Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Ravages of Time: Taking Things at Face Value

When my daughter Sophia and I got together for brunch to celebrate my 70th birthday, she gave me a birthday card which bore this image of an old native American woman.
"Isn't she beautiful?" Sophia asked as I gazed at the photo. "Yes, she is," I replied. I certainly am very glad I have a daughter who has a capacity not only to see beauty in a diverse way but also to appreciate the beauty of the aged. The beauty of the woman in the photo has much to do with her innate dignity, her character and the life she lived, which from the looks of her eyes, had its share of sorrow. Her face is not what most people would call beautiful, affected as many of us are by commercialized, homogenized ideas of beauty. Her beauty points up the ravages of time, how life imprints itself on us, on our faces and bodies. It invites an exploration of what's more than skin deep. The photo was taken by Milton Rogovin,well-known as a social documentary photographer.
Rogovin passed away in January 2011 at 101 years of age. He took wonderful photos of minorities and poor, overlooked people--including native Americans, Mexicans, Chileans, working class people in Buffalo, NY, miners in Appalachia, Scotland and France--and more. His work over decades illuminates social issues and the common struggle of the working poor. Beautiful work. Well worth contemplating.

I posted this photo of the beautiful 82-year old British model Daphne Selfe on Facebook the other day. Selfe is in high demand these days. Her career was so-so until she hit her 70s. Then she appeared in Red or Dead, a show put on by London Fashion Week, and it's been uphill for her career ever since. She claims her long grey hair is the secret behind it, but I think her cheekbones and eyes and lithe body are doing their share, too. Selfe does yoga to keep fit, eats large amounts of fruits, vegetables and fish, drinks plenty of water and says she doesn’t feel a day over 60. She has never had cosmetic surgery.

"Your face is your history," she commented. "If you have a few lines, it's your life that you've lived, and people should embrace that. Some [models] want to alter themselves and I hear talk about getting all this wretched cosmetic surgery done, but I don't want to do that myself as it costs too much, it might go wrong and what's the point? It won't stop you from getting old."

I celebrate her beauty, health and her late-life success. Of course, though each of us has unique, innate beauty, few of us were ever as "classically" beautiful as the lovely Daphne Selfe. The rest of us, women and men both, are challenged to come to terms with the ravages of time on our less than super-model faces and bodies. Older women are especially ridiculed, and older men have to bear the brunt of a great deal of scorn, too. Let's do what we can to expect and create a more generous definition of beauty, including the beauty of the aged. Please don't internalize these toxic prejudices about age being ugly. It's not good for the health of the body or soul.

Our culture applauds "active aging." Sometimes this lifestyle seems so hyped up I call it hyper-active aging. It's trendy to spotlight elders who are doing extraordinary work in their later lives, ignoring everyone else who don't fit these high-visibility standards. The overall presumption is--how amazing that these older people are still able to do this or that.

In this Sage's Play blog, I also spotlight exceptional elders, in the spirit of sharing wonderful models of aging. Do I sometimes seem like a cheerleader who focuses only on the positive aspects of aging and the creative, artistic, social and scientific accomplishments of elders, without ever stopping to mention the obvious?

The obvious is that our bodies are aging. We are mortal; we will die at some point. As Rain pointed out in a recent exchange of comments on this blog, we have to do the best with what we have. That's true at any time of life, and it is more obvious as we age. We have to pay more attention to diet, exercise and rest. We have to shepherd our energies each day. We may have to deal with illness or pain or loss. Age involves a fair amount of loss. On that level, growing old is not for sissies. There is a lot of demanding emotional and spiritual work that is part of the aging process. And it is all practice for "laying down one's mantle" as they say in gospel songs.

I've been a Buddhist for over 30 years, and my spiritual practice has included contemplating old age, sickness and death. Not popular subjects for many in our culture. To me, they seem like essential topics, especially as one ages.

Age is a time of life for going deeper, for stripping away, for letting go, for loving even more than ever, for sharing the bounty of what we've learned, for leaving a legacy. It's a profound territory, and it demands courage, creativity and trust. Solitude. Slowness. In the midst of my creative work, I make time for meditation, exercise, prayer rest and just doing-nothing. Here's to the blessing of living long. As Rain points out it is a mixed blessing. It's not all a bed of roses. Parts of aging are full of tribulation. And it's up to us to meet life open-hearted, to work our soul alchemy with whatever arises.


  1. I also love old faces like those, find them gorgeous and admire women who could have surgery but do not. I also though, when I see a photo of myself where there are more lines showing than I thought I had, feel like-- oh my, it's here already. It's hard to feel okay with it even when I know it's a positive part of life and the only way to enjoy it is to accept it. The more someone tells me, you don't look your age, the more I feel almost a responsibility to others to not look my age which is totally self-defeating as a personal attitude. I wrestle with it and have been thinking about writing it for the blog again myself where I know if I have a photo taken that is carefully positioned, I won't see what I will if it's not. Welcoming the 'other' is the tough part and yet it's the only way to have real joy in old age. Our society won't help us do it either! I think a lot of the secret is to not focus on our looks but on what we are doing particularly if we are into the creative arts where that is possible to do. BUT when someone says something like-- you don't look your age, the temptation is right back there to do more to 'not look my age' even though I know it's a losing battle and even self-defeating. Round the circle I go!

  2. People sometimes tell me I look great for my age or they would never guess I was 70. I tell them well it's just what it is. I am sometimes surprised with the way I look. It's a habit of identifying with an earlier stage of life I think. And yes, our culture doesn't support ease about our aged looks, so we have to give that ease to ourselves.

  3. Dear Gaea, I found a link to this site this morning on my own blog, and it was a gift from God because I am feeling very low after two really bad falls in two weeks have left me blue about my undeniably aging body. You have a beautiful outlook and have lifted my spirits, so I just subscribed and look forward to getting your posts. Thank you.
    Donna Cunningham

  4. Donna, Thank you for your kind comment. I hope that you have some healing rest and enjoy it, too. I am glad if I lifted your spirits.