Which body part will be the next
To make you think that you’re a wreck
That you’ve gone so far over the hill
All you can do is take a pill
(From: Body Parts: A Collection of Poems about Aging, by Janet Cameron Hoult, 2010
Aging gracefully is no mean feat. Whether the process of growing older or the bodily changes forced on us by cancer and other diseases, our relationship with our bodies, as Jane Kenyon once described, is sometimes a struggle, a “difficult friendship” (“Cages,” Otherwise, New and Selected Poems, 1996).
For the past several days, my body has been in protest. I didn’t intend to offend it. It was just a catch of my shoe on the front steps, an accident, and I took flight in an awkward plummet of arms and legs, landing hard on my right knee, hearing the solid “thwack” of it against the concrete before I skidded to a stop, scraping my palms on the gravel path nearby. I re-discovered, in that moment, a full range of every swear word in my vocabulary before limping up the stairs and calling for my husband to get the ice packs from the freezer.
It might not have been so bad, but for weeks, I’ve been adjusting to the inevitability of an aging body, its stiffness in the morning, the arthritis settling into my knee from an old accident suffered while running many years ago, when I was hit by a car making a right turn and thrown on the hood. My eyes met those of the shocked driver who quickly braked, sending me flying off and landing hard on my knee. “You’ll have arthritis in that knee one of these days,” the emergency physician warned. I nodded politely, but I didn’t believe him. I was, after all, a young woman—strong, athletic, and– in my mind at least– able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. That was many years ago. The doctor’s words have since come back to haunt me.
As I age, arthritis is just the tip of the iceberg. There’s the gray hair, the need for eyeglasses, the lines and occasional age spots that appear in my magnifying mirror, the defibrillator that makes a lump just below my collarbone, forcing me to discard any scoop neck tee shirts from my wardrobe…my list of complaints grows longer; my irritability increases. The thing is, my sense of self is being challenged mightily by my bodily changes. Some days I take it in stride. Other days, I refuse to accept the inevitability of growing older, but my body says otherwise.
It’s part of life. Sooner or later, our body changes, betrays or fails us. When it does, it’s difficult to admit we’ve taken our physical health for granted—even denied its inevitable aging. The body, in illness or decline, is often the subject of poetry: Jane Kenyon’s “Cages,” or Marilyn Hacker’s, “Cancer Winter,” where she referred to her body as “self-betraying.” But it is May Swenson’s poem, “Question,” that lingers in my mind this morning. Swenson addresses her body as “my horse, my hound,” the faithful one which has carried her through life, but she has realized she can no longer take it for granted:
Body my house
my horse my hound
what will I do
when you are fallen
Where will I sleep
How will I ride
What will I hunt
Where can I go
without my mount
all eager and quick…
How will it be
to lie in the sky
without roof or door
and wind for an eye
With cloud for shift
how will I hide?
(From: New & Selected Things Taking Place, 1978)
What I’m working on now is a little shift in my perception about growing older. I’m determined to keep on, keepin’ on with as much spunk and energy as I can. My husband patted my back this morning and remarked, “you have grit.” He’d been listening to NPR and a discussion on “The Power and Problem of Grit.” Gritty people, according to psychologist Angela Duckworth, have hope. They’re optimistic about the future and their ability to improve and affect change. Well, my optimism and hope vary from time to time, I’ll admit it, especially when I find myself sprawled on the concrete with a bleeding knee, or I catch a glimpse of those fine lines emerging around my eyes and lips, reflected back at me from the mirror. All I can do is load up on the sunscreen, put on the knee brace, and take my dog out for a brisk morning walk, ignoring the discomfort in my knee. I can’t change the fact of an arthritic knee or a heart that requires a defibrillator, but I can keep moving and find ways to laugh at myself, and embrace this aging body as best I can. I don’t know if that qualifies as grit or even graceful aging, but it’s all I can do.
A month ago, I was leading an all-day writing workshop for the Stanford Medical School, and toward the end of the day, I turned the group’s attention to color. They each chose a color from a pile of paint chips, then took a ten minute walk to find as many shades and images of their color as possible. Once inside, they began with their observations on a color and wrote for twenty minutes. All were captivating and unique, but it was the one from Sarah, a third year medical student and a gifted writer, that delighted us all. She’d chosen grey. Grey, the color that we older women do our best to avoid for as long as we can. Grey, in my mind, is synonymous with aging and all the unwanted bodily changes accompanying it. Not so for Sarah:
… Grey is the color of “yes, life has been here,”
and “don’t you know I have a story to tell?”
Grey is the color of pregnant clouds,
waiting to gift us with all they’ve held up inside…
Grey is the color of tree bark,
weathered into cracks, a kaleidoscope of “not white, not black,”
the many in-betweens that show how growth is random –
it’s dirty and imperfect, but up
and a bumpy canvas for green shoots,
for shocking white buds waiting to gain the wisdom of grey
White is before, but give me the after
Give me the ninety-year-old under her old grey comforter.
Has she lived? Well, tell me the color of her soul.
Show me the spots of grey, and tell me how you’ve lived,
the story printed dark and true in the deepest, most imperfect,
ugliest and sweetest shade.
(From “Grey,” by Sarah Schlegel, April 2, 2016)
Thank you, Sarah, for helping those of us graying with age to see ourselves and our lives in richer hues.
Whether you’re wrestling with bodily changes due to illness, accident or aging, write about your body. Pay tribute or complaint. Write about its aches or pains or how your body has betrayed you. Have you come to terms with a “new” normal? Have you made peace with your altered or changing body? How or why not? What can make your relationship with your body a “difficult friendship?”