By Margaret Dulaney
My friend Hayden suggests that as we age and grow less cute, we might be wise to compensate for the loss of good looks with good cheer.
Emerson writes, “There is no beautifier of complexion, or form, or behavior like the wish to scatter joy and not pain around us.”
My friend Patty, who has made it into her sixties with a congenital kidney disease, likes to tell her body every day how proud she is of it. How grateful she is that it has bravely fought to give her a long life on the planet.
I am beginning to suspect that for those of us who have been graced with long life, the attainment of self-love could be our last challenge to enlightenment. I am not talking about ego, or pride, but a certain grateful recognition for the bodies that have carried us through our years on the earth, and will hopefully carry us far into old age. Our earthly clothing, temporary housing, might be viewed as a sort of mobile home. These vehicles undoubtedly benefit from our care and attention to maintenance, but eventually they will break down. They were not built to last forever. To criticize them when they begin to show the inevitable signs of age seems rather small-spirited of us. “Oh look at that rust spot on the passenger door, unsightly!” we might say. “My roof looks like hell, my tires are all bald, there are pebble cracks in every window, my wiper blades fell apart years ago, and there are no replacements for this model. This old beater is a piece of junk.”
The poor thing!
Wouldn’t it be kinder to say, “Oh, this grand old tank of mine has carried me through so much: through days of blistering heat, nights of frigidity, through wild storms, and traffic jams so backed up we thought we’d never move again. What a blessing this dear old jalopy has been.”
Patty’s husband Chris gave her one of his kidneys several years ago. I’d say he’s pretty well set for an eternity of Christmas gifts. This organ, twice the size of either of Patty’s original kidneys, works like a bear. This isn’t the only calamity Patty’s mobile home has suffered. She’s has had breast cancer, twice. She’s pitched out of and over just about everything. She’s had car accidents, horse accidents, dog accidents – that’s when you trip over a dog and break your bones – Her body has been carved up, patched together and rearranged, but she’s still rolling. And, she is rolling with enormous good cheer.
Patty likes to say to her body, “I love you, you are enough. You are enough for me.” After which she might take the dear old thing out for some fresh air and fruit.
Some, when faced with living out a life in a compromised body, will suggest, “Well, consider the alternative,” by which, of course, they mean death. But death, the transition out of our meat-suits (as my friend Christine calls her body), and into our heavenly suits, is not only inevitable but, I presume, a welcome change, like going on a long camping trip and finally returning home to take a hot bath and put on fresh clothes. Delicious!
My friend Sarah refers to any uncomplimentary, old age rumination as “Methuselah thinking.” This is when one sees oneself as an ancient ruin, of no more use to society than an old phone booth. Remarkably, Sarah will be haunted by this thinking, even though she is a teacher in New York City school system, with a little army of adoring child followers. If the criticism that we sometimes visit on our aging selves came from someone else we would consider it heartless. “Look at that thing? It can hardly climb a hill these days without sputtering. And that paint job! Pathetic!”
Sarah tells me that she will perform certain tasks, such as thoroughly cleaning her kitchen after her evening meal, as an exercise in self-love. “Let’s do this for Sarah,” she says to herself, “She will be so happy in the morning to wake to a sparkling kitchen as she dashes to get ready for the day.”
I’m considering adopting this practice. “Oh dear, Margaret seems to be having an ancient day, today,” I might say to myself, “Maybe she needs a lift? Let’s take her out for a spin, give her a little shot of sunshine.”
Self-love is a tricky assignment, made more interesting as our bodies age.
It appears that the most dreadful thing that could be said of the aging is, “Oh, she’s let herself go, poor thing. Such a shame.” Or, “Look at that guy, he’s a shadow of his former self.” I was just on vacation with an eighty-three-year-old friend who asked where she might find a scale to weigh herself every day. She didn’t want to put on a pound. Good gravy! When do we get to let go of that crazy gym teacher in our heads?!
There was a couple in my hometown that prided themselves on their resolve not to gain a pound more than they weighed on their wedding day. They made a pact and managed to keep it to the day they died. They considered it one of their greatest accomplishments. Sigh.
This tight grip on our youth can be so limiting. Every age offers us its gifts. Perhaps we should be flattered when someone suggests we have “let ourselves go.” “Hooray,” we might counter, “I’ve been working toward that goal my entire life.”
“Youth is wasted on the young,” they say, but perhaps we could say the same of aging. “Age is wasted on the aging.” It is certainly wasted when we grumble about our mobile homes, when we refuse to let go of the way we rolled in our younger years, when we fuss about our paint job, our tire pressure, our power steering…
Patty, in order to thank her body for its resilience, will take it out to a yoga class. “Let me do you a favor,” she will offer, “let me take you out to a stretch class, make you feel better.”
I suspect the best fuel on which we could run our mobile homes is simple appreciation. No matter the make or model, the finest, most energy- efficient food for our bodies is probably gratitude.
I’m thinking of a new daily practice. “Good morning, you dear old thing,” I might say to my body. “What a fine job you’ve been doing all these years. Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise, and especially don’t take any grief from that person who lives in your head. You are enough, dear, you are enough.” After this reassuring pep talk, I might offer it something, an outing of some sort.
“Today, my good friend, I’m going to fill your tank with love, and roll around the neighborhood, waving a cheerful hand.” I might offer. “Let’s go, shall we? We’ll toot around with the windows open, blowing kisses to the world.”
MARGARET DULANEY is an author, playwright and essayist, and founder of the spoken word website Listenwell.org. Her latest book, The Parables of Sunlight, is about leaving NYC and finding hope in the country. Culled from a lifetime’s study of the ancients and mystics of all traditions, Margaret’s writings employ the ideas of Emerson, Lao Tzu, Hafiz, George MacDonald, Richard Rohr, Emanuel Swedenborg, Lorna Byrne, Marcus Aurelius, Shakespeare, Rudolph Steiner and many others.
In 2010 Margaret founded the open faith, spoken word website ListenWell.Org. Each month Listen Well posts one ten-minute, professionally recorded essay designed to puzzle out a spiritual theme through story and metaphor. Listeners vary from practicing Buddhists to open-minded Christians, from those struggling to find a working tradition to those who are happy with their practice. Margaret records her writings at Maggie’s Farm recording studios in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.