My friend Mike recently emailed me this:
“Last week when I was colouring my hair I wondered: ‘Is Pat still colouring her hair?’
Usually when this comes to mind, it is followed by a strong sensation, stomach tightening, anxiety, and then the thought, ‘Oh I hope she is too, she has to be.’
But this time, I thought, ‘No, whatever is happening is fine.’ I’m not ready to let go, to ungrasp my own hair colouring, but it seems I’m ready to ungrasp yours. Just letting you know.”
We’ve discovered what Nora Ephron and others have known for centuries; hair dye is the greatest anti-ageing device ever developed. It takes 10 years off your face.
Mike and I met for dinner and as is often the case, the conversation turned to our pending decrepitude (we’re both of a certain age). He told me how he’d recently had his passport photo taken at the Shoppers Drug Mart by a young 20-something. She kindly took two and asked him which he preferred. He told me the thoughts that sprang unbidden into his mind were, “That’s not me!” and “They both look exactly the same.” He noted how he was clinging to a younger version of himself and couldn’t identify with the stranger staring back from the photograph. The clerk ultimately chose the better-looking image for him.
I told him I had this sudden insight that we prepare for living for the first half of our lives and then prepare for dying for the second half. There was a time (still is in other cultures) when people never got their four score and ten. Here, in the West we tend to hang around with the aid of modern medicine, sanitation and nutrition, often prolonging our dying; rotting in bits, unless we are taken quickly by some catastrophic disease or accident.
A patient of mine once said she couldn’t wait to hit 50 because she could become a spy. I laughed. Now it isn’t so funny. Women become invisible early. Men fade out of view, perhaps a little later. As in the words of Roger Angell , they too are ultimately, “honored, respected, and even loved, but not quite worth listening to anymore.” Even our offspring no longer revere us or care about our opinions as we trudge toward our expiry date. Rick Mercer teased Americans by discussing the “fact” that Canada puts its elderly out to sea on ice floes. While this is amusing if you’re not elderly, I might rather a berg than a nursing home. I guess I’ll find out, if I get that far. So, in our death-defying, age-denying, youth-adoring culture how can we best approach the inevitable?
I have come to see how the art of aging gracefully may be about letting go. This might allow me to bring curiosity to this sack of bones as the bag loosens and falls all around me. Giving up wanting what can’t be and accepting what is might bring me some freedom. As our energy and desires fade we can practise giving things up, the material, our roles and who we believe ourselves to be, divesting as a rehearsal for the final letting go, like Philip Roth who retired from writing in his 70s or those who quit dyeing their hair. Molly Swan, a meditation teacher I adore once said, “People think about how they are going to add in meditation practice to their lives. I tell them to think about what they’ll give up.” All of these are ways we can practise acceptance of our impermanence and limitations. I have decided to give up some of my teaching to look after my grandson. I am, however, still dyeing my hair.
It’s good to have a friend to walk along with on the conveyor belt of life. Resistance is, after all, futile. The belt goes in one direction only. Acceptance, letting go and awareness could be a gentle way of dealing with our inevitable decline. I hope to be wide-awake when I go out on the exhale of that final breath.