People usually assume that being the youngest amongst my siblings I revelled in the indulgence normally afforded children in such positions. Truth is I often felt compromised by my position in the pecking order.
My brothers were, for most of my childhood, taller and stronger than I was. With five and three years respectively on me, they could usually be relied upon to be more intelligent and sharp-witted. I remember devising a logic, as a five or six year old perhaps, that no known world would ever corroborate. I must have had a moment of being overwhelmed by the sheer bad luck of it all. The thought that I was doomed to forever be the youngest, too heavy to bear. So I reasoned that surely everyone gets a chance to be the oldest and I vowed to have a field day when my turn came.
Needless to say this never came to pass. I’m thirty-five years old and my two brothers have remained, respectively, five and three years older than me. But maybe it’s this experience of age, as something to be coveted, this relationship to getting older as something to be cherished, that explains my current disappointment.
It started when I turned thirty or thirty-one. I remember someone, a man who I can’t recall, on learning my age mentioned that I didn’t look it. He may even have added something like “don’t worry.” I’m not sure though. I remember feeling confused for a few seconds and then annoyed. But nothing else registered and I carried on growing older each year.
Recently when I turned thirty-five, apart from the wonderful and kind wishes from my friends and family, I was treated to jokes about granny underwear, practicing for old age and so on. I shouldn’t call them jokes since such comments lacked surely what all jokes require – humour. They were dull…and incorrect. And troubling. Again the problem with all this was wavy and distant. But as the days passed I felt myself getting angry. When did not looking your age establish itself as a compliment?
If someone told me I didn’t look black or I didn’t look like a woman I’d consider them ignorant for taking something as unquantifiable (and at times absurd) as the notion of being “black” and putting it into a square box. And they’ve done the same with being a woman. And society at large does the same with age. Here then was the anger: fuck you, I want to look my age. I’m proud of it. I don’t want to hide it, pretend or chop years off to feel better about myself. The same way I don’t want to change my skin colour or adapt my femininity to suit someone else’s ideal notion.
By all means take care of your body, indulge in facials and what have you but it’s this same societal agreement that sends most women (largely older) running to people with knives and injections. I see these women in the mall sometimes walking alongside a man with a comfortable pot belly, blackened toenails, hair protruding out of his nose, his head of grey hairs shining in the stark light of the shopping centre; seemingly happy to be himself. Whatever challenges he faces they don’t seem to include the notion that he ought to look a certain way to feel good.
I’m drained by the immediate already-there notions of what it means to be thirty-five years old. And of course what it means to be thirty-five, female, single and childless: God help you, I’ll pray for you.
Amidst all this, I noticed something about myself. Every year I’ve automatically related to my age from a mathematical context – seems a perfectly logical way to engage with a number. 27, divisible by 3 and 9. 30, multiple of ten. 33, a kind of symmetry and yet not ‘cause if you fold it down the vertical middle, the numbers don’t mirror each other. 35 (my favourite yet), divisible by 7. The coolness of this was unavoidable. Do you realise 7 is a prime number?
This is currently the extent of my relationship to my age. The hardest part, though, is what other people want to convince me about. Some want to console me (when no consolation is needed) and others want to assure me (when no assurance was requested). It seems the older I get the more people feel they ought to comfort me. So now, I have one dread about turning 36 (3 goes in 6 twice, by the way) – having to deal with the reactions and assumptions of others. I don’t dread this because I’m worried, I dread it because I’m appalled. Google it and quotes on aging are philosophically advising on how to avoid it, how to embrace it, how to ignore it. Age is either denigrated or venerated. People either think they’ve transcended age or else they epitomise a true form of aging, not like others who’ve merely (pitifully) grown old.
What if being and looking old was not a diss; synonymous with being deadened, or washed out. What if we could just go on living and being, unhindered by limiting beliefs of what it is to grow up, to move on from year to year, to have our body change accordingly and to allow it. I can grow old and have lines on my face in those places that I’ve used often enough to leave a mark. I can have grace for graceful days and regret and fear for mournful and terrifying days. I can have sex for passionate days and mindlessness for boring days and the flash of brilliant ideas for creative days. In other words, the pulse of life is not exempt from me, not at 18 (9 twice and 1+8=9), not at 40 (20 20 vision) and not at 88 (infinity-infinity). I might get sick (a phenomenon not limited to advanced ages but common all the same), the people I love might start to die (a threat I am open to at any age), it might be a struggle to do the things I enjoy the most although that’s a familiar struggle – being a teen but unable to confess I want to be a library monitor not a water polo captain, I want table tennis not rugby and so on.
“One day,” the 6-year-old me thought, “I’d be the biggest.” My myth was that I’d be the oldest, and my age would finally lend me the specialness, it seemed to me, that youth lacked. But I think I’ve changed. The same way youth is not, for me, synonymous with anything admirable or covetous, growing older is no longer either. The most cliché and banal of sayings now rings true for me – age is a number, empty of inherent meaning, full only with the meaning we decide to fill it with. 35; divisible by 7 – a prime number, a number divisible only by itself and 1. 35.