“And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit....” 2 Corinthians 3:18
Easter holiday weekend. We had our first family road trip of the year, down to the USA to visit my wife’s sister. Her husband bought a historic house to fix up, and we went down to see it. My brother-in-law had spent a good few days before we arrived, trying to dig out the undergrowth. Big beefy weeds that didn’t seem to have any beginning or ending, and they just sprawled out underground horizontally in all directions. Nature was trying to take back her own. They have a name for this in science, entropy. It means the natural tendency toward breakdown and decay. Looking at my brother-in-law’s weed patch, you can almost read nature’s intent to gang up on things, like old porch railing which was already leaning dangerously. When you see something like plants establishing such a stronghold, or a sprig poking through a cement sidewalk, you know that nature has a tenacious will of its own.
The outdoors isn’t the only place where this tendency happens. Now that I’m pushing for sixty, my kids delight in sitting down and finding those big curly eyebrows, the ones that are about an inch long. And then there are other things, the glasses, the fact that I have to wear a hat on sunny days now or I get a sunburn through my scalp. Those weird skin tags, and brown spots on my arms that my doctor tells me are normal signs of aging. To tell you the truth, I’m falling apart. My wife tells me, “You’re a fraud.” Who was to know that this old guy was hiding under that string bean from the GQ magazine that she married.
The hair, that’s been going on for a long time, since my early thirties - a fact that alarmed my wife a lot. She thought I should do something about it. “Nope”, I said, “I’m not reaching for the dye bottle come hell or high water. Snow on the roof, fire in the furnace.” My wife says, “You could hide those signs of aging, hold back the clock a bit kind of like those starlets in Hollywood do, with all that plastic surgery and such.”
To me, at a certain point, anti-aging efforts can start to look a bit forced. Last time my wife dyed her hair, I said, “Wow, did you know that your hair is blue? That is just positively unnatural. Maybe you should just let it go. Maybe it’s just a different kind of beautiful.”
I remember some time in the distant past having a very romantic idea that old people just naturally age gracefully, they become all sweet and smiley and full of memories. By the time I hit fifty I think it hit me that you could go either way, with all the pressures of life, it might be easier to go the route of a cranky old bastard.
We had a car ding-up that laid it all out for me what the other side of aging gracefully might look like. Our former, and somewhat humble family car, a Ford Taurus wagon, got its bumper crumpled in by somebody who took off from the parking lot, anonymously. A witness took his plate number. It was a gold Cadillac, which had a license plate that read STILLGOTIT. When the police tracked the guy down, it turns out it was an 85-year-old man and I felt really sorry, because I realized that at that age, still driving was a big deal. So the police gave me the guy’s phone number and said, “If you can deal with him privately, it will go better than involving the insurance company.”
Turns out Mr. Tavert, the 85-year-old was a piece of work. First of all he denied that he was at the scene, then started to breathe fire about how we were trying to screw him over. Finally he said, “Well, what do you expect? I have a nice Cadillac and you’re driving an old Ford Taurus, what’s a few bumps and dents going to do to that anyway?” Mr. Tavert it turns out, was a millionaire who owned a number of apartment buildings. He was rich in the pocketbook but seemingly poor in spirit.
Mr. Tavert had not aged gracefully. His problem was his plate, STILL GOT IT. It was apparent that Mr. Tavert was not accustomed to accepting blame, writing a cheque or anything else you might associate with grace and decorum. Age had not taken him there. He was trying to hang on with both hands and it was making him nasty.
But there might be some hope for old stuff yet. On our family road trip, since we passed through Pennsylvania, I stopped at a few roadside flea markets, and there locally undervalued and overlooked, I picked up a very fine Henry Disston and Sons back saw for ten bucks. Henry Disston set the bar on saw making in America. This saw is made from the finest R60 Pennsylvania steel, and should work like a dream once I clean it up a bit. I’m always a bit sad to clean up one of these old tools that they call a “user”. There’s something going on that harks back to the different kind of beautiful I was advising my wife about. Patina - that’s the odd glow of age, where an ethereal colour shines through all the dings and dirt. You can try to fake it but it’s pretty hard to do except by the natural way, time, a lot of abrasion, and a few accidents. Sometimes there is a thick layer of shiny lacquer that is hard to see through and once you get some stripper on that wood and all the crud comes off there is just a beautiful shine underneath. The odd thing is that the most humble woods, like pine, can look really beautiful this way. You can get woods that are harder and more protected, but the more of a beating pine takes, the better it seems to look. It’s that abrasive force of nature, entropy in process.
I have a friend who refers to his wife with a wink, as his 80 grit sandpaper. He might just have discovered that age-old epiphany sometimes explained as “my wife is good, but she is not easy”. I wonder sometimes if my friend just didn’t get the aging gracefully memo, that maybe those opposites are meant to bump up against each other enough to wear off all the sharp edges. If I don’t try to hide under a glossy coat of varnish, and if I stay soft like that piece of pine, then maybe I will end up that different kind of beautiful. My glow will show through. After fifty, there might be some kind of trade-off taking place, that while my body is going downhill, my spirit is going up the other way, and this may be the point where they meet on the pathway and give each other a high five. If I do it right, I won’t hold on too hard to what I can’t keep, like Mr. Tavert with his STILLGOTIT license plate. Aging gracefully might just mean embracing entropy. I might just end up like that saw, going to hell in a handcart because of age, but well used, and with a great patina.
By this stage of the game it’s good to take stock. When I look in my rear view mirror, I can handle a few weeds because of the beautiful crop in my own garden. They are fighting in the back as usual about what to watch on the DVD player. The eldest is more beautiful than she knows, two kids stuffed into the same skin. The second one is quiet deep and serious like a river you can fall into, and she plays the guitar beautifully. The third one is just a bit of joy and sunshine, she dances like an angel and despite that she is almost as tall as I am, I still call her my baby.
And my own 80 grit sandpaper is sitting here holding my hand, if we work it just right, we can polish each other up to a high shine so that by the time we get to the end of this journey, we can step unapologetically into that great ocean of forgetfulness, where all our our dents and dings will come to an end, and she will look at me and say, “You fooled me all along. You’re a fraud. I thought that you were just a beat up train wreck, but now I can see that underneath that used up shell, somebody else is shining through.”