How A Kulula Flight Inspired Me to Rethink Aging

“Aging is inevitable. Getting old is optional.” – Some wokeness I read somewhere online once.

What is occupying your thoughts at the beginning of this year? (The raging global pandemic aside.) This is normally a time for resolution and goal setting, but in light of the how the last ten months has shown how much of our lives is out of our control, I have decided to put that peculiar tradition aside and indulge in some reflection instead. January is my birth month, so today I’m thinking about age.

I have only vaguely understood why aging terrifies people so much, especially given THEE alternative. The opportunity to see another year of life; to experience what previously unseen wonders the world has to offer; the thrill of meeting a new soul and the hope of exchanging philosophies and experiences that enrich you…these all come with time and aging is the tax that we pay in recompense.

That being said, most people have an opinion about HOW everyone around them should age. We live in a youth-obsessed culture with unrealistic expectations to remain stagnant in appearance and physical ability. It’s why beauty products come with promises to “rewind the clock” with “age defying technology”. It’s why so many women of my generation are horrified by the sight of their first gray hair. It’s why you people can’t leave your poor mother to advance in age in a way that makes her feel comfortable!

It would be hypocritical of me not to admit that a part of my excitement about getting older was due in large part to what kind of woman I saw myself as at 45, 55, 65, etc. I’d have a shock of silver fox hair, toned thighs and enough wrinkles on my face to give it character (but not worn) and I would never be at home, as I’d be out on the road or misbehaving in the streets. A portion of this teenage fantasy was created in repudiation of the lives and look of older women around me at the time. Yet another part was because I’d made a pact with my friends to “grow old disgracefully” in defiance of societal norms that dictated that we should become contented grandmothers whose only joys were to be found in hot church halls and steamy kitchens… Or worse: voluntarily immobile! However, the closer I’m getting to 45, the less interested I am in performing fauxgressive adolescence. My views on womanhood and personal interests have metamorphosized and ignoring them would be a great dishonor. I was eavesdropping on a conversation during a recent flight on Kulula when I realized this.

In my defense: You couldn’t help but overhear. The young couple, their baby and the other passenger with whom they shared a row could not be accused of being quiet. That’s how I discovered the stranger was an out of work pilot who loved Thailand more than any other place in the world, how the couple had never flown business class (and now never would as long as they had a baby-in-arms), and how all three were flying into George for summer fun in the Garden Route. (Ha! #Lockdown #SIKE)

“We are staying with his mother,” said the young mom. “We’re very lucky. She’s very energetic…not a sit and knit granny.”

The unemployed pilot grunted her approval, stating how inactive grandparents just made things that much more difficult.

Wait. WHAT?? What was this audacity?!

An image of a blue haired woman formed in my mind. She sat in a plushy armchair, shod in comfortable Dr. Scholl’s, a colorful basket of yarn punctuated with needles of all sizes next to her heel. She looked pleased as her nimble fingers linked lengths of yard, transforming them into blankets, scarves and bikini tops. She giggles mischievously as she holds up the woven DDD cups above her to search for imperfections. After giving her life to her work as a banker/store owner/state legislator and all the demands the job came with, the old woman is grateful to have the time to recline and create whatever her mind and fingers have the will to. No more hours on her feet in heels in the service of others. No more fake smiles to seal deals and please others. No more…

Suddenly, there is a knock on the door.

“Who is it?” she calls.

“It’s Johan!”

Her son! How wonderful. They’ve come into town for Christmas. The woman struggles to her feet, stiff from sitting for so many hours – five to be exact. Oh dear! Where had all time gone? Five hours to be exact. Oh well, there was still time to warm some beef stew. Stooped at the waist, she throws open the door and wraps her arms about her firstborn’s waist.

“Son! I’m so happy you could make it.”

Johan holds her back, concern clouding his countenance.

“Ma…what’s wrong with you? You’re moving so slowly.”

The old woman waves away his distress.    

“I’ve just been sitting and knitting,” she explains. “Time got away from me and…”

“Ugh! You’ve gotten OLD,” Johan spits in disgust. “You’ve become one of THOSE. You used to be so cool, Ma! Always dressed in designer suits and on the move. I always imagined that’s the type of gran you’d be when the time came.”

Johan throws a furtive glance at the baby cradled in his wife’s arms.

“I’m not old and I’m definitely not an invalid,” the old woman snaps as she sinks back into her armchair, knees and temples throbbing from the conflict she can feel building. She looks at her basket, hesitating only briefly before picking up her knitting needles. “I just learned a new skill and I’m excited about it. Unfortunately for YOU, it DOES require me to sit!”

“I told you we should’ve gone to my mum’s,” Johan’s wife mutters under her breath.

Having been in management, nothing muttered ever gets past the old woman’s radar.

“It’s too bad you can’t, seeing as how she’s gone to Thailand with her boyfriend – the one 3 years YOUR junior – and has expressed her disdain for newborn babies on multiple occasions!”  

How DARE Johan, I shouted. You ungrateful little snot!

Oh. Wait. It was all in my head.

If you’d queried me just 10 short years ago about what type of older woman I’d be, I would have said I’d be in Thailand shagging the tiger cub for sure. Now that’s a woman living on her own terms, defying the patriarchy! However now that I’m living in a different part of the world and have experienced a different type of freedom, I do see the value in what we think of as traditional aging. Johan’s mother is no less living on her own terms than his cougar mother-in-law. Either woman can find contentment – or regret – in her current choices or circumstances. And that’s a reality of life that never changes, no matter what stage you find yourself in.

This notebook is a Christmas gift from my daughter, because nothing gives her more pleasure than projecting her fears of aging onto me.

If I could go back in time, this is what I would tell my younger self. Don’t be afraid to be conventional. Don’t despise the unremarkable state of your life. Your existence doesn’t have to me tumultuous and unpredictable to be exciting or fulfilling, because being a true badass means celebrating who you are, no matter what shape that takes over time. Aging is inevitable, but getting old is optional.