Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Aging & Character: Coming Into Being

It’s always been curious to me how it is we can yearn for things we’ve never had any direct experience with: a certain kind of intimacy; an adventure defined by the challenge it offers; the call of the land or architecture in another country. We might rationalize that it’s the idea of the thing; something we read or saw depicted. But I’m not talking about anything that superficial. I’m talking about the stuff you can’t shake; an ache or a pining that persists over many years that runs so deep it almost becomes an obsession. You can’t justify it. You wonder if it’s in your genetic memory, part of your ancestral code, or the experience of a past life is still with you. You have more questions than answers.

A transgendered person – for example, a physiological male who simply must find a way to live life as a woman – would know exactly what I’m talking about. So would the person who has long been besotted with living in another century; another time and place. Longings of this ilk can be a wretched thing indeed. Some folks, like educator Stephen Jenkinson, believe that the absence of the thing you long for is your teacher, and a life-changing one at that.

Well I have many such “teachers”, one of them being my longing to be part of a culture wherein ceremony – and the ritualizing of transition – is a way of life. Where villagers gather to welcome and name a newborn in liturgy. Where adolescents are considered to be “coming into the world”, and their changing status is honored with celebration, and a symbolic ceremonial gesture. Where it is common to choose carefully the land on which you want to live, and the surrounding community joins you in blessing your new home.

Where life passages are considered to be sacred, not routine, and where ritual enables due diligence in contemplating responsibility as it was meant to be – to our community, our land, and ourselves.

Clearly, this worldview would be invaluable in changing our experience of midlife here in North America: a time or an age that, in other countries through history, has been considered a rite of passage; an entering into, as Suzanne Braun Levine puts it, our “second adulthood”.

Interestingly enough, astrologers will tell you that Saturn – the planet of responsibility, and coming into being – will return to the same spot it was when we were born every 27 years or so (a transit known as the “Saturn return”). Between the ages of 27 and 29, our lives can experience a real upheaval of values and priorities, often forcing us to face this thing called cause and effect, and to take responsibility for our lives. And so it happens again in our early to mid-50s, but on an entirely different level altogether.

So what is this “second adulthood”, and how have we gotten to the point where the opportunities it brings are all too often shrouded in our fear of aging? Inevitably, then, we endure this midlife passage as more of a “crisis”, and it is portrayed in media and film as our last desperate grasp on youth before the final resignation to the “reality” of getting old. James Hillman once said that the main pathology of later years is our idea of later years. Instead of viewing aging as a “coming into being”, we resort to drastic measures in order to defy nature, and to prove to ourselves that we’ve “still got it”.

Which is tragic. Because, as Hillman points out, this crisis “compounds two fears: I am getting on in years, yet am I getting on with what I really am? Aging and character together. This popular syndrome is less about the middle of the life span than about the central crisis of one’s nature, less about being too old than about being still too young. Not loss of capacity; loss of illusion.”

What does all of this mean? What is the relationship between aging and character? I am getting on in years, yet am I getting on with what I really am? Instead of being victimized by aging, what would it be like to own it; to mark our entry into midlife as a sacred life passage?

What might it be like to live a life unencumbered by the obsession with youth?

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Beauty & the Fickle Beast of Perception

We’ve all had days where we feel disheveled, beastly or worn, either from stress or lack of sleep. And maybe we get a concerned look from a colleague, or we simply blend into the sea of self absorbed faces at rush hour. But there are other days when we might be surprised by someone in a way we least expect. Here we are, feeling like crap, and they tell us...something to the contrary. We look good, they say. Or in our element. Or a complete stranger smiles at us. Or whatever. And we wonder who or what it is they are seeing.

Well I was standing at the streetcar stop the other day feeling pretty bland when this young, 20-something African man strolls by. And he looks at me like....well, like he found me mighty darned attractive. Like I imagine guys his age look at girls their own age. Like I was beautiful. He locked eyes with me until I looked away, my shyness getting the better of me.

I started thinking about what a lot of African Canadian men have told me – men from countries in east, south and west Africa alike, especially south. They say they don’t see age. They don’t see age. It’s irrelevant to them. Either a woman is beautiful to them or not. I’ve had often had them approach me on dating sites, and when I point out the age difference between us on the phone, their disinterest is palpable.

In a culture where who we are and what we are deemed capable of is largely shaped by our perceived age, this trait is no less than remarkable. The age we consider someone to be is foremost on our minds. It influences our professional choices, who we make conversation with at parties or who we go to bed with. Of course, there are plenty of other factors, as well. But I would argue that age is front and centre for a lot of folks. Just try for a moment to imagine what life would be like if you saw the soul of a person first: their beauty or intelligence or “vibe”, or whatever you want to call it. And then maybe later you noticed they were in a generation completely different than your own, but it didn’t matter, because you made this connection.

Can you imagine what living like that would be like?

Now I know there are many times when factoring a person’s age into our decisions is entirely appropriate. I’m not suggesting age is irrelevant – that’s not the point of this post. I am just fascinated by how culture shapes the perception of age. More specifically, I am fascinated by how culture shapes the perception of what is beautiful.

Consider for a moment one aspect of genital reconstruction, which I wrote about in my recent post, Designer Vaginas. Girls as young as 15 are so influenced by distorted and narrow sexual ideals in western culture that they are going into surgeon’s offices to have their labia amputated. Sites like Scarleteen, a sexual education resource for teenagers, typically feature ongoing inquiries from girls worried about their labia being too large.

In contrast, listen to this. I interviewed an educator (and former consultant to the World Health Organization) last week about the history of genital surgery across cultures who told me that in some countries, labia are stretched because large labia are considered to be more beautiful.

Now think about that for a moment. Think about the lengths we go to to conform to someone else’s ideas about what is beautiful, and how fickle that can be. Trends change. People change. Many of us live in an increasingly multi-cultural society, so we never really know for sure how a person’s perception of beauty has been shaped, or how aware they are as a human being. I met a Caucasian man in his early 40s once who admitted to me he found the signs of aging (wrinkles, grey hair) to be sexually arousing.

So, as hip hop mogul Russell Simmons says in his book, just Do You. Authenticity sells. And I can dig it. Find a way to get off on who you are. Life is short.

When SeptemberMay launches next year, we will be celebrating the older woman for all that she is: the beauty, eroticism and intelligence she embodies that a younger woman can only dream of. Not the 40-something “cougar”, but the authentic older woman, be she in her 40s, 50s, 60s or 70s. I am convinced there are a solid pool of men out there who can really rock with that idea.

And we’ll be opening our doors to them.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

The Hallmark of Age

Age, and how we talk about it, is a funny thing. When you’re young, of course, you’re always topping it up – 18 years and 7 months is automatically translated into 19 when someone asks how old you are. Age is referred to in the context of status or personal rights. You want to be older to gain certain privileges, or you are older so you brag about it. As you get on, however, the ambivalence starts setting in. You are less and less certain about when and how to talk about it. You notice the disparity between how old you feel and how old you actually are, which tends to fluctuate.

And then, one morning, you wake up, look at yourself and say, “Shit, I’m getting old.”

What always surprises me is at what age people reach that point – and how much that varies. I am interested in how people see themselves in relation to how old they are. I’ve talked to people in their 40s who still consider themselves relatively young, and listened to a 29 year old lament about their 30th birthday. In my early to mid-40s, the only time I thought about how old I was or how old I felt was when I was comparing myself to other people. As a woman without children, it would always be a bit of a jolt for me to hear someone younger than I was talking about her kids. I didn’t see myself as having lived that long. And yet, the difference in my quality of life was a world apart from that in my 20s. Youth is overrated.

So when someone dear to me tells me that at 54, he’s “getting old”, and that finding people to do business with is increasingly challenging, I am shocked. 54 is young, I thought. But then I sort of got it. It’s all relative. He is in a line of business that is youth-dominated. Being discriminated against is the norm. I wonder how deeply that affects him. I wonder if, in his private moments, he is stuck in a time capsule. Or does he reconcile with the man he is becoming, slowly growing into a new way of being?

We so often talk about embracing a process or embracing who we are. What about embracing our age? What would it feel like to own it, work it, take pride in it? To find confidence in the experiences that have made us more rounded? We live in a time where we can’t look to young people to show their respect. They’ve never been taught. To the contrary, they’ve been conditioned against getting older and all that it represents. We all have.

It’s up to us to change that. They’ll either get it or they won’t, but if they don’t it’s their loss. Hopefully they’ll come around. The hallmark of age is something to regard, and our quality of life depends on it.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Older Women as Sexual Mentors

I have often imagined what it would be like to be a teenage boy with a sexual appetite that is out of control, trying to get enough verve to ask the girl out at school while masturbating under the bed covers at every opportunity. It seems to me that hormonally-challenged young men have no business running around with girls their own age – at least, not until they’ve found a way to relieve some of the pressure, and learned a little bit about how to harness their energies. Because as we all know, it is common for girls to feel coerced into sex before they are ready – and many of us caved out of the need to be wanted. It’s still going on today. Girls as young as 11 or 12 are giving out blow jobs to boys in order to be cool, and to gain acceptance from their peers.

But I digress. What I mean to be driving at is that many teenage boys could benefit from a channel through which to express their needs, and some practical advice on how to please a lady. And who better to offer that than an older woman?

Movie star Michael Douglas knows about this all too well. Recently, on being interviewed by Elle magazine, he confessed to having been bedded by two friends of his mother’s when he was 16. And since then, pop sensation Justin Bieber (also 16) has revealed a similar wisdom, having come out with his own interest in older women. These are just two examples. That young men (especially major stars) talk so much more easily about this kind of attraction demonstrates one thing for certain – times are changing. It’s not just a Mrs. Robinson phenomena anymore.

There is something that just makes sense about this picture. A woman in her sexual prime has just as much to gain from initiating a young man as he does, and it’s fun for both of them. If boys had the benefit of this experience more often, they would be far more versed in matters of both the heart and sexuality – and that is something we can all gain from. It would be good for their self esteem, and good for the women they end up with.

Now this little liaison I am painting is, of course, distinctly different from that of an older woman – younger man relationship that endures, even if they both work for similar reasons. But I think it deserves to be taken just as seriously. In some Indigenous cultures, women were required to assume a temporary post as a teacher of sexual secrets to young men, as a form of initiation. If receiving this kind of direction were the norm in modern day society, the impact on a young man's growth and maturation would be something to observe indeed.

Just imagine the possibilities.