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005: Science Fiction Young
A few weeks ago while checking out at a grocery store, the cashier called me "ma'am". It was like a bullet to the heart, the word ringing in my ears like a slur. Not long after, the same thing happened again, a different grocery store, a different cashier. Some friends attempted to assure me that these incidents were in all likelihood nothing more than good etiquette or a Southern upbringing. I countered that we lived in New York City. Then I swore off grocery shopping for good.
I've never been one to get upset over generalizations about age. Ethnicity? Oh, always. But age? Never. I'd never had anxieties about getting "older"; once I had failed to meet my assigned expectations by the age of twenty-one, I no longer felt beholden to normative milestones categorized by age: first corporate job by twenty-two; engaged and with a master's degree at twenty-three, complete giving birth to a full lineage by thirty. When my first gray hairs began to sprout in my early twenties, I felt no panic despite the constant bombardment of media messaging that women at any and all ages should be forever 16. Premature graying ran in my father's side of the family, what could I do? The first time I dyed my hair was at twenty-nine, and then the pandemic struck and my roots grew out and what could you do but accept inevitabilities? Pick and choose your battles.
This year, however, I've taken a cruel turn on myself. I make note of every line, even the imperceivable, and fret over how to part my hair because of deviant grays, a constant insecurity. I often tell myself I look "old" and reconsider wearing some of my favorite pieces of clothing that took time, consideration, and not to mention money to buy, for fear of looking "matronly". I used to love wearing what I've now come to label as "matronly", clothes that were so unconventionally unsexy, it subverted expectations about how women should present themselves and the male gaze – the performance was for me and mine alone.
Now I contemplate cut-outs, a tyranny I resisted. I add Instagram brands to my cart in hopes of relevancy, I question my dedication to secondhand clothing and making the old new again. I want to look new all the time. Every time I cover my arms or legs or both, I feel dowdy and conservative. I conflate youth with exterior revelation rather than a state of mind. I'm afraid I'm having a bit of a crisis.
This preoccupation with youth and age is extreme and foolish, I know this. What was once a case of slight vanity has become a total dissociation from self, and there are days when I must say out loud to myself, "My god, I'm only thirty-two." But it's hard to ignore the constant insistence not of youth, but of being young, someone else's definition of the teenaged version of myself, science fiction young! Cellulite is America's biggest enemy, 30 under 30 is the greatest measure of self-worth, storied publications are diluting themselves to appeal almost exclusively to their idea of those who are twenty-two and under, which is offensive to both long-time readers and young people alike. Conform to being young or get left behind, where "young" is neither literal nor metaphorical youth, but rather a hyper-capitalist iteration of it.
At the onset of the pandemic I moved in with my parents for six months. It had been the first time I'd lived with them since I was twenty-three years old; the seven years in between had been a constant battle for independence, taking small steps until they turned into miles of learning how to be my own person. I saw them frequently but infrequently enough that they were very nearly frozen in time to me, aging glacially. Now we were all together once again, and all the things that society tries to convince us of as imperfections – "signs of aging" – were magnified. Every ache, every time my father rubbed his shoulder in pain, every time my mother placed her hand on her lower back for support was my confrontation with their age. I took notes of what I perceived to be dramatic changes in the ways they looked and moved, and tried to remedy them – have some green juice, ice under your eyes, let me get you a box of hair dye –because these manifestations represented a passage of time I was unwilling to relent to. Nothing is quite as heartbreaking and painful as watching your parents get older.
A few years ago when my mother had a serious accident that caused severe injury to her knee and back, I almost couldn't forgive her for not recovering faster. I decided it was an inability to claim agency, that she didn't prioritize her recovery, and that it was her inconsistency and not the natural process of getting older that made it difficult to return to where she once was. When her doctor mentioned osteoarthritis and that another fall could have more permanent consequences, I told myself he was trying to scare her into taking better care of herself. Over the past two years, I've bought serums, creams, all kinds of lotions and potions that sold false promises of age reversal, not because she needed it (she has always been and always will be beautiful) or wanted it but because each sign of a new year, a new decade terrified me. I bombarded my father with moisturizers and eye-cream, a man who for over sixty years may have used a skincare product a handful of times, and when that wasn't enough to assuage my fears, I picked myself apart. If I denied my aging, I could deny theirs too.
Ever since I was a child I've had a habit of counting down and looking back, failing to grasp time passed rather than embracing each moment in the present. My anxieties about age, aging, about getting older, is not in its superficiality, it turns out. I don't really care about lines and wrinkles and grays; when I see people baring their markers of wisdom with grace and ease, each line becomes sculptural, silver strands evoke deities. In myself, however, I see it only as time that has passed, time that will never quite be the same again, a confrontation with impending endings. But perhaps the secret to being forever young isn't in extra-strength spandex and a good colorist – that kind of beauty will fade, we keep being told but the forget – but rather in surrendering to each day, permitting joy (there's so little of it to be had already), not looking back or even forward but just savoring the stillness – making the most of it, to put it simply.
So much is invested in mutating ourselves to be younger, that what becomes lost is the truth in the romance of growing older, the softness, the elegance, the patience and forgiveness that comes to those who welcome it. The exquisite liberation of growing into yourself. Western conceptions of age can be so harsh and brutal, invoking fear of what should be held in reverence. In Italian, "old" translates to "vecchio", a word not in favor of being used to describe individuals for it is considered disrespectful, cruel, ageist. No one is ever quite old, but instead "anziano", which I like to think honors the lightness of the human spirit. I think there's something in this to be learned from those who have no way of saying goodbye, only until we meet again.
We're taught by society that aging, one of the most natural expressions of life, is somehow most unnatural and undesirable. And yet everything ages: the trees that cast a protective shade as I write this, the strawberries from the market will ripen, in a month my silly sweet cat will turn three. Even beauty becomes less self-possessed with age. All that we can learn of aging, of getting older, is to make the most of it and to bear its physical manifestations as trophies we have earned, and for which we must celebrate.