Call it PMS, call it whining, call it what you will, but on a long drive to a far-off field to cheer for my daughters at a lacrosse game, I complained to my mother. I had recently written an essay about beauty that was getting some decent response. But I was feeling like a stunt-double, an avatar in my own game, and so I confessed to my mom that it had been a while since I really felt beautiful myself. We were alone in the car. She raised one eyebrow from the adjacent passenger seat and said nothing. I took this as a sign that I should go on talking, mistaking her silence as compassion. I wanted her to agree with me, to understand me, to validate me and my struggles with aging.
Instead, her words stung and snapped me out of my selfish little pretty party. I wanted soft comfort, but I got what I needed instead: strong correction.
I feel strange squishy places on my hips that were never there before. My stomach has always been flat, now it's only flat for about five seconds in the early morning, then I have coffee and it pooges right back out like a toddler. There are creases by my eyes and ghostly brown spots on my skin. My sports bra creates a soft, fleshy pillow under my armpit...
Mom cut me off mid-stream.
In classic no-nonsense, Ethel fashion, she turned and said to me (in mommy voice, no less -- it has been awhile): "If you have time to think about stuff like this, you clearly have too much time on your hands."
I sat, stunned at the reprimand. She went on, "I was so busy living and having fun, working, traveling and raising you guys that I think there was maybe a moment in my 60's when I looked down and was surprised that things had changed, but by then I honestly didn't care."
We rode in silence for a bit, and I let that soak in, the power of her words infusing and soothing me like the ribbons of tea in hot water. I was reminded of my own children, when they were in a snit and ultimately the only calming force was my own limit, be it a tight embrace to a raging, flinging toddler, or a firm "no" to a nagging adolescent. Sometimes when a line is drawn, there is relief in the boundary.
Long after that windy lacrosse game, I have considered her words. I have replayed them in my mind, translated them to my teenage daughters and said them with equal snap to whining, pining friends. I warn them that I am passing on an Ethel-ism, and then I say it like it is. The words create a kind line, and we stop in our tracks. Enough. That's enough. You are enough. We are enough.
It's a beautiful thought actually, that we don't have enough time to grieve the marks of time on our physical selves. As though we don't know that, duh. We do know. But we need to be reminded. And we need to remind each other. We have to live that out for our daughters and granddaughters. We have bigger things to consider, more valuable ways to spend our time, more fun to be having. We have so much left to learn, such talent and treasure to share and limitless love to pour out.
Accepting our aging is an act of love towards ourselves; an act of grace, generosity and freedom to the people we care about; and a welcome offering of humility to the world. C.S. Lewis says, "True humility is not thinking less of yourself, it is thinking of yourself less." And that is just what Ethel was trying to say. If there is pride tied up in pretty, then beauty means undoing that knot and being gloriously free. When we turn our gaze away from self, we can more clearly see the people and the gifts to be grateful for, and the needs that we can fill.
And that is the party I don't want to miss.