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30 Sep

We Do Not Go Gently


My mom and I talk a lot about the passage of time. “It feels like it goes both quickly and slowly,” she says, as we talk about my recent anniversary. “It feels like your wedding was both yesterday and a thousand years ago.” It was both, I say. That’s how time moves. Fast and slow, instantly and infinitely, all at once.

We talk about how that feels, in our hearts and in our bodies. We talk about how it looks. She tells me that she doesn’t recognize herself in the mirror. I know, I say. Neither do I.

“But I really don’t,” she insists. “I look old. And the old person that I see in the mirror is not the person that I feel like inside.”

I try to not let that bother me, but it does. Not because I worry about the passing of time for my mother (although I do), but because I can feel the day coming for me, when I really, truly don’t recognize myself in the mirror, when my inside no longer feels attached to my outside.

I heard something similar the other weekend, at the Wisepause Lifestyle summit on midlife and menopause. One of the speakers was talking about her own mother, saying almost exactly the same thing. “She told me that she doesn’t recognize herself in the mirror.” The whole room thrummed with recognition: we had all heard this. Or felt it.

We don’t talk enough about this, about how we do not go gently into that good night. We prefer to keep aging in the abstract, a hypothetical future bridge that we willingly and intentionally cross — someday, not now; someday far away — to arrive comfortably(ish) at the land of Old People. We treat it like a choice, not an inevitability; a decision we make, like getting on a flight, knowing where we’re supposed to land and who we’re supposed to be when we get there. We don’t imagine that we just wake up one day, having arrived at our future, unable to recognize ourselves.

Of course, for women, it’s a little more complicated. Our journey isn’t sudden. It’s hot and uncomfortable and seems to go on forever. But even then, I think that we don’t fully recognize it as a journey. We didn’t in puberty, either, which is what this is like, in a way. Our bodies transformed, seemingly suddenly, lurching ahead while our minds and spirits stayed moving at their own comfortable pace. And we thought, we are still the same.

But we weren’t, and we aren’t.

In that earlier transformation, we woke up to the realization that we were being seen — as women, as sexual objects (if we were lucky, as sexual subjects, sexual agents, in control of our own sexuality), as participants in a social space that might not see us or embrace us as we see ourselves. In the later-in-life transformation, we wake up to the experience of being or becoming invisible, to not being seen at all. In that earlier transformation, most of us stumble and lose confidence. In this later one, for many of us, that happens again.

I speak a lot about the confidence gap, or the dream gap — the chasm that opens sometime around puberty and that creates what feels like an insurmountable distance between what we dream of doing or being and our faith in our ability to achieve those dreams. I spoke about it last week at the Chairman Mom Flee, surrounded by a crowd of extraordinary, dream-achieving women, many of whom are in or around mid-life. And some of the conversation that came out of that yielded this truth: many of us face that dream gap again, decades later, even if we hurtled over it the first time. And this time, it’s in some ways more confusing than it was the first time around: in puberty, we had little point of reference for our own power; this time, we have lived our power, sometimes to extraordinary degrees. To start doubting it, even just a little bit, can feel radically destabilizing. To feel like we might be losing it — or to think that we stand to lose it, any of it — is scary. 

This isn’t just about aging, qua physical aging, although that is of course a core part of it. Things are changing: sometimes those are physical things (our energy is different, we feel hot when we don’t expect to, we don’t recognize ourselves in the mirror), sometimes those are spiritual things (we listen to the ticking of the clock, we grapple with our mortality, we wonder whether there is still time for more dreams.) All of them are confusing things, because we don’t have consistent, accessible, communal points of reference for them. At the Wisepause event, this was the common thread that ran through every conversation: how do we make sense of this? How do we live with it? How do we — can we — embrace it? (There was also this question: can we slow it? Maybe. The real question is, can we enjoy and appreciate it more? How do we enjoy and appreciate it more?) The answers, end of the day, mattered less than the fact that we were talking about it. There was a sense of palpable relief in the room. We’re talking about this.

This is always what matters most, in any and all periods of transition and transformation and in all the moments in between: that we talk about it. That we tell stories about it. Most importantly, that we build community around it.

Because it’s only in community that we disrupt — in the best possible way — the default experience of this transformation, this evolution, and embrace it. Together.

This post is made possible with support from AARP’s Disrupt Aging. All opinions are my own.

Header photo by Jeremy Thomas on Unsplash