved” much older than I did even though we were born within two or three years of one another.
Curious about what was happening to me and how my life would be different as I got older, I began researching aging. Back then, before the boomers began turning 60, there was almost no popular media about aging that was positive, if not entirely ageist. Mostly they ignored everything about life after 55 or 60.
The amount of information about old age has improved since then (although not necessarily the negative attitudes) and in the past ten years while I've been writing about various aspects of old age, I've settled into being old in a way that is similar to having gradually grown into adulthood so long ago.
It took me a very long time to understand that it's a journey getting to old age just as it was getting from childhood to adulthood.
In her excellent 1987 book, Old Age: Journey Into Simplicity, Helen M. Luke writes that Shakespeare's play, The Tempest, can never be analyzed because
”...for every time it is read it speaks with a different voice to each individual reader. Indeed, on that same reader it's impact changes with each new reading – and particularly at different phases of his growth into maturity and old age.
“This of course is true only for those who continue to grow old and do not merely sink into the aging process or attempt to delay it.”
I'm working on it, Helen. I'm trying.
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Henry Lowenstern: Rocky Mountain High