Thursday, March 10, 2011

Feliz cumpleaños a mí/On having a body

This may not be the best-written of all my posts ever, because the things I want to say are difficult, and, as a result, aren't flowing through me naturally. They get stuck, and that's when language breaks down for me.

I wanted to write about the gratitude I feel at getting older, because I recognize that it is a privilege-- not everyone gets to. The fact that I live with relative health and wealth makes me one of the luckiest people alive.

But I do have a body, and growing older is hard on it. This 43rd birthday has had a special significance for me. Turning 43 has always had the (random, arbitrary) designation of true middle-age for me. As in: "I'm not middle-aged!! 40 is the new 30." And, "At 41, I'm still closer to 40 than I am to 45!!)

Well, all that's done now. I am mathematically closer to 45 than 40--numbers don't lie. I am officially middle-aged, I really can't be in denial about it any longer.

This birthday has been a time for me to reflect on middle-age-dom, and what it means to lose all vestiges and pretensions and vanities of youth.


The first thing I would comment on is, as I've grown older, I have experienced a true mind-body diversion. My mind, once the source of so much anguish and self hatred, has grown so very, very quiet and gentle in the past decade or so. The hate radio that was my mental background noise up through my mid-30's has gone all but silent now. I occasionally kick myself more than I need to, but I am blessed to say, I don't dwell on why I shouldn't be taking up precious space on the planet in the way that I used to-- I don't loathe absolutely every single thing abut myself anymore.

What's "funny", for want of a better term for it, maybe "ironic," maybe "a big cosmic joke" is that what I spent hating more than anything else all that time when I was younger was my body, my face, my whole physical manifestation. Hil-a-rious, when I look back on it now!! All that time wishing I were different, better, more beautiful.

And now, as I can no longer make any claim to any of the God-given glories of youth, I accept the way I look more than ever. I look like me now, no one else. There is really no one else like me. And I've grown into really liking that.

But then there's the other half-- having a body. And that is fraught. Because as my mind has come to befriend me, I can see all the ways my body is slowly, inexorably, leaving me. When you're young, you think you'll always be young, because you've never known anything else. You think your body, which was planted on the earth at it's peak, will never fade. And when it finally does, it grows more alien.

The aches that linger, the slowing down, the first wrinkles that seem to sprout more wrinkles-- what the hell? Where will it end?

I love the Pema Chodren line about the outrage we experience as our body declines-- the hubris, the arrogance: How silly to think that, while aging happens to everyone else, it's not going to happen to my body. That will never happen to me.

Ah, but it does, but it does.

In the past few weeks, I've witnessed so much suffering in those around me because we have bodies, because we age. An email from a friend having a major birthday in terrible anguish, hating so much how she looks, but just as terrified of the pain of having a face-lift, and the thought that she'd look worse off than when she started.

A dear friend losing her beloved grandfather after a short, steep onset of cancer.

My own husband, 26 years older than me, working so hard to remain fit and limber, when stretching and exercising are systematically painful in all of his joints, and living with an aching in his hands that no amount of activity is going to alleviate.

My beautiful friends, grappling with their middle-aged metabolisms and their faces telling them different stories than the ones they are used to when looking in the mirror.

I love all of these people so much-- I hold them with such complete and utter tenderness- I can't imagine why they would hate themselves so much for growing older. I'm so delighted to wake up every day and learn yet still more of who they are becoming. But I recognize that turned-inward violence of self-hatred, those feelings of being defeated by the fact of having a body that isn't what it once was. It's so hard to see in others-- I want so much to rush in to fix those feelings, to reassure.

Our bodies betray us, and it's incredibly painful to know that.

Barring a violent accident, the cause that will bring about the end of my life is most likely some part of me-- either something will fail, or one of the toxins I have inadvertently or deliberately exposed myself throughout my life will set a process into motion that will finish me. I'm my own ticking time bomb.

For some reason, today, I don't fear that. It is as it should be. I don't plan to live forever (and if I did, I'd most likely be disappointed.)

What I'm more focused on is the death-grip on youth, on fixating on how-things-used-to-be, rather than just simply enjoying what is.

I know that in my future, I will lose more-- mobility, comfort, acuity. I'm reminded of the classic Elizabeth Bishop poem: "Practice losing harder/ Losing faster:/ Places, names and where it was you meant/ To travel. None of these things will bring disaster.../ The art of losing isn't hard to master."

Well, she was using the power of understatement (bordering on snark) to prove the point that it is not easy, not easy at all to lose these things.

I suppose one of the things we don't do well as a culture, especially one that is so youth-obsessed, is grieve what we lose. To actually say to ourselves: What I had once is now gone, and it's not coming back. No amount of hoping, or being a good person, or working out at the gym is going to return to me what I had before. This is the new reality-- I need to abandon that hope, grieve what I've lost, and accept what is.

So much easier said than done.

I suppose I write all of this to remark on the fact that for what I have lost so far in this life, I have gained almost everything I have ever wanted. It has been so much, much more than a fair trade. But I am eyeing the future reckoning.

I'm turning 43, but I read about a huge study conducted in dozens of countries throughout the world that there, for some reason, seems to be a global trend that life begins at 46. 46? you say. How does that work?

For some reason, this cuts across geographies and cultures: People start off as young adults liking themselves and feeling good about their lives, and they undergo a steady slide until age 46. Then, for whatever reason, they do a u-turn. They start to like themselves more, feel better about their lives. They focus on what's truly important. They let go of empty patterns or behaviors that don't work for them. Expectations and realities come into better alignment. The teenagers move out. (!!!) And they start to lighten up, and live more. Love more. Feel better.

I love this idea that we sink into ourselves as a species, that one of the great trade-offs of losing youth is gaining self-acceptance. It seems to be what we do as folks. Yet another reason to kiss the ground if we are given the gift of age.


I don't have anything particularly pithy or succinct or witty to say to sum all this up. I'm holding this feeling of tender compassion and prayer for self-acceptance very, very gently, because who knows how long it will last.

It's an incredible gift for the advent of turning 43, though.

I'll be posting automatically for the next few days, so I won't be responding to comments right away-- The Other Nostril and I are off to Iguazú to go see the waterfalls there-- I want to celebrate watching jungle rivers hurl themselves off cliffs and fill the air with Amazonian ions!!

And just because this image is so...cracking...weird, I leave you with this image: this was an ad for a high-end spa in one of the fancy hotels here. This photo is of the doctor that performs all of the botox shots, spider vein removal, and other sub-surgical beauty treatments in the spa. The copy reads: "Human perfection exists, and I did it..."

I think the "Om" symbol is a nice touch, don't you?


  1. Dear Left Coast Nose,
    While you are celebrating your 43rd birthday watching waterfalls hurl themselves off cliffsides,
    I am reading your blog,
    eating cheap Chinese food,
    and feeling truly grateful to have you newly a part of my sphere.
    I'm glad you don't kick yourself, much, anymore -- your fancy shoes should definitely be used for milongas.
    And I have a hard time imagining that you could be more beautiful than you are. Grace like yours is mesmerising.
    The hubris of age. As you stride into middle age, I follow shortly behind, roly poly tumbling.

  2. What a beautiful, thought provoking post. I had a horrible time when I was young & consequently I actually like being older. As you say, the self acceptance is wonderful. It's real compensation for the wrinkles & the aches & pains.

  3. Howdy there, F--
    Well, (*blushing*) I wasn't fishing for compliments, but I'll take them just the same...

    Just trying to put a tiny, tiny little dent in all the violence we perform on ourselves-- no need. Life does it enough for us...

  4. Hey there, BT-- I'm so glad to hear that you've had a similar experience-- it's good isn't it? Becoming friends with yourself-- it really is the compensation for age-- a better-than-square trade-off. Nice to see you round these parts-- thanks for commenting.

  5. Um. Weird Google-boogle has me replying to comments as both "Rita" and as "LCN." For those who don't know-- "Rita" = "Left Coast Nose"-- one and the same.

    Just in case anyone's confused, other than me, I mean....

  6. Happy belated birthday Beautiful. What a gorgeous, tender, honest post. I for one and so glad for your body, and for your increasing kindness to it. I careen wildly between frustration with the limitations of having a body, and awareness of enormous fun and adventure I have with mine (and other people's!), so I get where you are coming from, big time.

    Missing you and looking forward to your body being back home. xoxo

  7. Boy, you nailed it, CV, my sweet-- the beauty/fun/thrill of having a body combined with the fact that it's just an enormous energy drain!! How many waking hours are spent in the care+feeding, plus the endless fretting?

    But as for you, how much fun can a body have, I ask you? Can't wait to hug your neck, Darlin'!!