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Posts Tagged ‘the process of aging’

By Bob Chrisman


Last fall, determined to catch the color changes in the leaves, I watched them turn from green to yellow, orange, and red. I would sit on the window seat in the front room and write about the colors.

One day…suddenly it seemed…the leaves had all turned. When did it happen? I had been watching everyday.

I sat in the window seat even more determined to watch the leaves fall. Occasionally a leaf would let go of the branch and float to the ground to join other leaves. I didn’t remember all of those leaves on the ground yesterday. Did they fall during the night so no one would realize that winter waited around the corner?

One morning I looked out and found that almost all of the leaves lay in yards and in the street. Again I had missed the time it happened.

Growing older has worked just like that. One day I noticed a gray hair. The next day a whole head of gray hair greeted me as I looked in the bathroom mirror. A single wrinkle on my forehead disappeared among the many lines that developed overnight. My varicose vein on my right thigh became a veritable road map of veins. My waistline doubled in size.

I felt old, but only in my body. Then older crept into my mind.

A few months before I retired, an employee appeared in my office. “Great music. Who is it?”

“Petula Clark.”

“Soooooooo? Is she from your generation?” My generation? I recoiled at the idea that I had joined a generation.

“Don’t you remember ‘Downtown’? ‘The Other Man’s Grass is Always Greener’?” I searched my mind for other titles.

She put her hands on her hips. “No, I don’t know her. And don’t you dare ask me where I was when John Kennedy was assassinated. I wasn’t even born yet.”

Thus I came to the knowledge that many of my cultural references meant nothing to a lot of the people who worked with me. I had grown old.

I never thought I would live past 40, but that birthday came and went. Turning 50 changed the way I viewed myself. No longer young, middle age had overtaken me. I celebrated the 56th anniversary of my birth last Saturday. I may live to see 60.

I am older.

But, you know what? I like it. Despite the aches in my joints when the weather turns damp and cool like today, not feeling like a part of the current culture frees me to do what I want to do without worrying about what other people will think of me. Maybe this “getting older” thing will free me from most of my inhibitions.

The rules have changed. I am old and can do what I want with my life. I don’t have family to account to. My friends won’t be surprised by what I do (well, most of them won’t).

Because I am older, I know now that I have a very short time to live. I must get on with my life’s purpose (whatever that may be), not because I’m desperate, but because I want to do the things I came to do. I want to live each moment regardless of how many I may have left.

Older has become the sand rushing downward through the neck of the hour glass. Older has restored the preciousness of this life. Older is what I am right now.

Older.



Bob Chrisman is a Kansas City, Missouri writer whose piece Hands, about his mother’s hands, appeared last month on red Ravine. Growing Older is based on a writing practice that Bob did on WRITING TOPIC – GROWING OLDER.

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I’m looking at my ruddy face in a small, round, silver mirror. I look older than I remember. Thick eyebrows, salt and pepper hair; it looks the grayest to me right after a haircut. There is something about the way it lays across the black plastic smock, and falls in shredded pieces on to the floor. Accents of changing color. I don’t mind. It is my grandmother’s hair.

I have a little pouch under my chin. I hate to admit it. Blue eyes that used to be hazel. More blue with age. I don’t often look in a mirror. Once in the morning after my shower to spike my hair. I’m a fluff and blow person, not much fiddling around. I look in the mirror when I brush my teeth. That seems strange and I don’t know why I do it. I am looking into a mirror now. It was suggested in the Writing Topic on growing older; I thought it might push me (over the edge?).

The body gives out, breaks down. Elasticity is lost; wisdom gained. I don’t have a problem aging. Life is easier now than it was 20 years ago. I’m 34x happier. I worry that I won’t get everything done I want to do before I die. That goes back to the Bucket List. I don’t have any control over that. I am where I am. I’m in my 50’s.

Fifty used to seem ancient to me. Forty seemed ancient, too. I couldn’t imagine being 30. Decades have passed. The older I get, the more I know who I am. I have this theory about aging. I believe people become one of two things:  happier and more settled in who they are. Or angry and bitter. That’s black and white. I’m sure there is gray. It’s something I have noticed. And so I keep watching to prove my theory right.

Old, cranky, bitter, judging, hoarding, fighting imperfection, not able to accept that the body is aging. Graceful, happier, wiser, content with who they are, willing to not be perfect, to pass the torch, giving what they have to the next generations to come.

Maya Angelou turned 80 years old on the 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination. Do you think Martin knew he would not live to grow old? Or that Maya thought she would reach the age of 80? There were many articles written about her on April 4th. She is of the giving and wise variety. Yet she hasn’t shrunk from her responsibilities — as a woman, as a writer.

If Martin Luther King were alive, he would be one year younger than Maya. She was an aid to his cause, all those years ago. She still speaks for him through the way she lives her life. Think of everything she has seen.

I ran into a conversation between Maya Angelou and Oprah Winfrey. Maya, one of Oprah’s mentors, was talking about living according to your principles. She is a Clinton supporter, and under constant pressure, remains loyal to Hillary. She has written a poem for her. Oprah is outspoken for Obama. They debate, have long conversations. They each stand strong, loyal to their candidates. They are respectful. They remain friends.

You can talk about spiritual principles. Or you can live by them. Talk is easy. Cheap. Principles are the hardest to uphold when we want something. Or in the face of adversity. Angelou said courage is the most important principle – because without it, you can’t really live up to the others. We might think we want to live at all costs. And then something comes along we are willing to die for.

If you think about Dr. King, he had an offer to go back to a seminary and teach for a year right before he died. He wanted to go. To rest. But he knew it would feel like he wasn’t fulfilling his obligations. So he stayed true to his vision. And went to Memphis to support the sanitation workers. He marched at the front of the line, even though he was tired, worn out. And he dropped his head in despair when a group of young marchers at the end of the line erupted in violence. Maybe at the end, he felt old. He was not perfect. He was human.

I started thinking about Maya Angelou and Martin Luther King and their great courage. I pale in comparison. When I look at what they have each been through, I wonder why I complain about the obstacles that fall my way. But I have learned not to compare myself. Not to anyone. Not to other artists, or writers, or teachers. My demons are mine. I earned every age spot, wrinkle, and wart. I’m not young anymore. Yet I am the most alive inside I have ever felt.

Growing older — it is harder to keep the weight off. I could lose 20 pounds. You can’t see that on a blog. My friends look to my vibrant Spirit. My family loves me unconditionally. So does my partner. The mirror tells me I look sad. Tired. But my eyes are bright. My heart feels heavy. It will not last. It will pass. When I think about dying, I think about looking down on loved ones, urging them on toward their dreams, smiling, holding the space. The way my grandmothers Ada and Elise do for me.

When I visit the South with my mother, we often visit gravestones under plantation magnolias in ancient cemeteries. The history is there. We didn’t create it. But we carry it. We walk among the dead, recall living memories. The pilgrimage, for me, is to pay my respects. To those who have come before. I am in the lineage of the Southern mothers, fathers, grandfathers, great aunts, and grandmothers whose graves I visit. They are not there. My memories of them are.

I drive past the homes where relatives used to live. Some remain in the family. Some belong to complete strangers. I don’t know them. I never will. But I have to bear witness. I don’t want the dead to be forgotten. I don’t want to be forgotten. I want to be remembered. And so I remember and honor others.

Visiting graveyards, a wrinkle in time. The living commingling with the dead. It might sound morose. But I don’t think of it that way. In Kit Carson Memorial cemetery, Mabel is buried not far from the black, wrought iron around the Carson plot. She would not be amused. The more I think about it, the more I want to be scattered to the wind, high over some tiny, rocky beach on the Oregon Coast. No gravestone. No marker. I want to be remembered as a free spirit. Though no writer ever feels free.

I’m staring in the mirror again. “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?”

You are.


-posted on red Ravine, Friday, April 11th, 2008

-related to Topic post, WRITING TOPIC – GROWING OLDER and the post, 40 Years

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Your mother turned 69 yesterday, my father 83 on November 5. I’d like to believe he, Elias, will live to be 100. That I can mine the DNA from his frail bones for years to come.

But each time I see him, I see him slip away, slow and almost imperceptible. His cataract eyes have that watery, faraway look, a silver film over intense black. On his birthday I meant to peer into those crystal ball eyes. How are you today? Are your legs strong? Will they carry you further?

But it was a festive party, enchiladas with red or green, flour tortillas Mom made, a big pot of pinto beans. Between forkfuls, I admire Mom’s choker, a spiky thing made with narrow triangles of oyster shell, bones from the sea. She takes it off, tells me it’s mine.

“I wore it so I could give it to one of you,” she tells my sisters when they chime to me, “Hey, wasn’t that Mom’s necklace??” I shrug. I didn’t mean to covet it before anyone else had a chance to.

Mom is generous. What is Dad?

I still remember, and now bones on my mind, sitting in Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish, staring down at my knobby knees while Dad listens to Father Cassidy’s homily. (And now, my mind catches the word “homily,” jumps to “hominy,” which in my family we make into “posole,” white kernals like big teeth. Everything goes back to food. Plain, hearty food. Not much meat in my lineage, is that why my bones are fine and my teeth achy when I drink anything cold?)

But back to the church. Dad and I go alone. Mom gave up faith after I was born and a priest slammed the confessional window in her face for telling him she was going on birth control. Dad picks a middle pew. Not too eager to please. Not a laggard, either. That’s Dad. Middle way. He sits rapt. He’s a pious man, comes from penitente stock. I stick my feet out in front of me, notice my shins have downy, light brown hair. I’m eleven. I still wear hand-me-down dresses. Brunswick patterns sewn by Mom. Old-fashioned dresses with big white bibs front and back, rickrack along the bottom. I like how my kneecaps move to and fro when I lift my legs up and down.

Then I see it. My right knee is bigger than my left. Something round is in there, like a marble or a golf ball under my brown skin. For the rest of Father Cassidy’s meandering sermon I am engrossed in this discovery, a moveable part in my leg. I’m like the Barbies I sneak out of my sister’s Barbie Doll case. Discrete joints, elbows-knees-and-shoulders. I can move me this way and that, pose me how I wish.

Up to now Dad is in his dreamy place above my small world. He can see over parishioners’ heads to Christ hanging on his crucifix, to the chalices and gold and white cloth. Now Dad looks down to where I am. He notices me popping my knee. I place his big, warm hand over the lump, show him how it rolls around under my skin. Suddenly he, too, gets engrossed in my bones. “What’s is it?” he asks in an urgent whisper, and I am alarmed by fear I hear in his voice.

Bones. It turns out to be a benign tumor. The kind of bone tumor common in horses’ knees, according to the orthopedic surgeon who eventually removes it. Bones. Who we are deep inside? Strong yet permeable. Small and obtrusive. Innocent, tainted, scared.

What was Dad thinking that day in the church? If I ask him today, will he remember? I am a writer, frantically seeking to capture memories from my 45 years. Who will help me see his gentle strength when Dad is gone?

It’s good to get cracking. There are deposits to unearth.

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