Aging as a Conversation

By Elizabeth Russell

We think of aging as something that happens to us, something as
inevitable as waking up in the morning. But what if our way of speaking
about aging actually influences our experience of it?      

Paige once asked, “How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you
was?” Because he was black, he wasn’t allowed to play major league
baseball until he was well past retirement age for ball players. When
he finally got his chance, no one knew for sure how old he was and he
wasn’t telling. Who he was and the performance he gave on the field
were more important than how old he was.    

If I were to answer
Satchel Paige’s question, I wouldn’t be as old as I know I am. And how
do I know how old I am? I know from the conversations that have swirled
around me since I began. I know because the photograph album keeps a
record of my trek through life and reminds me whenever I forget, as
does the mirror in front of which I wash my face and brush my teeth
every day. I know from the conversation called “Social Security,” a
conversation that tells me I can now earn as much as I want and still
collect payments. (Now you know I’m at least over 70.)  

I think
I first became aware, on a conscious level, of aging on my birthdays
(especially when linked to privileges that were age-dependent). I was
aware of it as a freshman at Cornell when I was 33 in a class of
18-year-olds; but then it slipped into the background again because I
was remarrying, having another baby, then continuing school and work.

we could see age as a conversation, it might give us a way to get out
of the box in which we are caught and being swept along. Maybe aging
has less to do with time than with the way we speak of it, with the way
our culture speaks of it. I invite you to pause for a moment and notice
if your experience of yourself, right now, right this minute, has
anything to do with age. And then notice that as soon as you come back
from that brief out-of-time experience you are once again in the
conversation that who you are is the age you are. I am an 86-year-old

Conversations create agreement. The more agreement, the
more powerful the conversation. Notice what happens when two groups
debate the relative merits of corporal punishment in school. There is
so much agreement behind each position that the conversation becomes a
tug of war, with little hope of revealing anything useful.

if we had a new conversation about age that could enlarge our sense of
what was possible?  Join me in exploring this

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