Many years ago I read an interview with a prominent literary figure in his late eighties. When asked his thoughts about growing older, he said that at times he felt as if he could simply leap up from his chair and dash across the room to open the door, but then he would remember that his body wasn't capable of doing that. "I may be 88," he said, "but I feel like 38 inside."
When I read that, probably when I was around 38 myself, I thought his statement was a mere conceit, a fanciful form of wishful thinking. Surely octogenarians must feel their age, I thought. People may say they feel younger, but certainly a person's inner identity must advance at the same clip as his or her accumulation of years, or so I thought.
Now that I have reached the venerable and somewhat shocking (to me) age of 70, it has become obvious that my chronological age is the arbitrary and ever-changing number, and my essential self--the "true me"--is far more stable, and younger. To be sure, my body may need more attention these days to remain strong and supple, but my essential self generally feels as enthusiastic and flexible as ever.
If I were to choose a number that represents my true age, I'd say about 39. That's how old I was when I struck out on my own as a single mother. Raised and educated as a visual artist, I realized as I gathered up my most important belongings, that I had literally filled reams of blank books--not with sketches but with words. At times I had, in a very real way, saved my life by reaching the bottom of the page. Clearly I was not an artist at heart, but a writer.
It was also at age 39 that I took my first job as a book editor. At Peace Press, an alternative small publisher in Culver City, I met a dashing young printer who shared a manuscript of his own poems with me. As I read his jazzy, romantic work, my heart began to race. I thought I was falling in love with him, but, as I discovered none too soon, I was actually falling in love with poetry.
Thirty-nine is also the age at which I learned to meditate, started to date again for the first time since I was 19, and in a very real way, gave birth to my truest and freest self. This "I" that has matured with experience is, at my happiest and best, still 39.
To check out how unique my experience might be, I decided to poll a few of my post50 friends, asking them the dual question, "How old are you, and what age do you feel yourself to be, really?" When I asked this of my best friend, a successful artist of 69, her answer was so similar to my own, it seemed to affirm of our decades-long friendship. She said that she feels perpetually 35 because that was the age at which she came into her own as an artist. Another friend of 63 said that she feels like she's five--but in a good way. All at once her unusually keen emotional authenticity made perfect sense.
Other replies were more unexpected or situational. A friend in her early 60s said that she feels not young or old but "ageless," since she is constantly renewing herself creatively and in her work with young people. And one man of 51, the youngest of the lot, surprised me by admitting that he felt 100, explaining that it was probably because he was feeling depressed after a recent divorce.
Reflecting on his answer reminded me of other "old souls" I had met along the way, even among young people, and introduced me to the notion that a person's true age may not always be behind them. One very wise and spiritual woman of 86 told me, for example, that she thinks she has finally reached her true age and feels much more peaceful now than she did when she was younger.
Another friend, a writer and photographer of about 73, encapsulated the question in a most perceptive way: "When you're young and have troubles," she said, "you feel careworn. Yet as an older person you might feel light and youthful." We don't feel our age in absolute terms, she explained. "Youth is energy and hopefulness."
Finally, when I put my question to a rather unpredictable poet who recently turned 70, a man I've known for many years, he replied, "How old do I feel? Emotionally, sometimes I'm 7; physically, about 35; creatively, about 50--but that all varies a lot during the day. And night." That sounds about right.
Ultimately, this random sampling of responses can do little more than to suggest that people tend not to identify with their chronological ages. The question itself, however, may be a useful one to pose to yourself, if only to become more conscious of what you hold most essential and true. So tell me, what age are you really?
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