Squinty: growing older with grace

   

A revolution:  Growing old gracefully

Monday through Friday I wait in the car line to pick up my nine-year old daughter Rose from school.  I usually arrive 45 minutes before the dismissal bell rings to secure a good spot in line for my 2005 minivan.  On warm, sunny days, which are thankfully plentiful in North Carolina, I roll down the windows and turn off the engine to spare my fellow line waiters the sound of the death-metal-rattle my van recently began making. 

One particularly sunshiny day, I was momentarily overcome with the high-spirited delirium large bouts of fresh air and singing birds can bring.

“We have to stop meeting this way!”  I called out playfully to the occupant of the car next to me.  

I thought it was a clever conversation starter.  But as the occupant of the car next to me rolled up her window with due haste, I began to rethink my attempt at witty repartee. 

Thankfully, I wasn’t left pondering why the nice lady with the license plate NANA could be so coldhearted for too long.  The car line began to move forward.

 It had begun:  Like ants, scattering from their disturbed mound, the little children emerged. 

 

It’s quite an operation. The teachers manage the mammoth undertaking of delivering unruly elementary school students safely to waiting vehicles with military efficiency and Southern charm.

Rose waits in the library for her turn to be called to the car.  The library has a door that opens onto the sidewalk in the front of school.   She comes directly from hushed confines to the great outdoors.  This happens every day.  And every day she does the same thing when her body collides with the blazing light of day: she squints.  

She squints her eyes, wrinkling her nose, stretching her neck out and tilting her face upward like some kind of nocturnal turtle emerging from its shell, suddenly exposed to noontime sun.  

It’s comical and it’s endearing.  It’s her.

“Hi, Squinty,” I said to her one sunny Tuesday as she climbed in the van.  She glared at me, her eyes now narrowed in moral outrage.

“I’m not squish-y!” she said in a voice that sounded like she picked up a British accent at school that day. 

“Not squishy.  Squinty,” I clarified.

“Well, alright then,” she said.  Apparently, she had developed an accent during the school day.  Although, at that point, I was trying to decide if her accent was British or Transylvanian.  “I pretended I was from England all day.  My friend, Isabel G. pretended she was from Russia.  I think the teacher really believed we were from those places.”  She proceeded to describe the day's antics, which involved a Lord of the Flies-esque game of Seven Up gone terribly wrong. “We had a substitute teacher today," she added knowingly, as if that explained everything. 

 

A Decision of Grace

I know that I will look back on those days, in the not too distant future, with great affection.  They are the golden days of childhood, filled with wonder and imagination.  How quickly they roll by. 

The squinting Rose is my baby.  My oldest daughter is about to graduate from high school this year.  

 To say that I feel the rushing onslaught of time is an understatement; I wish I could grab it and make it stop.

But I can’t.

 

My skin isn’t quite what it used to be.  I find that I am adding more and more highlights to my hair in an effort to camouflage the multiplying gray strands.  Some mornings, I look in the mirror and say to myself, “Where did you come from?”  For though I may feel the same as I did twenty plus years ago, I don’t look the same.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not unrecognizable, just different.  In a way that reminds me things are changing…there’s no going back. 

Aging is rolling in, rising like a tide, wearing away the edges of what my physical body and appearance used to look like.  It can be hard to come to terms with, hard to embrace; wrinkles are not exactly celebrated in this modern culture.

 I saw an ad for Boo-tox this past Halloween.  It was sandwiched in between commercials for candy and costumes. 

 

If you don’t like your laugh lines…

If you don’t want sagging skin under your neck…

If you have too many sun spots…

If you have a flabby tummy…

 

Do something about it.  

 

Yes, I could do something about it.  I could try to stem the tide.  Rage, rage against the coming of the cellulite.  I could spend money, effort, time, lots of it, to stave off the proof that I spent time at the beach.  That I laughed.  That I furrowed my brow when I concentrated.  That I squinted in the sun. 

I could do something about all of those things and not be doing anything inherently wrong. 

But, what if?

 What if I looked at that familiar stranger in the mirror and decided to grow old gracefully? 

 

What does it even mean, to ‘grow old gracefully’?

 

There is an image circulating around social media.  It is a split picture.  One side is a youthful, fit, smiling woman; the other is a gray-haired granny, dressed as if it is still the Great Depression, looking forlornly out a window.  The caption reads, “Both of these women are 74 years old…The choice is yours to make.”

 

What exactly is the choice we are supposed to be making?  To pick the person in the picture we want to look like and make it happen?  And then what?

Should I tell my beautiful grandmother, suffering with Alzheimer’s, that it’s too bad, she should have chosen better?  She should have chosen not to be a 40-year old widow?  Not to bury a one year old child?  Not to have labored and toiled her whole life just to make ends meet?  

Is having a banging body when you are 80 the key to growing old with grace?  Is being able to wear clothes that show off your midsection somehow correlated with happiness?  Why is one condition better than the other? 

Why is looking younger considered a badge of honor, and looking older a curse?  

Do I want my daughter, when she reaches the riper ages, to feel that she has out lived her usefulness to society because she no longer looks young?

Do I want her to detest the evidence that she squinted in the sun every day as a 9-year little girl?  

Perhaps she rubs a little wrinkle cream on her squinting lines, but as the years pass, and cream just doesn’t do the job anymore, do I want her to hate them? 

 Or, do I want her to see the lines in her face for what they are- a reflection of happy days of exuberance?  They are who she is.  

 Aging with grace doesn’t mean we throw out our boxes of hair color and stop using our moisturizers, give up on makeup and relegate our clothing choices to “mature” styles. 

The truth is, growing older with grace has nothing to do with doing. 

Or not doing.

Growing older with grace is what we are.

We are no longer defined by the standards of this culture; examples of contented life, grace-filled life, life to the fullest, the evidence etched on our faces and fondly engraved on our hearts.  Lives well lived.  A daily reckoning with insecurity and self-awareness—radical determination—“with mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come”.* 

Taking the words the Apostle Paul wrote seriously, embracing them as an anthem for our weary, aging bodies:

“I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am.  I know both how to have a little, and I know how to have a lot.  In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being content…”

 (Philippians 4:11-12)

 In other words, "I will never be as young as I once was.  My body may never respond the way I want it to.  But I can be content.  The great mystery of happiness is this: to learn to be content in all circumstances."

 

We are all so diverse.  It would stand to reason that our experiences aging would be equally diverse.  To me, that is the most exciting part of the whole process.  I can be me.  I still get to be me.  I don’t have to spend my days chasing a one size fits all outcome. 

Work out, don’t work out.  Eat this, eat that.  Do this, do that.  But I don’t ever, for one moment, have to let those things define me, my value. 

Yes, both of those women are 74.  Yes, the choice is mine.  But it is a choice that has nothing to do with what I look like or what my body can or can’t do. 

 For the day is coming when the end will come, which is really just the beginning, and death will be swallowed up in victory.  And I will see Him.  The usefulness of my body will have meant nothing, nothing apart from what I have done in service of His love.  The wrinkles on my face, the evidence that I laughed at my daughter’s squinting face, the proof that I wrestled with anguish and grief, that I experienced great sorrow, great joy, great fight, great wonder in this life, will be the grateful offering of my soul.  

It is me, all of me. 

 

Grace was all I ever needed all along anyway. 

 

 

 

*William Shakespeare