Thursday, November 19, 2015

Greying, lined, direct, and doing the work of love

Some people I hadn’t seen in a long while came for dinner. “Wow,” said one, “You look so different from when I last saw you. You look so … so … old!”

“Maybe it’s my grey hair?” I suggested.

“Well, yes,” she said, cocking her head to scrutinize my face more closely, “but … it’s also the lines around your eyes.” And then the subject changed and we headed into the kitchen for a drink.

I’ve told the story a few times now, and the response is always the same. “God,” said one friend, “did you poison her dinner?” “What a bitch,” said another. Meanwhile I still think the exchange is hilarious. I do look older than when I last saw her. My hair is turning grey, I do have lines around my eyes. For that matter, I creak when I stand up, my back hurts, my skin is thinning, and hair is beginning to sprout in unfortunate places. So I tell the story because it makes me laugh, and I reckon it’s good to be reminded of my mortality.

I also reckon the story is a good gauge of hospitality. Were my guest’s words such a deadly insult that I should have met them with cold fury? Am I really so needy that everyone must forever pretend that I am young and beautiful? Am I really so important that I should be treated with infinite respect? Well, to all three questions: no, not at all, which is why, when it happened, I laughed. The words weren’t meant as an insult; we don’t need to pretend I am young and beautiful; and I’m not so important that anyone should ever pussyfoot around me and play nice.

Why is plain speaking so rarely acknowledged as a gift? This dinner guest is a dynamo, and has always been blunt. She has spent decades advocating for survivors of sexual abuse, and has regularly crossed swords with the most closed, patriarchal, unresponsive institutions in town. Over time, her words have shaken them up and made them more accountable, and have led to healing processes for survivors. But she has spent so many years talking back to stubborn powerful men on behalf of the marginalised that sometimes she forgets to sugar coat. If that is the price we pay for her to do a heap of thankless, costly, necessary work, then I for one am willing to take it on the chin.

I’m proud to know our dinner guest, glad of her work and plain words, grateful there are people like her in the world. And I’m proud of my grey hair and the lines around my eyes. They’re a record of years lived and babies born and stories told and laughter shared and good work, and she understands this. Like her, I’ve earned my grey hairs, I’ve earned my lines; I don’t need to hide them. And I don’t need my dinner guests to be nice. Instead, I like my guests to be big-hearted people, who are doing the work of love.


  1. Ageing's a funny one, isn't it? I grew up with the idea that getting older was a bad thing, and that it was rude to draw attention to it and best not to acknowledge it in yourself, either.

    Now, whilst still only 39, I've come to see all that as rather silly. I'm still hesitant to draw attention to the ageing of others (as I don't want to appear rude), but I enjoy it in myself.

    As I get older, I understand myself better, I'm more comfortable with myself and I can love others better as God has scraped away more of my sinfulness and my insecurity. Also, I can make sense of new ideas more easily as I know more things already so have more hooks to hang them on.

    I find that my friends seem to be neatly divided into two camps on this one, with little middle ground - they either feel like me, or feel as I was taught to feel.

    One difference between the two groups seems to be how important ideas are to them: if you like intellectual things, you're more likely to relish knowing more and less likely to fret that life is wasting away. Living deliberately seems to help with it, too.

    In my own case, I wonder if my very poor health isn't an advantage here. I already get muddled easily, have to go to bed ridiculously early and spend most of my day napping (I'm only out of bed 3-4 hours per day). I already use a walker, a shower stool etc... So in some ways I already have the poor health of the rather old (although a friend who has done care work in a rest home says I still have better mobility than most really old people). So, whilst I sometimes resent barely having had a chance to be young (I became ill at 26), the crumbling body of an old woman isn't something I fear but just something I'm already more-or-less living with!

    1. Living deliberately - yes! Have you read The sound of a wild snail eating? A lovely little memoir, told through the eyes of someone who is bed-bound but determined to live well.

  2. No, but I've heard great things about it. Your mentioning it again has prompted me to ask my local library to buy the audio version today :-) They have print versions of it, but not audio, and I struggle a lot with physical books.


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