And so it goes
I've developed a problem with dry eyes in recent years, the result of some underactive Meibomian glands that have a tendency to get clogged. My eye doctor recommended a course of therapy that involves, for lack of a better term, "milking" these glands to remove the blockages and release the oils onto my eye. The therapy is pleasant. It works something like softening coconut oil that has hardened. I wear a heated eye mask for a few minutes to loosen the oil in the glands. Then I gently massage my lids, expressing the oils in the process and restoring moisture to my eyes for a time.
While I am performing this daily ritual, my husband is often nearby doing physical therapy. A year ago, he began with a simple regimen of shoulder exercises that generally took about ten minutes, but he has since added lower back, hip, and knee exercises, lengthening the process to about a half an hour. At some point during this time he can be found on the floor in a gynecological exam position, resistance bands around his shins, lifting his pelvis toward the ceiling.
"Want to help me with this one?" he always asks.
I have the handy excuse that I'm too busy milking my glands, which tends to dampen his enthusiasm for any alternate forms of physical therapy. After completing his pelvic thrusts, he moves on to another exercise that involves balancing on one foot while raising the opposite hip repeatedly. This makes his shoulders shrug in such a way that he looks like he's trying to perform some kind of seductive dance for his reflection in the mirror. An awkward, one-legged seductive dance.
This is middle age.
More and more, Chad and I are getting glimpses into how we will be filling our time in retirement--mostly with maintenance. Within ten years, his physical therapy will likely span half the day. And my nighttime beauty regimen has already become an event unto itself. Gone are the days when I could simply splash water on my face and call it a night. Now I use products that have the word "spackle" in their description, products I have to plaster on in the evening and sand off in the morning. Add to that the priming and painting done before leaving the house each day, and my personal care routine might be mistaken for an episode of This Old House. In fact, I might just begin referring to my body in this way, as this old house. It's all very time consuming to stay upright and maintain some curb appeal.
As my husband and I have begun to notice the subtle (and not-so-subtle) effects of aging, I've been interested to note which aspects of this process preoccupy us. There is nothing surprising in our thinking, given the cultural scripts we've been given to guide us through our lives. He is most concerned about the loss of physical prowess; I am most concerned about the loss of physical beauty. While we tend to vilify our culture for its worship of youth, there is, of course, a biological imperative at the core of this tendency: strength and beauty are signals of our availability and fitness as mates. It's natural to mourn the loss of that kind of vitality; after all, once we reach a state of physical decline, our value to the species as a whole changes. That is the part our culture gets wrong: it's fine to hold youth in high regard--in many ways our survival depends on it--but we're failing to recognize the Third Age as a season that is rich with its own value. Instead, we allow ourselves to fade into the background until we one day disappear behind the iron gates of a 55+ community, safely out of view of the young people who'd rather deny the realities of aging.
It's easy to live with that denial, to believe that time and smooth skin are in endless supply. Then one morning you'll wake up and think I have to milk my eye glands, and your husband will be on the floor complaining about his back, and the children will be off without you, and you'll be broadsided by the realization that you're just too old for certain things, as my dear husband was when he realized he would never play football in the NFL, as if being 5'10 and 150 pounds did not already confirm this. And suddenly you'll hear the clock ticking.
Certain possibilities shrink with age, of course, but others expand. If I can look to older women as my guides, I know there will come a day when I will be able to shrug off any of the remaining self consciousness of my youth, when I will just feel free to offer up my wit and wisdom to anyone within earshot, regardless of their interest in what I have to say. (I'm halfway there already, writing this blog.) That is something to look forward to. Being open to possibilities is perhaps the main challenge of aging with grace: we have to learn to let go of the things that defined us in our youth, to stand in the expansive spaces rather than feel stymied by doors that have already closed. I'm looking forward to seeing what these new seasons of life will hold.
As luck would have it, a lively group of old men is sitting next to me as I write, providing me with a glimpse into what to expect in my golden years. They are talking about swimming. One man, the one who's trying to convince his wife to move to Arizona, says, "The kids get in the pool and they pee. But now the old folks get in the pool, and they pee, too!" They all laugh, and another man chimes in, "At least the kids are doing it on purpose." And yet another man finishes the thought with a flourish of his hand, "Now it just goes!"
Indeed, there's much to look forward to. And so life goes.