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The Opposite of Young

I’ve just spent the past 5 weeks in Toronto with my parents. Every summer Loch and I come to Canada to cottage, camp and all things Canadian and Sean joins us when he can. It’s a lovely time. My parents live so far away that what would be horrifying to most grown children – weeks and weeks of condensed one on one time, living and functioning within your parent’s house, car and life – feels like a real treat to me. I love my parents but, almost more importantly, I truly like them. I really appreciate our time together. They are terrific hosts and incredibly gracious with their hospitality.

Lately though I’ve become aware that, despite their young looks and perky demeanors, the fact of the matter is they’re getting older and that thought concerns me. What does our future look like? What’s my plan? What’s their plan? How much time do we really have left together? I understand getting older is a normal and unavoidable fact of life but it also – drastically or gradually – changes how we live and that’s something we’ll have to plan. At this point both my parents (and my in-laws for that matter) are still sharp and enthusiastic but I can’t pretend this stage of life is infinite. I have to consider a strategy to best prepare for their later years and remind myself to truly enjoy the time we still have left together.

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I’d so much rather be this lady….

Our culture – unlike the Asian cultures who seem to be great with their elderly – doesn’t have a strong history of positively supporting our senior citizens. As I touched on in my last post, we are a culture of youth. We celebrate and chase it. We pay billions of dollars to look it. As a group we have a habit of putting away our old people, quietly moving them off to homes and hospitals so as to avoid firsthand interaction with the perceived ugliness of aging. My mom used to say, “As soon as I get old and senile ship me off. I don’t want to be a burden!” Her only stipulation was I not put her in the country. “Nothing to look at and nothing to do.” My mom has always requested a retirement home in the heart of the city so she can sit on a bench and watch the world go by. She wants to be able to take her little old self to restaurants and the theatre and not just be stuck in the green pastures of the country like some prize bull living out her days amongst the trees. My Grandmother was against homes altogether, she’d say, “Why would I want to live in a home? It’s full of old people.”

Than this one.

Than this one.

In my perfect future I don’t ship anyone off. I’m able to have my parents near me as they age and pay their bills and visit and care for them as much as I can. They have always taken care of me and I would very much like to return the favor. My mom is my dearest friend. I want to sit and talk with her until the end. The house of my dreams has a large guest house for my (or Sean’s) parents to visit any time but I’m also aware of my limitations. Realistically I’m not equipped to be anyone’s full time caregiver. I watched my mom spend a minimum of 4-5 days a week taking care of my Grandmother (as well as a Great Aunt) for at least 15 years before she died and I’m not sure I’m selfless enough to do the same. It’s a different world now. At the very least, I can’t imagine having that kind of time. Currently, we don’t even live in the same city. How do I work that out? It concerns me. At the end of the day I’m an only child who loves her parents and no matter how the cards shake out for us (provided I don’t go before them – which is another issue) their needs will fall to me alone and I can only hope I’m able to rise to the occasion. As it turns out best intentions do not pay private nursing bills.

Luxury-and-Beautiful-Lobby-Hotel-Interior-Design-of-The-Portofino-Hotel-and-Yacht-Club-Redondo-Beach-California

Why couldn’t an old folks home look like this place on californiamarkt.com? I believe that is a legitimate question.

The thing is, I love old people. I always have. When I was younger I used to give the “Cutie Pie Grandpa Award” to elderly men I thought were adorable. It wasn’t a real award. I would just say it out loud to my parents. There was an extended period of time when I considered creating top notch old folks homes. Buildings with style and elegance and amazing food. I’d run it like a cruise or a high end hotel. Numerous restaurants. 3 different seatings. Activities all day. A beautiful pool. I’d look to hire kind, well paid staff. Medical facilities would be on site. There would be exciting day trips and evening events with proper wheel chair accessible transportation. Do you know my wonderful 96 year old Great Aunt can’t go on any of her home’s outings because they only charter school buses? School buses! How does someone who uses a walker or a wheel chair get on a school bus?! It’s ridiculous. We’re often so thoughtless when it comes to old people. My residences would have beautiful lobbies, floor to ceiling windows in every room and would be situated in centers of busy, metropolitan cities. It would cost a fortune but would be something people could plan for like a big trip or a new house. Most assisted living is so depressing, I really thought we could do better. I wanted a place I’d be ok sending my parents or, more personally, a place I would be happy going myself.

rl05Recently an art exhibit caught my attention on Facebook. Tom Hussey created a series of works of elderly people looking in a mirror and seeing a reflection of their younger selves. It was beautifully done. A powerful and noble way to remind us that the old people we so easily overlook were once young, viable individuals with their own power and worth. I’m sure when I look in mirror later in life I’ll think “Who’s that old lady?” My mom says she already does that. The thing is no matter how old we become or how much our bodies let us down, inside we are still that teenager, 20-something, young mother or strapping young man. Even Sean, who’s barely in his mid-30’s, recently said, “I feel weak. I used to be so much stronger than this.” It’s strange when things we’ve always taken for granted start to become an effort. My illness makes my limits similar to that of an older person as far as physicality, strength and exercise and I’ve become accustomed to it. I don’t like it but I’ve accepted it. A couple of weeks ago however I had to stop my Dad from doing something I knew he was no longer strong enough to accomplish without getting hurt and he was annoyed. I understood but I think it’s important to know our limitations and acknowledge that they will inevitably change. I’m of the opinion that choosing acceptance over embarrassment and frustration makes things infinitely less irritating and disappointing. Look, I was a competitive swimmer and lifeguard and nowadays I barely go in the water without a noodle or a life jacket. I used to teach people to swim and now I’m so weak I could easily drown. It’s a blow to the ego to be sure but I’d rather float around in the shallow end than lose my life to pride.

rl04I loved Hussey’s photographs because they seemed to respect both versions of the person. Who we are and who we were being essentially the same. We may look different but that young person is still there if we want them to be. I think I also responded to the work because the pictures illustrate what I so often do in my head. Often when I see older people, particularly men, it’s a younger person I recognize. Intellectually I know the person is old, but for some reason, they don’t look old to me. It’s an unconscious thing. I’m not trying to be deep or understanding. It’s just what happens. What’s interesting to me is that it doesn’t always work. Sometimes I’m completely unable to see the young person and I’ve come to the conclusion it’s because the young person no longer exists. It’s as if the individual has allowed their essence, their fire, to be snuffed out. In resigning themselves to being an “old person” that’s exactly what they’ve become. It reminds me of that quote: We don’t stop playing because we get old. We get old because we stop playing. I feel as if you see that in action all the time.

uncanxietyclinic.com

uncanxietyclinic.com

Aging frightens me. I worry for myself but, because I’m sick and still in my 30’s, more realistically and immediately I worry for my parents. Nobody wants to be a burden. No one wants to lose their mind or forget who people are. We’d all like to be spared the indecencies and humiliation of needing help with our most basic human functions. I always said when I got really old I wanted to buy a house with my friends. A big, old mansion with lots of rooms. We’d hire a nurse and a chef. When someone’s children or grandchildren came to visit we would all be able to enjoy their company because everyone would be special to us. My friend’s children are part of my life. I’d be thrilled to see them just as my friends would be thrilled to see Loch. When someone eventually passed on we would have each other to lean on and help through the heartache and transition. I recognize I might not make it to a ripe old age, but if I did, I think being safely taken care of in a home of my choosing, surrounded by friends and family would be a lovely way to finish my golden years.

There’s a Bette Midler Song called “Hello in There” in which she laments the passing of time and the end of so many things we once deemed important. She speaks of the longing of the elderly not to be left alone or forgotten. She sings:

annetteiren.com

annetteiren.com

You know old trees just grow stronger.

And old rivers grow wilder every day.

But old people, they just grow lonesome.

Waiting for someone to say, “Hello in there. Hello.”

We all want to pretend we’ll be young forever but the truth is no matter how much we work out or how many vials of botox go in our faces, eventually age will catch up with us. I believe the key is to acknowledge the physical change while still holding on to our metaphysical essence, and to respect age while we’re young so we can respect ourselves when we’re old. I believe if we honor our elderly now we give others the tools and inspiration to honor us when the roles are reversed.

At least, that’s what I keep telling myself…

xo leigh

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It’s What’s Inside that Counts

Dear Loch,

Recently I started to notice how often we discuss your looks. You’re a really cute kid and I realize it’s become a sort of habit to constantly comment on the fact. With that in mind, I started to wonder whether I was guilty of placing too much emphasis on your appearance, as if it was a quality of character rather than something you’ve just been blessed with. I recently came across an article by Latina Fatale that addressed this issue in reference to young girls and how often we try to connect with them based on their appearance – “Aren’t you adorable.” “Look at your pretty dress.” “You have the most gorgeous hair.” – as if their aesthetic was the only thing worthy of note. I found the article thought provoking and it occurred to me that perhaps it was something that might also be happening with you.

I realize boys, by nature, are not defined by their looks the way girls are. They aren’t judged or commodified in the same way. You won’t go through life trying to live up to the same beauty ideal or struggle with the same body issues women do, but modern men are under more scrutiny than ever before. In the past 20 years I’ve watched the men’s section of drug and department stores increase exponentially. There’s manscaping and body envy and more products than ever before, and though I believe you will never reach the level of self improvement/self loathing women deal with (freaking out over bathing suit season or constantly fighting the uphill battle to hold onto your youth) modern man is no longer removed from the pressure and insecurities that surround appearance.

Lochlan_McGowan-216-PrintThe problem (and I realize it’s a champagne one) is that so far your looks have garnered you a fair amount of attention and caused people (myself included) to make constant reference to them. Look, I love fashion, I love beautiful things, and since I have little money to dress myself or design our home how I’d like, I get my aesthetic kicks dressing you. So far you could care less what you wear so I’m able to doll you up without complaint. The end result being that you look adorable, people mention it and we both feel proud. I’ve started to wonder however, that even if I continue to dress you like an winsome, little prepster, if I shouldn’t be making a more concerted effort to shift my remarks to better celebrate your qualities of worth rather than appearance.

Baby, you’re cute. Your face slays me. That smattering of freckles across your nose. Your gorgeous auburn hair that shines red in the sun. That adorable, little upturned nose. You’re something else kid, but I think it’s time for me to take a break from mentioning it so much. You were signed by FORD Models at 4-years old for Pete sakes. People pay you to be cute and you’re getting to the age where, if I’m not careful, you could develop the very unattractive quality of vanity and I’ll serve you best if I help you avoid it.

DSC_0240With this goal in hand I devised a game for us to play that would sort out the qualities on which we should focus to ensure we were good people, and what qualities were simply nice byproducts achieved simply by luck. After collecting rocks together on the beach at the cottage I painted them with 5 qualities I deemed important and one extra to represent looks. Ultimately I was looking for a tangible way to express that even though being attractive is nice, at the end of the day it belongs at the bottom of the list. The qualities I included were:

KIND: Someone who looks out for other people (includes: thoughtful, loving, giving)

Ask yourself: Am I a good person?

SMART: Someone who uses their mind to better themselves and others (includes: ingenuity, cleverness)

Ask yourself: Am I an intelligent person?

CONFIDENCE: Someone with a justifiable faith in themselves and their talents. Not afraid to try new things or forge their own path. (includes: ambition)

Ask yourself: Do I believe in myself?

STRENGTH: Someone who has the ability and courage to deal with adversity. (includes: perseverance)

Ask yourself: Can I handle it when things don’t go my way?

HONOR: Someone with humility, honesty, and good manners. (includes: being a gentleman)

Ask yourself: Do people trust me?

APPEARANCE: Someone attractive.

Ask yourself: Am I good looking?

DSC_0243When the stones were ready I laid them out in front of you and we talked about what each one meant. To your credit you were attentive and engaged and took the exercise very seriously. When I was finished explaining I asked you to put the qualities into their order of importance. You were very conscientious taking your time deciding as you put the rocks in order beside you. This was the order you chose:

KIND, CONFIDENCE, SMART, STRENGTH, HONOR

You left ATTRACTIVE off the list.

DSC_0244Though I know this is just the beginning of a far deeper and more intense conversation, it felt like a great beginning for both of us to understand what the most important things are for being (and raising) a person. What’s qualities are key and what are not.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big proponent of taking pride in your appearance. I believe it’s a sign of confidence. I think it shows you have a strong sense of self awareness and a healthy dose of self worth. Taking care of yourself is a good thing. Having a good body shows you’re healthy, value exercise and good eating habits. Nice hair and skin reflect good grooming and illustrate your self respect. Dressing well proves you’re willing to make an effort to present yourself properly to the world. These are all worthy endeavors. I’m just trying to help you understand that all the attention we pay to our outer shell, though important, is essentially irrelevant when it comes to being a Quality Person.

DSC_0245Our culture worships beauty and youth and people deemed attractive by our society would be hard pressed to convince you their looks didn’t have value or hadn’t played some part in acquiring them something of desire. At the end of the day people like attractive people and if looks didn’t matter, we wouldn’t work so hard to hold onto them.  Attractiveness is a tangible quality. Terrible behavior is often forgiven based solely on the perpetrator’s looks. Attractiveness is not worthless, it just holds no weight to who you are as a person. Beautiful packaging sells many a product but it doesn’t make the product good. It’s the difference between a beautiful, ornately decorated cake made with way too much salt and a plain cake made to perfection. Which one would you choose to eat?

DSC_0249Lochie, God willing you’ll always be attractive. It’s a nice way to go though life. But as we move forward together, I want you to know there are so many other qualities I value above your appearance. Who you are will always be more important that how you look, especially if how you look is the first thing everyone notices.

Be kind, be confident, be strong, be wise, be trusted and know, above all, you will always be loved.

xo mommy

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