I can remember the exact day my mother became old. One day she was walking around in stylish clothes, sporting a nice haircut, and the next day she came home from the beauty parlor with short hair and a hideous perm.
She suddenly started to talk about “acting her age.” I heard her say “change of life” a lot to her girlfriends on the phone. My young vibrant, youthful mother turned old and dowdy in the span of a few months. She stopped doing her nails, wearing makeup, plucking her eyebrows. Her clothes started looking dowdy and matronly. She was a yo-yo dieter her whole life, but now she completely stopped caring about what she ate and how much. A French cruller from the bakery was a scandalous treat one day, and the next she was polishing off a dozen donuts all by herself in front of the TV.
She stopped going out, and her whole life became consumed by TV– mainly old movies and roller derby. She had always been an avid reader, and then, for some peculiar reason, she just stopped reading books.
I got an email forward today about aging. It was by a woman talking rhapsodically about the freedoms of growing old and of how she was now eating desserts everyday and she didn’t care that she had a belly, or gray hair. She had seen too many people, she said, become obsessed with chasing after youth at a time in their lives when they should have been relaxing into life, not fighting against it.
A big part of me wanted to champion that point of view, but then I thought about my mother and her ugly perm.
Back then there wasn’t HRT, or any herbal support for women going through what my mother’s generation called “the change.” There were few, if any, models for how to negotiate the territory between old age with its inevitable loss of vigor and vitality, and what my mother was going through which was, as I now see it, a period of readjustment. A person doesn’t have to surrender to old age like my mother did. My mother’s aging wasn’t a function of time or birthday candles, but of choice.
Granted, back then there weren’t many role models for how to gracefully negotiate the new territory she found herself living in, but nobody has to get a perm, or eat a dozen donuts in one sitting. She just threw in the towel.
My mother never heard the word “prana” or “life force” in her day. It wasn’t in the air then, like it is now. Nobody went to the gym or did yoga in my mother’s world. Good Housekeeping magazine didn’t run stories about how to stay vibrant into your 60s, 70s and 80s back then. My mother never dreamed that she could maintain youthful vitality into old age with moderate exercise and a good diet.
So when I read this email today from the happy, self-satisfied woman with the big belly and the gray hair who is now free to eat desserts everyday if she wants because aging has given her the freedom to be unconcerned with the opinions of others, I kinda recoiled.
This is not for me. The new paradigm of how to age, doesn’t involve being self-indulgent and self-satisfied.
The new paradigm says, in effect, “Hey, let’s see how long we can keep this party going!” If we practice a little self-control with our food, get moderate exercise, reduce stress and keep our minds sharp, aging doesn’t really mean anything.
This new paradigm is built on staying mindful and taking responsibility for “energy management” and being meticulous about our fuel, whether that fuel is food, sleep or fun.
If I just throw in the towel and say, “Well, I don’t have to watch what I eat anymore, or exercise, or get enough sleep, or feed my mind because I am coming to the end of my life anyway so now I can coast and enjoy the ride,” what that says to me is that you had the wrong idea about what life is about in the first place.
Life isn’t about practicing painful austerities for most of your life, and then cutting yourself a break at the end. Life is about amping your vibe. Period. And it doesn’t matter if you’re 18 or 80. If you want to amp your vibe and then keep it jacked up, it’s going to involve putting enough, and quality “fuel” into your tank everyday.
This means quality food in modest amounts, enough sleep, daily exercise, and daily fun.
I’m going with Dylan Thomas on this one:
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
And for goddsakes, whatever you do, don’t get a perm.