Our culture confuses beauty and glamor. They are different. Glamor sells, whereas beauty inspires. Britney Spears may sell but Vanessa Redgrave inspires. Glamor is flawless whereas beauty can be centered in the very flaws of a thing, of a person, of a situation, of a life. Glamor craves what might be while beauty gently nods at the wabi-sabi of what simply is. Impermanent. Imperfect. Incomplete. And yet still lovely.
Today, someone at a shop cash register dutifully asked me if I was over 55. I mean, it was their job to ask – part of their script. One gets a discount. She said it on autopilot while reaching to remove the tag. And in all fairness, I get it. I look old and tired; so the question could not have been more appropriate. I no longer even get the age question when buying scotch. Life has made me prematurely grey, prematurely wrinkled, prematurely-varicose-veined and prematurely immature. Until yesterday, I was not over 55. And today, the day after my birthday, I am over 55.
Being over 55 in our culture is a thing. With it comes privileges (mostly in the form of discounts, which are pleasant) and glamorous young people suddenly calling me “sir.” And then today I received a letter from AARP. Hmm.
It all sent me to the mirror. The bathroom mirror with all the bright lights… not the nice living-room mirror bathed as it is in the golden light of small lamps which provide just enough light to move, but not enough light ever to see the dust on table-tops and the Kai-the-dog hair in corners. At least I hope it’s Kai’s hair.
In the hospital-operating-room-glare of my bathroom light, I took a long look at myself.
Well, I am certainly not my glamorous young, energetic self. Luckily, my parents had me painted at 18 so at least there is an archival record of my having been, at one time, a bright, smooth, moist young tulip of a man. But these days, as I age, the blemishes offer a different message – a treasure map of sorts.
Last week at a farmer’s market I bought these heirloom tomatoes. A thick slice of a good tomato on a nutty bread with mayonnaise and lots of salt and cracked pepper is one of my favorite delights. Much like me these days, the last few heirloom tomatoes have a different kind of beauty to offer. Not external glamor like the pristine, uniform, pale, tasteless tomatoes at the grocery store; but rather, a loveliness which can only happen from a few knocks and scars – some wear and tear on the vine of life. Some odd bulges, dark spots, strange color-changes, and some deep wrinkles.
My favorite poet, John O’Donohue once said that “Beauty isn’t at all about just niceness, loveliness. Beauty is about more rounded, substantial becoming.”
Not for a moment will I romanticize aging. It has its losses. And they compound. However, if we are willing to see it, there comes with age and its wounds, a certain dignity. There comes a quiet ability to lower eyelids to half-mast and consider things in the context of a longer, larger set of life-data. We may lose impetuousness, but we take on a patina of patience which the planet needs.
My home, my schedule, my friends, my body, my possessions all hold less glamor but more rustic beauty. Influential friends have given way to kind ones. Impressive meetings have given way to gentle ones. Glamorous dinners have given way to beautiful ones. Frantic days have given way to centered ones. Impressive conversations have given way to honest ones. Making imposing goblets in my pottery studio has given way to making a good, solid cup. And glamor’s achieving is slowly giving way to beauty’s becoming.