Lately I’ve been saying that walking around in a 40-year old body is like driving a car that’s turned over 100,000 miles.
The upkeep is a bitch.
I’ve never been the kind of woman who bothered with much in the self-decorative realm. I want my clothes to be comfy and my hair to be wash-and-wear; sometimes I wash my face, and I put hand cream on when my knuckles start to bleed. Lesbianism has been a great haven for me, as has the progressive movement in general, and New England is home to great numbers of plain women. I don’t stand out as especially unkempt in any of the places I frequent.
And yet in the last year I’ve begun to despair of the growing list of daily maintenance tasks I must perform on this body. Worse, I’ve begun to wonder if I ought not to be doing even more. There’s the special nightly mouth-guard to keep me from grinding my teeth to nubs and the special toothpaste to repair the damage already done. There are the eye-drops to replace the tears I don’t produce and the other eye-drops to soothe the irritation that comes from not making enough tears. The knuckle-bleeding has gotten serious enough that I keep hand lotion by every sink and in my handbag.
I wonder where the spring in my step went and then I remember squandering it on the dojo floor and in thin shoes on the sidewalks of New York. I used to stretch to increase my flexibility; now I stretch to survive my workouts and keep my feet from feeling like blocks of wood on the floor. There’s the stretch to keep my spine supple and the other one to put my shoulder back where it belongs; the one that corrects keyboard crouch and the other one that attempts to release my buns of steel. (I tell my clients all the time: do you really want buns of steel? Because I sit on a hard, unyielding ass all day and I have to tell you, it kind of sucks.)
On the playground or at the grocery store I look at other women my age wondering how they do it—how do they add the hair removal and make up and fashion on top of the existing minutiae? I swear, I do not have time for that crap. Then I look in the mirror and see the silky dark hairs of my mustache tugging down the corners of my lips and think, all I need is a black housedress to look like one of my Italian grandmothers. I’ve always been a hairy feminist and I’m OK with that but I don’t really need another shadow on my face, another way to look downcast and dreary. The dark hollow circles under my eyes would tell the story on their own if my grey and grainy complexion didn’t kick in its two cents.
So I find myself reaching for the tweezers or the lotion or, god help me, some makeup, in an attempt to make every day look like a day a decade or two ago—one of those magical days when I could do next to nothing to care for my body and show no sign of the disrespect.
I know this is not the compassionate way, the path I advocate of love and respect for the perfect, fallible human body. But it is the lazy response to the truth that my body is aging. It distracts me from the bigger question of what I am doing with myself, now that I am in the transition between “stay at home mom” and “the rest of my life.” Somehow I understand, in a way I didn’t use to, that my time here is finite. And it grips me with sudden panic—What am I doing with my life? I mean—what am I doing with this precious, exact moment?
The answer is rarely what I hope my life is about: walking the spiritual path or soul-nurturing or working the plan, but nearly always cleaning something disgusting or desperately trying to sleep if I could just stop being so neurotic. These days I don’t have a baby anymore so sometimes the answer is standing around stupidly with all the other moms waiting to pick her up from ballet/karate/church choir.
Because whatever the work of our lives is, an alarming number of our precious moments are spent in the grocery store check-out line, shaking our heads over the discolored grout in our bathroom tile or flossing our teeth. An alarming amount of our life is spent in maintenance—of our bodies, our homes, our property and our jobs.
I drive myself to distraction with all of those tasks as well—keeping up the ancient rattle-trap house, saving the pennies, trying not to forget my oil changes. It sometimes seems that this is what my life will boil down to: another load of dishes, washed by hand. Another sack of outgrown toys sorted and removed. Another week of groceries planned, purchased, cooked and cleaned up.
And yet: the one person I know without question cleaned her gutters, fully funded her IRA and catalogued her photographs died suddenly at the age of 52 this year. She did those things, but her life wasn’t about those things. She wasn’t postponing or missing her life with faithful maintenance; she was stewarding it.
I am chastened and humbled by this example. I am trying to learn this lesson. As I am trying to commit to what Cheryl Richardson calls extreme self-care. I am not an uncritical fan of Richardson’s but I’ve resonated to this concept since I first heard it. We can put the things we care about—ourselves, our lives—at the very top of the to-do list. Why wait for burnout or illness to force you into emergency self care when extreme self care can be your way of life?
Stretch for the love of movement. Fold the body’s necessities into a routine of relaxation and pleasure. Care for the corporeal self. Know that maintaining the business of life is walking the path. The body’s wisdom—its hairy, graying, stiff-jointed wisdom—is to bring us into the present moment.
What am I doing with this exact, precious moment?
I’m living it.