A friend leaned across the picnic table towards me. She had been watching me intently as her husband and I talked, and I had wondered what was up.
“Liz, you must have been beautiful when you were young.”
She said it in an admiring sort of way, it had the sound of a compliment.
Why didn’t I feel pleased?
Encapsulated in that small statement of hers is our culture’s whole view of aging, a view that is lining the coffers of cosmetic surgeons, pharmaceutical companies and snake oil salesmen. Worst of all, it’s making many women feel increasingly anxious and diminished with each year. Men are starting to feel the pressure too. This aging phobia continues on and on unquestioned, and in fact, as more and more of us live longer and healthier it seems to become even more entrenched. There are days when it seems that we’ve all bought into a rigid belief system, we’ve all become mind-controlled members of a world-wide anti-aging cult.
What gets me going about it all is that we don’t question this mind-set, we’re not even aware of it as a weird aberration of thought. It’s almost part of the air we breath. We look in the mirror and shudder. We go by the droves for nips and tucks and injections and the latest wonder drugs. We don’t ask ourselves What do I myself notice and feel about getting old? What do I myself really see, in the mirror and watching my loved ones over the years? Why should we feel such shame at getting older with each year?
Do we think people will like us less if we look old? Will they have less respect for us? Do you like or respect people less each year? I think not. But I think that that particular fear lurks. As do so many fears concerning the whole process of aging. And these fears will have power over us, power to control our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, until we bring them up into clear consciousness and consider them in the light of day.
You may be wondering what got me going on this rant, besides my friend’s statement. I think it’s because of where I am and what I’m doing right now. My Scamp and I are sitting on a huge rocky promontory that juts out into Abiquiu Lake. It’s dotted with scrubby dwarf junipers that all day long provide little snippets of shade that move with the sun. I look at the expanse of water down below me in the midst of the rolling desert, a breath-taking juxtaposition. Everywhere I look there are rock outcroppings and rock cliffs, long rock faces, all of improbable colors, and everything covered with the tiny scraggly junipers, as though the entire land has a bad case of green measles.The horizon in all directions is low, causing the sky to soar.
To see this shimmering body of water in the arid desert landscape is stunning. But what towers over everything and holds total sway is one lone mountain, Cerro Pedernal. It stands alone to the south, and I tell you, it compels attention. I’m never not aware of it, even if I turn my head and look elsewhere. Georgia O’Keefe, whose Ghost Ranch is nearby, painted it over and over, maybe every day, looking out her kitchen window. That seemed a bit obsessive to me until I got here and started living under its spell.
It’s not only its relative height that’s compelling, it’s also the shape of it. It looks as though the peak was sliced off, straight across, and a low flat ledge of rock laid across the cut, the edges lining up perfectly with the sides of the mountain. I make myself wake up early every morning so I won’t miss the rising sun’s first rays hitting only that dark rock slab at the top, just for a few moments turning it to shining gold.
But really, what compels me to sit staring at it is its history. It was beautiful when it was young! And so very different. I try and try to picture what it must have looked like way back in its youth.
It was the bright-eyed eager park ranger that told me the story. Many millennia ago that flat rock that now sits at the top of the mountain was the floor of a deep valley, surrounded by mountains. A cataclysmic volcano eruption nearby caused that valley floor to be covered in andesite and basalt volcanic rock. In other words, that’s when that slab of rock was formed, the one I’m looking at right now, up there on the top of the mountain. Over millions of years, erosion occurred, all those original mountains slid away on all sides of the rock, but it held firm.
I find it hard to get my mind around what exactly one year actually represents, and here I am trying to fathom millions. And since tomorrow is my birthday, tomorrow I enter my 80th year, I find there’s no way I can understand what that number really means either.
I know that I’m as happy and content as anyone could ever hope to be. In the past I would not have rested until I had climbed to the top of Cerro Pedernal. These days I have no desire for that, in fact no driving ambition for anything. I am deeply happy to sit and watch.
It is definitely different, old age from any other, and all the physical details of it are of less and less interest. What’s happening within is ….well, not a volcanic eruption, it’s something that is happening slowly and gradually. In its slow gradual way I feel it as a huge inner change, as huge as was the much more dramatic and immediate giving of birth to my daughters. Birth and death, it makes sense. Because of course death is what aging forces us, if we’re lucky and paying attention, to begin to acknowledge and incorporate into our deepest understandings.
I feel so very different from how I felt when I was young. And now, thinking back, I’m aware of all the doors of opportunity that opened wide for me back then, in great part just because – my friend is right – I was beautiful.
Just so Cerro Pedernal. I imagine the lush valley it was, teeming with life and activity, surrounded by stately mountains on all sides, a veritable eden. And now it stands, a mountain itself, silent and contemplative. And (I imagine) deeply happy to sit and watch.