Tag Archives: aging

Becoming a swamp goblin

The opportunity to grow old is itself a privilege that many people will not have. But, it brings with it all kinds of things that won’t be privileges, particularly the increasing risk of illness and disability. Your life expectancy, and your quality of life as an older person will be very much informed by your wealth.

For much of human history, life expectancy was about thirty years. So here I am in my mid forties, ancient by the standards of most of my ancestors, middle aged by modern standards, and wondering what lies ahead. After a year of relentless health problems, I feel much older than I am. Thanks to those same health problems, I also don’t look it. Hypermobility often gifts people with younger looking skin, while taking away mobility. 

If you’re female-presenting, aging is traditionally a process of becoming invisible and irrelevant. There are no road maps for aging non-binary people. The menopause is cheerfully increasing my chances of growing a beard, while thinning my head hair. It’s not a very sexy take on being nonbinary, but its what I’ve got. I may have to rethink my visual presentation. I may not bother.

I’m not one of those people who will wonder if, as an older person, they will dare to wear purple. I’ve always been fairly outlandish. I’m thinking more in terms of swamp-goblin for my future self. I’m not really cute cottage-core granny material, I’m definitely on more of a scary witch in the forest trajectory. I have no intention of aging with dignity or grace, and I hope I can get more outspoken, outlandish and unreasonable as I go.

I’m fortunate in that I have spaces where my getting older will not disappear me. Writing is traditionally the work of older people, so long as I can jab a keyboard or mutter into a device, I can tell stories. The steampunk community is an all ages one and will allow me to be as outlandish as I like. The Pagan scene is pretty good at including older people even if the visuals are still far too focused on the sexy young women. As a swamp goblin, I shall be able to work on this. 

I’ve run into goblin-core as a concept and I like it greatly. Embrace the decay, the autumn, the mess. Embrace the toadstools and the cemeteries, the spiders, bugs and moths. It’s like goth, only it doesn’t call for being young and sexy – and there are increasing numbers of old goths who are no doubt moving towards more of a goblin aesthetic. 

As a child, I didn’t realise how far my maternal grandmother was from the pearl and twinset permed hair norms of old ladies at the time. She was colourful, her dress style was androgenous, she did what suited her. I’m lucky in that I have some sort of role model there. She kept going in every way she could, despite a body that was clearly very hard work to live in. She fought to keep her mind sharp and her life interesting. It’s a good set of things to aspire to.

Questions of aging

Western culture frames aging as a bad thing, and one that we must tackle through the purchase and use of products. Buying stuff to look younger means using material we wouldn’t have needed if we’d been ok about aging in the first place. Make-up, hair dye, skin products, botox and I have no idea what else – but it all clearly has a carbon footprint, creates waste materials and reduces our confidence in ourselves.

It would be better for the planet if we could just get on with getting older and not feel like we have to disguise that totally natural process. If we respected age, then signs of aging would be no issue at all.

One of the issues here is that aging can reflect all sorts of things about our lives and personalities. How your skin ages will be different if you’ve spent a lot of time in the sun, or haven’t. Smoking affects how we age, so does diet. How much fat you carry affects how lines show in your face. Habitual expressions settle into our skin.

It would be better, I think, if we were all less worried about the fact that we age, and more concerned about how we age. The face of a person who has lived well, and richly, and who looks like their body has been lived in, should be something to enjoy and celebrate. The way our lives mark us should be something to take pride in, not feel reduced by. It’s good to have character and be distinctive, and there is far less to be said in favour of looking like a Ken or Barbie doll. We need to give ourselves permission to be real mammals, not plastic toys.

For some people of course, that aging process doesn’t go so well because of what appears in their faces. I know several people who I don’t much like, whose middle aged faces are starting to show those sneering, unkind expressions that are part of who they are. The reasons I don’t like them are, increasingly written all over them. There’s a certain amount of justice in this. The only way to avoid aging in this way is to not go round covered in unkind facial expressions.

Equally, people I know who tend towards kindness, laughter, compassion, and concern are clearly aging with faces that show these things. It doesn’t matter how old and wrinkly they get, their faces will be an expression of the kinds of people they are, and I will always find that lovely to look at.

For some of us, the lines in our faces will be caused by pain and grief, by loss and suffering. I suspect the face I’ll be taking into my latter years (assuming I get there) is going to look worried.

And for some of us, aging won’t be a thing. Accident, illness or violence will account for us before we have chance to get old. It’s worth remembering that getting to grow old is a blessing not everyone experiences. Most of us would prefer whatever state our faces wind up in, to no face at all. If our culture wasn’t so inclined to death-denial, we might be able to talk about this more, and view aging from a different perspective.


Seeing my grandmother

I’ve been seeing my grandmother lately. She died more than a decade ago. I catch glimpses of her out of the corner of my eye, moments of recognition that surprise me. It’s not a seasonal issue. It is simply that I am starting to look like her.

My maternal grandmother was born in 1920 – next year will be the hundredth anniversary of her birth and I plan to treat that the way we treat the centenaries of more famous people. She was therefore 57 when I was born. I don’t have any conscious memories of her face at that point in her life, but I think something is remembered unconsciously. I’m a way off 57, but my face is changing as faces always do, and I am moving towards my own grandmother face.

I’ve been thinking a lot about her in recent weeks. She habitually wore trousers, shirts and caps, had short hair, and went by the nickname ‘Barty’. I wonder what she would say to me if we could sit down with a coffee and talk about gender identity, and being non-binary because while she didn’t have those words, I think she’d have found them interesting. I have no idea what she would have said.

I think a lot about the pain she lived with, too. What she had used to be called rheumatism, but that diagnosis is no longer fashionable. The hard to pin down aches and pains are now more often called fibromyalgia. I’ve thought a lot about the trauma in her life, and her persistence, and her refusal to be defined by pain and diminishing mobility in old age. I don’t know to what degree I will follow after her.

If I can muster half of my grandmother’s interest in life and sheer bloody-mindedness around keeping going, I won’t do so badly. Aging doesn’t alarm me if I can age in a similar trajectory to her. I’ll wear more black than she did, and I’m never going to develop her enthusiasm for daytime quiz shows on TV, but on the whole, she’s a good role model for aging well. She kept walking everywhere for as long as she could. She kept singing and playing music and making art and cake. There were always cats. She had a lot of adopted daughters, and I remember her garden as always full of butterflies when I was a child. Like me, she collected up rubbish and made stuff out of it.