Change moves forward, not backwards
A young scholar recently asked me what advice might I give to college students about the aging body, as he was preparing a presentation on this topic. I was hesitant at first as the twinges of self-doubt poked me in the face, small fingers prodding the soft of my back as the nagging voices started up in my head:
“What do you know — 44 is not actually old.”
“What makes you an expert on the aging body? What if you just don’t like your body?”
“An elder should be answering this question, not you.”
As the words kept flowing, I could feel the edges of my eyes squinting closer to each other, deepening the crease lines that have recently shown up along the edges. My skepticism at the bickering doubt was rising and thankfully she is much stronger than the nagging voices these days. Gently, she pats the voices on the head, “Shhh, little ones. There is nothing to worry about. This is my truth and this body matters.”
With that, the list began to take shape.
#1. Change moves forward, not backwards. Our bodies are always changing, growing, expanding, contracting, healing, recovering, experimenting, exploring. There is no such thing as “getting back to the ways things were,” ever. You can not reverse aging or age backwards. Time does not work that way. You may find that you are able to fit into clothes from years ago but it is a vastly different body filling out that cloth. Perhaps those clothes will never fit your body today, and that is OK. Keep your feet forward facing and you will learn how to dance with the rhythm of time.
My body has been flirting again with running, something I taught myself to love over a decade ago when the challenge of a marathon enticed the impossible out of me. At that time, I was determined to commit to things in my life that I didn’t like and see if I could find appreciation for them, perhaps even fall in love. I learned how to appreciate olives and blue cheese this way, two foods that would normally make my stomach churn. I figured it wouldn’t be much different with running. All my life I had hated running — an irritating side practice I had learned to grit my teeth through as a young athlete.
Three months in and without much fanfare, everything changed. Turning a corner on the trail in Golden Gate Park one morning, my eyes blinked in disbelief as iridescent fractals began to lift out of the pores in my skin, twisting and turning, morphing into spheres of light which burst into showers of glitter as they hit my exhaling breath. On each inhale, my lungs vibrated a song of freedom throughout the length of my body. A few steps more and everything around me exploded into light. My body rejoiced at the expanses before me as I dropped sneaker to pavement for the 20 miles I ran that morning. I discovered a bliss I had never before imagined, the tremors of which danced inside me the rest of the day. I was in love.
The next morning, however, I could barely walk, my left knee screaming pain each time I stretched it out or placed pressure on my foot. It was unbearable. What had begun as a dull ache after a 15 mile run a few weeks earlier, had blown up into an angry ball of acute pain.
It would be many years and a traumatic knee surgery later before my sneakers attempted to kiss the ground again. It was the bliss that kept calling me back.
“Find me again”, she would whisper in my ears each time I caught my pair of running shoes staring longingly at me from the closet floor. Somedays I listened even as my knees refused to consent. Every time, I would toss the shoes back in the closet a few days later, tears of disappointment staining my cheeks.
“I just have bad knees,” I found myself saying more often as time passed. “I can’t run anymore,” I conceded, giving up on a joy by body so deeply craved. These words became my mantra, a belief carved into the joints of my body that refused to be erased.
Over the years I have learned one thing: I can not recreate the past, no matter how hard I try. I can not find that specific bliss all over again. It has passed, unable to be reclaimed. To find my bliss now, I must surrender to the magic of this body who is with me today. It will be something new, something unexpected, utterly fresh, because she has always been changing forward, even if my mind still plays in the past.
“I have bad knees” is a story I have bound my ankles with for too long. Last week I bought a new pair of running shoes, the first pair I’d bought since I trained for that marathon all those years ago, my feet eager to find out where they will take me, as they keep facing forward, moving forward, one cautious step at a time.