Wednesday, February 10, 2010
My Real Age
"The best age to be is the age you are."--quote used by Susan Moon in her book This is Getting Old: Zen Thoughts on Aging with Humor and Dignity
I got a package at work today. It was my $9 trench coat. It actually costs $49, but I won't go into the long story of why it only cost me $9. This isn't a shopping blog.
I opened the box and took out the coat. It was red--I had wanted a red trench coat for years--I have it in my head that it's a French woman's wardrobe staple. The coat has horn-shaped buttons, like little chili peppers, and a belt to cinch it. But after examining the coat for a few minutes I thought, this is for Juniors. This is not for me.
So I have this thing about age. I define myself by it, and I also use it to judge others. I don't like to admit that I do this because--in all fairness--I think the older you get, the more value you have to society because of all your experience. It makes me furious when I see older people being treated like they're invisible or worse. But there are deep-seated ideas I have of what it is to be of a certain age. I obsess over being age-appropriate. I won't wear anything that's short or tight or is by a particular brand known for making clothes for younger women, even if the style looks perfectly fine on me. Recently, I looked at a picture of myself and the first thing I saw were the lines on my neck. "Oh, I hope you don't inherit my neck" my mother said without thinking. That's it, I said. I'm officially at the Candace Bergen stage of dressing--I'm wearing nothing but turtlenecks until summer!
And it's not just about appearance. As I get older, I worry that life is no longer that movie in which you're the starring ingenue. I'm married, settled in a job, I know where I'm going to live for the foreseeable future. To the outside world I'm all done...I'm figured-out. The End. But what happens AFTER the end of the movie?
I feel like I've lost what makes me mysterious, intriguing even. I don't feel as fully alive as I did when I was younger because so much of what was novel to me then is old news now.
I'm not saying this is rational thinking. Of course people continue to learn and grow after 35. I love being around older people (and NOT just because they make me feel younger!) Growing up an only child, I was constantly surrounded by adults and I liked it that way. Adults were dignified, worldly, intelligent in ways that none of my young friends were.
But emotions are rarely rational. If I could get my head and heart to engage in some sort of truce, I'd be a lot more relaxed. But head and heart are sworn enemies--in fact, they are dead to each other. My head says, stop limiting yourself! Wear the coat, go to the party, talk to those college students. When I was nineteen older people intrigued me, so why should it be any different for these new crop of kids? They don't necessarily care about my age, it's not a big deal.
But my heart says, Who are you kidding? You're washed-up. Old news. Might as well just hang it up and start wearing long nightgowns.
I didn't always feel like getting older was something to fear. When I was in college I desperately wanted to be older. I wanted to travel and write and be an editor and have a nice apartment and be married. I remember bringing pots and pans, nice dishes, even a marble cutting board to my dorm at Rutgers. In an effort to get to know people, I made them pasta and served it in ceramic bowls, not plastic, and with real silverware. People probably thought I was nuts. I dressed up for class everyday in silky shirts and sleek skirts and hosiery. This was in the early nineties when everyone else went grunge--wearing the uniform of plaid flannel shirts and dirty jeans to class--even the women. I rarely wore pants and NEVER would be caught dead in sweatpants, especially ones with the name of my school ironed-on the leg. One time I was mistaken for a professor and was flattered.
I remember going to see the movie Damage at the student center with a friend of mine. It was an over-the-top story of a love triangle between a father, son, and the son's fiance. I had read the book by Josephine Hart and I remember feeling very adult carrying it around. The movie starred Juliette Binoche, and at the time I thought she was just the most elegant, chic actress I had ever seen. A lot of it had to do with her trench coat and sassy haircut and casually-draped scarf that was all so very French. I walked out of the movie wanting her life. But I had to settle for cappucino and chocolate croissants in the college center Au Bon Pain.
Now look at me. I'm no Juliette Binoche, of course, but I'm a grown-up woman, with nice clothes and a cute, funny husband, and a job in publishing. I've been to Paris. Isn't that what I wanted back then? I even have the trench coat, though I haven't quite mastered the casually-draped scarf.
But here I am worried about being old and getting even older, and wishing I could be 22 again. But do I really? Many of us say we want to go back in time, but how many movies have there been where a kid switches bodies with an adult and later they both realize they were happier before? There are good and bad things about every phase and age of life, and it's delusional to think that being 22 again would make me happy, just like it's delusional to think having a new car or house or body would make me happy. This is who I am now. The past is past, the future is yet to be determined, but the present moment is mine.
At age 36, I'm hardly finished. You're never really finished until you're dead, and at that point, you probably won't care--maybe you'll even be glad to be done!
I read an article about cryogenics in the New Yorker recently and told some friends that I was considering being frozen when I died. They laughed. Why would I want to do life over again? It wouldn't be how my life is now, with my family and friends and familiar creature comforts. The world would be more like it was portrayed in Wall-E, run completely by computers in outer space somewhere.
No, the Buddhists are right. It's better to just allow time to pass, to not cling too much to the past. I'm at my best age now, and next year I'll still be at my best age.