The year of being sixty two.
Ageing isn’t linear. It happens in sudden leaps and swoops. One day you look in the mirror and your chin has gone. Your chin which has been with you all your life has suddenly disappeared and in its place is a soft fleshy decline from your head to your neck. You never even realised that you liked your chin, it was just there at the bottom of your face, but now it has gone you miss it. Hands are another one. For years you have quite liked your hands with their narrow palms and long fingers. Then one day you are drying them after washing the dishes and you see with a start that they have become the hands of an old lady. The veins and the tendons stand up too sharply. The skin is finely wrinkled and quite incapable of bouncing back. They are your mother’s hands.
There is nothing you can do about any of this and in a way you don’t want to. What would be the use of a long Canute-like battle against the incoming tide of ageing? Better to put your towel down on the beach and feel the sun seep into your bones or to paddle in the warm edge of the sea. But it is odd nevertheless. Your body has developed a life of its own.
I have never understood it when you see pensioners on the television insisting with a giggle that they don’t feel a day over seventeen. I recognise the person I was at seventeen, just. I think she has something to do with me but it is like looking at another life. How naive I was, how self obsessed, how self conscious. How little I knew about what I could cope with. How little I had loved, learnt, suffered, enjoyed. If I still felt like that girl after more than forty years of living I think I would have been wasting my time. But I do recognise the disconnect between the outside and the inside, between the body and the mind. The body is gently and inexorably moving into the later stages of life even while the mind insists that nothing has changed.
It must have been like this for generations. Perhaps every generation has always arrived in the foothills of age with the same start of surprise. Perhaps no one is ever ready. But I wonder if those of us born in the fifties and sixties are not particularly at sea. Unlike my grandmother’s generation we can expect at least another twenty years when we reach sixty, probably more. Her generation took to its perms and sensible shoes and corsets at the age of fifty or so. I remember my own grandmother vividly when she must have been about fifty and she hardly changed at all in the way she looked and dressed until she died at seventy one. Expectations have shifted since then both in terms of how long we might live and what we might look like as we do so.
The media can’t quite decide how to categorise us. For a while Joan Collins was the only older woman who you might expect to see in newspapers and magazines. Now it is Helen Mirren. Both are offered as evidence that is possible to be attractive and desirable at around seventy. I am really not sold on that one. Most of us never looked like Helen Mirren in the first place and do we really want desirability to be the measure of our worth? I think I might have had enough of that when I was younger.
So here we are. What are our sixties and seventies going to look like? Most of us have worked outside the home. Many of us have had interesting and demanding professional lives denied to our mothers and grandmothers. Many of us are fortunate to be financially secure. When I look at my friends I see political passion and environmental commitment. I see women who take deep pleasure in their grandchildren and who also want to travel in Asia. I see women who have devoted their lives to their families finding time and energy for themselves, starting businesses, writing novels, taking great satisfaction from the traditional female domestic crafts or deciding to work until they are seventy for the sheer pleasure of it. Of course we are privileged, women like me, immensely privileged compared to most older women throughout the world, and privileged even in comparison to those in our own country who struggle with lack of money or ill health. But I don’t see our lives represented in newspapers and magazines or even in fiction. Too old to be a heroine, too young to be a crone, we seem to be invisible. Does this happen to men of our generation too I wonder? Perhaps not as overwhelmingly since men are still much more visible in the workplace and in the media and politics and anyway I could not speak for them even if I wished to. But I can speak for myself and thus perhaps for women of my generation.
So here it is, a year of being sixty two, with its pleasures, its pains, its freedoms and its frustrations. It would not be honest to write this without looking at ageing and mortality but neither would it be true to ignore the opportunities and happinesses of the last quarter of life. I would not put the clock back. To be here is a pleasure and a privilege. But where to next?