I worried a lot. Will the garden grow, will the rivers flow in the right direction, will the earth turn as it was taught, and if not how shall I correct it?
Was I right, was I wrong, will I be forgiven, can I do better?
Will I ever be able to sing, even the sparrows can do it and I am, well, hopeless.
Is my eyesight fading or am I just imagining it, am I going to get rheumatism, lockjaw, dementia?
Finally I saw that worrying had come to nothing. And gave it up. And took my old body and went out into the morning, and sang.
I’ve been studying women of late. Older women.
I heard a friend talk a while back about the sort of women she wanted to grow into being. It struck me that she had such a clear vision for herself. Maybe it stayed with me because you so seldom hear someone speak of getting older with anticipation. In our culture, the messages with which we are bombarded are focused on how to avoid even the appearance of aging. Aging is reduced to wrinkles, and hair color, and muscle tone. We make aging so small.
When my Favorite and I were waiting to get on the ferry the other day to go to the mainland, there was a woman looking for her car in the line. She was wearing baggy dark blue pants, cuffed haphazardly, an oversized chambray shirt, and a bucket hat over her sensible, short white hair. She was walking in a way that reminded me of my grandmother, her steps were surprisingly quick and full of purpose. We were in a convertible, so she could see us very clearly. She said, “I hate it when you can’t find your car!” and let out a sharp little staccato laugh. We nodded and chuckled in return, and she barked, “It’s not funny!” That made me love her just a little.
I was at a book signing the day before and it was full of women who seemed just like her. They all had weathered faces that bespoke of summers lived on sailboats and in the garden. Their wardrobes likely haven’t changed much in the past few decades. Buttoned down Oxford style shirts in pastel colors, khaki pants or shorts. Sturdy sandals or boat shoes. The clothes made popular by the Kennedys, once upon a time, that were refined into preppy-chic, but started off as practical boating and summering garb.
I know these women. Growing up, I spent my summers on Cape Cod staying with my grandmother and my aunt’s family. The Cape, like Maine, is full of practical, acerbic women who take no guff. My grandmother had aspects of that in her personality but she was not one of that particular archetype.
When my Favorite and I went to lunch later that day in a restaurant overlooking the harbor, I had a lobster BLT. I am thinking seriously of writing an essay about that sandwich… But, I digress.
Sitting facing me, at the little cafe table behind my Favorite was a woman. I could not take my eyes off her. She was spectacular. She seemed very much the sort of woman I hope to grow into as I get older.
She was leaning into the people she was dining with. She was listening with her whole body. She was listening all the way down to her fingertips. She was delighting in them. My friend Glennon said something recently about either being the type of person who walks into a room with the attitude of, “HERE I AM!” or, “THERE YOU ARE!” She struck me as a “THERE YOU ARE!” sort of a woman.
She was probably about seventy, petite, dressed in a black shirt with a boatneck and 3/4 sleeves (I have that shirt, so I’m practically there already,) and a pair of wide-legged cotton pants. Her hair was white and cut in a way that somehow looked elegant but was really just a bob- not much different than the ladies I pass on the island every day. She didn’t seem to be wearing any makeup and her face was covered in lines. She was gorgeous. I mean, gorgeous. She had a huge smile, beautiful eyes, great bone structure. I said something about how stunning she must have been when she was younger. The more I think about it, though, I bet she’s even lovelier now.
Her face was wide open. She laughed a lot. She listened far more than she talked but when she did speak it was with enthusiasm. She was so present that I felt a crackle of electricity watching her. She seemed fiercely alive. I want that. I want to be like that.
We saw her a few more times in passing, walking around the town. I hope I didn’t creep her out. I could not take my eyes off of her.
My perception of her is very much how I would like to be when I am older. I say that because I am fully aware I have no idea what is going on in her life. I met another woman recently who I liked enormously and who struck me sort of the same way. She was smart, and funny, and really present. I was having a conversation with her and I mentioned how much I liked the necklace she was wearing. It was bold and elegant – what they call a statement piece. It was beautiful. She thanked me and the conversation went on for a few more minutes. She was asking me questions about my life and listening intently to my answers. Then, almost in passing, she mentioned that she has stage four breast cancer.
When she said that I felt my chest constrict a little bit. It reminded me of how little we can know about someone from the outside. I imagined her picking out that whimsical, beautiful necklace to wear that day while her body was doing battle with a formidable enemy. Because your life goes on even while you are in the trenches fighting for it.
Someday, I want to be the sort of woman who lights up a room not because she’s there but because YOU are. I want to love my people fiercely and I want them to know it. I want to be less concerned with how I look but still have style. I want to avoid that desperate dance so many women do where we try and combat the aging process as though it was a cancer as terrifying as the one that lovely woman was battling. I want to move through my life with energy, and verve, and sparkle.
I want to care less about what people think and more about what they feel. I want my stubbornness to be more like persistence as I age. I want to be firmly planted in my life and soak it up. I want to be joyful and serious. Creative and practical. Spiritual and grounded. I want to be a life-long learner. I want to stay open to new ideas. I want to love my people big and deep and unconditionally. I want to love my people well. I want them to see me and know me and I want to really see and know them, too.
I want to be feisty like the woman on the ferry, though perhaps a little less of a grouch. I want to have opinions but be open to changing them.
I want my old age to be as joyous and wonder-filled and fearless as my childhood was not. I want to stop worrying so much.
I think we make our life goals too small and too much about our resumes. First, it’s what college? then it’s Where do you work? What have you accomplished? I think we are seldom talking about the right things when we speak of each other’s accomplishments. We talk about what people have done and not who they are.
I hope that twenty-five years from now some younger woman sitting in a cafe, browsing a farmer’s market, or wandering through an art museum looks over at me fully and fiercely inhabiting my temporarily claimed space on this planet fully and thinks, I want that.