Out in the Open

'I find age a lazy measurement'

What does it mean to age and what does the number really tell you about a person?
Bahia Watson is an actor and author who lives in Toronto. (Provided by Bahia Watson)
Listen5:47

Actor and author Bahia Watson offers a different take on aging, one where we don't put so much weight and meaning in the number of years we've lived. 

In the Age of Forty
by Bahia Watson

I'd like to think of myself as one of those people who will age gracefully, like fine wine, like Viola Davis and Angela Bassett. But, how do you really do that? What does it mean to age, and how does one best do so?

Is the graceful surrender to be found in celebrating your age, bolding declaring the number of years you've spun around the sun in a full and loving embrace? Or, at a certain point, is there more to be gained by detaching from and abandoning numerical figures altogether?

As the years add on, and up, it seems the weight of time can feel heavier, and I wonder how much of getting older is actually feeling physically tired, or if it's, at least in part, these numbers, and the stories that float around them like Jupiter's moons that are weighing us down.

When considering aging, and the value of the associated numbers, we must first consider our beliefs about time. If we think of time as a line, each age we count is like a tic on the ruler we use to measure our lives. And, in our society, size matters. Each length of living is crowded with assumptions of how to be. The masters of society tell us what age means and we buy that meaning and wear it like a jacket. Or, like an expensive face cream we smear into our pores daily.

We are born at point A and travel towards point B, our death, and we do a few things in the middle. From this perspective, aging takes the shape of a mountain. The first leg of the hike, we climb proudly to every new height we pull ourselves up to, until we reach the peak, which we've been told is around 40, and then we begin the long and quick way down, feet rushing ahead of us faster than the mind can think, until we are swallowed by the dark, wet mouth of the Earth.

This is why I find age a lazy measurement and avoid, when I can, revealing my own. I find it diminishing. It's like saying a tree is its height without including the depth of its roots. My age will not tell you about when my best friend broke my heart and how it changed me. It won't tell you about how every time I see the ocean, I shed tears at the joy of being small and enveloped by something large and magnificent. It won't tell you about my memories of hospitals and cold stethoscopes and that before I could speak I survived cancer and have the scars to prove it. The way I feel, the ways that I have felt, have not been organized by annual accounts and so why do we insist on packaging ourselves in this way?

When I ask a friend out for drinks, or to a party, they might reply: , "I'm fifty, I'm too old" or "I'm forty - tired."  Within these numbers we wear lives the notion you can be "too old" for this or that - like sleeveless tops or wild adventures or throbbing sensuality or late night giggles or dancing and dancing. These are the limits we are taught, and we learn to believe them.

I wonder, if there was no counting, would my friends feel as tired? Or even if they did, rather than lean on a number, might it feel a little more glorious to reply: "I love mornings so much more, let's have tea in the light of day".

If we think of time as, not a line, but simultaneous; if we think that every revolution contains within itself every sunrise and sunset we've ever seen before, that within it, forty contains the cool of thirty, the fun of twenty, the fresh earnestness of teens, the curiosity of childhood, the innocence of infancy. That these are not things we leave behind like fallen petals, but they are aspects of ourselves awakened by life and available for us to draw upon whenever the moment calls.

Or how about that life is not a line, but a palette, covered in the hues and tones that we've discovered and mixed and used to colour our world, and that palette is our masterpiece, our story.  And you, the painter, alone, decide the vibrancy in which to describe your life, as long as you're living. And the numbers clicking at your heels can be ignored completely if that is what it takes to see your life, as continuous and your beauty, unstoppable.

So, is forty the new thirty, or is this forty a new frontier, where we reach the peak of a mountain only to realize we haven't met the peak at all, that the mountain continues to heights we hadn't yet imagined, and that descent is not our only option, but we can choose to continue to climb. Maybe, instead of a peak, it is here we might meet a field. One that extends in all directions, with other daunting, snow-capped mountains in a new distance. And the setting sun we thought was the end of the world will go down in warm colours and reveal the sparkling skies of night, and just when we think it's over, that the darkness is here to swallow us whole, there is a crack in the end that is golden and fierce, and that is morning, and we are not dead, but as alive and full as we ever were, and ever will be.

You can read more of Bahia's reflections on aging here.