I am reading an upsetting story about a collision that left a local cyclist paralysed earlier this month:
Toronto businessman John Ruffolo has been paralyzed below the waist after being hit by a transport truck last Wednesday while cycling. Ruffolo, 54, is one of Canada’s most well-known investors in the technology start-up scene, having backed several successful emerging companies such as Hootsuite and Shopify Inc.
My first thought is, oh no, that’s an awful story. And my second is, “oh, it was an older guy riding a bike.”
That “older guy” is a year younger than I am.
In my mind, 54 is “an older guy.” It’s a category. But in my body, I am just me, somehow floating out and beyond categories.
“I look tired”
I get up for a 730 am outdoor spinning class. I look at myself in the mirror as I’m getting ready and think “I look TIRED.”
Correction, I think. I look OLD.
I remember that when I was about 42, I dated someone who was 11 years older than I was. I remember thinking at the time that he looked much older when he was tired. Oooooh, I remember thinking. That’s what aging is. Your face muscles get softer when you’re tired.
I host a socially distanced birthday dinner on my terrace for my friend Elena, who turned 40 at the beginning of September. My mother says “you have friends who are turning 40?” I realize that four of my closest friends turned 40 this year. One of them mentions that she forgets we are 15 years apart until I remind her. The partner of another once famously remarked that he had a lot more fun with me than he expected with someone “so much older.”
Yes, I’m still menstruating.
Ten years ago, I was talking to a fellow alum from my PhD program about why she’d shifted into teaching instead of consulting. “Female consultants in their 50s aren’t taken seriously anymore,” she said, seriously. “I thought teaching was a much better way to end my career.“
I think about her, frequently, in my work as a 50-something female consultant. What was that?
As I write this, I get the terrible, sad and frightening news of the death of Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who resisted decline until her last days. But sheer will and purpose are not enough to counter age and the inevitable winding down of the body. That seems more… poignant, right this moment.
My body, 2020
In 2020, I notice that I get super tired more easily. I look distinctly soft around the edges, more worn, in the mirror in the morning. Since my trip to Salt Spring in August, my multi-tasker seems to be sputtering — I can’t hold or juggle nearly as much at once as I have typically done. Bits of my body are behaving weirdly — nerve pain in my foot, a sensation of grinding in my hip on my bike, shoulder pain from sleeping oddly. Friends my age have what I always thought of as Old People illnesses. My sister comments that my razor-sharp memory is softer than it used to be.
Is it 2020 and all its strains, or is it some complex series of subtle changes in my body reminding me that regardless of some markers of fitness — how frequently I work out, how much I could lift back in February when we lifted heavy things, how good it feels to spin — that slowly, all of my cells are just less… juicy.
For a long time, I’ve been really clear that I don’t see aging as inherently about deficits — that I’m not likely to be the kind of person who says “I might have done [insert any adventurous thing] when I was younger, but I wouldn’t now.” I resisted what felt like “giving up,” the notion that I could just turn over my body — and life — to some passive process of letting go of options, letting go of strength, like floating on a warm lazy river. Resisting the idea that some doors would close, that I had to inherently become more cautious, less adventurous, less ambitious in my wanderings.
And yet. I do have less stamina. I can’t run as fast as I used to. I am softer around the middle, and my skin has less resilience. I don’t often feel fully rested. I don’t feel compelled to try to keep up with other people who ride faster. I don’t get mad that they go faster — but I just need to go my pace. My body is — subtly, slowly — starting to wind down. Being active can stave off some of the effects of aging but we are still going to age.
What even is age?
At this moment in western history, age — like gender — is a more fluid concept than ever before. When I was a kid, 55 was old, clearly defined as a space where the choices made earlier in life were supposed to be paying off in the ability to retire, to bask in the devotion of grandchildren, to step back from defining and shaping the world and to float into the old age that was just around the corner.
That… is not true now. But we aren’t sure how to define what it is. I’m not old, but I am old-er. The younger people in my life protest if I say I’m old — and I know they are saying I’m fit, I’m adventurous, I’m playful. But it’s not all mind over matter. When my accountant points out I need to be planning a retirement within 5-10 years, he is correct. My body regularly clears its throat and reminds me that I’m not 50, let alone 30 or 40. But how do I bring together this sense that I’m just … me, active and energetic and fit and restless and adventurous, and I’m still on an inevitable, irresistible trajectory toward winding down?
I was working with one of my coaching clients the other day who is roughly my age. We talked about how his sense of “ambition” has evened out, how he is more mellow, more interested in teaching others than in driving for new research. I hear the same thing from that ex I had from my early 40s, who was always a super driven scientist, who scorned teaching. Now he’s talking about how much joy he gets from “teaching the kids how to do it.”
In both of these, I recognize what the human development theorist Erik Erikson talked about as the 7th phase of life, which he pegged at 40 – 65. In this phase, he believed, people can stagnate, or they can choose a path of generativity. Generativity in his definition means “giving back” — creativity, engaging with the next generation, teaching, sharing wisdom, trying to create a better space for who comes next. Like RBG.
I like this. I like thinking of myself as “generative” rather than “aging.” I like that when my body tells me to slow down, it can be a reminder to make choices about which work I choose to do, who I choose to engage with. Less energetic time can be a frustration — or it can be a container in which to be more choiceful. To let go of work, relationships, activities that fill extra space. Streamlining.
RBG certainly spent every year of her life being choiceful. Incredible focus, sustaining her body, fiercely improving the world. She was the epitome of generative. An icon to hold in front of me as I notice the reminders in my own body that there will, inevitably, be an end. As I make peace with the truth of this fit, strong, tired, aging, miraculous body of mine.
Cate Creede lives in Toronto, where tonight she is mourning the loss of Justice Ginsberg.