The Glory of Aging
The year after I graduated college, a former professor took me to lunch in the school cafeteria. We talked about his forthcoming book of poetry and my graduate studies, his commute from central Illinois and mine from downtown Chicago.
It was all very pleasant until I erupted with the question that had been burning in my mind for months.
“The year after graduating is so hard,” I said. “Why didn’t anyone tell me?”
“Why didn’t anyone tell me?”
He asked me to elaborate and I listed my many complaints: the lack of community, rotten job market, impossible minimum wage, crummy apartment, difficult roommates, and struggle of learning to cook every single meal for myself.
“I felt on top of the world senior year,” I lamented. “I was not prepared for such a crash.”
“Plus, no one cuts up your fruit for you once you graduate,” he remarked, spearing a slice of pineapple on his fork and holding it up to the light. “Unless you’re a professor and then you can eat here all the time.”
I sighed and he offered a gentle smile.
“Courtney,” he asked, “if anyone had told you, would you have believed them?”
I turn forty next year. For some of you, forty seems young. To others, still blossoming with the flower of youth, I will be impossibly old. Out of touch. On my way to the dustbin of history.
Forty is a scary number in many ways. It’s a notice that midlife has arrived in force, not to be denied. If statistics hold true, I will be closer to my death than the day of my birth. It is a year for reflection and reckoning.
Still, it doesn’t scare me like I expected it to. Perhaps that is because my birthday remains over eight months away—August seems far afield in the chill of December. I hope it’s more than that, though. I hope it doesn’t frighten me because God is slowly but surely teaching me to live well, and in doing so, preparing me to die.
As the oldest of fourteen cousins on my father’s side, I begged for a seat at the adult table during holiday meals. I chafed at my role as the eldest and, by default, babysitter of the younger family members who coated their hair in mashed potatoes or decorated their placemats with gravy. The chaos at the kids’ table didn’t befit my burgeoning dignity, my nascent adulthood, my obnoxious ability to take myself way too seriously.
So much of what I clung to in my twenties and thirties has proven unworthy of that white-knuckled grip.
Finally, one Thanksgiving, after much cajoling on my part, I was invited to join the adults with their fine china and crystal glasses and cranberry sauce straight from the can. Five minutes in I realized this seating arrangement was actually far worse, for their conversation consisted entirely of ailments, remedies, and death notices.
“Do you remember Patricia?” someone asked, raising a glass of Martinelli’s. “Well, she died. Stroke. No one found her for days.” I cleared my throat, picked up my plate, and offered to keep an eye on the littles once again.
As the years spin underneath my tires, I find myself chastened and humbled. So much of what I critiqued or overlooked or—in my worst moments—even despised about older generations is beginning to make sense. So much of what I clung to in my twenties and thirties has proven unworthy of that white-knuckled grip.
“I don’t want to disappear,” I told my husband, Daryl, when we found ourselves pregnant with our firstborn nearly a decade ago. “Moms disappear. No one notices them.” I vowed to keep an eye on fashion trends, to continue listening to new music, to never, ever trade my button-fly jeans for anything with an elastic waistband.
Then our son came into the world, squalling and red-cheeked and suddenly I disappeared. But rather than the sadness I anticipated, I felt freedom. No one cares if you’ve brushed your hair when you’re holding an infant—and this is grace, not burden.
For years I believed the myth of achievement, pushing too hard and moving too quickly, bent on producing and addicted to motion. And now, as my body ages, its speed slows. My orthopedist informed me that running is out, so now I walk long, winding trails in the early morning hours and hear the song of birds that once would have been drowned out by my pounding footfalls.
The older I grow the more I see a broader horizon, a more costly peace, a bigger God.
I’m working on my fourth book and I’ve been surprised by its slowness. It is less reliant upon jokey humor—which is cheap and easy—and more on the divine comedy, which is mysterious and quiet and rich beyond measure. I don’t know if I’m becoming a better writer or whether this will be a better book, but I do know it feels truer than anything I’ve written before.
Everything I’ve written has been true, of course, or as true as it could have been from my limited perception of myself and the world. But the older I grow the more I see a broader horizon, a more costly peace, a bigger God.
There are lessons we simply cannot learn until we walk through the doorway ourselves. Perhaps someone told me the year after college graduation would be a tough one, but I didn’t hear them. I couldn’t. It wasn’t yet time.
Today I sit at my kitchen table while all three children—children I birthed only yesterday, it seems—are in school. I sip my coffee, black. There’s a new ache in my spine despite the orthopedic pillow I slept with last night. I walk with an ankle brace. My days of two-piece bathing suits, high heels, crop tops, and trendy piercings are well over. I now understand that no one my age has the time or the patience for button-fly pants.
I also understand that my fear of losing touch was itself a sign of youth. Everyone pities the older person desperate to look young, but the wisdom of years is a crown of glory if we will use our fleeting days to grasp greater understanding and nuance and love.
I have seen the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living, goodness that deepens and enriches with time and grief and suffering and years.
There is time now to look to the birds.