I had rounded the corner on my street and was pumping up the last hill. It was a good walk. More energetic than usual. That’s when I saw her, as I was nearing my house. She’s a neighbor, but I rarely even catch a glimpse. It has to be a year, maybe longer.
I don’t know her age. I don’t know her profession. I don’t know anything about her life other than the fact that we said hello, briefly, when I moved to this street as a 40-something single mother largely surrounded by 20-something and 30-something couples, most of whom were childless.
She and her husband keep to themselves. He works in the yard. Their cars come and go.
She was standing by her mailbox and appeared lost in thought. In fact, she had aged so much I barely recognized her. Her body language indicated fatigue or possibly fragility. Her face was its own statement in transition: she was neither young nor old, and strangely – both.
Two years ago I would have said this woman was 30. Now?
Transition to Midlife
I would guess my neighbor to be 40 or 42. Has she been ill? Not sleeping? Under terrible stress? Perhaps she is 40 and showing her age whereas a year or two back that wasn’t the case.
That’s the thing about midlife: it sneaks up when we’re busy living; it wallops us over the head without warning; it arrives at a different point in time for each of us – gradually or suddenly.
Aging is a subtle adversary; we may sigh and ignore its presence, or obsess over its unwillingness to install its sorry wares elsewhere. Maybe we glance in a mirror and the surprise of it is striking. There’s that deepening line we used to dismiss, or traces of a hardened expression even when we’re smiling.
Either way, at 40 or 50 or whenever that pivotal point announces itself, the signs are inevitable and our reactions, variable. That’s especially true in a culture that worships youth, as our experience of growing older becomes an evolving and highly personal adventure.
Some are so busy living they take no note at all. Others fret – trying to face it – and struggling with acceptance.
What if we viewed aging as something other than the enemy, but a natural process? What might that be like? Freedom perhaps?
The “downhill” side of aging manifests differently in each of us.
For women? It can be a shrug, a shock, or a roller coaster in part fueled by hormones.
But in my view? More likely? Try our own critical self-image, society’s response to our changing appearance, tangible and related impacts – a spouse who leaves for a younger model, or jobs that are no longer accessible.
Stay stuck in the anger?
So what about denial versus acceptance? What about plunging enthusiastically into something new? What about the much touted value of midlife reinvention? Is that the key to aging gracefully, naturally, triumphantly?
When Does Aging Begin?
Perhaps our inability to wish away the external signs of aging begins at 35 or 40. For me it was older and I attribute that to heredity. Then again, I’m a believer in the power of pursuing our passions and goals, the confidence we exude, and I’m a devotee of the ultimate feel good drug – laughter.
I say that, fully aware there were periods in recent years when I lost my sense of humor entirely. Aging was the least of my concerns. Finishing the job of raising my sons on too little money and too much fatigue trumped any “frivolous” concern with wrinkles or my waist gone MIA.
I’m also fully aware of the role nutrition, exercise, sleep, and stress play into notions of successful aging. We do what we can in those areas, don’t we?
And the most “detrimental” sort of aging? The resistance to opening our hearts and minds, to giving, to learning?
Nope. Pas moi. Not there yet, and don’t plan to be.
Why We Age at Different Rates
As for my neighbor, she isn’t a woman who wears makeup, so I wasn’t simply seeing her clean-faced. I may have caught a glimpse after an illness or some other draining event which has left her noticeably aged.
While appearing older has little bearing on whether we’re fit or strong, I am fascinated when able to perceive both youth and age as it registers on the same face. This led me to wonder about the way we age, as well as the way we appear to age.
I’ve known 60-year olds who filled their environments with purpose, creativity, and learning, giving off a vibrant energy that was irresistible. I’ve known self-absorbed or narrow-minded 40-year olds who embrace winding down at an age when I was yet to fully gear up, and they’re seeing themselves as “old.”
Their experience is no less real or valid than mine. Yet what makes the difference? Heredity? Environment? Personality? Fortune? Misfortune? Some alchemy we can’t quite define?
In my curiosity, I searched for the reasons that people age differently – physically and emotionally. I found little, but I enjoyed this article on those who live a life of creativity, and the manner in which they seem to age. Is it passion for life that makes growing older less important or less constraining?
Why Do Men and Women Age Differently?
So what about the fact that men 15 years past high school seem to look older than the women? Or is that myth? I’ve observed it myself, though that’s hardly a statistically relevant bit of data.
Looks may be one issue, but what about what’s going on inside? Women used to live longer than men, but the longevity gender gap is narrowing and reflects progress for men and growing pressures on women.
A 2011 study from the University of Wisconsin’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation reported that women currently live only two years longer than men on average. One reason is that new medications and surgical advancements are keeping more men from having deadly heart attacks… Beyond that though, a Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index released in July of 2011 showed that women ages 45 to 64 have the lowest well-being and the highest stress levels of any age group or gender. Medical experts say that these factors could contribute to shorter lifespans for Boomer women.
The article goes on to compare cognitive abilities, heart health, and other differences in how men and women age.
But those stress mentions? I’d be crazy not to worry.
What about you?
How We Look vs How We Feel
I wonder if my neighbor is in the midst of a sorrowful event, or if she’s sliding into that transitional time when she’s showing her age.
That place of “in between.”
When I contemplate pictures of myself taken five years ago, I look ten years younger. Two years ago? That was my pivot point, but enough time has passed that I appreciate where I am, I’m aware of habits I must improve for the sake of my long-term health, and while much remains unresolved when it comes to my personal “what next,” there is much that is good in my life and I do not take this chapter for granted.
The result is less concern for how I look and more for how I feel, a desire to live fully to the extent that is possible, and a stubborn insistence on engaging my creativity – while I still possess it.
I imagine someone seeing me these days as compared to two years ago might think the same as I did about my neighbor: I can see her young, I can see her old.
To which I would reply: As long as you can still see me.