A.K. Reader: WHAT MATTERS? On Ageism, Aging, and Agelessness

I’m amazed to recognize that I penned this essay nearly 21 years ago, during which time my aging process has of course continued! At 74, I still “look” relatively ageless, despite more and deeper wrinkles and a tremor that affects both hands. I still utilize exercise, nutrition and the practice of the present moment as my antidotes to the aging process. Plus, I still wrestle with the same issues regarding ageism, aging, and agelessness, and arrive at the same conclusions, over and over again. Whether this means I came into the wisdom that can attend the aging process early, or that my beliefs have calcified the way many old people’s beliefs do, I leave it up to the reader to judge. By the way, annual Crones Counsels continue. I attend every few years. Really a wonderful gathering of consciously aging women.

WHAT MATTERS? On Ageism, Aging, and Agelessness

From Crone Chronicles: A Journal of Conscious Aging, Summer, 1996, #27

By Ann Kreilkamp

At the recent Crones Counsel III, an October 1995 gathering of 300 women in Arizona, I spoke with one woman, let me call her “Beth,” about aging. Our conversation acted like yeast; ever since it has been bubbling up, and I have been punching it down. Even now, the bread it may someday yield is not baked. I speak to you here from within my own process. Normally, I would not do this. But the subject, I feel, is so important, and so little addressed, that I want to mull things over here, in print, with the hope of sparking others into deepening the croneversation.

Beth told me that she no longer believes in aging. That because of this changed belief, she is actually beginning to reverse her own aging process. That the wrinkles I saw on her face are going away.

A part of me identified with what she was saying. Another, deeper part of me pulled back, upset. Why? I’m not sure. I’ve heard others talk as Beth does, I’ve seen this view expressed in certain books too, books which I respect. But something about this idea bothers me a great deal. Somehow, it feels like a betrayal. Of what, I wonder?

This feeling of betrayal takes its place within the hornet’s nest of feelings, which I have for a long time noticed in thinking about the aging process, and my own relationship to it. Indeed, I have tried to avoid thinking about this topic, so loaded is it with emotion, confusion and ambivalence. I explore it now, because I can no longer avoid it.

Beth is tall, lean, beautiful, very alive. One would guess her to be in her early to mid-40s, 15 years younger than 60, her real age. And her youthful appearance, she told me, has not been achieved surgically, but through nutrition, exercise and other health habits, and especially, through this fundamental change in her belief system.

Usually women who attempt to present a “young and beautiful” appearance into middle-age and beyond repel me. It is so sad to think that women would value only the surface of themselves, that they would think they still need to “look young” to be loved.

These values, promoted by society, have trapped some women in ageism so thoroughly that they surgically mutilate their faces to appear younger. And once they start this process, they must do it over and over again, their faces becoming more and more mask-like. They mask themselves from themselves in the attempt to appear always the same. They arrest their own evolutionary process. They do not want to age; they do not want to die. But this is no escape! And I imagine the repeated attempt to actually arrest the process of aging makes one feel trapped, or even dead, inside.

Beth, while also looking “young and beautiful,” is not just valuing appearances. On the contrary. She has looked inside herself to isolate, she says, a cultural “belief” which is so embedded in the ground of our unconsciousness, so utterly pervasive within our social context, that we do not realize we hold it, much less articulate it. Beth has not only articulated it, she claims that she has released it, reversed it!

I am drawn to Beth, her spirit, her courage. She dares to overcome what others consider a natural process. She dares to control nature. It’s as if she’s challenging the gods, and they could come down and smite her!

I admire all those who dare to challenge their own beliefs, especially beliefs which we receive from the culture, and which we are rarely aware of holding. And yet, when Beth told me that she is reversing her aging process, that she “no longer believes in aging,” I felt and still feel an instinctive response, which alerts me to danger. My body senses it: something must be watched for here; something is off.

This confuses me, because it is at odds with the response of my conscious personality, which agrees with her focus on nutrition and exercise, and their influence on the aging process. For many years, I too have been nutritionally “cleaning up my act.” Moreover, I have always been physically active.

So I, too, am consciously slowing down the aging process within myself. However, notice this: when people compliment me on “how good you look,” (the implication is, “for your age”), my response is divided. On the one hand, I am happy to hear this—of course! And yet, on the other hand, I feel like a traitor to the Cause. The Cause of Conscious Aging, of valuing that final third of my life; of coming to love all the visible and invisible signs of entropy in my own organism, of moving towards and embracing my own death.

But this overview is a philosophical understanding—very much at odds with what I feel inside me, the life force that is strong, so strong! I don’t want to die anytime soon! And yet, I wouldn’t want to live any part of my life over, either. I am much happier now in my 50s than I was in my 40s, which in turn were much easier than my 30s….

When I was young I had so much energy that I literally could not focus it. I see now that the only way I found to function was to drain off some of that energy, through addictions—to sugar, alcohol, cigarettes, marijuana, ice cream…. I wonder who I would have been had my intense energy been appreciated by those around me. Instead, what I heard was, “Lighten up, Annie! Lighten up.”

I learned the hard way to take care of my own body. Because I couldn’t afford medical insurance, I had to take care of myself. Had I continued in my addictions, I would now either be dead or harboring some chronic disease. All along my body has been teaching me to pay attention to what it was saying. Every time I have made a major life change, my body has forced it on me. I am too stubborn and too proud to change otherwise. Now 53 years old, I am profoundly grateful for my body’s symptoms at various stages in my life, each of them a symbol for what was needed next in my own evolutionary journey. The range of behavior in which I indulged in my 20s and 30s gradually narrowed, distilled, focused. I learned to conserve my energy, to concentrate it to a laser point, to use it in ways that work for me. That learning took time. Despite myself, I wized up.

Given my own experience and the success I have achieved in coming into greater health, so that I now feel younger than I did in my 20s, I grow impatient with and troubled for those who don’t take care of their own bodies, who don’t treat their bodies with respect.

And then I pause to remember that not taking care of our bodies is the norm. I remember what it was like to treat my body that way, as something separate from me, as literally another object in the room. We call it the “mind/body split,” this schizophrenic attitude our culture has instilled in us towards bodies—and nature, and women, and all that is non-rational. There is simply no one holding open the space for women, or men, to see aging in a different way. Even our medical system is still geared to looking at bodies as machines, separate from our minds and souls.

I grow impatient, and then I realize my own arrogance. How can I judge another? How can I—a mere 53 years old—know what being really old is like in this culture, how it feels to be humiliated by younger ones, their disgust, their revulsion of any evidence of decay, decomposition? How can I know their isolation, their loneliness?

In our society we are afraid to die, to be snuffed out. And yet we are already snuffed out, the light within so dimmed by all the rules, roles and regulations that we forgot who we were long ago. We forgot who we were as small children, brimming with life. In the place of real aliveness, we feel all the “oughts” and “shoulds,” including the unstated dictum that we should act “old” and look “old” after a certain point in time, that we should move over and let other, younger ones in.

Of course. It is only natural. The parents die so that the children may live. Would Beth agree? Or would she want to live forever here, crowding the planet with others like her for eternity, taking up room from other generations’ experience of life on Earth. Why does Beth want to not believe in the aging process? Has she thought this through? Is even her need also based on fear and denial of death? It’s so difficult not to be in denial, at some level, when I think about aging. So difficult to, each and every moment, see my life whole and be willing to release it.

Difficult? It’s impossible! And why would I need to do it? Animals don’t fear death; nor do primitive cultures. When their time is at hand, they lie down to die. Our society, so geared towards developing consciousness of the individual, has forgotten what we have in common and has suppressed our instincts. Again, I sense a paradox: unlike animals and primitive peoples, in order for me to begin to feel comfortable in my own aging process, I do have to think about it—but in a different way. If I think about it in the usual way, unconsciously following the dictates of mass mind, I will end up hating myself, isolated and terrified.

Sometimes this unconscious way of thinking about aging shows up in the types of changes our bodies go through as we age. But not always. The correlation between “looking young” or “looking one’s age” and the way one thinks about aging is not simple or direct. Not everyone is interested in “looking young.”—And some who do look young, don’t notice it; and some who don’t look young, wish they did and are bitter towards those who do. And so on; there are lots of variations. Yet one polarity does strike me.

Beth and I are both in good health, and our bodies reflect that. In these ways, we are alike, and our appearance differed markedly from many women who shared the large hall with us at Crones Counsel III. It does seem as if the women at these gatherings are of two kinds: either they “look their age,” or they do not—not at all. Those who don’t, like Beth, appear almost ageless; though I know if I asked any of them, they would be surprisingly “old.”

These seemingly ageless women appear in marked contrast to those whose appearance conforms more or less closely to society’s stereotypes of what being a particular age is supposed to “look” like. “Matronly,” we would call some of them, “dumpy, somewhat overweight.” Many seem passive, lacking energy—though I know better. One thing I learned at the first Crones Counsel, here in Jackson, Wyoming, in 1993, is that these “matronly older women,” who are almost invisible when at rest, at times do move into action. And when they do, watch out! You never know just who is lurking within that bland, “old woman” exterior.

Having attended three Crones Counsels now, I realize that women who identify with the Crone archetype, and who, even so, appear to be nearly lifeless when at rest, are probably saving their energy for when they need it, for when it matters. That though their bodies may seem “old,” their spirits are decidedly not. And I have learned that some crones who appear “matronly” relish this stage in life. As “old women,” they are in disguise, no longer the objects of men’s staring eyes. Being invisible, they can interact with the outer world in a different way, observing what is going on without being noticed. Even more striking, they can let go of our society’s preoccupation with appearances, to explore the mysterious reaches of their own inner worlds.

Beth, on the other hand, because she is still “beautiful” by society’s standards, is noticed. Her appearance makes a point; her body is evidence for the validity of her new beliefs. It seems Beth and I hold two different perspectives. I share in her relatively “ageless” look, and yet I know I am aging, and I work to accept it—at least that part of me does which has discovered that certain kinds of understandings in life can only gradually, over time, seep in. On the other hand, there is that other part of me which fights the aging process, else why would I “keep myself up” through nutrition and exercise? But wait, I tell myself, the reason for keeping myself up is not “for the sake of appearances,” and not (or, I should say, not primarily) because I want to “look good for others,” not because I want to arrest the process of aging, but because I want to feel good, and I want to respect my body’s needs. My body is the temple of my spirit, the foundation for my life and its expression. The alternative to taking care of my body is to be preoccupied with my failing health, and thus unable to contribute.

So, on the one hand, I do accept the aging process, for the wisdom, which is distilled from it; and on the other hand, I want to slow down the aging process as much as possible, so that I can be fully functioning up until (I hope) the very end of my life. Both feelings are there. Both are to be embraced as paradox. I am reminded of Freud’s Eros and Thanatos, the two primal urges in our makeup: one, the life force running through us; the other, the death wish.

At Crones Counsel III, Beth radiated energy; her appearance attracted attention. Unlike many others, whose energy is drawn inward, Beth stands out; she is a star. As I looked around the hall, my impression was of bright bursts of star energy radiating from some of the women, with the others blurring into an undifferentiated mass.

I saw the hall this way, and yet, because I know better now, I also realized that if I went up to any one of these women, and met her, eye to eye, heart to heart, our connection would open, and I would be introduced to yet one more woman’s incredible life story. That she would fascinate me. That her soul’s journey would be every bit as interesting as that of any star.

I say this, I know this, I have discovered this, over and over again, and yet my own assumptions—my prejudices—about the aging process and the social value of “looking young” are still in me, still strong. Indeed, evidence of this is my own smug comparison of my lean body with others, their lumpy bodies. My egotism exists. I seek to see through my own ageism to the heart of things, what matters.

Another evidence of ageism: I remember being astonished, the first time I realized that many women who “look their age” (who “look old”) don’t really mind; that they don’t want to be disturbed by the attention received because of appearances; that instead, they are focusing on something very different.

It astonishes me to even more to realize how this astonished me! How could I have gotten so far away from what I’ve always known to be true? For even as a child, I declared that I wanted to be old, shocking grownups by saying, “I can’t wait to be 65 years old.” I was disgusted with our culture’s focus on female appearances, and I figured I wouldn’t be able to freely live my own life until I was old.

When I look back on it, this was a pretty astute understanding for a child to have. I had correctly identified the ageism in our culture, and had embraced its opposite! Whereas the culture values youth and the appearance of youthful beauty, I valued age, because I wanted to see and live beneath the surface of things.

In this respect, I was the odd one in my family, and rebelled against my mother’s desire for her six girl children to look pretty and wear nice clothes. I remember saying to her that I didn’t think appearances mattered, that I would rather focus on reality. I was unusual in seeing through our culture’s preoccupation on young female beauty when I was young, and yet, I realize now, the origins for this belief were emotional: I felt inferior to my beautiful sister. So while I did intellectually realize that our culture’s focus was superficial, I was also caught in the same values I was attempting to deny. My judgment against beauty was a rationalization for my own fear of not being beautiful enough. Of course! I’m part of this culture too.

Do you see why I call this whole business of my relationship to aging a hornet’s nest? There is so much here to chew on, so many conflicting feelings and ideas. It’s as if, in plunging into an exploration of this subject of aging and my complex, conflicting relationship to it, including all the subtle telling little clues to my own ageism, I have dived into what has always been there, simmering just beneath the surface of my other concerns.

I am attempting, in this essay, to explore the complexities of my emotional and mental responses to physical changes, which result from the aging process. I am finding this task fiendishly difficult. I want to talk about something, which is so close to me that I cannot see it. I rarely think about it directly; instead, I live and breathe it, and on some subliminal level, it preoccupies me. I am continually aware of what I and others “look” like; I am also fascinated with what is “really going on” underneath the appearances I and others present. And what most interests me here: I want to investigate the many ways outer appearances and inner realities interact and how these interactions affect the way I feel about both myself and others.

For I sense that if I could actually view my own preoccupation with ageism, aging, agelessness, and their interrelationships from afar, if I could accurately describe the emotional and intellectual soup they are all floating in, that then I could release judgment, release prejudice, release separation, and feel my connection with all women—and all men—no matter what our ages.

My personality, my ego, is preoccupied with aging, and pretends that it is not. I stopped buying cosmetics (and girdles, and high heels) a long time ago. My first criterion, when buying clothes, is that they be comfortable. I laugh (or shudder) at fashion advertising featuring anorexic young women looking like zombies. I allow my belly to stick out, and my bottom. I want to be real now, whatever that means. And if it means I no longer look young, well, so be it.

Or that’s what I think I’m doing, being real. Letting go of society’s standards and coming into authenticity. And it is true. My personality seeks to give way to the deeper part of me in its attempt to live beneath cultural values, holding on to the deeper truth about human beings.

On the other hand my personality is also permeated with the culture’s view of aging. I am fully aware of “how old” I look, and I regularly scrutinize the mirror for signs—“Was this wrinkle there last week?” “Is my hair really thinning, or has it always been like this?” “There it is, another liver spot on my forehead!” “So I have grey hair yet, or is it still blond?”

I speak here, from the perspective of my 50s, not my 40s, or my 30s. During my 30s, I noticed lines radiating out from the corners of my eyes, and liked them, was proud of them, would point them out to others. I thought they gave me character. In my 40s I noticed the lines around my mouth, and though I didn’t really like them, I didn’t really mind, either. I was still, in a sense, at my peak, and looked like I was in my late 20s. Now, however, things have changed.

Now signs of aging are more obvious, and they come as shocks to my personality, every one of them, despite my stated beliefs. Despite my claim, since childhood, that I want to be old. I am both looking forward to the times when I am fully detached from society’s expectations of what females are supposed to “look” like, and I greet each new sign of aging with shock. That I am mortal, that I am dying, daily, despite how I feel. Despite my energy, my apparent youthful spirit. Shock. That though when I am feeling most alive it is as if my life will go on forever, each new sign tells me that I have limited time here. And that recognition, coming more and more often as the years go by, is one long continuous initiation into the mysteries of life and death and rebirth….

Each time I acknowledge to myself, “Yes, I am dying,” I surrender to the unknown. Each time, there is a period of transition, which I must move through—whether it be a split-second, a minute, or a few hours—when I am in limbo, suspended between heaven and earth, detached from life, gone. — Humbled. I have a different relationship to life as I realize how much time is left.

And as I surrender—to this hushed presence, this silent watch—it lets me go, and I return to earth, to my life, paradoxically renewed.

I imagine this process—of encountering my own death, over and over again, in noticing the signs of my own aging—is something that others go through, though I myself have not consciously thought it through until now. It is an intimate personal ritual, so close to me that until I attempt to explore my own response to signs of aging in myself, I don’t notice that this really is what I do.

I have a feeling that it is this near-daily process of death and rebirth that I go through just looking in the mirror which, paradoxically, enlivens me, increases my energy level, makes me actually “look younger” (at least while in motion) than my age, and leads to this sense of living forever, which reflects in my appearing to be relatively ageless. I am thrilled to realize that the more I accept my own aging process, the more it seems to slow down. I am thrilled, because I want to live a quality life for a long time, so that I may fully use myself up in the process of living, so that when I die, I am ready. That there will be nothing left of me, and nothing left to do. That all the smaller deaths and rebirths will have been as preparation for this final Death, this finale, this climactic celebration, that I will cross over its threshold consciously, with full awareness, the continuity between this life and whatever lies beyond intact.

That’s my vision in my 50s. In reality, I don’t know what’s going to happen. I’m not in control of this process.

It feels as if, when I entered a body, I entered into a contract with Earth, matter, what matters, the natural world. My body is my personal portion of Earth—and as I treat Earth, so do I treat my own body, at times badly. There seem to be some universal values, which, paradoxically, I learn specifically through this process of being pulled down into matter, of surrendering, over and over again, to death and rebirth, and ultimately to final death, to that ultimate change in form, which the life force within me will take, sooner or later. Through being buried in matter, its blind desires, and the inevitable thwarting of those desires, I discover suffering. In fully feeling my own suffering, I melt down my own egotism and flow into others, their suffering. Yes, it may be that were it not for the pain and shock and discomfort of coming to terms with my own aging body, I would not be learning compassion.

I sense that what really troubles me about Beth’s need to change her belief system is that to do so is to betray that original contract with her own body. Aging itself may not come under the rubric of “belief,” which is, by definition, changeable. (Unlike our attitudes towards aging, which are beliefs.) Aging itself is a natural process, and we on Earth who are experiencing the laws of Earth’s nature must age, will age, no matter how ageless we may seem when our spirits so infuse the body that they fill them with light. Whether we live to be 50 or 500, our time here is brief by the standards of eternity.

Once again, I integrate paradox. For on the one hand, as I grow older, I learn to pay attention to time, and to re-member myself over and over again in different ways, really grasping the implications of how time subtly shapes and reshapes my understanding. And yet, the more I do this, the larger grows the space of my awareness, and the more I enter a sense of spaciousness akin to the feeling of the mystic Eternal Now. The same Eternal Now that the child operates in, and yet, unlike the child, I arrive there by learning to embrace larger and larger cycles of time, as each of them traces out its space within me so that it all counts, it all matters.

Here is my vision, dare I give it? Dare I present my “spiritual conclusions” of aging when I am still relatively young? When I know nothing compared to what the old ones would tell me if they could? If I would only stop jabbering about this terrifying subject and hold open the space for them to speak.

Tell me, oh you old ones, you crones who have truly done time here, so much time that you know. Is it true? Will gradually the veils between myself and others thin? Will I, in the “end,” greet Death as a lover, surrender to Her embrace?



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1 Response to A.K. Reader: WHAT MATTERS? On Ageism, Aging, and Agelessness

  1. Janice Berndt says:

    I am really glad you re-posted this essay. Lots of food for thought for this 69-year-old woman! The following paragraph perfectly describes where I am at now: “Being invisible, they can interact with the outer world in a different way, observing what is going on without being noticed. Even more striking, they can let go of our society’s preoccupation with appearances, to explore the mysterious reaches of their own inner worlds.”

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