Aging: A Personal “Health Flashes” Essay

After writing Part I of Life 101-102 (See this month’s Profiles), I realized that aging (ageing) is not a very popular topic in older circles. Nobody likes to talk about chronological age, because in our society, growing old is considered a negative event. However, elders in other societies are revered. For example, the Japanese term Wabi-Sabi demonstrates how Japan views aging. Below is a quote about wabi-sabi from www.nobleharbor.com followed by a picture of my mother-in-law Lena and me when my daughter and I interviewed her over the July 4th week-end.

Pared down to its barest essence, wabi-sabi is the Japanese art of finding beauty in imperfection and profundity in nature, of accepting the natural cycle of growth, decay, and death. It’s simple, slow, and uncluttered-and it reveres authenticity above all. Wabi-sabi is flea markets, not warehouse stores; aged wood, not Pergo [laminated flooring]; rice paper, not glass. It celebrates cracks and crevices and all the other marks that time, weather, and loving use leave behind. It reminds us that we are all but transient beings on this planet-that our bodies as well as the material world around us are in the process of returning to the dust from which we came. Through wabi-sabi, we learn to embrace liver spots, rust, and frayed edges, and the march of time they represent.

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I love this concept of embracing our wrinkles and spots, our bodily changes as a natural part of aging. The trick is to stay healthy while aging, so that as we age, our body keeps pace with our mind. When I first took yoga in my early thirties, our yoga teacher, who was probably close to 70 with the body and a mind half his age, told us that by the time Westerners reach 40 and their minds are getting sharper, their bodies are falling apart. That talk has stayed with me and has become part of my consciousness to stay as healthy as possible for as long as possible, so I can enjoy growing older.

I have a couple of books whose titles inspire me. One is called Growing Old Disgracefully and the other is Aging is a Lifelong Affair. They might not even be in print, but the titles have stuck with me. I also admire older women’s attitudes: My mother-in-law accepts life. At 50 my sister said she was tired of playing by the rules; she was making her own rules now. I also read that the first 50 years are only a warm-up. That’s true for me, because after my divorce, I had to re-invent myself in my fifties. Both my grandmother and my aunt on my mother’s side had a “youthful attitude.” It’s not how you look, but how you think!

As my mother-in-law noted in the interview, life was tough, but you did your best. I have written this before, that we have a choice of growing old or just growing older. Perhaps my favorite poem is When I am Old, I Shall Wear Purple, reprinted below. (For more information on the poem, go to http://www.wheniamanoldwoman.com/.)
The poem is also used by the Red Hat Society, whose red hats and purple clothes are used to flaunt their ageless aging.

I also looked for red and purple flowers to match the tone of the poem and found some red flowers and purple flox right up the street from where we live. Coincidence? I think not. Just the universe responding to my wishes!!!

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Warning – When I Am an Old Woman I Shall Wear Purple
By Jenny Joseph

When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple
with a red hat that doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.
And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves
and satin candles, and say we’ve no money for butter.
I shall sit down on the pavement when I am tired
and gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells
and run my stick along the public railings
and make up for the sobriety of my youth.

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I shall go out in my slippers in the rain
and pick the flowers in other people’s gardens
and learn to spit.
You can wear terrible shirts and grow more fat
and eat three pounds of sausages at a go
or only bread and pickles for a week
and hoard pens and pencils and beer nuts and things in boxes.
But now we must have clothes that keep us dry
and pay our rent and not swear in the street
and set a good example for the children.
We must have friends to dinner and read the papers.
But maybe I ought to practice a little now?
So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised
When suddenly I am old, and start to wear purple.

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(These little purple and red beauties, with a touch of yellow, were planted in the strip of grass between the edge of the sidewalk and the curb. It was like a miniature garden along the house. Maybe the author Jenny Joseph would use this as a her place to sit on the pavement.)

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