Writer Brooks Riley learns to embrace the grace — and liberation — of growing older
When I was a young thing, people with gray hair appeared to me to be moving slowly but inexorably toward the Exit, shaking their heads over the generation gap as they shuffled about in a protracted form of suspended animation called retirement. In those days, gray hair was like a badge worn at an AARP convention, or worse, a prominent tattoo, placing a person squarely in the done-deal outbox.
A lot has changed since then. We old things are now a majority, a force to be reckoned with, and most of us are not going gently into that netherworld of rocking chairs, sensible shoes, mah-jong and permanent waves. If 50 is the new 30, 60 the new 40 and even 70 the new 50, it has less to do with colorizers and Botox than it does with freedom of choice — something that many of my parents’ generation didn’t have, or worse, didn’t believe they had.
At 60, my father spent the first year of his retirement on horseback, then he got bored. Before long, he had started a new career as a real estate broker, which brought him pleasure and success until his death nearly 20 years later. My mother, on the other hand, played bridge, read books and shot off letters to the editor of the Washington Post. The older she got, the more modern she became, and more liberal in her thinking. But there were limits: She marveled at the intelligence of her brood, without owning up to her own probing intellect. Like most of her generation, she never questioned aging, but accepted its increasing indignities as appointments to be kept in a calendar written before she was born.
She confessed to me that old age was liberating: She no longer cared what the neighbors thought, no longer wanted to keep up with the Joneses, was no longer afraid of speaking her mind about issues. She was able to embrace her true self and at the same time was relieved to be “out of the running.” She became “a person,” the very word she herself had always used to describe other people she admired – probably Alabama shorthand for “personality.”
My own introduction to old age came shockingly early: A few days after my 50th birthday, I received a form letter from the AARP, inviting me to join the legions of golden girls and boys headed for a quiet spot to watch the sun set on life. It was insulting. The sun was still in the midday position of my life. I threw the letter away.
Now that I am truly of an age to receive such a letter, I am no closer to a retirement mindset than I was at 50. In the time since then, my mind has exploded with ideas, challenges, languages, experiences, successes and defeats. I have lived so many lives since my 50th birthday that the notion of slowing down seems as foreign to me now as it did then.
It’s almost as if each new gray hair has brought with it an infusion of new gray matter below the roots. I am not denying my age; I am redefining it, like many of my baby boomer contemporaries, now gray boomers. “Be as young as you feel” works if you have no physical or mental complaints. What I’ve lost in skin resilience, I’ve gained in emotional resilience. Reversals of fortune that might have killed a younger me have raised my threshold for pain and sorrow. The older I get, the more confident I am of my capabilities, which seem to have expanded over the years, in spite of the ticking clock.
Best of all, I am more curious. It is not the short-range curiosity of youth – who’s dating whom, who’s getting promoted, who’s that cute guy, what’s the latest fashion, or who’s gonna win the Oscars – but more of a burning need to know. These days, to quote Karl Lagerfeld, “I want to know everything”: how solar energy works, the effect of music on language facility, how to use CAD to design the dream house I’ll never build, all about Goethe’s friendship with Schiller, how to play the zither, how to speak Japanese and, yes, even how to stop BP’s oil leak in the gulf – the postmodern (post-apocalyptic?) version of how to build a better mousetrap.
In the end, gray hair doesn’t matter anymore, but gray matter does: All the colorizers or facelifts in the world won’t help, if you feel old underneath. Curiosity is the one true fountain of youth. If that ever goes, I’ll give in and join the AARP, no offense intended.
Gray is beautiful.
Brooks Riley lives in Germany, where she directs operas for TV and DVD.