A melancholy lesson of advancing years is the realisation that you can’t make old friends.
Christopher Hitchens, Unacknowledged Legislation: Writers in the Public Sphere
A few years ago one of my colleagues told me about his experience of visiting his mother in an “old people’s home”. Usually, he said, he spent his weekly visits talking just with his mum, and he saw the other residents in the home not as individuals with lives and stories, but more as a collection of geriatrics whose presence in his mother’s home he had no choice but to tolerate.
Then one day his mum was busy with something when he turned up for his visit and he had nothing else to do but talk with some of the people sharing the roof over his mother’s head. And he realised that they were amazing. He heard extraordinary stories about the lives that people had lead, the things they’d achieved and the sacrifices they’d had to make. It was a good reminder for him, he said, to always look behind the possible decrepitude to see the life and the love and the story.
A number of months ago I made a new friend in Geneva. I was sitting at a bus stop outside of the Art Geneve exhibition at Palexpo and the lady sitting next to me took an English novel out of her handbag, so I struck up a conversation with her. By the time we’d reached Cornavin we’d established that she was born in the same year as my mum and I was born in the same year as her daughter. This, to me, is a very special kind of friendship, for reasons that those who know me well will understand (and those who don’t can read about here). The next time we met we went to see a photography exhibition and spent about five hours telling each other about our lives. It was at the end of that rendezvous that I told her that I was going to be in The Vagina Monologues and she said she’d like to come along.
And she did. My lovely 72-year-old friend K was there in the audience for the matinee performance, laughing and crying and whooping it up with the best of them. The hug I got from her after the show was more important to me than perhaps she realises.
One of the monologues that K was most touched by was The Flood, which was based on Eve Ensler’s interviews with a group of women between 65 and 75. One of the women said that she’d never had an orgasm and had cried when she’d seen her clitoris for the first time at the age of 72. Eve Ensler wrote The Flood for her, and our directors cast the wonderful Christina to play her part. They couldn’t have chosen better. Christina’s warmth, charm and humour paid perfect tribute to the woman and the life that she might have had if things had panned out differently for her.
After the matinee performance of the play K asked if I could introduce her to Christina. A brief but beautiful moment passed between a 72-year-old woman and a woman decades younger who had played a 72-year-old woman.
It was a good reminder to all of us to always look behind the possible decrepitude to see the life and the love and the story.
Inside every old person is a young person wondering what happened.
One of the great joys of my new post-chateau, return-to-civilisation life is the photography club that I’ve joined. I’ve only met with the group twice so far but already its activities and intentions and the thoughtful observations of its members are changing my perspectives.
The first meeting that I attended was all about lighting. One of the group members, a professional photographer, had brought in some of her expensive equipment to show to the rest of the group. After giving a detailed tutorial on how it all works, she encouraged the Nikon users (whose cameras would be compatible with her equipment) to experiment with it. Canon users (for most seem to have a strong preference for either one of these two brands) could play around with the Canon-compatible lighting gear brought in by the organiser.
So my fellow photographers had cameras and lighting equipment and the requisite knowledge to use them both. But they didn’t have a subject. So I, having neither a Canon nor a Nikon nor any other kind of photographic equipment other than a trusty little point-and-press, volunteered.
“Modelling” was fun. All I had to do was sit or stand as instructed and be a passive subject for the light to bounce off. Nobody told me to smile and I wasn’t deliberately doing so (although when one of the group commented on the fact that I’d been smiling non-stop for 90 minutes, I was glad to know that the joy that I feel in life is apparently reflected on my face.) And I learned a lot about lighting while I sat there and listened to everything that was said about the umbrellas and soft boxes that were being moved around me, or I around them.
(Thank you to Wilna Weeda for this photograph.)
But one of the greater lessons that I learned that day was, I’m afraid, more about the subject than the subject, if you see what I mean. Let me explain…
After the session ended it occurred to me that of the hundreds of photographs that were taken of me that day, there might be one that I could like enough to use as my profile picture on this blog. My current picture is, as I’ve explained, six years old now, and is starting to feel a little dishonest. Perhaps my new photography friends, I thought, might be willing to share some of their photos with me.
And then they did. And then I found myself struggling with the brutality of the truth.
You see, I’ve always wanted to embrace the process of ageing. Every birthday, rather than thinking, Oh my god, I’m yet another year older!, I try to think about what I’ve done/seen/experienced/achieved over the last twelve months and think, Well, yes, it takes time to do that stuff. Of course I’m another year older. It doesn’t always work but that’s how I try to think.
When we lived in Jerusalem, I realised one day that I was then older than my mother ever lived to be. In her mid to late thirties and early forties Mum was operated on, injected, zapped with radiation and filled with all sorts of odious medicinal concoctions, all so that she might be able to beat cancer and be granted more life. More years. More experience. More time with her loved ones. More lines on her face. And each one of those lines would have been a reflection of all that she’d lived and all the people that she’d loved. And in the eyes of the only beholders that mattered, those lines would have made her all the more stunning.
But cancer won. And Mum was buried young and beautiful. And because of that I recognise that every day that I live is a gift and a privilege. Why should I give a shit that I have lines on my face? I’m alive! Getting older, I learned at a young age, is far better than the alternative.
About 20 years ago I attended a Guardian literature event in London. That was, of course, pre-Google Images, and I had no idea of what some of my favourite writers looked like. I browsed curiously through the brochure about the authors who would be speaking that day. Among their pictures was a shot of the brilliant Hilary Mantel, young, blonde and slim. It came as a shock to me when she walked out onto the stage. Only the blondeness was still recognisable from her profile picture. I found myself feeling annoyed with her. The fact that she’d put on weight was beside the point – an author’s dress size is no more relevant than a tennis player’s attractiveness, as I wish the media would recognise – but I thought the fact that she wasn’t prepared to claim and proclaim who she was now was unworthy of her. (I’ve since learned that Mantel struggled with her body image after her rapid weight gain, which was caused by endometriosis, a hysterectomy and the prescription of high levels of hormones, all of which she’s written about in her memoirs, Giving Up The Ghost. No wonder she wouldn’t allow herself to be portrayed as she was; she didn’t know.)
I’ve never understood people’s nostalgic sighs of, Ah, if only I could be 19 again… I wouldn’t go back to that age for anything! God, if we’re talking about the trials of body image, do you remember what it was like to be a teenager? Those years were tough! I’m so much happier now that I know myself a bit better, now that I’ve got some life experience under my belt. In some situations I can even be fairly sure of the best course of action to take because I’ve made so many mistakes before that I know well enough not to make them again. And finding new ways of fucking up is fun! We’re all human, aren’t we? That’s what it’s all about! What is it about our society that makes us value youth over experience?
So there we have it – evidence that at points in my life I’ve occasionally had some good and worthy thoughts about life and ageing and appearance and expectation.
Ah, but it’s so very easy to be sanguine about ageing when you’re young! It’s so simple to say that you’ll never have Botox or plastic surgery when you don’t even understand what the word “elasticity” means when it’s used in the same sentence as the word “skin”! It so easy to look condescendingly at women who’ve gone under the knife when you’ve never caught a glimpse of an ageing person in a shop window and not recognised that ageing person as yourself!
(A side note to my 90-year-old self, by the way: I know that compared to you, I’m a spring chicken at 43, and when I say “ageing” I don’t mean that I think I’m very old now. I know I’m not. I’m just acknowledging that I’m older than I used to be. I’m trying to grow comfortably into the skin that you now inhabit. Be gentle with me please, older and wiser me!)
I was very grateful to my new photography club friends for sending me some images from our lighting session but I have to admit that my first reaction to them was, Noooooo! I can’t possibly show these to anyone! I look so old!
But now I realise that I can’t just talk the talk. I can’t just spout on about how I think our personal and societal concerns about the outward signs of ageing are beyond ludicrous. I can’t just say that I value the laughter lines as evidence of the laughter, and the sagging skin as proof of the much appreciated and ever growing number of days, weeks, months and years I’ve spent on the planet. I have to truly accept them. I have to put on a brave face. A brave ageing face. I have to put a brave ageing face on my blog.
So here it is.
(Thank you to Catherine Hieronymi for this photograph.)
Take that, ageists. I’m out and proud as a middle-aged woman. Come back in ten years. In 20. Hopefully even 30 or 40. Then I’ll really have some stories to tell you. And all you’ll have to do to hear them will be to look at my wizened old face.