I was riding my pink bicycle down Gill the other day—enjoying the fall sunshine and my new corduroy pants I had just purchased at a thrift store—when I saw the homeless couple I had fed and clothed the day before. Feeling all puffed up because of my charitable act, I waved mightily at my new friends, almost toppling off my bike. The man pointed at me and distinctly said to his girlfriend: “There’s that old woman who gave us those tacky clothes yesterday.”
I stopped pedaling, got off my bicycle, and just stood there, staring at the ground. Rarely has the wind been taken out of my sails so thoroughly and rapidly. I barely had the energy to lift my feet, but on I went, now walking my bicycle, trudging home. It wasn’t the first time I had let words or opinions ruin my day.
But here’s the thing: I never think of myself as old. I ride a bike or walk approximately 6 miles a day. I frolic endlessly with my dog, Mallory, and have as much energy as a 25-year-old. Sexually, I must admit I’m not the spitfire I used to be, but with the help of a few hormones and a lot of foreplay, I manage.
Old is a state of mind, right? Some people are older at 25 than others are at age 60, right? Old is not determined by your years but by your abilities, right?
Wrong! Wrong, wrong, wrong, my inner voice kept telling me.
I reviewed my last few weeks. I had met with a Social Security expert to determine how I could get the most for my money when I turn 65 next month. SIXTY-FIVE! How did it happen? I tell myself it’s not a big deal, but it is—I am eligible for benefits.
How did so many years pass? It wasn’t that long ago when I was walking barefoot to class at UT, with my Samoyed dog, Daniel, by my side; long, wavy blonde hair falling to my waist; going to Billy Graham crusades with my forefinger reaching toward the sky: “One way! One way!” How many years and religions have I gone through since that time, with none quite satisfying the longing in my soul?
At Sassy Anne’s the other night, a young man came up to me. “I wish my grandmother was as cool as you,” he said, giving me a hug.
When did I stop being the same age as these youngsters? When did I stop being young? Where is the line between young and old? Who determines it? And does it matter?
Being young is not always that great, anyway. When I was in my 20s, I was miserable. Always waiting for some guy to call who didn’t. Wearing skirts so short my legs got frostbit in the winter, burnt in the summer. Skipping classes and driving to the mountains to escape. Escape what? Myself. But there was no escape from that.
Now I wander the streets with my dog, Mallory, wondering what the meaning of life is. But the meaning of life is nothing more than just that—wandering and wondering and walking. Why need there be more than that?
And now these thoughts of growing old: They are real. The loss of one’s mental functioning is real. Was it today or yesterday that I started to introduce one friend to another and could not remember one of their names? This is indeed alarming. It was at just my age that my mother began forgetting things and tried to cover up the fact.
At just my age, my father began losing his balance. When my grandmother was just one year older than me, she died of leukemia.
Someday I’ll die. And what then? A vast golden street through the heavens, a screaming eternity of flames? An endless bliss that comes from within? We don’t really know, do we?
On the day that the homeless man called me an old woman, exactly one month from my 65th birthday, I peered into the mirror. Undeniably, there were multiple lines crisscrossing my face this way and that, like the intricate puzzle of existence. There is no erasing them, disguising them, altering them. I have not lived a clean life and it shows.
Then I remembered a photograph of one of my favorite writers, Ellen Gilchrist, in which she had not made any effort to cover up the lines on her face—the sorrows and joys and endless burdens of a lifetime. It was a beautiful photograph and I applauded her for it. Then it occurred to me, those lines are a map of our life, the roads we have traveled, the people we have met along the way, parted from, and moved on along our path. We should be proud of those lines, and cherish ourselves for having made it this far,
I still put on make-up to try and cover the ravages of my life—it makes me feel better. Yet from now on I will not look at the wear and tear of a lifetime as something ugly, but rather as a badge of merit. We are the only ones with those particular lines, who have traveled on just that path at that time. Let us honor ourselves and others we meet on the road to a higher place.
Donna Johnson describes herself as a person who thrives on breaking the rules other people have made while also creating rules for herself that do make sense. “My rules do not necessarily follow the law set out by the government and law-abiding citizens,” she says. “They follow an inner law, one unto myself, and when I attempt to go outside this, to conform, disaster follows.” Her stories are often about people who are not recognized by others, who may even seem invisible, but “they often have a great truth to share if one but listens.”
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