Above: greeting a young elephant (rescued from poachers as a baby), at Ndarakwai Ranch, Tanzania, July 2012. She is gray and wrinkled, too! My daughter, still under 30, and the elephant’s minder look on.
When I was young, I not only believed that I was immortal, but that, unlike everyone else, I could avoid the physical signs of aging. I had been brought up to respect and defer to elders, but I still secretly viewed their gray hair, wrinkles, and sagging figures as personal failings. I wouldn’t let such things happen to me.
They did, of course.
I know that to the teens and twenty-somethings behind retail desks and deli counters, I look like a walking mummy. I see the disdain in their eyes. Sometimes, their contempt is aggressive. They not only find me hideous, but assume I am also witless; incapable, say, of ordering lunch or counting change. That’s payback multiplied.
What is startling, though, is that sometimes people my age or older are unable to mask surprise or even disappointment that I no longer look as I did twenty or thirty years ago. Some, I think, are not so much cross with me for aging, but distressed at how such evidence registers the passage of time. If I have gotten old, then so have they.
Others are less kind, such as the acquaintance I encountered in a shop after we’d not seen each other for about a decade. “My god!” she gasped, “You look so…..different!” This woman had never been a fan of mine, but I don’t think she meant to blurt out what she almost said: “You look so old!” I decided not to mention that, regardless of what she might tell herself in the mirror, she looked “different” too. “Time passes,” I said mildly. I doubt she heard the subtext: “for us all.”
I remember the man who, decades ago, gave me an appraising look and told me I’d acquired “patina.” I was thirty-three at the time. My appraiser was seven years older, with rather more “patina” than I had, but of course, I would never have brought that up. If that person saw me now, he’d doubtless announce that I’d acquired deep layers of rust. And now, I would verbally slap him back.
Several years ago, on my fiftieth birthday, friends at work gave me a little party. The woman who was then my assistant offered a coffin-shaped birthday cake for the occasion. A co-worker, noting the number on the birthday banner, said, “Are you really only fifty?” “No,” I replied. “I’m really seventy, and I’ve been lying about my age.” She backtracked, adding, “I only said that because you look so young.”
I suppose years of stress, and refusing to color my hair or wear makeup, have produced a very weathered look. At least the coffin cake hasn’t yet proved predictive.
I can still take good long canters on horseback, do extended arm side planks, full wheel, and crown dancer poses in yoga, and greet elephants who ramble up to see me on wildlife preserves. But I’m gray and wrinkled, and I look my age.
And if you’re an elephant, or even if you’re not, there’s nothing wrong with being gray and wrinkled.
If there were dreams to sell/What would you buy?/Some cost a passing bell/Some a light sigh,/That shakes from Life’s fresh crown/Only a rose-leaf down./If there were dreams to sell,/Merry and sad to tell,/And the crier rung the bell,/What would you buy?
–From Dream-Pedlary, by Thomas Lovell Beddoes (1803-1849)
I miss dreaming.
For decades, I dreamed: prolifically, memorably, often lucidly. My night-time theater’s director, playing to an audience of one, seemed endlessly creative and energetic, organizing elaborate productions with complex plots, sage themes, and deep emotions, characters both living and dead, and special effects that included flight, telekinesis, and hovering near the ceiling watching myself (and the cat) sleeping unaware on the bed below.
There was the occasional screaming nightmare, or the horrible feeling of being mentally awake but physically unable to move, as sometimes happens when the conscious mind awakens before the protective paralysis that keeps us from acting out our dreams wears off. Mostly, though, my dreams were (at least to me) mesmerizing, entertaining, instructive, and often funny. At times they seemed to interpret the past; at others, to show a tiny glimpse of the future. For every disturbing dream of fleeing danger in a dark alley, there was a lovely dream of floating, bathed in light.
For the past decade or so, I’ve rarely remembered any sort of dream. I usually awaken with a sense of not having dreamt at all. It’s as if the night theater has shut down, both in its mantic and entertaining functions. The occasional dreams I’ve managed to recall from these later years have seemed pallid and unimportant: little bits of day residue, or apparently irrelevant information. No plot, no message, no numinous nature, no ghosts, no jokes, no bright visuals, no clutter, no noise, no edges. Just smooth and gray and meaningless, as if my dreaming mind had itself become as blank as a boiled egg.
I had no idea that with age, dreams literally vanished. Evidently, it’s common, but no one knows why.
Possible explanations include the scientific (older people spend less time than other age groups in REM sleep, which is when dreams occur); the psychological (periods of intense emotion, such as adolescence and young adulthood, generate the most dreams); the medical (medications, which older people are more likely to be taking, may interfere with dream-sleep—not an explanation for me, since I take no medications); and the spiritual (dreams are divine directives that older people, with their presumably limited futures, do not need).
I have no idea whether any of these explanations is true. I only know from experience that dreams are among many of the body’s restorative functions that diminish with age.
If there were dreams to sell, which would I buy? All of them.