In case you are wondering, the answer is… It’s not about the answer, it’s about the conversation that the question incites.
I have this conversation a lot. It starts with somebody seeing the question, and saying something like “O but you’re not old, Flloyd. You have such a young spirit/heart/attitude/etc.etc” To which I respond: “Thank you, I agree. But my age decrees that I can not longer claim to be ‘young’, nor can I claim to be ‘middle-aged’. So what am I? What is it about the word ‘old’ that we shy away from?”
For example. There is a new comedy podcast on the BBC, hosted by the excellent quiz host, intelligent and highly creative TV personality and now best-selling detective author, Richard Osman. It’s called “The Birthday Cake Game”, and it involves Richard asking a panel of stand up comics to guess the age of celebrities, on their birthdays. The fun seems to reside in the shame of thinking someone is older than their birth age. Shock horror. How awful, to discover that someone thinks you might be 73, when you are actually 67! Or 42 when you only 35!
I’ve been there, of course. Dreading the next birthday. Terrified people will know how old I am. Not going out of the house without the makeup caked on, in an attempt to conceal the wrinkles. And all of that before I hit 20…
On my 38th birthday, my husband carved a birthday greeting on a piece of wood, which said “Happy 33rd birthday”. Friends picked it up off the mantelpiece, and berated him, that he shouldn’t tell people how old I was!!! I was thrilled.
“Old” is the word we use to describe things which are worn out, of no further use. Fair enough. So it’s only fair that we shouldn’t use the word to describe people, who might be worn out, but who are always capable to being of service/use in the world. When my mother was 102, she was in pain, very, very tired, often bored (although she was still knitting tiny jackets for premature babies), and longing to ‘be with the Lord”. She would frequently ask “why am I still here?” My sister and I would reassure her that it was because “He” wasn’t ready for her, and we still needed her around. And we didn’t grudge it when she died. We mourned her. I still grieve, I still miss her, but she had the right to go. And if 102 isn’t old, for a human, I don’t know what is. AND she died with her young spirit intact.
So, we come back to the crux of the matter. The culture we live in, which rates beauty in terms of how smooth, how symmetrical, how perfectly clean cut (i.e. youthful) the features are, whether it’s a vase or a face. We fail to recognise experience, or generosity etched into a face or a vase as a thing of beauty. Oh! Grey hair? Must be old. How they laughed on the programme when one of the panellists joked that Richard Gere was ‘born old’. Richard Gere, one of the most beautifully proportioned, pretty-boy faces ever! But no, grey hair, had to be old. Ha ha. How they teased her. Ha ha ha.
I am old enough to remember a time when ‘middle-aged’ was something to be avoided at all costs. But once I got there, I LOVED it. When I turned 45, I felt truly at home inside my skin, as if I was, at last, who and what I had always been, but with permission to be so. I still feel 45. Some people go to their graves feeling 12, others might be comfortable in their 25 year old selves. That’s just the way it goes. We’re all individually whatever.
Back to that question. “Am I Old Yet?” Yes. And no. The answer is irrelevant. How we think about age, and ageing is highly relevant. We’ve all been a little bit ageist, in our time. And I wish we weren’t. I wish that my 13 month old grand-daughter, who runs to cuddle her grandmothers in turn without any hesitation or judgement, will keep that ability to value people for who they are, at whatever age they are. And whatever colour of hair they have.