I woke up this morning and remembered I was 38.
I’m almost 40, I said to my husband.
That’s good! He replied enthusiastically.
We are supposed to be growing old together, so I think it’s a good thing you are getting older.
While my husband celebrates aging and I want to agree, I have to admit that I am fairly terrified by the prospect, the reality, and the inability to control it. The changes to my mind and body, the eventual end to everything, the unknown of what happens when…
My husband and I talk about death fairly often, not always referring to the actual d-word.
For example, if I am stressed out about something (which is a frequent occurrence), he will say that death will resolve everything. I won’t have to worry about anything anymore.
I do not find this revelation comforting, even if it is technically true.
Turning thirty did not freak me out nearly as much as the years that came after. Each year brings me a little closer to 40. Why does 40 scare me? Shouldn’t it be a celebration that I have reached a new year and am still alive and thriving?
From a very young age, I struggled with my body image, and so I wonder if aging brings all of this into the forefront. For me, carefully curbing my diet and obsessively exercising through my adolescence and into my undergraduate years until a freak ultimate Frisbee accident literally forced me to stop was a way to maintain some element of control in an otherwise unpredictable (or predictable, maybe scarier?) world.
None of this mind and body control brought joy or bliss into my existence, and I did manage to transcend some of the obsession from the practice. I still can tell you everything I eat and how much of each item for every day I exist on this planet. What can I say? Old habits die hard.
Don’t get me wrong. I actually would love to love my body and the changes I witness as I grow older. I notice wrinkles around my eyes, which I have learned are called crow’s feet, and my mouth, which are called laugh lines. These tell me that despite the pain I have experienced in my life, I have also managed to smile and laugh. A lot.
I notice freckles on my arms when I spend time in the sun rather than the even tan of my younger self. I get tired more often. The more I learn about my sensitivities, the more I experience them, fully, in my body, which can be a mixed blessing. The road to well-being can be a bumpy one.
My husband is much more accepting of this whole aging process (no surprise). Whenever I wonder about where a new ache came from, he just says, we are getting older.
I wonder if part of my difficulty in letting go of my material possessions has a connection to this fear of aging and the eventual void? Maybe, if I can just hold onto everything, there will be something of me left? I don’t have children—at least, not the human kind—so who will remember me when I am gone?
Certainly, a collection of stuffed animals, rocks, and pieces of plastic that look like people may not be pieced together to create a Marieke puzzle. But these are the things I tend to hold onto and schlep around the world with me each time I move.
Could my propensity for migration also be an attempt to thwart the inevitable? Maybe, if I can just keep moving I will stay one step ahead of change.
I can already tell that this theory is flawed. I have certainly earned many sage grey hairs in the past nearly three years we have spent in Belgium. I don’t blame Belgium, though. Most of my stress came from unfinished business in the far corners of the United States.
I am not only at a loss for how to make peace with my own aging body. I also don’t really know what to say when other people talk about their bodies. When my mom and I met in Portugal in the fall of 2018, she mentioned with distaste that her skin was aging.
I literally lay in bed next to her, completely at a loss for words. Should I agree? Should I ask her how this makes her feel? Should I say, I know. I have noticed my skin aging, too? Shall we drink a toast to still being alive, even if it isn’t always enjoyable?
A friend of mine were recently talking about life and aging, and told me about a visit with some of her family somewhere in the southeast region of the United States. She had visited with cousins she hadn’t seen in ages, many of whom spent a lot of time and money on Botox and other measures for curbing the aging process.
In an attempt at camaraderie, she had mentioned to one of her cousins that she had laugh lines around her mouth.
I know, her cousin had said. It makes you look old.
She told me she would not be instigating a repeat visit.
But to be honest, I would love to get to a place where I don’t mind aging and all of the trappings that come with it, including looking older. The western culture in which I have been aging has conditioned me to try to avoid aging at all costs. The west, for whatever reason, seems hell bent on staying forever young. For women in particular, there is great value in looking young. Women lose their value as they age, while men often gain more.
I have always looked young. It has only been recently that people have started guessing my age as in the early to mid-20s instead of 14-16. When I was a teenager, older women would tell me that someday I would be thrilled to be mistaken for being so much younger than my actual age.
It isn’t like I would go back to any earlier time in my life were I to be given the choice. Most of my childhood was very difficult. My time as an undergraduate student was also incredibly painful. I had a boyfriend who spent months trying to convince me to date him. Once I finally gave him, he commenced ignoring me and seeking out parties where he could drink and smoke pot. He broke up with me just before we both went to study abroad and then proceeded to email me every week, pleading with me to get back together. I finally gave in (seeing a pattern of enabling yet?), and a few weeks later he broke up with me again, saying he just wasn’t at a place where he could be with anyone. We went back to school for our senior year, and he immediately started dating a sophomore known for her sexual inhibitions. All of our friends had been intertwined, and they chose him. Our closest shared friend and I remained close for a few months and then he told me it was too emotionally confusing for him to spend time with me, and I was completely alone.
So yeah, a return to college and a time when I was struggling with body image, unhealthy relationships (intimate and plutonic), I wore unflattering clothing, and had one bad haircut after another? No thanks.
In addition, I have found that looking young, coupled with being small of stature, has been an irritating hindrance in my professional career. I have felt like I was not taken seriously, especially in my life as a park ranger. Even in uniform, people would make comments.
Are you tall enough to be a park ranger?
Are you a Junior Ranger?
Etc. etc. Trust me when I say that it gets old (no pun intended). There is the additional #metoo moments when old men have made references to how young I looked while simultaneously hitting on me.
Dude, if you think I look 16, what are you doing flirting with a minor?
Suffice it to say that I am feeling my age and also that while I have learned a great deal—about myself and the world—the more I discover the more I realize there remain many, many layers to unearth. I feel like an archaeological dig that never quite ends.
Bob Dylan was spot on when he wrote the line, Ah, but I was so much older then I’m younger than that now.
For me, the path forward is toward balance and acceptance; contentment, if not outright bliss. I know that bliss can be fleeting, though I will take it when I can cultivate it.
Contentment and acceptance seem like they should be attainable. I have the sense that if I keep working on “the Marieke dig,” eventually I can get to a place where the moments of balance last longer and longer.
For me, this alone is reason enough to not want to shift back in time. Perhaps, it is part of my process of learning acceptance to recognize that it takes time to process pain and trauma. So each new wrinkle and mark of aging is actually representative of experience and practice on the path.
I recently was listening to a This American Life podcast, “It’ll make sense when you’re older” on the subject of aging. It was triggering for me, particular the piece toward the end, which featured an interview with an Alzheimer’s patient.
When he said the words, There is no path back, I felt the poignancy of his words deep in my core.
The only path back that I have found is to revisit the elements of my earlier life that haunt me in order to experience more freedom in the present and future.
May there be many days, wrinkles, aches, pains, and moments of love, bliss, and revelation to come.