Looking My Age

Since we’re all pondering the passing of time tonight, here’s a poem I wrote about aging, followed by some musings.

**

The Grottos of My Face

Lines I expected, around
the eyes and mouth, a deepening, settling
in of my features. This is how I aged
in my mind, at twenty, when I thought of aging
which wasn’t often, but enough
so that the image held fast, is there still
decades later, when I hit the snooze
each morning, until the second alarm
propels me through the shower
to the mirror, comb in hand. The third alarm
is the surprise that meets me there
new every day: the grottos
of my face, the shifting of the landscape.
No steady etching, as from
the river time is supposed
to be, according to the poets I’ve read.
Now I begin to see that age
is not a settling but an upheaval
unpredictable,  seismic.

**

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For most of my adult life, my appearance has been deceiving. I’ve looked younger than my actual age. Once, when I was in my early twenties, I was checking out books about writing from the library and the lady behind the desk asked “Are you hoping to be a writer when you grow up?” Umm.

I got ID-checked for 21-and-over activities right up to about age 40. But after age 45 or so, it the years started catching up with me and it seemed I could tell a difference in the mirror from one day to the next. I remember the morning I woke up with jowls. It was like having one of those tricky balloon mortgages where people float along complacent for years and years with their manageable payments, until suddenly one day – boom – they owe tens of thousands of dollars all at once.

I’m 51 years old now and I look it. I have a couple of gray streaks in my hair. I don’t plan to dye it, as I know myself too well to entertain the idea I’d ever keep up with it. Besides, I like gray hair, and the shade of gray I’m getting goes well with my blue eyes. I have creases in my face and the newest development is turkey neck.

I tell myself I’m okay with it. There’s nothing wrong with looking my age or being my age. As Sarah Silverman put it, about people mocking her for being “old”:  “I feel like your joke is that I’m still alive. My crime is not dying.”

For the most part, I don’t think about it much. I’d be lying if I said I feel like I have as much energy as I did fifteen years ago. Yet, I have hung drywall in the not-too-distant past. I’m not exactly decrepit. Also, I haven’t even gone through menopause. That’s right — my husband and I still have to be watchful not to pull the old Abraham and Sarah routine and produce an infant in our twilight years.

There are times I let it bother me, and those times generally hang upon the words of someone else. Those times I worry that I look even older than my age. (Though, what would be wrong with that?) Then I wonder if it’s because we have constructed such an artificial idea of what aging looks like in our society. Do I really look older than 51, or is it that people have no concept of what an undyed, undisguised, unreconstructed 51-year-old looks like?

You know how to make a woman feel old and feel bad about it? Patronizingly call her “young lady.” This happened to me twice recently. The first time it was a waiter, and he looked to be quite a bit younger than I, so I’m going to forgive him and allow that he has time to learn the error of his ways.

The second instance was a grocery store clerk, who appeared to me to be around ten years my senior. He not only greeted me with a hearty “How are you today, Young Lady?” (emphasis not mine), but he also instructed the bagger not to fill my bags too full because they would hard for me to lift and asked if I had anyone at home to help me unload them. Good grief. I know I was short on sleep that day, but did I really appear a full 100 years older than my actual age? I overruled him on the bagging, telling the woman she could fill them pretty full because my canvas totes are sturdy. Then I answered his question, “No everyone else is at work or school right now, but I’ve recently been hanging drywall, so I think I can handle a few sacks of groceries.” Either I put him in his place or he assumed my visions of hanging drywall were a product of my senile mind.

I nearly turned around as I was pushing my cart away. It occurred to me to tell him, “Those tampons I just bought? They’re for me. I still ovulate.” I stopped myself, though.

As a girl, I always responded to assumptions about what girls couldn’t or shouldn’t do with a “challenge accepted” attitude. This girl climbed trees higher than the boys did. This girl loved math classes and not so much home economics. This girl was simply herself, whether or not it fit the social narrative or was considered feminine. I want to hold onto her when it comes to age. I want be the woman in her fifties who is okay with being in her fifties. Instead of trying to pass for younger, I want fifty and then sixty and seventy, and beyond to be acceptable and not narrowly defined.

If I ever do dye my hair, I’m pretty sure it will be purple.

 

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