I know friends mean no offense when they say, “For your age you’re in good shape; you’re running fast for your age; you don’t have much gray for your age.” I feel a flush of pride and accept it as a compliment. But I’d like to believe aging is not the only context in which other people see me.
I’ve always appeared younger than my age. In my flat-chested, chubby-faced, skinny-legged middle school days, I tried to look mature with lipstick, nylon stockings and high heeled shoes. But as an adult I worked hard to look young. I dieted, fasted, and watched my weight see-saw for years. Never thin enough. I bought into the American look-young-act-young-feel-young culture. When I started playing soccer and running in my mid thirties I relished being seen as youthful and athletic. I searched out youngish clothes and haircuts and stayed active. Compliments just fueled my mission.
As a country, Americans spend billions of dollars on plastic surgery and youth restoring cosmetics. Scientists in England, Japan, and the US are conducting research on preventing aging. David Sinclair of Harvard Medical School has lab mice growing young and claims to have the technology to reverse aging in humans. But can you imagine people growing younger like rats in a lab? Wouldn’t it be more beneficial to focus research on how the human brain adapts, how people learn new skills, form new memories, and improve vocabulary as they age?
I’m the same age as President Biden. I notice that every report — signing a multi zillion dollar budget, sending rocket firing missiles to Ukraine, meeting with the leader of Saudi Arabia — is followed by a mention of his age. Why? He’s wise; he’s seasoned; he’s been in this game for half a century. Isn’t his age a big part of why he is where he is? And while I detest how the media portray elderly as incompetent, unattractive, feeble, and dependent, I find myself, if not buying into the stereotype, worrying about how people perceive me. Is that why I’ve worked so hard at keeping my physical appearance? Why, at my age, I keep on running with an aching hip?
Technology has replaced elders as a source of information, introspection, and wisdom. A ten-minute sound bite serves as the equivalent of years of experience. Neither reverence for youth or contempt for old age are stereotypes that I want to perpetuate but they’re deeply engrained. I cringe looking into the mirror at my wrinkled, age-spotted skin. I don’t like that I’ve lost an inch in height or hearing my orthopedist say, “wearing out happens — at your age.” I feel a wash of nostalgia seeing a photo of my sweaty, glowing daughter-in-law finishing a marathon.
I’ll never run that distance again.
Once I was the one running marathons. I ran every day on snowy dark winter mornings before work in Minneapolis, facing the sun rising over the Capitol in Washington DC, or in Atlanta, New York, San Diego where I traveled for work. Each plastic trophy, each medal around my neck made me proud and spurred me on to another race.
But the miles and the years worked together to slow me down – arthritic toes, bursitis in my hip, physical therapy – and to show me a new view of myself. I am accepting an easier pace. I run shorter distances and take days off. I interrupt my morning run to look for a giant snapper under the bridge, a great blue heron on the shoreline or the chatty mockingbird on a holly tree. And halfway through every run I stop at the end of the boardwalk to stretch, to breathe ocean air, and think about how fortunate I am to be here.
I’m trying to find peace with what I can no longer do. I won’t run any marathons or march on any capitols. I won’t snorkel or kayak beside the mangroves in the Keys or hike among the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon. I won’t spend two weeks with my sewing machine in the kitchen amassed with patterns and fabric, and fleece fuzz, making seven pairs of pajamas for my grandsons, nieces, and nephews. (Although I will miss shopping for the appropriate tennis, ski, soccer, hockey, music, spaceship, or animal print for each kid.)
But I am fit and healthy and I feel good. I can still run a 5K race and walk my dog. I can volunteer at the food rescue and bake a decent pie. I can write letters for and contribute to causes I believe in.
I have more time to write and read and study issues I care about. I can sit on the deck with my husband and watch the sun set over the trees. I hope that running and aging – together – will guide me into this winter season of my life.
Sherri Wright is a member of the Rehoboth Beach Writers Guild and the Key West Poetry Guild. She runs, walks her dog on the boardwalk, and volunteers for a local food rescue Her work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction, Dreamer’s Creative Writing, and Panoply, Persimmon Tree, Ocotillo Review, and Quartet, among others.