The other day, I came across a photo of myself, and noticed that my face looked different. I couldn’t quite figure out what it was. My face looked sharper, more angular, a little harsher. I looked… older. When that word surfaced in my consciousness, my initial response was to panic. Am I starting to look old? Am I old? I’ve always felt old, but always with a sense of pride at my crotchety, grumpy-old-man temperament. But that was only cute by contrast of looking like an 18-year-old.
Vanity is the quicksand of reason, George Sand once said. God, did she get it. (If you haven’t heard of George, she was a French writer in the nineteenth century that dressed like a man, smoked cigars, and dated men and women openly, so look her up). And quicksand is a perfect comparison. The more you struggle against it, the harder it is. Thus far, getting older hadn’t bothered me much. Every year has brought with it new joys and understanding. I liked being in my late twenties. But looking like it was something different. The hourglass had flipped; I felt it right in my stomach. I felt the sand start to drop, felt my youth and vanity start to slip without any concern for my feelings, and fall through my outstretched fingers.
And then I thought of my mother. My mother has always been a firm believer that working on the interior self is far more rewarding than working on the exterior. No matter what you do, the exterior is going to eventually crumble. The interior, however, is something you can polish and work on for the rest of your days. She would say, what’s the point of investing all of that time and energy into being the best looking sixty year-old in the room? You’re sixty. Enjoy life a little. My mom is wise as hell. I once asked her what age she would choose to be if she were presented with the option to live part of her life over again. She looked at me like I was crazy, and said the age that she was now.
And it is a stupid question, really. Many of us might believe that if granted the wish to turn back time, that we would choose seventeen or twenty-two, whenever it was that we peaked physically and life seemed the most interesting. Probably a time before student loans and mortgage payments, but after minimum-wage part-time jobs or not being allowed to have your significant other in your room with the door closed. We like to think that things were simpler back then. But was anything ever simple? I know that personally, I spent a lot of my youth feeling sad and unfulfilled, thinking about how happy I would be when I was older.
When I was last at my parent’s house in Illinois, I came across my high school year book. I mindlessly flipped through the pages, and found my senior photo, and damning evidence that I went through a Dita von Teese phase where I thought that black hair would look good on me. It didn’t. Under my name was my obnoxious senior quote:
I don’t need a quote. I don’t need Shakespeare or Frost or even Dave Matthews Band to tell me what life is. Life is more than high school. It’s what you make it. It’s the most important and precious thing you have. Don’t be afraid to get wrinkles. So there you go.
I thought I was pretty fucking cool by having a quote that wasn’t a quote, by the way. And it made me smile, because it was like a secret message from my past self. I knew that older me would be looking through my senior year book, and assumed that I would be worrying about the prospect of wrinkles. 18 year-old me also wanted the lyrics “Gravity always wins” tattooed under her boobs, so that when shit started sagging, I would feel better. 18 year-old me was a very considerate person.
I had always assumed that by the time I was older, I just wouldn’t be vain anymore. I would be like Yoda, above such human trivialities and indifferent to the state of my failing, decrepit body. I didn’t realize that you don’t just wake up older one day with a different world view. You have to start that difficult, internal work now, and invest a lot of time and energy into it. One of my favorite children’s books in the entire world, The Velveteen Rabbit, explains it perfectly:
‘Real isn’t how you are made,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.’
‘Does it hurt?’ asked the Rabbit.
‘Sometimes,’ said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. ‘When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.’
‘Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,’ he asked, ‘or bit by bit?’
‘It doesn’t happen all at once,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.
To me, being Real means being truly awake in the world. Being awake as Thoreau defines in Walden, no longer sleepwalking through life. Being wise enough to know that this isn’t everything; our youth and insecurities, our attraction, our physical form, is not the definition of our being. It’s just a shell to the immaculate person within. And getting to that point is anything but easy. It takes a lot of comfort zone stretching and self discovery and meditation and self forgiveness.
I realize that being 28 and writing an essay about the prospect of aging is mere pontification. What do I know about getting older, anyway? I haven’t had kids, haven’t been married for fifteen years and watched my face and body evolve into the clichés of middle age. But I do know that many of us in our upper twenties and early thirties are starting to feel this way, and feel it hard. We’re already dragging our feet, and it’s understandable. Our culture views aging as one of the worst things that can happen to you, especially if you are a woman. Hence the countless articles spouting nonsense tips to preteens on how to start avoiding wrinkles now, before it’s too late, such as avoiding the sun and limiting the range of your facial expressions.
I’m not interested in hearing about how getting older is some kind of unspoken failure, when it is the physical proof that we survived another day, another year, another decade. It is a gift, another opportunity to learn and grow and experience life. We hardly view the old with reverence in our culture. Instead of being seen as individuals rich in experience and knowledge, our aging family members too often become an inconvenience. We fear them, because eventually, we are them. But they are also our reminders that nothing is permanent, even the youth that we desperately cling to out of fear. We are so obsessed with beauty being defined in our culture as being young that we forget that every stage of life is beautiful. Not in spite of being older, but because of it.
I look older, yes. My face is sharper, my under eye circles darker, I’m bonier, my lips have tiny little vertical lines. And I should look older, because I am. I have lived so much life, and my face and my body have been through love and pain and self-discovery. I’ve earned the right to those laugh lines as much as those frown lines.
I think back to all of the Kateys in my life, and each of them had something lovely to contribute to the person that I am now. There was the quiet little girl that locked herself indoors to sit on the floor and draw pictures of angels. There was the obnoxious girl who dressed in pioneer clothing and wanted to be adopted by an Amish family. Then there was the awkward preteen, who was too shy to speak or stand up for herself and accidentally tweezed off all of her eyebrows. And then there was Goth Katey, whom I love dearly. She had such anger, but nowhere to put it. She was the end of childlike wonder, and the beginning of adult cynicism. Then Katey the lost college student, who never quite figured it out. And later the red muse, who learned a lot about what it meant to be a woman in the world. There was Katey the naïve educator who moved off into the desert with the best intentions. After that, there was the one who moved further west for love and new beginnings. Now there’s the one I see when I look in the mirror. And I love her just as much as all the rest.
None of these girls or women look the same. And there will be one hundred more different women that I become over the course of these next decades, and I have no right to criticize their appearance. They are each beautiful in their own right. They are all with me in everything that I do.
Your face is going to droop, and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it. Gravity always wins. You can choose to panic, put a kink in your neck looking backwards and spend the rest of your days pining for it. Or you can accept it. You can do some necessary work on the interior, maybe even become Real in the process. Maybe learn to feel a sense of accomplishment in place of dread when you view your altered reflection in the mirror. You can choose to join the other aging people at their table of life, and complain about the youth. It is a right of passage, after all.