I have this just-out-of-bed ritual that I follow every morning. After successfully finding the floor with my feet, I begin making my way through my dark bedroom toward an unlit bathroom. My eyes have adjusted by the time I reach the threshold that separates the place where I sleep from the place where I clean myself. My hand knows exactly where the light switch is located without me needing to engage my eyes in the process of finding it.
My fingers touch the switch and I think, let there be light and then it comes, bright and jarring. After narrowing my eyes, I step toward the wall-mounted mirror, located above the large countertop and sinks, and look at myself for a few seconds, turning my face to the right and left as I do so. I also step toward the mirror and away from it to see myself from a variety of vantage points.
I try not to make any judgments about the face that looks back at me. I mostly take note and catalog my observations. I also try hard not to feel emotional about the version of Troy Headrick I happen to see on any given day. I wish to remain detached, as cool as a cucumber or as cold as scientist.
It doesn’t take an observational genius to understand that the Troy I see now is quite a bit different than the Troy I saw twenty, ten, or even five years ago. This is neither surprising nor disturbing. This is simply the way things are going with my face, the direction my looks are headed now that I am firmly ensconced in middle-age. I do not fear these changes or feel angry about them.
There is more grey hair, a bit more sag, especially above and below the eyes, and a general appearance of fatigue that expresses itself in a number of ways. These are all signs of deterioration and demise. Some mornings, when I’m feeling especially truthful and detached, I’ll whisper, “Troy, you know where you’re headed, don’t you? Your face is providing you with a road map.”
This past weekend, for the first time in quite a long time, my wife and I visited with my cousin, her husband—a man who rarely speaks, but when he does open his mouth, something worth hearing is certain to come out—and their precocious but reserved ten-year-old son. We arranged to meet them in a Mexican food restaurant in the town where they live.
When I meet members of my extended family—I wish it happened more frequently than it does—I have this habit of blurting out that I’m older than I used to be (as if this fact wasn’t already perfectly clear). This past weekend, as could be expected, within five minutes of us sitting down together, I said something to the effect that I’ve aged a lot recently, and I immediately felt as if a burden had been lifted from my shoulders. It was the sort of liberating feeling one might experience when sharing a weighty secret that one had long kept to himself.
My cousin, an educated woman who works in healthcare, seemed older too. The 800-pound gorilla at our lunch table was the fact that we hadn’t seen each other for a while and now we were all taking stock, making mental notes, about all the ways each one of us had changed since our last get together.
After we’d ordered our drinks and were waiting for our meals to arrive, I launched into a mini-speech on how well my father seems to be aging. I based this on the fact that he refuses to slow down and never complains about any of his health challenges. Nor does he ever act as if he wants others to feel sorry for him. I went on to say that he has apparently made peace with the idea of his own demise and noted how he was able to talk, without looking even a touch morbid, about his own death. I put forward the hypothesis that the greatest challenge we face—this is especially true of Americans who have this unspoken belief that they are going to live forever and look beautiful in the process—is to become comfortable with our unrelenting decline.
Americans are a funny people. They are capable of uprooting themselves and moving on to new and different jobs and new and different places, but they have a lot more difficulty dealing with changes in their bodies and appearances. Many seem to view the ageing process as an affront, and they fight it, every step of the way, tooth and nail.
I don’t mind physical changes near as much as I mind changes in my emotional well-being. I hate to see a waning in my overall sense of excitement about life. When I was a child, I woke up feeling as if each day was going to be a kind of epic adventure. I delighted in small discoveries, like the finding of an insect crawling across a stretch of concrete. The blueness of the sky was utterly astonishing and could fill me with giddiness. Tying a kite to a string and then sending it five hundred feet into the air was like the coolest thing I’d ever done, the coolest thing anyone could ever possibly do. The nights were magical. I was delighted by chasing fireflies at dusk and then falling down into the grass and looking up into the growing darkness.
Where has that sense of magic and wonderment gone? I can do these same things today, but the experience isn’t nearly as intense and awe-inspiring as it once was. Perhaps I’ve seen the blue sky too many times already and am too familiar with the scene and the color? Have I become jaded or tired or something else?
I have recently vowed that this is the thing I need to work on most in myself. I need to find a way to recapture that delight. But, how, precisely, does one go about doing so?
That’s the million-dollar question. This year, I hope to find the answer to it. If I do, I’ll be sure to blog about it here.