I took a teaching job at a new elementary school this year, and every day a student asks me how old I am. This week a second grader said, “You’re just like Ms. Hansen but older!” The best was when I was working breakfast duty in the cafeteria and a 3rd grader earnestly said, “You look like the Bus Driver’s mom.” It might have had something to do with the Ghostbuster costume I was wearing for Halloween, maybe the reflective strips on my arms or the fake grease on my face, but she repeated her observation weeks later… “You really do look like the Bus Driver’s mom.” I’ve wanted to take a photo of the bus driver, who looks at least 50 to me, so me and my friends could laugh about it, but that would mean mocking the kind bus driver. I’ve wondered whether my students have actually seen the bus driver’s mom, or if they just assessed the bus driver’s age and added 20 years. Is there any way that this can be taken as a compliment? What is the Universe trying to tell me?
Old ladies have featured prominently in my heart and my aesthetic my whole life, from vacations with my grandma and her 4 sisters to having regular visits with the old ladies who lived in my neighborhood growing up. With the help of my friend Sarah I assumed the fashion moniker Granny Tomboy years ago. I like to think of myself as stylish and care-free like them. But this goes deeper than style. The kids probably see my puffy eyes, wrinkles, white hair, sagging neck. Half the time my own iPhone doesn't recognize me.
I am becoming an old woman, that’s where this bus is going. Duh. But it’s deep to be reminded of it daily, like an alarm I set on my phone. In her book Flash Count Diary, Darcy Steinke describes hot flashes like flashes of mortality, genetic reminders that we are going to die, full of dread but also urgency, to make our lives what we want them to be before it’s over, which could be soon. Maybe these daily age questions are happening because now is the time for me to prepare to be old, set a purposeful course to be healthy about it. Do it now, do it today, do it right now. I am thinking about this more clearly after reading Louann Brizendine’s Upgrade: How the Female Brain Gets Stronger in Midlife and Beyond. If I want to enjoy cognitive clarity and engagement in my old age, I have to keep inflammation at bay, in my body and my brain. And that work is happening in every moment, in the way that I respond to stress. Stress causes inflammation in our brains, and inflammation is linked to cognitive degeneration later in life. My body is prone to turn on the fire hose of cortisol right now anyway, because hormonal imbalance in menopause sets off all kinds of chemical alarm bells. Add to that the stress of teaching and the joys of parenting teenage daughters and I can spend my whole day on the “hamster wheel of worry” as Brizendine describes it. This cortisol bath in my brain is causing inflammation that is harmful to my health. This is probably obvious to a lot of people, but I hadn’t considered how much agency I had, which clearly the Universe realized and so then assigned cheeky little bastards to remind me daily. Basically, my work is to build new neural circuitry that subverts my negativity bias and penchant for melancholy, self doubt and anxiety. Personally, I’m trying to cultivate more joy and belonging in my life, mostly just by looking for it and recognizing it. And I’m riding my bike to work and trying to get 7 hours of sleep. It’s a new practice for me. I found myself ranting in my journal the other day: “You are ugly, fat, afraid and mean.” I caught it, and wrote, “You are beautiful, healthy and brave”, and I wrote it all over the place to myself.
I spent Thanksgiving with my mom, 83, a few weeks ago. I was struck by how clear her thinking and conversation is, how quick she is to laugh, how many friends she has and how busy her social life is. I was appreciating her as a healthy organism, aging well, checking the belonging, community, exercise, boxes. I am thinking about my health and my aging in a different, more scientific way right now. I feel more like an organism and less like a pain in my own ass. Maybe that is how the kids at school are looking at me, too, like a magnificent new organism in their midst. “How old ARE you?”