Originally posted on May 26, 2015…
As I was straightening up my kitchen a few days ago and about to toss out the vase of dying Peonies, I decided to snap a few pictures first. What delighted me, what felt like an insight, is that the closer I got, the more apparent the beauty. It got me to thinking.
As we (especially human females) age, we want the lighting to be softer, we want the gaze limited, and perhaps from a distance. We fear being seen for our physical (and moral?) “imperfections”. We end up not being seen much at all as we walk down the street, sit in a restaurant, try to speak up in one venue or another.
As humans, we are lazy in our looking. We hold close our preconceptions of what is there, what we would see if we did look. A more nuanced perception requires more energy, and time — to not see the pre-conceived, but rather to take in, consider, take full measure of what is before us. If a smooth skin fits your idea of beauty, you might think you know the story of the young woman too, the ingenue. But even with a young woman, you don’t necessarily know what lies below the surface. A wrinkled, spotted, craggy skin holds physical and emotional information of decades. We easily see the beauty in variations of bark on an old tree, but resist transferring that appreciative eye to our own reflection or the appearance of other old ones.
We think we don’t have time to look, or we’ll embarrass the person being seen. We feel the need to flatter. Oh, you don’t look (however many years old you are!) You look great for (whatever age you are!) And the person being appraised feels the thinness of the compliment. She has learned over time to feel it’s probably best not to be seen. That she (or he) is not enough, physically, emotionally, intellectually. So, we make ourselves smaller, hide ourselves, take up minimal space. A few actually accept this “lot in life”. Others feel sad, rejected, resentful, jealous of the young, blaming of society and advertising. And there are some (the ones I want to be) who thrive as they are, despite societal circumstances.
We’re living longer than ever. We want to look and feel well. We want to be seen for who we are, or who we take ourselves to be. We don’t want to be ignored or patronized simply for being older. I don’t think it’s wrong to want to look well, whatever that means for each of us. But there is so much energy, time, and money spent in this way. And so often it doesn’t end up making us happy.
Helen Mirren is a great actress and a strong, confident person. I want to be happy she got hired by L’Oreal. I want to go “Yay! Us!” But instead, I have mixed feelings about Ms. Mirren’s latest gig.
The cosmetic industry is obviously reaching out to the demographic of aging baby boomers who have money to spend and a desire to remain youthful. Is this a good thing? I’m not against make-up. I use skin creams myself. I use a little blush, a little lip gloss because I consider myself “too pale”. I “like” myself better when I don’t look so pale. But I hate that I feel society “likes” me better in make-up. It’s not unusual for me to hold contradictory viewpoints about things in this world. I’m ok with whatever anyone wants to do (or not do) vis a vis “skin care”, make-up, etc. I just wish the messages weren’t so strong that we’re only acceptable ( and then, barely) when we do what we can to hide our age.
My aged Peonies did not in the least mind sitting for a portrait session. They did not say, I look like shit today. They did not ask me to “freshen” them with a spritz. They were beautiful despite not gussying up, not pretending to be “other” — younger, Dahlia, or Orchid. In that doorway of perception, I was able to walk through into the beauty, not of an aged Peony, though it was that, but no, just into the beauty of the Peonies as they were, aged, near death, beautiful.
Speaking of beautiful, here’s a poem by New Zealand poet, Fleur Adcock, perhaps another way to think about “doing old”.
My face catches
from the snow line
and flushes with a flush
that will never wholly settle.
Well, that was a metropolitan vanity,
wanting to look young forever, to pass.
I was never a pre-Raphaelite beauty
and only pretty enough to be seen
with a man who wanted to be seen
with a passable woman.
But now that I am in love
with a place that doesn’t care
how I look and if I am happy,
happy is how I look and that’s all.
My hair will grow grey in any case,
my nails chip and flake,
my waist thicken, and the years
work all their usual changes.
If my face is to be weather beaten as well,
it’s little enough lost
for a year among the lakes and vales
where simply to look out my window
at the high pass
makes me indifferent to mirrors
and to what my soul may wear
over its new complexion.
I would love to hear your comments, questions, feedback. Thanks!