Gray Matters: Rejecting the Fountain of Youth

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Writer Brooks Riley learns to embrace the grace — and liberation — of growing older

When I was a young thing, people with gray hair appeared to me to be moving slowly but inexorably toward the Exit, shaking their heads over the generation gap as they shuffled about in a protracted form of suspended animation called retirement. In those days, gray hair was like a badge worn at an AARP convention, or worse, a prominent tattoo, placing a person squarely in the done-deal outbox.

A lot has changed since then. We old things are now a majority, a force to be reckoned with, and most of us are not going gently into that netherworld of rocking chairs, sensible shoes, mah-jong and permanent waves. If 50 is the new 30, 60 the new 40 and even 70 the new 50, it has less to do with colorizers and Botox than it does with freedom of choice — something that many of my parents’ generation didn’t have, or worse, didn’t believe they had.

At 60, my father spent the first year of his retirement on horseback, then he got bored. Before long, he had started a new career as a real estate broker, which brought him pleasure and success until his death nearly 20 years later. My mother, on the other hand, played bridge, read books and shot off letters to the editor of the Washington Post. The older she got, the more modern she became, and more liberal in her thinking. But there were limits: She marveled at the intelligence of her brood, without owning up to her own probing intellect. Like most of her generation, she never questioned aging, but accepted its increasing indignities as appointments to be kept in a calendar written before she was born.

She confessed to me that old age was liberating: She no longer cared what the neighbors thought, no longer wanted to keep up with the Joneses, was no longer afraid of speaking her mind about issues. She was able to embrace her true self and at the same time was relieved to be “out of the running.” She became “a person,” the very word she herself had always used to describe other people she admired – probably Alabama shorthand for “personality.”

My own introduction to old age came shockingly early: A few days after my 50th birthday, I received a form letter from the AARP, inviting me to join the legions of golden girls and boys headed for a quiet spot to watch the sun set on life. It was insulting. The sun was still in the midday position of my life. I threw the letter away.

Now that I am truly of an age to receive such a letter, I am no closer to a retirement mindset than I was at 50. In the time since then, my mind has exploded with ideas, challenges, languages, experiences, successes and defeats. I have lived so many lives since my 50th birthday that the notion of slowing down seems as foreign to me now as it did then.

It’s almost as if each new gray hair has brought with it an infusion of new gray matter below the roots. I am not denying my age; I am redefining it, like many of my baby boomer contemporaries, now gray boomers. “Be as young as you feel” works if you have no physical or mental complaints. What I’ve lost in skin resilience, I’ve gained in emotional resilience. Reversals of fortune that might have killed a younger me have raised my threshold for pain and sorrow. The older I get, the more confident I am of my capabilities, which seem to have expanded over the years, in spite of the ticking clock.

Best of all, I am more curious. It is not the short-range curiosity of youth – who’s dating whom, who’s getting promoted, who’s that cute guy, what’s the latest fashion, or who’s gonna win the Oscars – but more of a burning need to know. These days, to quote Karl Lagerfeld, “I want to know everything”: how solar energy works, the effect of music on language facility, how to use CAD to design the dream house I’ll never build, all about Goethe’s friendship with Schiller, how to play the zither, how to speak Japanese and, yes, even how to stop BP’s oil leak in the gulf – the postmodern (post-apocalyptic?) version of how to build a better mousetrap.

In the end, gray hair doesn’t matter anymore, but gray matter does: All the colorizers or facelifts in the world won’t help, if you feel old underneath. Curiosity is the one true fountain of youth. If that ever goes, I’ll give in and join the AARP, no offense intended.

Gray is beautiful.

Brooks Riley lives in Germany, where she directs operas for TV and DVD.

4 comments so far.

  1. avatar Joan Larsen says:

    My belief:  forget AARP, forget that page where they show the faces and ages of everyone in public life over 50.  .  . forget ideas for you after one of most un-favorite words: retirement (which to many seems to equate to “one step in the grave”).  “The signs of aging” somehow seem to signify that just perhaps – like popping a youth pill – you may be able to squeeze in a couple of years more by patting on the latest facial formulations before the outright branding of OLD is supposed to tell the world that we are over the hill.  Done for.  Kaput.  Forget that.

    Life remains even more wonderful the more you step out your own door.  My thinking is that you have only one life so I am going to make each and every day count.  I find that “like attracts like” and if you are full of ideas and vitality you attract other attractive people like you and are a magnet.  I am disappointed if a conversation that has some depth doesn’t lead to – at the very least – reseraching something I didn’t know, following up on something that was said.

    In other words — moving on and moving forward.  Sitting on the sofa does little for you (except in the hips), but keeping your mind stimulated makes you an interesting person to talk to.
    The other thing is when you are “out there” — out in the world I mean – you tend to dress a bit better.  And we know that when we feel we look good, we feel better about ourselves.  . and one thing leads to another.

    Last week I interviewed 8 women and men vying for a single position of importance.  My questions are always handpicked, there to tell me how much this person is going to be a self-starter, creative as they come, and confident.  Why do they want this particular position?  What can they bring to it?  Am I going to have to nurse them along or are they experienced enough that they will catch on fast?  It is a two-way street.  I haven’t interviewed in almost a year so it stretched my own abilities on the follow-up questions.  (I am always testing myself at the same time as supposedly we “lose it” after a certain AGE.)  So far so good.  The process was exhilarating; the candidates so good in this job market that more than one could have been the final choice. 

    My point is that I hope and believe that I am making my life count – even if I am “older”.  My life experiences are so many that challenges are my cup of tea.  On my time off this summer, I hope to be on a polar research vessel looking to see if there is a dearth of bearded seals that may prove that global warming may be real in the Arctic.  . or not.  We’ll see.

    As our author above says, it is the gray matter that counts and be sure to be using it in all sorts of directions to keep those sparks flying.  I think she and I would get along well.  I still consider – not just my city but the world itself as my oyster — and I am hoping that my husband is not flattering but being honest when he says that life is never dull at our house.  .  as age is a state of mind if you can still juggle so many balls in the air I find . . . and look like you are glowing.    

  2. Great article. Stay curious. Don’t shy away from new ideas, new technology. Stay with it. Keep working.

  3. avatar annee says:

    Wow! I slept in today, one of the holiday joys, and then was greeted by these 2 blogs. Thank you Brooks and Joan lets have more.
    As I grew older I couldn’t see any advantages in watching my looks, and health slide away. but As stubborn as I am it happened anyway, and a different me is here. Someone I really like. I’ve said for a long time that somewhere during the educational years there ought to be a course in aging, and maybe civics. After I relaxed into it, I became more and more mellow and interested in helping others. That is one great
    pleasure, the other is feeding my intense curiosity. I want to know, like you Joan, about everything. and one thread leads to another. It’s endless.

  4. avatar Chris Glass` says:

    Age is a number not a life sentence to dementia. Of course we are curious and still pushing our limits we haven’t begin to show what we can do as a generation. One of the benefits of aging is losing our reluctance to speak up and learning to take charge of our own lives.