I’m astonished to discover I’m seventy.
It feels surreal,
as if it doesn’t belong to me,
as if I’m wearing another person’s birth year
and it doesn’t fit properly. Or at all.
I told Don I wanted a flower crown for my birthday.
I feel more like a queen these days.
Or Peter Pan.
When I was young my gran was seventy.
She was old and wrinkled, blue-haired and soft-bodied.
She was much loved
but not much respected.
Like Pooh she was a bear of very little brain,
Slow of thought and body
Lovely and loving, but not much respected.
This is how my youthful mind absorbed
what it means to be seventy.
Old. Wrinkled. Blue of hair. Slow. And just a little dim witted.
Over the years things changed
and I learned that when I got old I could wear purple!
This was apparently the ultimate act of rebellion.
From my gran and our society at large I learned
that it’s better not to be old.
Especially if you’re a woman.
If you’re old you don’t count.
At best loved but still with a veil of condescension.
Opinions no longer really respected or relevant.
Not really of much use any more.
Certainly not nearly as useful, or relevant, as those roaring twenty and thirty-year-olds.
So here I am. Seventy years old by the count of the days, wearing an age that doesn’t fit
still wondering what I want to be when I grow up, if anything at all.
Apart from myself that is.
I will not be relegated to irrelevancy.
I’m still booming!
Heck I feel as if I’ve just begun to flower.
And I know a lot more now (she says slyly).
With age comes a true confidence
that I didn’t have when I was younger.
Oh I was good at faking it.
Not faking anymore.
Don’t mess with me.
Age brings a fierceness that I’m no longer apologetic about.
Life has given me two great gifts. The first, through my relationship with Don, has been the opportunity to learn how to love and be loved. I’m the youngest of four. As a child due to my extreme lack of confidence or belief in myself I assumed that my father loved my mother and my three sisters, but that he was just being nice to me. That’s how I parsed my relationship with him. As a result I had several relationships over the years where I was my boyfriend’s second choice; a friend-with-benefits while knowing he really wanted to be with someone else. With Don, right from the beginning I made a decision – not with Don, but with myself – that Don would be the man who would love me above all others. It was not something I could command of Don, nor ask of him, but rather it had to do with my own belief system. If I believed he would love me above all others then I made space for that to happen. And so it is. And in allowing myself to be loved there was more and more room for me to love without neediness, to find a true depth of love that I had not previously experienced.
If I achieve nothing else in this life, learning how to love and be loved will be enough.
The second great gift Life has given me is an inner drive to heal myself, to sift through the swamp of pain and painful beliefs festering in the murky depths of my psyche, to bring it all to the surface where in the light it could be seen and healed.
Recently the thought arose that none of my thoughts are chosen. Not by me anyway. Not consciously. I realised that the only time I actively choose my thoughts is when I’m chanting a mantra, or learning by rote. Otherwise thoughts arise full-blown without my consent. All thoughts. The good ones, and the ones where I want to strangle someone, or myself, or put people straight because I’m right and they’re wrong, all the thoughts that churn around and around, or the quiet barely-heard ones in the background while I’m doing something else, no matter how joyous or benign or destructive they are, none of them are deliberately chosen. They are just there, arising out of nothing and then falling away.
What followed quickly was the thought that neither did I choose my life. Not consciously anyway. Body, mind, thoughts, feelings, personality, the whole package. I had no choice in any of it. It just arose, and continues to arise, from nothing, from a great mystery. None of it is my choice. And as well as no choice there is also no control. Have you ever tried to control your thoughts? Good luck with that. It is all simply as it is. There is no shame, no blame, no judgement, no need to change anything, no possibility to change anything.
I cannot even begin to express how freeing this is. I have more compassion for myself, which was sorely needed, and consequently more for others. Finally I get it. It’s not my fault. Having spent a lifetime believing that everything bad that happened to me or to those I was close to was somehow my fault I am now free. Nothing is my fault, nor is it anyone else’s fault. It is all just what is.
I understand the paradox here. There is no “I” who can claim any of this. It is all grace. I didn’t do anything. It’s simply what arose here, and yet the person that I appear to be is deeply grateful for this gift of seeing that I am not to blame, not liable. It has given me a confidence I would not previously have thought possible. I no longer feel that I have to apologise for being the way I am. Or for being.
See what living this long does for you? You learn a thing or two. You discover self-assurance and belief in yourself. You stop dealing with bullshit, both your own and others. You discover free-floating joy, and an ability to let others be as they are since no one else gets to choose either. I feel unstoppable in a way I never have before.
I know I said that I know a lot more now I’m older.
In some ways that’s true.
But what I most know is that I don’t really know anything at all.
Unlike in my youth when I thought I knew everything.
Now I’m less concerned with being somebody,
more concerned with being presence.
Life is infused with death.
Nothing is permanent; everything dies.
Death informs Life and Life is defined by death.
It’s simply impossible to have one without the other.
This recognition sits a little deeper that previously,
and so life becomes more precious
and being real becomes more urgent
and trusting myself becomes easier.
I wouldn’t trade being seventy,
I’ll just “cancel” all the ways in which it doesn’t fit.
I finally understand that it doesn’t matter
what others think.
So I’ll make a tuck here, lift a hemline there;
let the whole thing out a little so it’s not so darn defining and confining.
And keep on dancing.
Photo credits: 1, 2, and 3 by Don Read. Final photo by L. Bassingthwaight
All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2020.