It’s an equally strangely surprising thing that I have just turned 80.
Does that make me old? I think not, just older … older than I was the day before, yesterday. Older than just seconds ago. But old? Never.
Back in December last year, organising a month-long diary writing project that is now lodged with Perth Museum in their Covid-related archives, I wrote: “Today, after a long deep sleep, I woke to winter-warm light in a cold blue sky. Of course the sun is shining, it’s Buffy’s birthday. How come she is 55? I remember being 55, and it’s not that long ago. All part of the shape shifting that comes with age, but especially this year, when time seems to have lost shape altogether.”
And here I have to smile, because it’s not just time that has lost its shape. Parts of my body are on an ever-speeding downward trajectory, and as for my skin and muscle tone … something has definitely changed, even in recent months.
Mostly however I hear people talk about old people and wonder what and who they mean. I believe it’s a word that needs to be banished from the lexicon of daily usage. Yes, I know it means having lived or existed for a long time, but that’s not how it is regarded. It sweeps us all up regardless …
Old is anyone who has retired (not that I know what that means either). Anyone who has grey hair. Anyone who only wants to live with people of their own age. Anyone who cannot be bothered to keep up with new technology and world affairs. Anyone who chooses to wear a hairnet. (My mother wore a hairnet at night from the day her husband died; she was just 51.)
The American comedian, actor, singer and writer George Burns (1902-1996) is quoted as saying: “You can’t help getting older, but you don’t have to get old.”
Elena Roosevelt (former First Lady, diplomat and activist, 1884-1962) has a different slant on the subject: “Today is the oldest you’ve ever been, and the youngest you’ll ever be again.”
The actor and prolific writer Shirley Maclaine also knows what I am talking about.
Now 87, she wrote in I’m Over All That: And Other Confessions (2011): “In this third act of my life, much has become clearer, so much is over, and I am over so much… I have learned to ease up on worry, scheming for films or rolls, planning for better surroundings, and feeling anger at all our leaders who operate politically rather than humanely. Yes, I am over all that. I’m over listening to advertisements, the latest fashions (I never was much for that), events I should attend in order to be seen, red carpet madness. I’m getting more and more free from the expectations of the external world. In fact the one worry I can’t seem to give up and get over is a lingering fear that being a reclusive, happy, older woman may not be entirely healthy. But who says so?”
I loved her book Sageing not Ageing, in which she focuses on the benefits of growing older: In her case, an increasing wisdom. Of course, some may say, it okay for her, being rich and famous. But I’m not sure that becomes very important, or any consolation, towards the end …
Or the beginning, as Shirley – and I – choose to believe… A new beginning.
When asked if I am truly convinced there is life beyond death, my reply is always the same: If there is nothing, so be it, there is nothing. But if there is something, how interesting, how exciting …
June 12, from A Year With Rumi – daily readings (Coleman Barks, 2006)
THE MORNING WIND SPREADS ITS FRESH SMELL
WE MUST GET UP AND TAKE THAT IN,
THAT WIND THAT LET’S US LIVE.
BREATHE, BEFORE IT’S GONE.