The Birthday: My Advice on How to Better Enjoy Getting Older

by Jen Whinnen

I turned forty years old this year. Forty. It’s weird being forty because forty is supposedly nothing these days. Forty is the new thirty! People live to be 110 and have babies in their 50s. I can pump my face full of Botox, veneer my teeth and pretend I am young until I’ve got one ancient foot in the grave.

and yet… I think there is a point when, regardless of how you spin it, we all know that we are no longer young. There is a point when we have to face facts. Time waits for no one. Forty is pretty much that point.  It’s the threshold to Old Age. Forty is “young old”. Forty’s got lots of good years left, but let’s face it; retirement is closer than our high school graduations.

I remember when I realized my mom was 40. She seemed like the oldest woman in the world.  Who lives to be 40? It was a number I could not wrap my mind around. I knew in some vague way that my grandma was older than my mom, but that didn’t really mean anything. My grandma wasn’t a person who did stuff.  She just made really good pickles and showed up for recitals and holidays.  My mom, on the other hand, lived at my house. She was the librarian at my school. She bought my groceries and did my laundry. She was a real person. And she was forty years old. How did she live with stretch marks and wrinkles? Wasn’t she embarrassed? How does she live through ever day knowing that she’s so. very. old?

Then I realized my dad was forty and that was terrifying.  At forty he had a bad knee and ankle and walked with a slight shuffle, he was missing his middle finger on his right hand and had severe arthritis in his arm, he was overweight and basically blind without his glasses. How did these two geezers get into my house?

Suddenly it dawned on me….my parents were going to be really, really old one day. Like Grandma old. And some day they were going to die.  My teen brain made calculations and realized once you hit forty you were basically dead. You were just a few short moments away from standing in line at the gates of Hades.

Happily, my parents made it past this mythical landmark and lived to see me graduate college. It was the first time they’d come to see me in New York and I was excited. I was 22 years old, living on my own, living in NYC and full of pep and vigor and vitality. One of the first things we did was go for a walk in Central Park. As we sat on bench taking in the view of people and trees and squirrels, my dad let out a big sigh and said, “You know I envy you. You wake up every morning excited about the day.”

I felt a little awkward, guilty even. I wasn’t sure what to say so I mumbled a feeble, “Yeah I guess.”

And then he said, “I remember that feeling. When I close my eyes I am where you are. I feel young. I forget some times that I don’t have that body anymore. It’s confusing. It’s confusing to be in this body when my mind is still young.  In my mind I am still 22, but in my body…. well, I’m not.”

My dad was 48. He was only eight years older than I am now.  If I take his experience as an indication of the aging process I can expect that in less than eight years I will be looking back on my life and sighing.

and yet…  I cannot relate to my dad at all. I simply do not look back on my youth wistfully.  I have fond memories, but I don’t long to go back there. I’m wrinkly and fatter now but, I don’t feel disconnected from my body or my mind.  In fact, I feel quite the opposite.  I am calmer, more peaceful and much happier than I was in my youth.

Youth is a temperamental, moody brat who is never satiated.  There is never an end to her need or want. She is a swirling, dive bombing carnival ride of insecurities, a vain, silly bimbo who will never, ever love you back. Youth is the ultimate gold digger.  She is only using you for your time and once it is gone, she will leave you.

Age can never be enjoyed if we are chasing after Youth. Age is like getting off the ride and gaining our equilibrium. Our lives after we leave the carnival. It’s walking back to the car in a quiet parking lot full of stars holding your lover’s hand and enjoying the sounds of the carnival in the distance. It is wisdom and grace. It is deep, rumbling laughter. It’s the time you have to think and be alone.

One of my teachers is working up to being able to hold plow pose for an hour. She wants to do this so that when she “is old and no one wants to talk to her anymore” she can be with herself and be interesting to herself. That’s what aging is all about. It’s about finding out how to be without. First people lose interest in you and then you lose interest in the world so that you can go in and get interesting. Youth takes everything from you and asks you to give it all away, Age gives back and restores.

But, it can only give what we are willing to take.

Now, I normally shy away from “lists of things that you can do to make your life  happy” kind of writing, (I’m pretty sure life’s lessons can’t be summarized in pithy little bullet points), but I do have this list of reminders I keep in my head and so far it’s been working for me.  And so, since I am crossing into my golden years and it’s my birthday, I’m going take part in the time honored tradition of old women everywhere. I am going to give away some unsolicited advice (via pithy little bullet points).

My Unsolicited Advice on How to Better Enjoy Getting Older:

  1. Find old people to teach you how to be old. This is the biggest one. I recently had a conversation with a friend who is training to be a lactation consultant. She was saying that breast feeding in many ways is a lost art because it needs to be handed down from mother to mother. Since we lost two generations of women to formula feeding, we’ve had to relearn how to do it and how to teach it. I think the same can be said for aging. In a country where we glorify youth and vilify aging, we’ve lost some basic common sense how-to. Seek out wise, funny older people and make them your friends. Listen to their advice and do what they say. (side note: I highly recommend “mature” yoga teachers, especially if you are a woman. Nothing is more inspiring that seeing a spry, intellectual, spiritual woman on a regular basis. It’s one of the greatest gifts you will ever give yourself.)
  2. Meditate or pray or do something contemplative. Besides the fact that it has proven to increase gray matter which will help your brain stay fit, it’s also the best way to get acquainted with the internal landscape of your mind and spirit.
  3. Read. Trashy novels, classic lit, medical journals, magazines, kid’s books, e-books, hard copies, it doesn’t matter. Just find stuff you like and read. (One caveat: do not read fashion magazines. That’s toxic at any age.)
  4. Find something physical you like to do and do it regularly.
  5. Enjoy your food. Do not be a glutton. Do not starve. Enjoy your food.
  6. Find things and people that make you laugh and keep them around. Seek out the laughs.
  7. Help others. Be generous with your time and disposable income. Be helpful.

Birthdays are a reminder that we were brought into this world to participate in it. Youth is not your last chance to contribute so do not limit you experience by believing that all possibility has passed with the passing of time.