When is one officially "old," I wonder? To me, being "old" seems to come and go, present one day and not the next. There were times as a child when I felt as old as the hills -- and there are times now when I feel like the downiest of fledgling chicks, still flapping my wings, and still just beginning.
Of the two photographs below, the first was taken when I was in Second Grade, in Manville, New Jersey; the second was snapped by my husband in our Devon garden this autumn. The Atlantic ocean, and nearly a half-century of time, stretches between the two. What surprises me is not how much I've changed during those years, but all the ways that I haven't.
"The great secret that all old people share," wrote Doris Lessing, "is that you really don't change in seventy or eighty years. Your body changes, but you don’t change at all. And that, of course, causes great confusion."
An old neighbor of mine, sharp and vigorous well into her nineties, would have disagreed with this, however. She felt that changing as you age is exactly the point. "The thing about growing older, dear," she once told me, "is that you don't ever stop being the age you were, you just add each new age to it. So I never envy the young, because I'm still twenty years old myself, and thirty, and forty, and so on. By the time you're my age, you have so many selves to be, and draw upon, and enjoy, that I can only feel compassion for young people, who still have so very few."
Sometimes I'm actually glad that health traumas caused me to doubt, at times, if I'd live to grow old -- for aging to me is precious and magical, and I'm grateful for it. Thus I love these words from rock-and-roller Pat Benatar's memoir (Between a Heart and a Rock Place):
"I've enjoyed every age I've been," she says, "and each has had its own individual merit. Every laugh line, every scar, is a badge I wear to show I've been present, the inner rings of my personal tree trunk that I display proudly for all to see. Nowadays, I don't want a 'perfect' face and body; I want to wear the life I've lived.”
Time writes across the body in a language that we must all come to know as we grow and age: the language of experience, loss, revelation, endurance, and mortality. Today, I'm simply thankful for the roads, dark and bright, that brought me to the miraculous present; as well as for the unknown roads, dark and bright, that still lie ahead of me. I'm another year older. I'm travelling a little slower. I carry multitudes inside. But I'm here, well-ringed like the oak trees of Nattadon Hill. And I am only just beginning.