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Aging: The Beauty and the Beast

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When it turns on you, that beginning of the year list—the one with the identifiers “I will … so that I can …” can be worse than a pack of yapping Chihuahuas. This year, I dumped the list in favor of quiet time with questions that had to do with being a woman who’s in her sixties. I found myself asking, “What are my dreams? What do I have to contribute? What are my gifts? What do I dare?”

In the last few years, there’s been an exciting groundswell in awareness and support for women, their skills and their potential to help shape a more balanced and nurturing future. And each generation of women has its challenges and its sweet spots. Each has something special to give.

As older women, we have stories to tell about the journey we’ve made and what we’ve seen along the way. What it’s like physically, in mind, and in spirit to age. The doubts and fears that emerge when we look at ourselves in the mirror. The aches and pains that weren’t there before and make us wonder, is this it? Is this the one I won’t recover from? By relating the stories of how we got here, who we met and why and what happened we can begin to accept who we are. These stories help reveal our unique gifts; the power of who we really are.

In America, more than many other places, getting older is seen as a disease. Elders are often quarantined or patronized. On the Internet, and face to face, they’re viewed as cute or as having ‘simple’ minds. Some women morph into “cougars,” desperately seeking and using anything that will help maintain a youthful image. And while this can turn into a delightful Indian summer for some, for most women, the fear that drives this phenomena is visible. They’re neglecting to focus on their true gifts.

My own ego does a little dance at the astonished faces of people I meet when they learn I’m in my 60s. Granted, there are moments when I feel younger, ageless. Then the ego sneaks in like it did two weeks ago. Sadly, I took the fall. I was that scary ‘old woman’. Despite being in good shape, the face and the form that I wore as model and actress, a desirable younger woman, have changed. And if in your youth that kind of face and form guided your choices and direction, getting older can be even more difficult.

During this New Year retreat, a friend wrote about feeling tortured by her body and its changes. And the body does have new demands.

In week two of this retreat and feeling lethargic I began to wonder, if what I was really doing was escaping. The New Year had reminded me of the dates on my birth certificate. A friend suggested I might find relief by reading Eckhart Tolle’s book, A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose. He offers an exercise for getting in touch with the truth of who we are physically. It worked! And it was so easy.

Sit in a quiet place. Take a couple of deep breaths and imagine the inner body, the energy body that resides inside you. Feel the vitality of the aliveness that connects you with everything that lives and breathes.

As Tolle suggests, the people who’ve connected to this energy have a kind of radiance that’s unmistakable. They exude warmth that beckons and gathers others to their side. It’s a deeper energy that doesn’t change with the winds of moods. It endures despite pain or lack of sleep.

This connectedness to the inner body sometimes appears in much younger people—those who’ve been stripped bare, disabled or emotionally and physically abused. There were a group of elders who gathered early each morning in Dante’s Garden, at the top of a steep hill in Griffith Park. Hayden and I used to sit at a bench to one side. As we watched and listened, these celebrators and wisdom keepers sipped hot tea laced with vodka and played jazz, an ensemble of trombone, trumpet, clarinet and flute. They were very good. One day we asked if they played at a club where we could bring our friends. They laughed. Retired academics, lawyers, a housewife, they rehearsed on the hilltop and played in nursing homes. Coming together a few years prior, each one had a series of numbers tattooed on their wrists. They were survivors of Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz.

They told us of an African-American woman at the nursing home who inspired them. A retired lawyer who’s unable to walk, this dynamic woman lives on her bed with stacks of books, a computer and a phone. And from this small island, she offers legal advice and suggestions to people around the world; a village in Ghana, an old woman in Georgia.

In Brazil, I accompanied a friend to meet a woman who lived near a village an hour away from Sao Paulo. Turning into the driveway, I spotted a group of six men moving across a dirt field, eyes closed. Each with a hand on the shoulder of the man in front, bodies swaying, they were singing. They’d been blinded by leprosy.

Leaving the car behind, we walked toward a small cinder block house. A chorus of laughter drifted to the doorway. On the sofa, sat a thin, birdlike woman in her seventies, Dona Ninita. At first glance, I was horrified. The leprosy had taken part of her nose, and carved canyons in her cheeks. As if the leprosy wasn’t enough, I fell into a barrel of quick lime as a child, she told me with a smile.

Within two minutes, I found myself wishing I could crawl into her lap. A mulatta, she’d never learned to read or write, but visitors arrived from around the world to hear her describe in detail her visions of ancient Babylon and Egypt. Her voice was musical, her laughter pure magic. And in this compound of lepers, music and song filled the air.

Dona Ninita confided that she’d been relentlessly courted by a professor from America. In fact, they’d just been married, she confessed, laughing. Can you imagine that?!

Of course, I could. I’d never met a more joyful, funny woman in my life. Each scar was a boundary she’d crossed. From the time she was a child, Dona Ninita had chosen to concentrate on not on what she didn’t have, but what she did. She had a love for song and stories. She offered those gifts to others, inspiring them to look beyond the obvious of her shocking appearance to the truth. And they began to discover and enjoy their own gifts.

An older woman at the supermarket herds a small child alongside. Glancing up, she offers the generous coin of her smile. Moved by the light in her eyes and the ripple effect, I pass it forward as I leave.

If we concentrate too much on what’s falling away, instead of what we’ve gained; if we run like rabbits, the age and aging we fear will turn into a monster that devours our every waking minute. If we choose to ignore the possibilities that lie within, we opt to support the decree that being older is a disease. We quarantine ourselves inside that zone that begs to be patronized or ignored. Finding comfort and joy, while accepting what is we’re shouting out that age is a gift. We have stories to share, a conversation to begin. Age demands courage and daring. It thrives with humor and an open heart. In return, aging offers truth and the breathtaking beauty that’s invisible to youth.


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