Awhile ago, a friend set me the task of considering what “old” means to me. She set me the task because we recognised that I was adopting some limiting beliefs about myself and my place in the world and that these were holding me back from enjoying all aspects of life.
The second love of my life (mentioned recently in Ten Thousand Days) was almost half my age when we met. In all the years we were together, I never admitted that it was I who had more of a problem with our age difference than did he. It wasn’t the fear of being left for a younger woman, although that was always there. In western culture, it doesn’t matter how old the man is, it is still common for him to reach a point in life where he partners with a much younger woman, anyway. Whether my partner was the same age as I, a little older, or a lot younger, the chances were always high that eventually, he would trade me for a newer model and society would be alright with his choice. Many would congratulate him for his accomplishment.
No, it wasn’t fear of being “traded in” that plagued me. It was the shame I felt from others and from within, at foregoing a romantic relationship with a man my own age for a younger man full of promise, optimism, and fresh ideas. Let’s be real: that made me the subject of ridicule.
Society deemed me to be a cougar who couldn’t control her sex drive, regardless of the reality of what had attracted me to him, him to me and what had kept us together. A woman with a younger man is painted as a grotesque cradle snatching crone while a man who does the same is deemed a sexy and desirable silver fox.
It is so entrenched, we fail to see the irony right before us. Recently, my father asked about my life and loves in London and I shared with him some of my goings on. He was concerned and felt it necessary to warn me that all these younger people with whom I socialize will not be true friends. They will get bored, and won’t stick around. You can’t count on younger people to be there. Of course, as a man, I guess the same concern never applied to him. His wife, 25 years younger than he, has stuck with him for more than 25 years.
It isn’t just an older generation thing to feel entitled to pass judgement. I hear the same comments from friends of all ages.
To many 25 year olds, a 40 year old might as well be 80. Both are unfathomable.
I remember the first time I felt there was a gap between myself and “young people.” I was going to my friend’s 20-something birthday party in Shoreditch. I was a few years older than he, and as I was in the queue for the bar, a couple of young men passed me on the street and – looking to me – one said to the other: “Did you bring your grandmother tonight?” There were men my own age, and older than I, who were in the same queue and they were not subjected to ridicule.
There is a persistent double standard here, and both women and men use it to control women.
Younger women who think feminism is irrelevant are not very self aware. It isn’t surprising that when meeting me for the first time, the new girlfriend of that second love of my life fixated on my age, inquiring repeatedly how old I was, in front of him. Women are bitches to one another and I can only assume her insistence on pressing the point was meant to embarrass me, as she – unlike me – was the same age as him. Had I been inclined, I could have thrown back any number of other ways women oppress other women and perhaps inquired into her weight or her dress sense or why she didn’t have a bigger job.
The ways we use to hurt one another shines a light on how society tells us (leaving aside gender and sexual identity) who we should be, as women: Young, attractive, thin, married, mothers, and financially successful. Most of us can only manage part of that list at any given time. The rest is where we attack one another.
A friend once commented that when I am in Vancouver, my photography appears middle aged, but when I am in London, it is fresh, vibrant and hip. In Vancouver, I have friends from my youth, who are my age, family who are mostly older (even in my extended family) and no friends that I have made, recently. Many people I know here have lived many parts of a conventional lifestyle: graduate, get a job, get married, buy a house, have children, move ahead in career, get divorced, downsize and try to stave off redundancies in the workplace.
For the last twenty years, I have lived a cosmopolitan lifestyle. Rather than accumulate things over my lifetime, I have (with varying degrees of success) been working to divest myself of them. Rather than put down roots, I have seen the world. Rather than plan every aspect of my future, while missing the present, and more frequently looking back with nostalgia, I have worked to stay “in the moment,” and look ahead to the next adventure. And, rather than strive to be one thing and do one thing, I have been a lifelong learner and had a portfolio career. And even as friends and family “worry” about me spending so much time with younger people, and in cosmopolitan pursuits, they haven’t considered whether I have more interests and aspects of lifestyle in common with young, never married, childless artists than with themselves. Our choices and preferences are so different that were it not for longevity and loyalty, we might not be friends, if we were to meet one another, now.
Visiting with friends, and family, alike, the conversation has been on health – or more precisely – failing health, death, old age planning and the like. Just because I don’t talk about these things doesn’t mean I haven’t thought about them but to make them the focus of conversation is bloody depressing. Rather than fixate on all the things that could kill me, I focus on how to feel most alive, productive and creative, despite whatever limitations I have already, or will eventually encounter in my physical health.
In less than a week of visiting, I have been pushed, on more than one occasion, to accept myself as “old” and my life to be more befitting a mobility scooter than a Vespa!
That is a good question.
Why would anyone want their loved one to feel “old?”
I can’t imagine a single positive outcome from such a label. We all age and our bits get creaky and worn. Are we going to have more energy and resilience from a focus on all the limitations that come with time or from a focus on something more vital?
Rejecting the label does not mean I am in some mid-life crisis of trying to cling to my youth. Whatever the age of the man I happen to date, I know who I am, and I am in the middle of middle age. Like everyone else my age, I am in my productive years although I have more health issues than I did in my twenties and my skin is wrinkled in places where it once was tight and elastic.
No longer a young person, and not yet “old,” I sit uncomfortably between the two and try to define, for myself what these years will be. I don’t anticipate that I will be able to retire, financially, until I am over 70, and so I plan for fitness, and vitality, not for illness and winding down.
The impact of the coming of (middle) age is no less than the coming of age we experienced as a 25 year old. This time has the potential to be magical and transformational. Yet we never outgrow societal pressure. Life in the middle seems to be navigating a fault line between the tyranny of eternal youth on the one hand and the simultaneous imperative to conform to a stereotype of ageing into invisibility, asexuality and irrelevance.
Who are we (now)?
What do we want to do with (the rest of) our lives?
These look like familiar questions, but there isn’t much guidance on how to successfully navigate this territory on our own.
Living beyond middle age is a relatively recent phenomenon. I suspect this precarious split in identity really comes down to a failure to deal with the inevitability of death. Unconsciously, the advertisers know we are in denial. If we can just maintain young skin, we might fool the Angel of death. And, if we can’t beat death, we can at least control it by creating rules about how to behave, as we wait for its inevitable arrival.
Perhaps the insistence on conformity provides some comfort to those who are unwilling to live in the bittersweet space of living a diminishing number of years to their fullest. A death of hope and a death of vitality which precedes the physical death may serve to numb the pain of letting go. Having company through the bonds of conformity may mask the fact that when the end comes, we will all be utterly alone in an experience that – like birth – is actually the only universal experience there is.
“Old” is a state of mind I associate with a fear of death, and not with a biological age.
I became “old” in my early twenties, when my mother died in her middle age, shortening my own life expectancy and making my own death a reality.
At 25, I had to learn to grow young again.
I thought of the last time my mother and I had been in Key West, a few years before she died. She was in her early fifties and I never could have imagined it would be her last time in that place. She wanted to watch the sunset on our last night there but I was eager to get home and watch some programme on MTV. Being a whiny teenager, I won out.
I felt guilty about this when she died. How many real life experiences had she missed, thinking there was always more time? To atone for my selfishness, I decided not to get to the end of my life – whenever that might come – and find that I had not lived it. I made a point of saying yes to opportunities the moment they arose, because another chance was never guaranteed.
And, I still watch the sun setting on the water, as often as I can.
As we come to the close of another year, I am thinking about what “old” means to me.
I am grateful for my friend, Natasha, who pointed out the difference in my photography, so that I could begin to make conscious my perceptions and attitudes and where I might best question whether those attitudes serve me. I am grateful for my friend, Addila, who posed the question of what “old” means to me. It has given me a starting point to consider what I am accepting as peer pressure and how I want to define myself, at 25, 50, 75 and 100. I am grateful for both the films and books like The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window and Disappeared, which are filled with the joy of a fully lived life. I feel a sense of Oneness with those who lived remarkable lives by saying yes to the moment. As a young girl, I dreamed of being Auntie Mame, and to a large extent, I have accomplished that. My service is to model a way to define these middle years that savours all the joy, optimism, sexuality and creativity that is available.
For what are you grateful, this week?