It’s May Day as I write this. It is a perfect first day of May, with bright sun, but not too hot. It’s the sort of day that makes you feel young. I am wearing my Helen Wikowski Australian knotted raffia sun hat with the rolled brim. (Of course I can’t afford a hat like that. Our church music director found it in a consignment shop, still in its wonderful box. And she gave it to me!) My rainbow-colored, zebra-striped Wayfarer-style sunglasses (that I got at Hot Topic when my granddaughter and I went shopping in Frederick, Md., a few weeks ago) remind me that more than skin can suffer the aging effects of concentrated light. All of this wife-of-a-South-American-dictator chic is fun—but the fact is that I have decided belatedly, after the removal of a small lesion on my cheek, and more floaters in my field of vision, that it is time to protect myself from the sun.
Yes, chic is fun, but I’d rather be young again, preferably with the wisdom that age imparts, wearing big sunglasses and tilting my crocheted raffia hat at a becoming, sun-protecting angle.
I was not expecting this. I have a Mediterranean complexion (go figure, with most of my ancestors from the British Isles, at least, that I know of) and after an initial burn, I have always turned a pleasant peachy-beige shade that lasts from June through October. (The dermatologist tells me that those initial burns were the problem. Who knew? We ran around without sunscreen all the summer day, and were fascinated by the skin on our backs peeling off in big, translucent sheets.) No more. Fish-belly pale is the unattractive but healthy rule. Wear sunhats and sunglasses. Put sunscreen on my hands when driving. Truth to tell, I simply was not planning on aging. Not that I did not understand that one’s age rises as the years pass, but rather that I would somehow avoid all the external — and internal — indicators of that process, without taking any precautions.
My generation somewhat arbitrarily declared, “Never trust anyone over 30.” Or, as James Simon Kunen said, in his upper middle-class, ‘60s revolutionary rant, The Strawberry Statement, “I agree in principle, but drop the zero.” I just Googled James S., whom I had not thought of in many years until I began to write this column, and discovered that the once-abundantly-haired “revolutionary” is bald with a gray fringe; I have a feeling he wasn’t planning on aging, either. I wonder how he feels about being a nearly-hairless 64. His freak flag flies no longer. I hope someone is still needing him and feeding him. I wonder if he now trusts people over the age of three.
The journey from youth to old age happens imperceptibly, but inexorably. My “little brother,” 12 years younger than I, has a head of silver-white hair. Even my children are now “too old to trust” — my daughter is 39, my son, 36. How did that happen? I’m 39 myself. (I would make a Jack Benny joke here, but the only people who would understand it are my age or older.)
This bumptious attitude certainly is not very spiritual. It implies a certain rejection of reality and I have always been fond of thinking that I am a realistic, practical sort of person as well as someone with a profound sense of the miraculous, available to anyone willing to pay attention. I was complaining about aging to a friend and colleague the other day, and realized that if someone came to me for counseling with these complaints, I would listen carefully, and then, if asked for my thoughts, say that acceptance of the inevitable allows inner peace and a strengthening of the connection with the Divine. (Note to self: See self for some counseling.)
Then, I came upon a poem by my friend David Kherdian, who is 83, and who has just published “Living in the Quiet: New and Selected Poems.” This is the selection from it that he published on his Facebook page:“I didn’t want to protect myself
by seeking perfection against the accidental onslaughts of time— but instead to move imperfectly through it all, not to be the best or the only, or the one to watch,
but rather the beggar of mercy and grace, finding new hopein each disappointment, believing against reason (against what the senses said could not be) that there was an order beyond this disorder, that there was a truth beyond this lie, and that I was included in its design that could not be seen or named but could be believed in if I believed that I was loved.”
I am fortunate to know that I am loved. Some gratitude is in order. I have never had the illusion of perfection, so I am surprised to find myself clutching at the bits of my physical being that were either pleasing or useful. I remember a bumper sticker: “I am not perfect, but parts of me are fabulous.” Not any more.
My friend Roberta used to have a poem above her desk called “Prayer of an Old Nun.” It reads in part, “I do not want to be a saint, some of them are so hard to live with, but a sour old person is one of the crowning works of the devil.” So, Lord of the young, and the old, as I advance into age, spare me sourness, and bitter resentment of the inevitable, I humbly pray. Allow me to rejoice in the beauty of the world as time erases the fragments of fabulousness I took for granted, and for eternal. Help me to celebrate and pay attention to this remarkable experience called life, even as I come nearer to the transition known as death. Grant me joy in the present moment. Amen.
— The Rev. Georgia DuBose is the priest at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Harpers Ferry