Years ago, when I lived in Chicago and rode the train nearly everywhere, I’d always make sure to get a seat that allowed me to put my feet up and rest them on a bench perpendicular to me. If I couldn’t find that sweet spot, at the very least I’d hunker down and prop my knees up on the back of the seat ahead of me. I remember getting on the train with Elihu once, when he was still tiny and in his stroller, and very naturally doing the same thing as I always had. And this surprised me. Why? Because I’d always just known that one day I’d become a real grown up. And how would I know that day had come? When I no longer put my feet up on the seat in front of me, of course! Surely real grown ups don’t behave like that, right? Honestly, I just thought that one day I would ride the train in the normal way, feet planted on the floor. And in that rite-of-passage moment, it would finally become clear to me that I was a fully-fledged, responsible, clear-headed adult. But yet here I was, married, living in the suburbs and shuttling a baby around – and clearly, I still hadn’t made that leap to maturity. That moment surprised me. It had me pausing to reflect more deeply on what it meant to grow up. I’d ticked a bunch of the boxes for sure, but this ‘feet on the seat’ thing had me.
I went back to Chicago year before last. Easily put my feet up on the first available seat I could find. Made myself comfortable. I remembered my self-imposed ‘real grown up’ test of years past and checked back in with myself. Did this feel correct? Did it feel silly? Might I look silly to others doing it? Happily, I felt just fine with my feet up. Still didn’t feel it to look suspicious or titillating on any fronts. I’m going to Chicago in two weeks’ time… I’m a bit curious as to how it’ll feel now. I do look a little older, so maybe it’ll be different. But I’ll be with a ten year old boy – and I think it would look entirely natural to see mom and young son sitting together in the same way. Buddies riding the train. Enjoying childhood and its casual freedoms. Fast forward ten years and remove the kid. Then would it still look ok for a sixty year old woman to ride the train in such a posture? Or will I simply be too stiff to sit like that?! (I often wonder if it’s not just physical limitations which dictate what behaviors seem appropriate.) I once watched an eighty year old lady run uphill back to a restaurant to retrieve her purse. I offered to go for her, but she waved me off and started to trot… I was impressed. Had a peer of mine done the same thing, not so much. But go Shirley! Highlights the different standards we hold for each other at different times of our lives. Interesting, huh?
I work at my son’s school in the recess yard. My job is just to keep an eye on the kids, be there in case somebody gets hurt, settle minor disputes, make sure everyone gets a fair turn on the swings. And I do all this just fine, only I can’t help but wonder if I’m not crossing that invisible line that I see most teachers – and adults in general – keeping firmly in place between themselves and littler people. I can’t put a finger on it, but I respond and interact with kids a bit more as if I were a kid myself. I don’t always feel like a teacher or a mom, and my feeling is that the children sense this too. When I was younger, I was known to many as ‘the cool babysitter’. Not sure if that’s cuz I arrived on a motorcycle, because I was in bands, or because I just hung with the kids almost as if a peer. I can’t impress ’em with a bike these days, but I still enjoy a really good relationship with all of the kids in my life. It’s with no small amount of pride that I can report I’ve been told by several that I’m a ‘cool mom’. (Don’t worry, my kid reminds me I’m not that cool.) So I have to admit to some mixed feelings about acting as a role model. Somehow a tiny voice inside me wonders if they’d really have me in this post if they knew how much of an ‘un grown-up’ I was. It’s not a real concern though; I do my job and follow the rules. And I know quite definitely that I’m not a kid myself… only I don’t think I’m a grown up either. Hanging out somewhere in between.
When I worked as a jazz singer in my twenties, I lamented that audiences didn’t quite get me. I had this feeling when performing that they just didn’t believe what I was singing. Can’t describe it any better than that, but it was my experience many times over – I wasn’t just pulling the observation out of thin air. It seemed I was too young to be a reliable narrator. The songs conveyed stories of an older, more seasoned and experienced woman than I perhaps appeared. Then some ten years later, as a woman in her mid and late thirties, something changed, and audiences became more accepting, more yeilding. I just felt that they finally believed what it was I was singing about. And I think it had everything to do with my age. Finally, my personage matched the material. How can a twenty four year old girl sing about all the loves she’s lost – or wax sentimental about her years-gone-by love and be taken entirely seriously? If one’s being honest about it, it doesn’t really work. But take a gal who’s been around the block a time or two, and you’re more apt to lend an ear. Oh, how well-seasoned I am now! Somebody, get me a gig! Oh how I’d like to sink my teeth into “Ah the Apple Trees” or “Where Are You” now! Ha! Not a dry eye in the house… For me, I suppose this particular phenomenon is a real marker for aging. While as a sixty year old I might raise eyebrows if I were to put my feet up on a seat in the train – if I instead donned a gown, some false eyelashes and a sparkly cocktail ring and started singing about all the loves I’ve lost – I’d have a roomful of adults nodding their agreement. Crazy. The dos and don’ts, the things that work and the things we think are taboo.
And that bit about ‘age being just a number’. Yeah, right. I know what the phrase is intended to mean. Yeah, I get that on the inside one feels much the same way all throughout life. Ok. But then one day, in a split second it kinda hits you, that is, if you’re old enough, and you realize that the number of years you’ve been on the planet sounds a lot longer than actually it feels. You do some really easy math and see quite clearly that you’re closer to the far end than you are to the the beginning. But you know that your spirit is still just as bright these days (if not even brighter) and then you think that hey, that’s really too bad, because that stupid number marks you in this culture as diminishing in value, when you know damn well that’s not true! So you comfort yourself by saying, ah phooey, who cares. And maybe you really don’t. If not, you have my deepest respect; you are much closer to your God-self than I! Myself, I know that your age isn’t really ‘just a number’. Your age is a number that helps define you to the world, and to yourself. It’s a quantity, yes, but in our culture it speaks to a certain quality of your life too. Sure, some things improve with age, but let’s be downright honest here. Our bodies certainly don’t. Aging is tricky on a human being. On the knees, the ticker, the skin… the ego. And your number is very much a part of that equation. Alright, so maybe you look and feel pretty good for your number. Enjoy yourself! It aint gonna last forever…
I apologize if I sound dark about this whole aging thing. Just working it out, like everybody else. I am confident that I am not the first person to think any of the thoughts I’ve expressed here. Maybe just the one brave enough to say it all out loud. But just for the record – I’m not entirely bummed with this new chapter. I feel good these days. Granted, I should get yoga back into my life. I should walk a half an hour a day. I should meditate regularly. But on the whole, I’m feeling good about things, gray hairs and all. It’s kinda nice to relax a bit. Not to sweat looking killer every time I go out. Looking good is good enough. And at the end of the day, looking good and feeling good are always age appropriate.