Fall term I get to teach one of my most favorite Gerontology courses, Embodiment in Later Life. Last week’s session was remarkable for many reasons and I hope to write about it (in collaboration with the students in the class) more over the next couple of months, but for now, I thought I’d share about one of the juicy questions we explored together: How do we know that we are aging?
On the surface, this might seem like a pretty simple question with pretty straightforward answers.
Stop for a moment and ponder this question–what comes to your mind?
Grey hair? Wrinkles? A gradual change in one’s appearance that catches one by surprise? An abrupt change in one’s health or well-being that catches one by surprise? The death of one’s older relatives? Significant life-transitions such as a child going off to college, getting an AARP card in the mail, or being offered the “opportunity” for early retirement at one’s workplace?
The realization that one has perhaps reached the theoretical “mid-point” of their travels through the life course (which can only be known for certain after the fact)? The conviction that life is short even when it is long and that the time is now or never to really dive deeply into one’s own development as a human being and surface with treasures to share with others?
In actual fact, the question (How do we know that we are aging?) is a deceptively complex question that invites us into some pretty deep critical reflection and contemplation. Why so? Because aging isn’t just about the changes that happen inside and on the surface of an individual’s body after they reach maturation (changes which are almost always seen as negative). Aging is a lifelong emergent soma/mind/spirit process. Nor is aging a phenomenon that unfolds only at the level of the individual; it does happen at the level of the individual, but the individual is in context — relational, societal, cultural, political and historical. And these contexts shape how we experience our personal aging; influence our expectations for when it happens, how it happens, what it will be like; and even pre-determine how we engage with the question: How do we know that we are aging? (This is why I believe it is so important to cultivate an intentional aging practice!)
I ponder this question frequently and answer it in a multitude of ways depending on the day. Today my answer to this question has less to do with the personal aspects of my travels through the life course and more to do with the relational aspects, specifically with my relationship with my daughter. Isobel is 16, a junior in high school, and this week she’s done all of the driving when we are together in the car, including over bridges, on freeways, and at night. I’m still processing how it feels to ride in the passenger seat while my tiny girl drives our big vehicle. Over bridges. On freeways. At night (in the rain!). Yikes!
And this is the first Halloween ever that Isobel is not with me, or her grandmother, or her father for trick-or-treating or hanging around the house to pass out candy to the little neighborhood kiddos. Instead, she’s with her friend Hana –attending a party and having a school-night sleepover. Izzy didn’t even carve a jack-o-latern this year, nor dress up in a costume (though she wore a chic all-black outfit to school today, though she wears chic black outfits to school most days, so that’s not much of a costume.).
So I carved a pumpkin this afternoon, just a little one with a ghost face (whereas in past years we’ve carved multiple pumpkins with many different guises). And while I’m not wearing a costume this year I did do something festive to my hair. My sweet man is hanging out with me tonight so I won’t be all alone like a little ghost haunting my own house, unwilling to rest in peace. The bowl of candy is sitting by the front door, just in case wee creatures come a-haunting.
Tonight will be the first Halloween night ever for some of the little kids who come to my door for tricks-or-treats. Their parent or Granny will stand on the sidewalk observing and thinking about what a significant transition it is for the child, how it seems like only yesterday that they were a baby, and now they are a little vampire or ballerina walking on their own two legs, taking part in the yearly Halloween ritual.
Indeed, it does seem like only yesterday…