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How to Embrace and Make Peace with the Aging Process

Updated: Jun 12

Eleven years ago: My wife and I are chasing our girls – ages 2 and 5 – down the sand beach at the family camp. It’s just before dinner, the time of day with young children where you pray for the stamina to make it to bedtime.

The summer sun is slung low in the sky, spinning the world to gold. The girls are dashing and zigzagging, emboldened by their jubilance, two pin balls ricocheting off each other, their limbs loose and wild. Their joy is larger than their small bodies; it spills out onto the sand, the lake, the sky.

two kids splashing in waves

Suddenly, the tide turns. Fun and frolicking flip to pandemonium. The two-year-old darts to the water. The five-year-old trips and skins her knee, sand grinding into the opening. A dispute breaks out over a purple bucket neither wanted but both now covet. Fists swing. Tears fly.

Then a miracle. They catch sight of the neighbor two doors down wading in the water with her two Golden Retrievers. Our girls charge toward them, fast despite their short legs, and we sprint behind, our goals – the goals of all mothers everywhere – to let them explore and keep them alive. It’s been a full day of sun and sand and patience and these mommas are tired.

The dogs are dripping and gentle, our neighbor Pam warm to the girls. Our oldest is proud to learn she and one of the dogs share the same name.

We chat with Pam in the way of mothers of young children, stilted dialogue while we chase our rambunctious offspring. A limit must be set with our youngest and she is not having it. (How dare we prevent her from riding on the dog's back?) We comment on the exhaustion of having young children.

Then Pam says something I will never forget. “Little kids, little problems. Big kids, big problems.”

She has teenagers. She knows big problems. As she mentions but a few – driving, peer pressure, grades, college applications, jobs, moral dilemmas – I look down at our kids and (I swear this is true) think: this will never be us.

There must be a name for this. Age denial? Or perhaps time denial? It’s marked by these thoughts: it will always be like this. I will always be this version of myself and my children will always be that version of themselves.

I think these thoughts because any other outcome is inconceivable. I think these thoughts even though I have living proof in myself and my children that refutes this idea. After all, they are no longer infants, and I am a grown-up with a mortgage.

But here’s what I remember thinking most in the face of Pam’s pronouncement. You must not remember how hard this is. Nothing about this feels small.

Fast forward. Our girls are now 13 and 16. Despite my insistence and denial, time passed. Our kids grew. We have a driver. Sandi and I have aged. Birthdays, Christmases and years have come and gone. All the things life promises if you are lucky enough to live.

Sometimes I see a mother chatting with her toddler seated in the upper rack of the grocery cart and think: what a sweet and simple time. Your kids are always close, they adore you and their biggest woes are a splinter, a lost teddy bear or a fear of the dark.

Sure, I remember the compounding exhaustion, the monotony, the never showering alone and the endless need for patience. Somehow it just doesn't seem as big a deal as it did when I lived it. And there are no worries about drugs or unprotected sex or texting and driving. Little kids, little problems.

I now sit where Pam once sat. And everything looks different from this vantage point.

This is what you can't know about aging until you do it.

When I was in my 30’s I felt like I was at a peak of sorts – old enough to finally be taken seriously but still young. I was bolstered by my youth, cocky almost. I would shirk away from elderly people, their wrinkled skin and drooping eye lids, their cyclical talk of their bodies or times gone by. Life is now! Who cares about then? Old news!

Then a client, a woman in her 80s, said this to me, “Aging is so strange. I feel like I’m the same person on the inside but when I look in the mirror, I see an old lady staring back at me.”

an wrinkled old woman smiling

This gave me pause. I could see what it meant to be old in our society, to have your body soften, your skin lose its grip, for the smile lines to remain even when you’re done smiling, to be dismissed as irrelevant. I was already afraid of aging; to think I would basically be the young me trapped in an old body terrified me.

About this time I saw a video about the pinch test. It's an aging test, one that measures the elasticity of your skin by pinching the skin on the back of the hand and measuring how quickly (or slowly) it retracts. It showed the pinch test on hands of varying ages. Young skin immediately lies flat. Middle aged skin puckers a tad before retracting. Old skin takes its time returning to flat. Programmed to think aging was bad, I spent my 20s pinching my skin, counting the seconds of retraction and dreading the day I lost my elasticity. (Ageism, a can of worms for a future post.) This was my relationship to aging.

But because I'd always gravitated to people slightly older than me, drawn to their centered calm, I also knew there was a magic to maturity that could not be measured by something as one dimensional as the pinch test.

As I moved into my thirties, I became intrigued by the wisdom of age. One day I was late to meet my friend Martha, a woman thirty years my senior, and I tripped over myself apologizing. She waved me away, holding up the book she was reading.

“I take a book everywhere I go,” she said. “If someone is late or I have to wait, I’m happy to read.” She told me about getting stood up for lunch the week before and how content she’d been to read and eat on her own.

“I want that kind of contentment,” I told her.

She gave me a kind smile. “It’s the kind of thing you get with age, Honey.”

“But I want it now, at thirty-two,” I said. She smiled again, a smile of knowing, a smile that made me want to prove her wrong. I coveted her contentment. I wanted to get it as soon as possible, if not sooner.

Now I don’t believe you have to collect years in order to live with presence or intention. I decided that day that I wanted to cultivate more fluidity and presence in my life. And I began to. But there was a striving to it, an almost frantic I DON'T WANT TO MISS MY LIFE SO I'M GOING TO ENJOY EVERY SECOND fearfulness at play. I was scared of the deathbed epiphany that I'd missed the boat. My intention was good but my action-oriented plan useless. As if you can strongarm presence.

an older woman on the beach looking content

Over time, I’ve come to understand what Martha meant. As I’ve gotten older, my compass has shifted from pointing outside me - toward the world of achieving, competing and comparing - to inside me, dialed in to the deeper knowing of myself and what gives me meaning, joy and connection. It isn’t so much that age is the determinant to a more fulfilled, more relaxed experience of living, but that age often grants this shift naturally.

But it’s like a good wine. You can’t force its aging.

It reminds me of the Chinese finger torture game. The harder you try to yank your fingers free, the tighter it binds. It is only in relaxing and pushing your fingers together, rather than apart, that the trap lets go and your fingers slide out. This is grace. And grace cannot be achieved, conquered or expedited. It is a gentle but powerful knowing, a groundedness we cannot contrive or control, but which emerges from us as we loosen our grip.

My sixteen-year-old likes to call me a Boomer to rile me up. Inaccuracies aside, I tend to return fire: "I am not a party wrecker or the good-time police! I am fun! I am cool!" (Turns out it is not so cool to tell people you’re cool.)

Until I realized that this is sort of her job, her entire generation’s job, to reject what the generations before them espouse. And it’s not specific to Gen Z. It has been this way since the beginning, each new wave of humans certain that are the most woke of any to arrive here.

I believe this is called evolution. (And perhaps, at times, youthful ignorance.)

My generation - Gen X - possesses a perseverance, self-sufficiency and versatility that makes us scrappy and tenacious. We rode bikes without helmets, took care of ourselves after school, stayed out until dark, ate Velveeta and Cheez Whiz and babysat the neighbors when we were ten or eleven. We are a balance of hard workers and mold breakers. (Did you know Gen Xers created YouTube, Google and Amazon?) We are the people who remember what it was like to live without the internet.

Above us, the baby boomers have some serious grind when it comes to work ethic, moral fiber and fiscal responsibility. Being the generation of the civil right's movement and feminism, they have a reference point steeped in activism, humility and wisdom.

Above the baby boomers is the silent generation. Born during the Great Depression, they married and had children young and, thanks to their combination of frugality and rule following, created significant wealth if not great social progress. The silent generation raised kids with a "seen not heard" philosophy, whereas their baby boomer children took a more active parenting role. Such different politics and family values tended to create conflict and estrangement between these two generations.

Below us, millennials are a spunky, out-of-the-box group who believe in paving their own way, innovators for whom social justice is a no-brainer, entrepreneurs who have figured out how to become millionaires by being social media influencers or playing video games.

Our girls belong to Gen Z – a group unapologetic about perusing their passion, charting their own course and rejecting the chains of social expectation. They have no use for history which often feels disloyal and reckless but might just serve them as they create a new social order without a single care for convention. These bright young thinkers accept the variances of human beings, of gender, of sexuality, of art, of sex, of bodies, of family systems, of skin color, of self-expression. In so many ways, they are free.

Evolution isn’t always smooth, and it isn’t always pretty, especially when we judge that which is not like us. I used to worry that the next generations would ruin the world with their overuse of technology, their pursuit of pleasure over hard work and their tendency to think the world is their own personal stage. But I’ve come to see so much goodness in them. Where people of my generation are often wrestling with work/life balance and struggling to give themselves permission to just enjoy their lives, millennials and Gen Zers unapologetically put joy first. Over and over. Often they are criticized by people over 40, but really, isn’t that just our jealousy speaking? Don’t we all, essentially, want to be free to fully enjoy our lives?

I reject the term Boomer but respect the spirit with which it’s said. I want to find my way. Don’t break me into who you think I should be. Let me become who I came here to be.

I used to think I needed to save them. Now I think I have much to learn from them.

How amazing that every twenty years or so a group of humans experiences and expresses something new and that they are shaped - and we around them are shaped - by it. It makes me wonder how much richer our experiences would be if we remained open to learning from those older and those younger from us.

From where I sit, somewhere in the middle of my life, I straddle the wisdom of age with the vitality of youth. I’m in the sea glass stage of my life - my rough edges worn smooth, but my colors still clear and vivid. It is a sweet spot for sure. I am content but still hungry to live and grow. I know deep presence and expansive joy, not from getting or achieving, but simply from being.

pieces of green sea glass

I think differently about older people now. I want to sit beside them, have them whisper their insights to me. I want to learn, to use their wisdom as a guidepost for my own. Not to rush the process but to rise to meet it. To make the most out of my one ride here. I wonder if they look at people like me and shake their heads a bit, holding the secrets I have yet to discover, knowing that some truths you can only understand when its time.

It makes me think back to that day chasing the girls on the beach. I don’t wish to go back, but every now and then I wonder what it would be like to live that life with the perspective and wisdom I have now. What a different mother I would be. What a different partner I would be. What a different person I would be.

But that’s the trick, isn’t it? We can judge the previous iterations of ourselves, use the lens of age to castigate ourselves, but to what end? That would be like knocking out the foundation of a house and thinking the structure would remain.

As if the person I am now was not shaped by that day on the beach and every day in between. For without who we were, we would never be who we are.

This is how I embrace aging. By remembering that the place we sit is never permanent, nor is it every superior. No pinch test can measure the worth of your perspective, no matter your age.

Old or young, green or wise, elastic or loose, we each have an essential, perfect place in the whole.

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