Other people’s words about … ageing (yes, again, but bear with me …)

I was not a happy or a healthy young person. I had chronic asthma exacerbated by smoking; I was unfit; my diet was ordinary. ‘Orphaned’ by 29, I spent most of my 20s and 30s in grief. I was deeply anxious with little confidence, my fretful neediness causing relationship problems. For many of those years, I cried every week.
The day I turned 50, I felt a mysterious surge of what I could only think of as power. A deep optimism, energy and peacefulness took up space inside me. Give or take a few crises since, it hasn’t really left. In my mid-50s, I’m physically and emotionally stronger, healthier, more calmly loved and loving, more productive, more organised, smarter, wealthier and exponentially happier than I ever was in my youth. In the past four years I’ve really cried about three times, on one occasion because a good friend died.

From ‘The Luminous Solution

by Charlotte Wood

In my last blog post I talked about how a feeling of invisibility is something many women complain of experiencing as they grow older — and about how that feeling of invisibility doesn’t have to be (only) a negative experience. I talked about how feeling invisible can confer a certain grace and dignity to the way we live our lives.

It was my mother who reminded me subsequently of Charlotte Wood’s words about ageing. I have heard other women in their fifties and sixties express similar things and while so far I can’t say I share their feelings or their experiences, I find a certain comfort in their words. In my early fifties, I am, unlike Wood, neither more energetic nor healthier than I was as a younger woman; nor am I more productive or smarter. And I certainly don’t cry any less frequently.

And yet. The words optimism and peacefulness resonate deeply with me. I have fewer expectations of life than I did in my twenties and thirties — less hope, perhaps, but also, strangely, more joy.

Optimism, peacefulness, hope, joy. These are all invisible things. Maybe that’s what makes them feel so profound.

Shining sea, Late May 2022.

Lately I’ve been reading …

The map of my face

Other people’s words about … making peace with yourself

My face is a map of all I have lived. Some days, I feel beautiful and right in my skin. Some days, I don’t. The truth is, we never really get fixed; instead, we try to make peace, daily, with who and what we are. We learn to embrace the glorious, imperfect whole rather than punishing ourselves because of our flawed parts.


From ‘Before and After’, by Libba Bray
in ‘Hope Nation’, edited by Rose Brock

I wrote in a recent post about ageing and how I feel about it as I near the age of fifty. About how, as I’ve aged, I’ve grown more rather than less conscious of the way people perceive me.

Perhaps, in that post, I conveyed the sense that I thought beauty was solely an external concept, that it had only to do with one’s physical shape, one’s embodied self. If I did, I apologise. I have always known that beauty comes from within. As I age, I become even more aware of that than ever.

The dying of the light

You could read the words I’ve quoted in today’s post, from Libba Bray’s essay ‘Before and After’, as being about learning to come to terms with one’s physical imperfections and so-called flaws. Indeed, her essay is, at least in part, about how her physical appearance changed after she was involved as a young woman in a terrible motor vehicle accident in which she lost an eye.

But that’s not how I read her words. When she writes: Some days, I feel beautiful and right in my skin. Some days, I don’t, I take her I to mean her sense of her inner self, and how that inner, intangible self feels to reside in the physical husk of her body. When she writes: we try to make peace, daily, with who and what we are, I take her what to mean her embodied self, but I take her who to mean her inner self, her non-physical self.

Her soul, if you like.

We are each of us, in our daily experiences of living, enmeshed in both the physical and the non-physical aspects of life. Our understanding of beauty therefore encompasses those twin aspects. So, I think, does ageing, which we may experience as a sense of growing physical frailty or as a sense of growing wisdom (or, equally, of growing mental infirmity). The physical begets the non-physical — and, I suspect, vice versa.

So when I read Bray’s words, I felt an instant resonance with them. We learn to embrace the glorious, imperfect whole, she says, and I take the word whole to mean the whole of life: physical, non-physical, and everything in between.

Which I, too, embrace.


Bray’s essay is, in fact, about hope rather than beauty or ageing, and it is addressed specifically to teenagers and young adults. In it, Bray writes about how she, as a very young woman, found hope amidst despair. Despair, she makes clear, is primarily an experience of loneliness, and hope, therefore, is an experience of the opposite of loneliness. Of love.

Or, as Bray puts it in (spoiler alert) the last three lines of her essay:

You are not alone.
You are not alone.
You are not alone.


Lately I’ve been reading about …

On turning forty-seven

Other people’s words about … living small

He wasn’t a big man anymore. He wouldn’t be famous, like he’d dreamed as a kid, teaching himself to sign his name in all curved letters so he would be prepared to autograph a football. He would live a small life, and instead of depressing him, the thought became comforting. For the first time, he no longer felt trapped. Instead, he felt safe.

from ‘The Mothers
by Brit Bennett

Each year, as the number of years I’ve lived on this planet grows, I feel my own life shrink in the scheme of things. And to my own surprise, I have come to find this process, in the words of the protagonist in the passage I’ve quoted above, comforting and safe rather than depressing.

Call it ageing …

Small …

… or perspective …

Smaller …

… or necessity.

Smaller still …

Whatever it is — this passage to smallness, this losing yourself within the bigness of the world — can feel downright joyful, you know?

I’m not the only blogger who likes to reflect on their birthdays. I loved this post from Nicole from Eat this Poem , who reads Elizabeth Bishop’s poem ‘The Bight’ each year on her birthday. I had not come across this poem before and am so grateful Nicole has drawn my attention to it. It’s a beautiful poem, definitely worth reading each year (if not more often)!

A certain light

Other people’s words about … vanity (etc.)

Matt’s mother had the bluest of eyes and still wore her hair long, adding henna to soften the appearance of white strands in the black. One of her friends trimmed it for her. ‘Now that you’re forty, maybe you should think of cutting it short.’

His mother looked stricken. ‘I will one day. But not yet. Not yet.’

Her hair was her only vanity. She wore no make-up, and dressed always in shorts or jeans and men’s shirts she bought at op-shops. Even at work she got away with a tidy variation of her uniform, as she called it.

She said that lipstick rotted your brain.

from ‘Mahalia
by Joanne Horniman

Like Matt’s mother in the passage above, I don’t wear any kind of make-up, a habit that stems partly from choice and principle, and partly — honestly? — from laziness and ineptitude. (Which came first — not knowing how to wear make-up, or not wanting to be bothered with it? I can’t say for sure.) I don’t colour or style my hair, either, though I did recently re-introduce myself to a hairdryer after decades of simply washing my hair and letting it dry naturally (or just tying it up, still wet, in a ponytail or a straggly bun in an effort to forget about it).

‘I think you are a rebel, Rebecca,’ an Italian hairdresser said to me wryly, years ago, when I insisted he just wash my hair and trim it and — shock, horror — just leave it at that.

And I thought — I truly thought, with the arrogance of youth — that he meant it as a compliment, though now I’m not so sure.

You used to tell yourself that your hair, with its grey, sometimes made you look blond in certain light or from a distance, but now it really looks as grey as a sad cloudy day, as bleak as crows calling in a fallow field on a sad cloudy day, as miserable as cold rain beginning to fall on that sad cloudy day in that fallow field with the crows wheeling overhead, calling their faraway call that reaches into your heart and splays it open.

from ‘This is the Water
by Yannick Murphy

There is a joy in Horniman’s mother, a joy in the way she views her own appearance, that is entirely absent in the middle-aged narrator in Murphy’s novel: that woman with the fallow, splayed-open heart. Still, depending on my mood, I can feel affinity with either of them at any particular given time. And I wonder, how can that be, when the two women seem so far apart?

The truth is, like Horniman and Murphy, I’m not really talking about vanity here anymore. There’s a fine line between being proud of yourself just the way you are, ‘naturally’, and being filled with futile despair about the havoc that the ageing process and life in general have begun to wreak on you, inside and out. I find myself treading back and forth over that line all the time. Is that a part of ageing? Or of being a woman? Or of something else entirely? I don’t know.

What I do know is this: sometimes the sky is sad and bleak and cloudy, as Murphy describes it, and sometimes it is clear, but it is always wide and high and open. And what keeps it that way is the light that shines behind and through …