Oh my friends we’re older but no wiser
For in our hearts our dreams are still the same.
|50 years ago|
On September the 9th, I get to turn 52. I say it that way because when I was about 16, I developed a mysterious neurological condition and my neurologist told me I might not live past 30. I remained a medical enigma for most of my life, but my enigma didn’t develop into anything life shortening (so far). When I was in my 40s, I found out I had an almost microscopic lesion on my spinal cord that was the cause of some of the major mystery, but my medical history still has many pages of studies that all conclude with the word “abnormal”.
One abnormality is that I’m extremely happy about getting older. Every year after 30 is a gift. I admit, there are dark days when life seems an overwhelming burden. Wars, natural disasters, ongoing health problems, heart breaks, pain, violence, rudeness, grammar rules, bureaucracy, poverty, calories, politics — sometimes I just want to lie down and die – take that sweet eternal nap. But I haven’t yet. And I still get a huge sense of gratitude and wonder that I’m celebrating another year. 52! Whee!
|22? years ago|
I’ve gotten to see my children grow up. They are both approaching 30 and my life continues beyond me. It was so very important me to have children and have that faith that life could go on. It has and it does. Imagine. My life has been a roller coaster ride like everyone else’s, but I feel very fortunate each time I hit a peak, when life is full of potential and is as cool as an early Autumn day.
I LOVE getting older. When I was younger, I was so worried about everything. One worry I’ve noticed I’ve outgrown is how I look. I used to cringe at pictures of myself. I never felt like I looked good, to much face, too curly, too fat. I had a very limited vocabulary for myself. On the other hand, as a writer, I wanted a more expansive vocabulary for describing people, something outside the limits of beauty. I wanted a language that didn’t include the word “ugly” as an option of describing a human being.
Because I had epilepsy at 16, I got involved with a lot of people who had disabilities and they were astonishingly strong and vibrant people. A lot of us considered ourselves outsiders and visually unattractive. But a lot of people who were healthy and practically “flawless”, especially girls and women, thought they were ugly.
|30 years ago|
I began to write in a way that didn’t describe physical characteristics, to the point where, sometimes I would be asked what race my characters were. I wrote a lot about people who lived in poverty and it was amazing to me what racial characteristics people attached to universal behaviors. I began to describe more directly, but I still wanted to write stories about the essential person, not their looks.
A map of wrinkles that enlivened his face, a scar that burst like a star on the dark sky of her face, a pillowy body that promised comfort, eyes that sparked beneath heavy lids – there were many ways words could be use to compassionately describe people without resorting to the stark concepts of beauty and ugliness.
In the last few years, this way with words has come back to haunt me. For the first time in my life I feel good about the way I look – even though, conventionally speaking, I probably look worse than ever. I’m particularly astonished to find that I no longer cringe at pictures that show my goddess belly or my bonus chin.
|or my cat scan|
|Does this walker make me look fat?|
I let the kids here at Bridge Meadows take my picture with my camera, and they always catch me at my worst angle, under the chin. Which is how they usually see me and they like me anyway. I’ve let them take pictures of me with my glasses crooked and my hair a fright. Last week, the United Way was filming stories of people here, and I let them film me after exercise class with my hair a wreck and every ice cream induced lump showing in my leggings and tank top.
I still hear my younger hysterical self trying to stop me from these activities, but I tell her it’s alright and give her a pat and let the camera roll. I love to dress up and accentuate myself, but I find I am compassionate and practically even loving with all of me now.
If I never get another present and don’t grow in any other way, this sense of self acceptance will be enough. Life is too short not to enjoy one’s self or to waste time trying to live up to a concept of beauty so vague and tenuous we are all bound to fail.
I gave a painting to my 89 year old friend Juanita last night. That negative voice popped up – we should stand up, I’ll look thinner. Then I thought, why should I look thinner. I am with a woman I love and admire who has lived 89 years. I just smiled at the thought and let the camera click.
I opened this essay with a quote from the song Those Were the Days. I don’t know if self-acceptance is a part of being wise, to me it seems more about being happy — and that will do until some wisdom comes along. Meanwhile, I plan to spend this year getting as many happy hugs as possible.
|by photographer J E Underwood|