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Judith McBride - Kerala Villager

Judith McBride: Kerala Villager

Every Wrinkle Tells a Story: Celebrate or Eradicate?

by Kirstin Jeffrey Johnson

I like getting older. The increasing aches, pains, memory failures—sure, I could do without those. But as for the actual adventure of aging, in and of itself? It's a good one. Skeptical? Ask anyone who might not have the chance.

I'll be frank: as a pre-teen few things made my eyes roll more than hearing one of my parents' peers claim that they were "turning twenty-nine again." It just seemed so … well, stupid. Everyone partaking in the verbal exchange knew that it was a lie, yet they nonetheless played into this bizarre adult connivance that there was something unfortunate about a woman being older than twenty-nine (the claimants were never male). So at the age of twelve I swore that I would openly celebrate every age I had a chance to be.

I'd been brainwashed into this perspective by the fantasy writings of George MacDonald (a major influence on C.S. Lewis, Oswald Chambers, G.K. Chesterton, Madeleine L'Engle, W.H. Auden … traces of his brainwashing appear in their works, too). MacDonald's stories have numerous wise elderly people in them, and particularly admirable old, wise women. One of the recurrent observations in these tales is that the agedness of these women has made them beautiful. Beauty and old age are repeatedly wrapped up together—along with the long-term effects of physical labour: cracked, chaffed, and calloused hands are signatures of rugged beauty.

The Bible corroborates MacDonald's subversion with declarations such as: "Gray hair is a crown of splendor; it is attained by a righteous life," and "Wisdom is with aged men, with long life is understanding." Nonetheless, Sunday morning service is too often prime time to observe how much more persuasive are the texts of Clairol and Olay. Even when we are moved to celebrate the unique beauty of a creviced, creased, character-filled face by framing it on a wall, displaying it in a coffee book, or sharing it in a Facebook meme, we still put effort, money, angst, into preventing—at much cost—ever looking like that ourselves. Oblivious to the irony.

Does it seem a tad hyperbolic to label this refusal to acquiesce to aging as "spiritual sickness"? As I watch my friends age around me, desperate to deny the manifest reality, I find it deceitful to label it as anything less.

Perhaps you think that, only in my late 40’s, I am still too young to understand just how hard getting older is; that in another ten, twenty years, I will better understand why aging is something to fight as long as possible. But living with a chronic disease for twenty years has not only prematurely aged my body visibly (including wrinkles, liver spots, and varicose veins!), it has taught me many of the daily pains and frustrations more typical of friends several decades older. The physical aches and fragilities, the social and sleep-impeding inconveniences, the memory and concentration challenges, and—worst of all—the relinquishment of independence… whether needing others to drive you everywhere, to help you dress, to open a bottle top, or to cut up your food: yes, I know that "getting old" can be very hard in many ways.

But I also know that alongside those challenges come some riches that exist only because of the challenges: the rough road to becoming a gracious recipient of help; the enforced graduation from a sympathetic to an empathetic ear; the necessary realization that, if it truly is more blessed to give than to receive, then each refusal to an offer of help is a denial of that blessing to someone else – and each acceptance a facilitation of benediction. I want to age like those elderly people in my life who – fragile, dependent, tired – choose to bless those around them again and again with their words, their love, their prayers, their stories, their grace. Even with their dependence.

I am grateful that George MacDonald infected my young imagination so deeply with such fairy-tale oddities as the beauty of agedness, the elegance of work-worn hands, and the wisdom wrought of life-long experience. I am even more grateful for the men and women throughout my life who have proved "the goodness of aging" to be a spiritual truth: modelling graceful, joyful aging, experiencing honestly who they are rather than toiling to be or look or act something other.

I hope I am gifted the privilege of aging into elderliness, and if I am, that I will explore its goodnesses and riches to the very full, becoming each year a little bit wiser, a little bit more understanding, a little bit more storied. But if I don't live long enough for that, I hope perhaps you Dear Reader might age well for those of us who won't get a chance. Don't capitulate to the contagion, and fashion a false identity; instead, be joyfully, delightfully, decidedly just as you are: wondrously aging, each and every day; spiritually content that "twenty-nine" only ever happened once; increasingly beautiful, because you are becoming increasingly old.

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Judith McBride: Kerala Villager, 2014.

Judith McBride is a Canadian amateur photographer who seeks to capture the essence of what she sees in landscape and candid ‘street portraiture’. The technique she uses in landscape is in-camera multiple exposures. The photo shown here is a candid shot, converted to black and white in photoshop. The background is removed to draw the viewer into a direct relationship with the subject. JudithMcBride.com

Kirstin Jeffrey Johnson is a George MacDonald scholar and a free-lance writer and lecturer on literature, theology, and the arts based in the Ottawa Valley, Canada. Her doctorate (Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts, University of St Andrews) considered the concept of mythopoesis as defined by Tolkien and Lewis and as attributed to MacDonald. She is an associate member of the Inklings Institute of Canada and on the editorial board of the Inklings journal SEVEN. She also contributes to Patheos Public Square and the blog EverydayTheology.life. www.kirstinjeffreyjohnson.com

A longer version of this meditation was first published at http://www.patheos.com/topics/faith-and-aging/every-wrinkle-tells-a-story-kirstin-jeffrey-johnson

ArtWay Visual Meditation September 17, 2017