I have always loved autumn best of all the seasons. Because of the relief from the dreadful Texas heat and the turn to traditional memories and celebrations. I love the colors and smells, the new school year and the cozyness of home. I am turning 40 in a few days–slowly moving into the “autumn” of life–and I am finding some of that same joy in the turning of the seasons of my life.
About a year ago when I turned 39, I found myself feeling a bit embarrassed about admitting it to the workout machine and to people when it came up. I still see myself as a young woman in my twenties, just starting out, in some ways. I am just starting out in a lot of ways, actually. But in the mirror, I don’t look like a 20 year old. My hair gets more grey strands every week. My body that bore and nursed 4 souls for about 8 years combined looks like it did just that. My face shows my lack of good sleep and exhaustion from my days with young children.
I have wondered if I should dye my hair or buy some skin treatment to take away the old. But I have come to think that being old and happy and unashamed is a kind of witness to the faith, just as a religious sister wearing a habit is a witness to people who see her. A happy old person, like a nun in her habit, makes people who encounter them wonder why they would make the choices they did and why they live the way they do–and why are they so happy? They are counter-cultural and their ways of life point to a reality that requires eyes of faith to see and understand. The old woman who is grey, wrinkled, unable to turn a young man’s eye or even walk for more than a few minutes but can still hold her head up high and smile and share her heart to help someone in her life shows the younger folks that being young and beautiful and powerful is not all there is to life. Just as the religious sister, with her choice to not marry and give her life in service to Jesus and his Church, shows us that there is something even better than the good things of this world that are worth giving up those good things for. It is one thing to read it or say it, but to actually choose it happily and freely–this is powerful and this is what our world needs.
I want to choose, not to be ashamed of my age and less than perfect physical appearance. I choose, rather, to be a witness and an example of living for what is truly important and lasting. And in truth, I am happier now than I have ever been in my life. For most of my youth, I was afraid, ashamed, hiding, dependent on others for validation. As I have grown older, I have become more who I have always been. I have become more able to believe in a God who loves me, and that his approval is all I need–not other people’s. My value comes from being a daughter of the King of the Universe who chose to make me because I have a purpose and being small and hiding does not serve anyone–my God, myself, or the people my life is supposed to touch. This wisdom, confidence, and willingness to risk and truly live is a gift of aging. I would never want to go back to the way I lived before.
It seems to me that a lot of people don’t age with purpose. Some just try to pretend it isn’t happening and cover up all signs to the contrary. Others become old and crusty on the inside even before their bodies show signs of the years. If we do not consciously choose how we want to live (and living is what we do from conception until death, not just between age 5 and 39 or 49 or whatever number people have decided counts these days) it is easy to just give up and say that life is behind me and no one needs me, or I am out of step with the world and I can’t learn new things now. Being regretful of former choices that can’t be undone, suffering physical ailments and low energy, and getting cranky, bitter and judgemental doesn’t have to be our destiny as we age. We can choose a different path and not be confined to the past and what we already know–if God still allows you to breathe, then you still have a purpose to fulfill. Living means change, growth, challenge, adventure!
I have been inspired by many of the older folks I see around me–the retired folks who work out every day at the YMCA and go around chatting and meeting new people. The older people who now help with their grandkids and volunteer at church and go to quilting conferences with girlfriends. The ladies who are going back to school now that their kids are grown to get an advanced degree and do something closer to what their heart longs to do. I admire my late grandfather who continued to read, socialize, travel, play golf, gripe about his silly girlfriend’s quirks, and paint beautifully into his nineties. I pray that I can be like that as I age. I do not want to stay young and beautiful, freezing in time and not growing, like a fake flower that looks pretty until you get close and realize with dissatisfaction what it is. I want to grow wiser, braver, more truly me, and more truly Christian, always trying new things and reaching out in love and service to others in my life.
I do believe that the best is still to come. I am not “over the hill”, but still climbing! I won’t get to the top until I cross over and see Jesus face to face, and I pray he will tell me, “Well done, good and faithful servant!” when I get there, instead of, “You sure ran out the clock at the end there, didn’t you? I still had more work for you to do!” One thing this fast-changing, materialistic, and despairing world needs is to hear the clear, wise voices of its elders. Just as the old need the young to take care of them, so the young need the old to guide and inspire them. I pray that I can be a voice speaking love in the world as I age, and that is worth living for.
Now I see why they call them the “golden years”–like the golden tones of the autumn leaves falling and crumbling underfoot and like precious and beautiful metals we adorn ourselves with, the last half of life is proving to be the best part…so much to be thankful for and to look forward to. Thanks be to God for life!