How beautifully leaves grow old. How full of light and color are their last days.
I like getting older. I don’t know if this will be true when I am 75, but it’s true now. I have started to notice a few gray hairs in the last couple years, and I have been excited about each discovery.
Visualizing myself at 75 with a full head of long gray hair doesn’t fill me with dread or cause me to strategize about getting an anti-wrinkle cream routine in place now that I am almost 35. I have always been mistaken for someone younger – maybe that is part of the allure of aging. I want to have the life history in me that comes from years of breathing, moving, living, struggling and learning.
The word OLD comes from an Indo-European word meaning “to grow, nourish.” Years of life nourish us and give us history, depth and insight, yet sometimes we think of years as poison instead of nourishment.
Somewhere in the midst of modernization, getting older became a disease, something to be cured or even altogether avoided, if possible. You can’t glance through a health or fashion magazine without learning how to look 10 years younger. I haven’t watched T.V. much in the last several years, but I would imagine most commercials still encourage striving for a youthful appearance, youthful energy and a youthful outlook on life.
Why is this? What are we so afraid of? Why do people have the tendency to talk to elderly adults as if they were school-age children? In some cultures, growing old is to become wise and respected. Why is it that in our educated, progressive and First World society, being old is to be a burden or something to grieve? Why do we want to stop time or go backward?
Trees are a good example of why growing old is something to cherish. There’s a 400-year-old white cedar tree that makes its home along the shore of Lake Superior called the “The Witch Tree” or the “Little Spirit Cedar Tree.” It is sacred to the Ojibwe people and is a testament to why age should be held as sacred, as well.
The tree is stooped, gnarled, and wind-blown, and it clings to the edge of a cliff. Yet there is beauty and life in every gash, twisted branch, age ring and exposed root, because without those marks, it would be just another cedar tree. The years and marks make it what it is, and the marks and years of human life do the same.
I like getting older because to embrace the passing of another year is to embrace and celebrate who I am and everything – good or not – that goes into my twisted branches, exposed roots and gashes.
The beauty ideal is always a youthful one. This is partly simple realism. The young are beautiful. The whole lot of ’em. The older I get, the more clearly I see that and enjoy it.
And yet I look at men and women my age and older, and their scalps and knuckles and spots and bulges, though various and interesting, don’t affect what I think of them.
For old people, beauty doesn’t come free with the hormones, the way it does for the young. It has to do with bones. It has to do with who the person is. More and more clearly it has to do with what shines through those gnarly faces and bodies.
~Ursula K. Le Guin
The original version of this post appeared in the April 2014 issue of Minnesota Women’s Press.