Exactly 55. That is the age at which I learned I am not immortal. I've told the story many times:
I scanned the newsroom one day to locate a writer I needed to speak with and was stunned, gazing over two or three dozen fresh, unlined, eager, young faces that I was older by decades than everyone in the room.
After a lifetime of being the youngest kid in the crowd, I had to acknowledge that while I had been otherwise engaged, it had ceased to be true. That revelation was the genesis of my research into what getting old is really like and, eventually, this blog.
I was reminded of that life-changing moment when a drop-by reader named doug left a comment on an old post from April 2010, titled The Courage to Grow Old. In part, he wrote:
”While I may not be considered elderly by many, the subject is of course increasingly important to me, and I am glad I got up this morning at 2 a.m. from yet another nightmare about old age and dying.
“I am 55 years old, and have always fancied myself as a person who didn't fear these things. I guess it's because I am single now and wondering about mating versus not; about the prospect of ever finding anyone; about who might care for me; and the fact that I spend more time in my life (due to various factors ranging from friendships of choice to family to customer base) with the elderly, that I find myself often with repeated nightmares about a subject which philosophically has never 'scared' me.
“I must be vulnerable here, as I am in total agreement about the healthy need to embrace all things rather than escape them, and admit that these dreams indeed frighten me.”
Although I'd had my first nightmares about dying when I was eight or nine years old, it was that “55 years” in doug's note that caught my eye matching, as it does, the age at which the loss of my youth was rudely presented to me. Is there some beast, do you think, on our trek to the grave that our 55th birthday triggers?
doug, in his message, takes a side trip from his main subject to inform us that “people in their 30s are my equals physically” and “I have the body of a 20 year old.” I don't mean to be unkind, doug, but you are fooling yourself. However fit a person may be, no 55-year-old in the history of the world has ever looked 30 or 20 - especially to anyone not staring in a mirror.
What bothers me about that and has always been one of the many subtexts of this blog, is that any of us, after having lived more than half a century, cling to such nonsense. That we do (my version was believing I was still the youngest kid in the crowd) can be laid at the feet of a popular culture that from the cradle insists youth is the gold standard of life.
It is not and 55 is just about the right age, I think, to begin rejecting the youth mantra repeated in the majority of marketing and media to ask ourselves, as doug is doing, what the rest of our lives can be and what we want it to be. His comment continues:
”My heroes in life are the elderly who keep on going. Some of these are the late Jack Lalanne, Dolly Parton, Tina Turner, William Shatner, and my stepmother; and the age peers who are remarkable in their own right such as that man who climbs skyscrapers at my age.
“I have no desperate question here (or maybe I do and just don't realize it). I am simply responding to an obvious finding that this subject is important, something I want to take the time to explore. Thanks everyone for your interest and participation in blogs such as these. I am eagerly listening.”
My question at 55, since the culture generally refuses to be honest about it, was: “what is it really like to get old,” now reflected in this blog's banner above. Maybe that is what doug is asking too.
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Jacqueline Herships: Waugari Muta Maathai Has Died at 71 and the Trees Will Mourn