Today is the oldest you've ever been, and the youngest you'll ever be again. ― Eleanor Roosevelt
I'll never be as young as I am today...and yet, an essential part of me is aware that the internal process of aging is not unlike a giant oak tree shedding its leaves in early autumn. It has more than just begun.
Like many things, the process of aging is coloured by the beliefs each of us has about what we make that word mean. Some believe that when they hit a certain age they become invisible, while others report that life only begins after fifty. I look out into the world of women I admire for aging gracefully, and people like Annie Lennox and Judi Dench come to mind. Both of these women are passionate about their work and continue to evolve, showing up for causes they believe in, in a world they continue to co-create. Neither have tried to hide or alter their aging natural beauty. They are fierce, authentic and connected to life.
Somewhere in my forties, I spotted my first greying hair, noticed wrinkles that didn't stand down when I stopped smiling or frowning, and observed a body that despite not eating differently than I had in the past, was changing shape and size. There are the underlying factors that perhaps augment my relationship and experience of the aging process. Nevertheless, as I witnessed these changes, my first inclination was to fight 'it', as if aging, or my aging body, were the villain. But now, more than several years into the whole 'oak-losing-leaves' scenario, I realise those early days were a walk in the park compared to the 'mountain-climbing of aging' that was yet, and that is yet still to come. This year in particular has been one of adaptations, alterations and acceptance.
Because, at the heart of graceful aging is acceptance. Acceptance is what both Annie and Judi, in one way or another exude, and seemed to have found somewhere along the way in their own aging pilgrimmage. Here's a little secret: a decade ago when living in London, I taught Annie a series of yoga lessons. At that time, she was learning to live with peripheral neuropathy in her feet, a condition that does not necessarily ever go away. Due to it causing numbness and tingling, it impedes movement and balance, sometimes severely impacting one's quality of life. I'll never forget the elegance in which she practiced vrksasana, or tree pose, which is traditionally practiced as a balance on one leg. She stood with both feet on the ground, her whole body reaching up through her arms with that gorgeous pixie face tilted skyward. With a knowing glance she said, "I can't feel my feet but I know my roots." It was only later that I learned she had been filming for a television show revealing her ancestry.
In the latest installment of my own body's signs of aging, the past five months have been mired in foot problems. From a stress fracture in my left foot to an ankle impingement in my right ankle, I would have had a great excuse to lie in bed and watch the leaves fall from the 'ol oak tree. Yet for me, acceptance means learning to meet challenges as they arise, neither in fight or surrender. Meeting something or someone where they are - whether it be a person, a challenging situation or an illness - means awareness, adaptation and adjustment. This does not necessarily mean changing course or oneself for that matter, but rather, making more time to understand what, or who the other is, and giving oneself the space and opportunity to adapt to the other's presence; to learn how to be in a healthy, productive relationship. My own life's intention has become more and more clear as I age, which is to practice being a Being of Health. Health, for me, implies dynamism and responsiveness that requires adaptability and awareness. Its a letting go of rigid routine and expectation replaced by exploration and curiosity - with a focus on possibility. A large part of my life's work has been in learning to adjust my mindset to underline what is working rather than lamenting on the limitations of what isn't.
Another aspect of aging can lead people to become more curious, like Annie, about their heritage, their roots. My maternal grandfather did a lot of research when in his thirties about his roots, which led him to create an extensive family tree he hand-drew back 1959. Ours is filled with European (English) roots and blood stained hands. As some of the first travellers in Frigate ships to the 'new world', they claimed and named Native Indian territory, killing and displacing many along the way. The patriarchs were busy in haughty political roles forming a nation, while the women 'held down the fort', quite literally in some cases.
My father, on the other hand, researched his ancestry only a few years ago with the help of a cousin, and I'm currently in the process of transforming that research into a family tree. My respect for my maternal grandfather has skyrocketed in this process (so many little boxes, and by hand!). Another outcome of the family tree project, is that it has been another reminder that each generation who came before, came with a birth and an expiry date. While some children lived less than a year, others crossed the hundred year mark. Other branches of our heritage were wiped out completely thanks to the Holocaust. As I typed my own name into its little box, I paused in reverence to my organ donor and the various doctors who have kept me alive longer than my parents ever expected, and wondered what my 'D' would read.
As I now prepare to travel back to the 'new world' after two years away, I'm aware of the passing of time. My father will celebrate his eightieth birthday during my visit; my mother became an octogenarian a few months ago and celebrated with a hip replacement. Each time I visit my family, the plane trip becomes longer, more expensive, and yes, more cumbersome with an aging body. It is also more precious. Who knows how many more of these trips will see my whole famly of origin together?
The thing, more than anything else, about aging, is being able to see the broader strokes of a lifetime: forgiving people for wounds of the past, a deepened understanding of the myriad of circustances that lead to movement and change, and the miracle of connection. In this vast world, any two people who find each other, come together and create new life is quite a feat. To then have the capacity to nourish that life with love, attention and continuity is a rare gem that we often take for granted; yet, to experience the depths of that kind of love, even if only for moments, is a gift - its the gift of life. It seems to me that it is the seeing all of that, which is the gift of aging.