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This Process of Aging Part I

I am getting older. Of course, this is true for everyone, but it has arrived for me like an insistent house guest, and I find myself its ambivalent host. For a while, cruising through my late thirties and into my mid-forties, it felt like I was actually getting younger. Each year filled with a sense of youthfulness and discovery. I felt like an innocent, testing out the deep waters after decades of playing in the shallow end. And then it happened. Like something lifted and the reality of my chronology became apparent to me. I realized I am at the door of my Queen years. My own parents gone, and my children now young men preparing to head out into the world on their own, I feel my purpose and my position in the larger lineage of my life shifting radically. I look at babies and feel the grandmother of me tickling at my heart. It feels like such an organic transpiration. I’m definitely ready. But what has become apparent to me here is that there is no turning back. That’s always true for all of us, but up to a certain point, we are not oriented to this awareness. We aren’t supposed to be. Here, it has occurred to me that I am closer to my death than I am to my birth. That the ground beneath me is shifting in exactly the appropriate ways based on this immutable fact. But here, there is so much I don’t know. In the absence of knowing, I miss my mother deeply. Who are my guides?

 Aleah Chapin’s award-winning portrait of a life-long friend, “In her, I see the personification of strength through an unguarded and accepting presence.”

Aleah Chapin’s award-winning portrait of a life-long friend, “In her, I see the personification of strength through an unguarded and accepting presence.”

Without making a conscious decision to do so, about five years ago I began seeking out women elders. I stopped studying with men and began fervently seeking the grandmothers. I went to pray with the 13 Indigenous Grandmothers. I spent a torrentially rainy autumn week with Joanna Macy. Each time I sat almost motionless, watching every movement, every impulse, every breath of these gorgeous old ladies! What were they doing? How were they doing it? What was moving them? What are they afraid of? What are they now fearless about? In my daily life, I am hungrily drawn to the distinct energy of the elder women all around me who are navigating this terrain. Immersing myself in this deceptively deep though heartbreakingly stealth stream, it feels like I’m hydrating a parched patch of my own land. Land that has been condemned as uninhabitable by my culture.

We live in a culture which is terrified of age, a culture nearly devoid of significantly present and respected female elders - who are owning their elderhood. I look around to find that too many of my elder sisters have learned how to play this game - staying one step ahead of the fierce but beautiful aging process with chemicals, surgery and clothing that doesn’t honor the shape and needs of our aging bodies. Imagining there is some new-world nobility in learning how to navigate this maze of externally dictated (and unnatural) expectations for how we should look, basing our worth on our ability to stay youthfully appealing, sometimes I feel like I’m walking among traitors. Here my heart breaks as I watch too many of my elder sisters avoiding - at all costs - the possibility that we would own our age and our wisdom and become intimidating to the uninitiated. That perhaps now is when we are meant to stop caring whether we are found attractive by other humans, allowing ourselves to answer to something much greater, like the final question - did we lead relevant lives as fierce lovers and servants of this world? Did we hone our skills as love makers, body and soul, in this lifetime, finding an ever-bolder beautifully unapologetic expression of our gratitude and longing? And did we trust that here, in this place, we would become the most beautiful version of ourselves?

What do the real bodies and faces of women look like who are fierce lovers and servants of this world? What does it look like to embrace that with each new level of wisdom comes a new wrinkle, an ache in our bones, a necessary slowing down and a deeper conversation with Death?

Recently I noticed the pictures of me don’t align with my image of myself. That I’m still imagining the me of my early forties. I looked at a photograph the Earthquake Man just took of me in the desert and didn’t recognize myself. I wanted to turn away. I said, “That photograph scares me. I see an old woman.” He said, without any response other than a perfunctory one, “Hmm. That’s not what I see. I see a beautiful woman.”

I am determined not to make an enemy of my age. It comes with deep grief. How could I ever say I’m done with this world, ready to depart it’s cottonwoods and finches, the sweet breath of my children and their children, the sunsets and autumn’s last strawberries? Well, it’s perfect that I end with that, because autumn’s last strawberries have the most complex flavor, filled with the innocence of spring and sharpened with the warning of first frosts and the last-gasp-give-it-everything-you’ve-got burst of no-going-back.

I know, at 47 I’m a long way from this moment. But I crossed a threshold recently, realizing that my job as a woman is shifting. My definition of beauty being refined and deepened and the need for my sense-of-self to answer to a much greater reflection of my own worth and purpose. I am afraid here, finding my way by looking within and back as much as I continue to look forward.