Sunday, August 7, 2011

A Dancer Looks At Forty

The cannons don't thunder there's nothin' to plunder
I'm an over forty victim of fate; arriving too late
Arriving too late. ~ Jimmy Buffett lyrics from A Pirate Looks At Forty

photo courtesy of aging booth
A few weeks ago I celebrated my fortieth birthday over dinner with my long-time friend Sam and his family. Sam and I met when I was twenty, and to tell you the truth, I don’t feel Sam and I are all that different from then. I don’t share Buffett’s assertion of being a victim of fate.

Granted, my body tells me differently. The soreness I feel in the morning after a full day of rehearsals, the absolute necessity to warm-up before rehearsal to keep my back from protesting, and my progressively graying hair on the sides of my head (remember the editor in old Spider Man comics) all testify to the fact that my body is moving on whether my mind and heart realize it or not. However, my impression of what forty would feel like back when I was a teen bears no resemblance to what it feels like to be forty now that I have actually arrived there. I find all the old “over the hill” jokes to be baseless. In fact, I like getting older.

This flies in the face of much of our popular Western culture. We are taught to revere the energy, beauty and even brashness of youth while looking down upon the waining utility of the aging. Granted, the message is less severe for men than it is for women, but it is there just the same.
Our lives are not determined by what happens to us but by how we react to what happens, not by what life brings to us, but by the attitude we bring to life. ~ Anon

I choose not to follow our popular fatalistic attitudes toward maturity and instead embrace the Eastern attitude that sees elders as those containing significant wisdom and deserving respect. After all, that is what I have personally experienced. When I was younger, if a new idea I brought to the table would be met with opposition it was usually dismissed with a reference to my youth.

“You think you and your new-fangled ideas are going to change things. You are young and just don’t understand reality and it is all going to fail.” (name redacted to protect the guilty)

Ironically, the above naysayer’s comment was precipitated by this new-fangled idea I had of using a computer to record student payments for a dance studio instead of keeping track of it on hand written index cards. Had it been 1975 I might have understood the concern...even 1985. But, it was, after all, 2002.

Now if I present a new-fangled idea, it gets treated with greater gravity and respect. I’d like to think it is only because my ideas are so brilliant (wouldn’t we all like to think that)...but I know that the graying sides and the crows feet near my eyes are a significant factor. Ageism--whether in the form of putting the energy of youth on a pedestal or dismissing youth as naive--tends to cloud Reality.

In my daily buddhist practice I recite the Five Rememberances that begin:
“I am of the nature to grow old.
There is no way to escape growing old.”

Whether we like it or not, this is a simple (and beautiful) truth of Reality. Remembering and accepting it can bring so much compassion to oneself and those around us. But so much of our culture is designed to deny this: we die our hair to hide the gray, lift our faces to remove the wrinkles and purchase any number of magical ointments and moisturizers to help regain the fleeting image of youth.

I wonder what it would be like if life experience and maturity were valued just as much as the energy of youth? What products might be out there if the two were on an equal playing field? I doubt I will ever see hair silver being embraced outside of the theater community or plastic surgeons implanting sags and crows feet. Most likely, we’d just have less age-related products (and save more money).

Now, I’d be remiss if I did not acknowledge the fact that not all elders and their ideas are worthy of respect. We all know a cantankerous elderly friend or relative with outdated, outmoded views that are either racist, sexist or downright asinine (often all combined in one). 

In fact, they probably recently forwarded you some mindless conspiracy theory e-mail claiming President Obama is a closeted Muslim intent on converting our American courts to Shariah law. Anytime someone starts a sentence with “People these days just...” I cringe at the bigoted generalization that is about to follow. Yes times have changed, but not usually in the over-simplistic way that the curmudgeon who starts off sentences that way thinks.

Either way, I (you, we, all of us) truly am of the nature to grow old and there is no way (barring new developments in science) to escape growing old. But more importantly, I like getting older. I like getting my family together with my buddy Sam and his family, reminiscing about our younger days while fully embracing the present and futures. 

And, I find it relieving that I am no longer expected to jump as high or raise my leg as high as the twenty year-old dancer next to me on the stage. I am appreciated for other qualities...and that, I feel, is as it should be.