Going gray

Around the time I turned forty, I started dyeing my hair. I didn’t have much gray, but the strands that suddenly appeared freaked me out. I didn’t feel like I was ready. Maybe when I was fifty I would be ready. I have really dark hair, so just a little gray showed up a lot. To me, anyway.

Remarkably, that was the first time in my life I’d dyed my hair. I got a semi permanent dye, and no one noticed the change. I was so annoyed, I started pointing it out. People squinted at my head and still didn’t notice. A couple months later, my hair developed a brassy, orangey-tint. It was subtle. Again, no one I pointed it out to noticed (or at least that’s what they claimed) but I didn’t like it. I missed the darker color. So I started dying my hair just to get rid of the orange.

What a waste of time. What a waste of money. What a bore checking my hair for signs that it was time to go back to the salon.

After two years of dyeing, I stopped. I am so happy to have my hair back. Seriously. I feel so grateful. I did not like that orange hair. I love my hair color. Maybe my mind will change. I don’t know. This whole process is a giant mystery. But I doubt it. I always thought that when people said they earned their gray it was bullshit. Maybe the joy I feel when I look in the mirror is only because I’m happy that orange hair is gone. But also, I like the gray now. I think it’s pretty. Confused at my reaction, of course, I turned to books.

Going Gray is by  Anne Kraemer. At 49, she saw a photo of herself with her dyed dark hair and thought she looked awful. She let her hair go gray and when she did she felt happier, sexier, and comfortable with herself in the world. (I’ll post her before and after photos when I have time, this is another two minute blog before I wake the kids.)

I also read a book called Healthy Aging by Andrew Weil. As many of you know, he’s got a big gray beard and he’s bald. That’s OK, of course, because he’s a successful man. I was curious what he would say about gray. He wrote about his dog. He’s a dog lover and he’s lived with dogs for years, going through their life cycles with them from puppyhood to old age. At the time Weil wrote his book, he had a beautiful, strong dog with a shiny coat. He writes that while stroking the dog, he notices gray hair on the animal’s chin. That starts him worrying. He knows what’s to come. The dog will get older and more frail and eventually he’ll die. Weil starts to think about his own death. All these feelings sprout from seeing a few gray hairs on his dog’s chin.

Weil writes about how our fear of death is manifested in the physical evidence of aging that we see. That’s not rocket science obviously, but as I read on in his book about the healthy aging process, I started to think about signs of aging as signs of health instead of signs of death. Physical health and also emotional health. Weil writes, as have others, the ever growing use of botox is affecting us. Babies learn from facial expressions. They’re mimics, and that’s how they process information and how their brains develop (and that’s the problem with Lego marketing ARGH, but that’s another blog).

When babies cannot see emotions in frozen faces, they don’t learn the way they’re supposed to. Not only that. Emotions are meant to be felt. That’s why we have them. Wrinkles are signs that we feel. Wrinkles are healthy. Not for a twenty year old but for a forty year old. Gray hair is healthy as well.

I blogged a couple months ago about a book I loved called Fifty Is Not The New Thirty. I don’t know about fifty yet, but so far forties have been one of the best times of my life. When you see a wrinkle or a gray hair, try seeing it for what it is: you’re exactly where you’re supposed to be, doing exactly what you’re supposed to be doing. That relaxes me.

Update: I haven’t been able to find the before/ after photos of Kraemer on the internet that are on my book cover. If you do, send them along and I’ll try to keep looking. When I didn’t find them immediately, I started to think: why post them? She looks gorgeous, but maybe part of the gray hair phobia is that we don’t look the same way in photos (and on TV) that we do in real life. Dyed hair often doesn’t look brassy and weird on TV the way it can in reality. Altering real life looks to make them look “good” for  a TV/ photo lens is part of the problem. Maybe its better not to focus on a photo even though hers happens to look good. Speaking of gray, I just saw Emmy Lou Harris two days ago. Talk about beautiful– her voice, her hair, her presence. Wow.


OK, got the photo. Thank you Prof Prog Strumpet.

Since I caved on posting that photo, here’s one of Emmy Lou too. But remember, it’s not about the photos, it’s about LIFE.

Why Fifty is Not the New Thirty

On my birthday this year, I posted about how great it felt to be 42. With all that I’d heard and read about women on the other side of forty– who knew? I’m happier than I’ve ever been. Fascinated by my state of mind, I read several books about women and aging, trying to figure out if other people, especially women, felt like I did.

One of my favorites is called Between a Rock and a Hot Place: Why Fifty is Not the New Thirty by Tracey Jackson. Jackson is hilarious. I was laughing out loud for the whole read. Jackson and I are different in many ways, our attitudes about plastic surgery being just one, but she writes totally honestly, it seems, about what getting older is like for her. Her basic thesis is that if you accept change, go with the flow, don’t try to be thirty, life is different but good.

As I read, I started to wonder if perhaps menopause isn’t about “drying up” and nature having no use for you anymore, as I’d heard in the past. Maybe menopause includes focusing your body’s energy away from reproduction, using precious resources elsewhere.  Curious, I read The Wisdom of Menopause by Christiane Northrup, an ob/ gyn. She goes into a multitude of ways that she believes menopause jump starts the brain into a mind body revolution. Again, Northrup is not saying fifty is thirty. She’s basically saying life is a mysterious adventure.

Another book I absolutely love is Prime Time by Jane Fonda. This book is so brave. Like Jackson’s, it’s another honest account about growing older. It may not be your story, but it’s Fonda’s and she tells it well. Though the book jacket and PR material promotes the book as “making the most of all of your life” this book is really about the “Third Act” as Fonda calls it. I guess the publishers thought billing it that way wouldn’t sell. Thank God Jane Fonda is Jane Fonda and can write about whatever she wants and get it published.

There seems to be no subject this writer is afraid of tackling from death to money to sex. Fonda has one chapter I love about how society as a whole benefits from older people. This perspective is such a different take than what you generally hear from the media about the older generation being a huge, economic drain on everyone else. Fonda writes about “generativity” an idea crucial to healthy aging where your focus moves from yourself to “a broader social radius, giving to the community and larger world.” She also writes about the “silver market:”

Economists argue that there is an important dividend that comes from the increasing number of older people who are relatively well off and who now make up the greater proportion of the market share. Many retirees have accumulated wealth and other significant spending power, which stimulates jobs and financial growth. Older individuals make invaluable investments in real estate, continuing education, technologies for independent living, travel, tourism, health services, and the like…

A study by the MetLife Mature Market Institute  reported that the estimated spending power of baby boomers will soon exceed $2 trillion dollars annually…however, the degree to which the silver market thrives is highly policy dependent. In countries where sound retirement plans are provided, older individuals feel secure to spend their wealth rater than save it…

Older individuals donate more to universities, charities, and civil organizations than at any other age…

Older citizens are active citizens; their efforts to volunteer help hold up communities. They organize and participate in civic organizations, run elections, mentor young people, support their peers in long term car and hospice, lead recreation groups, and assist visitors and hospital, libraries, schools and museums.”

Another book I read is called Fortytude by Sarah Brokaw who is a therapist and noticed many of her clients became happier after 40. Though I understand her curiousity leading her to write the book when so few have been written on this, Brokaw is my age and I found those written by people who had actually experienced more aging more interesting.

I also read The Age of Miracles: Embracing the New Midlife by Marianne Wiliamson and though it had some good parts, it seemed to mostly be the same material covered in her previous, better books, just repackaged.

I do have a question that I can’t seem to find an answer to. After reading all these books, I want to know: do emotions age? There’s quite a bit written about the brain aging, and of course, the rest of the body aging. But it seems, at least from what I’ve read and lived, older adults experience emotions just as intensely as babies. And if emotions don’t wither, perhaps, as we grow older, do we potentially become more skilled in handling them? Could this be why I’m happier?