The Art of Growing Old
A 17th century Korean scholar Wu Tahk wrote a shijo (ancient Korean poetry) about old age.
A stick in one hand, a branch in another
I guarded my youth with all my might
Alas, white hair ambushed me overnight.
In this day and age who's worried about one's white hair, one might say. True, with a few drops of hair coloring solution white vanishes and you can be blond or brunette or platinum silver or ink black in a matter of minutes. Still, Mr. Wu's words comfort me: like him, I dislike getting old.
While my birthday was approaching a few weeks earlier, I was in a worst mood I had ever been in my life. I didn't want to be a year older. I finally was comfortable with my 60+ years, and without an advance notice, it was time to add another number to it. I toyed with the idea of slipping out of my nest and vanishing temporarily, but where could I go? Even if I could find a place to hide away from the world, I would still get older. There was no escape: it was foolish to even imagine that I could hide from aging, like a child might to escape from a dictator parent.
Still, on the morning of my birthday, I was determined not to surrender to my new age. But I knew better than looking for a stick or a branch to beat away my invisible foe, so I turned my phone off, removed the calendar, my family picture, the mirror, and anything that would hint me of my new age, from the walls. Sitting on my bed surrounded by bare walls, I was finally safe.
While pondering on the good days and bad day of my past, I remembered that I never enjoyed my age even when I was in the first grade. Growing up in a large family in Korea, surrounded by four brothers and three sisters, I often complained to God, "Why couldn't you at least make me the youngest child in the family, if you couldn't make me a boy?" Of course, God was silent. How could he respond to such a prayer when he himself was a man?
How did Mother felt about getting old? I wondered. All the years I lived at home, she often used the word woonmyong, fate, in her every day vocabulary. To her, it was my fate that I was born a girl surrounded by my brothers and sisters. It was my fate, too, that I was a middle child and couldn't be the center of attention. Even when I broke my leg in my third year in elementary school, she thought my woonmyong caused it. I remember arguing with her that an older boy yanked me down from the gym set, only to scare me a little, and that it wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t been so mean.
"What's the difference?" she said. "Would you feel better if a girl did it? Your pain doesn’t care who caused it. You just have to deal with it.”
In my second year of middle school I had another incident with Mother. That morning, our PE teacher who was also in charge of the students' conducts and manners, clipped one end of my hair with a pair of scissors, because that side slightly touched the collar of my school uniform. Many girls had been the victims of his brutal act, but it was first time for me and I was crying when I got home. I couldn’t explain to Mother why one side of my hair was shorter than the other.
Searching her skirt pocket, she handed me a bill. “It's time for a haircut,” she said. “If I were you, I won't say anything to anyone about what happened. You should have noticed how long your hair was when you combed it this morning.”
Here again, I defended myself. “Mine wasn't long at all, Mother. My collar stood up more than others' because you starched it too much. Still, he had no right to pulled me out of the line and clip my hair, for everyone to see.”
“You don't need to say another word about it,” she said, gently. “Go and get a haircut.”
It took me more than fifty years to realize that her word woonmyong implied "make peace with yourself" or “go with the flow.” I havn't changed much over all these years: I still argue whenever I can.
I remembered Victor Hugo's poem titled “The Preludes,”
which I had read long ago without knowing I would some day be this old.
Winter is on my head, but eternal spring's in my heart.
I breathe… the fragrance of the lilacs, violets, and roses as at twenty years ago.
The closer I approach to the end, the plainer I hear
The immortal symphonies of the world that invites me.
Each word grasped me with new meaning. This was close to what my mother always believed. She could easily have said, “Go with the flow of life and feel the eternal spring in your heart.” Or, “Make peace with yourself, before you try to smell roses, lilacs, violets.”
I decided that I could feel sorry for my accumulating years and all other problems we were dealing with today--drugs, war in Iraq, slow economy, the upcoming election--and cry about it. Or I could accept the solemn fact that I am alive today and enjoy what I am and what I do. Life on earth had never been perfect for any living beings for millions of years, and why should it be now?
I had a solemn dialogue with the unknown on my 63rd birthday:
When you knock my door, Death
I’ll be awake
When you extend your hand toward me
I’ll shake it warmly
When you whisper, “Shall we go?”
I’ll say, “I’ve been waiting.”