I recently turned 60. I sure don’t feel 60 and I’m told I don’t look it, but the milestone made me wonder: How do I age with grace? My mother died when she was 48 and I was 23, so I wasn’t able to watch her age when I was an adult.
Mom went gray very young. She was quite beautiful and wore her hair short, salt-and-pepper with a chic white swooping forelock. I can tell from old photos that she was more stylish when I was a kid. (You can see it in the painting below from an epic family trip to Israel, Lebanon, and Europe — she’s wearing a super cute dress I’d sure love to have now.)
By the time I was a teenager, her daily uniform was corduroy jeans, crew neck sweatshirts, and maybe a white button-down shirt, loafers, or tennis shoes. She rarely wore more than mascara and lipstick. She loved to garden, and she was an incredible baker.
I recently went back to our old neighborhood to visit our next-door neighbor, Ruth, who was one of Mom’s best friends.
Now a youthful 87, Ruth pulled a bag of frozen black-bottom cupcakes out of her freezer; she’s been making Mom’s recipe for close to 50 years, and she always keeps a batch of them in her freezer.
What a gift to know that pieces of Mom live on in other people, not just in my own memories. Ruth and I both got teary over those black-bottom cupcakes.
At dinner, Ruth’s sons shared wonderful memories I’d totally forgotten about — like how Mom and Ruth would talk on the phone while they made dinner. (Remember those wall phones with the super long cords?)
Both Mom and Ruth spoke so loudly that the boys could often hear both sides of the conversation from their bedroom. I can just see both women cradling the phones between their ears and shoulders, stirring, chopping, and cooking dinner for their families.
Steve, Ruth’s eldest son, reminded me that he’d tutored me in math. I remembered my younger brother tutoring me (yeah, kinda humiliating) but had totally forgotten that Steve had, as well. Do I ever use Algebra in my life? No. Mom “paid” Steve as per his request by patching his jeans, and he described how proud he was to have this pair of jeans with so many cool patches on them.
No matter what she wore or what she was doing, Mom was just Mom. She was very down to earth, very real, and extremely opinionated. She didn’t like everyone, and wasn’t great at faking it — but if she did like you, she was a solid, forever friend and would always be there.
I unfortunately didn’t inherit her green thumb, and I don’t think I appreciated my mother’s earthiness then the way I would now. I’m just happy that I can keep indoor plants alive.
When I was about 16, my mom, grandmother, and I laid our hands next to each other on the table. We pinched our skin and then let go. My young skin, of course, popped right back into place. At 42, Mom’s skin slowly regained its shape, while Grandma’s stayed in its pinched position. Grandma was probably about 70 at the time, which seemed ancient.
I remember this scene with perfect clarity and think of it often as I look down at my aging hands. I wear Mom’s gold wedding band on my pinky.
I recently traveled to Bali for an 18-day artist’s retreat. Taking time to travel and paint was a long-held dream, and it was finally my reality. In Bali, my bathroom was outdoors and open to the sky. When I looked in the mirror, surrounded by natural light, I felt good!
On my way back to the U.S., I stopped in Hong Kong to teach painting. I checked into my hotel, walked into the bathroom, turned on the light, and almost passed out when I saw my face in the overhead lighting.
Could the lines on my face have deepened so much after just three weeks? Eventually, I calmed down and realized the lighting was, simply, very bad. That moment was not fun, but teaching for three days was wonderful — and the kids could care less what I looked like. They just wanted to know if I was famous.
Last month, I was assigned to paint a portrait of Diane von Furstenberg when she was honored at the Kennedy Center for Vital Voices. Painting older women is always interesting: Which age lines to leave in, and which to minimize? Painting von Furstenberg as a superhero-warrior-goddess seemed the right solution.
I also painted my good friend Diane — who, at 75, is the oldest of my female friends. Diane used to be a model and is still very beautiful. Last summer, I sat with her at her pool as our dogs played. I was struck by the light and shadows. Imagining what a cool painting it could become, I asked her to sit in the light so I could take a photo. She said, “No way! I’m in my robe and look like shit!”
I waited a bit before replying, “You’re going to be sorry one day that you said no to me. You know. If I get famous or something.”
She reluctantly sat for me and I painted what I thought was a pretty good portrait.
Before my 60th birthday, I asked for women’s stories about aging in an Instagram post. I received many thoughtful, wise, honest responses. Several women mentioned that they’d stopped coloring their hair sometime around age 60. (This was the most common physical change they mentioned. I’m thinking about doing it, too.)
The other common thread was that it’s what’s on the inside that counts. I firmly believe this, but it sure helps to feel good about how you look, too.
“Such a tribal response to aging, we women are so caught up in it all… we need permission from ourselves to be ourselves in any age and in any light! I just told my hair stylist I want to stop coloring my hair at 65, gulp! Gotta ease into this process with more grace and less fight. Someone told me to think of wrinkles as the whispers of my ancestors, so what are they saying? Love yourself, love that you’re lucky to live so long, and be grateful for all the gifts of aging…” — Sarah, 62
“The 60s are awesome. They are a gathering, a winnowing, and a harvesting time. What frightens women about turning 60 comes from a sense of what is being lost. But in my experience what is lost in the outer world is definitely an inner gain. Another mistake in an utterly materialistic culture is to imagine that you are losing beauty. We only lose beauty to photoshopped standards that are already impossible and a lie. And that is no loss. One of the gifts of our 60s is the raucous outrageous liberty to embrace our natural changes and the essential, changeless beauty that is always ours and free from the vanity of youth!” — Mags, 69
“I have a couple of mottos that no doubt sum up my attitude to aging: ‘older and bolder’ and ‘carpe diem’ — seize the day! I turned my life around a few years ago when I left my often stressful job as a social worker and started selling shoes. I have always been passionate about anything to do with fashion — or I should say ‘style’ as I’m not into trends. Becoming involved in a world where image is a focus really made me aware of Aging with a capital A. I can honestly say that I am having one of the best times of my life as an older person: I am far more confident, I have friends of all ages, and I have learned to say no to people — gracefully! I mix up colours, prints, and accessories like there is no tomorrow and I enjoy my style. Read my T-shirt and you have me: Black is a wonderful colour and being old is proving pretty wonderful too!” — Shona, 74
“Getting older isn’t for wimps. There are so many changes, and they seem to come up from behind. Stealth changes. Because let’s face it: no one can tell you what it’s like. Besides that, this isn’t one size fits all.There’s one silver lining: I feel so much more relaxed. Not so hard on myself, so damned critical. I mean, the worst has happened, I’m “old.” So what? Now I can lean back, take a deep breath, and not worry (too much) that someone’s looking at me. Nice, that. The worst has already happened. Next stop, death. How bad can it be?” — June, 71
“When I was young I thought old people were an alien species, lived in an alien country, and I was never going there. Now I live in that country, and I find it’s not as alien as I thought. I’m quite enjoying it. Accepting that we are who we are brings with it relief and gratitude that we are still here, survivors of the ups and downs that in our younger years we thought we might never live through. I am 74 — almost half way through my eighth decade — and I’m as happy as I’ve ever been. I have some of the garden variety ailments associated with the aging body, but nothing yet that has been declared an immediate endangerment to my golden years. My mother inherited a dairy farm in her early 50s and proceeded to modernize and run it — turning a hand-milking operation of a few dozen cows into a mechanized milking parlor 200 strong. I have a strong example in her. Despite some significant losses — among them, the death of my 32-year-old sister from a riding accident — I have been blessed with an ever regenerating zest for living, a great husband, and terrific children. I am also lucky to be involved with music, performance, and composition. Now I, too, can say, ‘I’m great to be as good as I am!’” — Rosie, 74
“My favorite saying has become ‘How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you are?’ Having lost some of them far too young, my time with friends and family is more precious to me, now. So if getting older now is a privilege, I’m going to do whatever it takes to feel healthy (weight training for me, too!). Massages once a month. Feel and bring joy. Jergens Natural Glow tanning lotion. Healthy smoothies followed by chocolate. Staying away from evil mirrors. Maybe a teeny eye lift at some point lol.” — Christy, 60
“I stopped dying my hair when I turned 60. It was so freeing and at the same time devastating not to recognize myself in reflections and photos. But like all transitions, the journey from middle age to old age doesn’t happen all at once, nor has it been a smooth ride.” — Bunny, 67
“That old adage, ‘If I knew I was going to live this long, I would have taken better care of myself!’ kind of rings true for me. When I was in my early 30s I spent much too much time in tanning beds, and while the tan looked fabulous then, the devastation to my 60-year-old skin is now very apparent. I would urge everyone everywhere to avoid tanning beds at all costs. Last year at this time, I bought a semi-pricey face cream that was supposed to eliminate wrinkles and fine lines…This morning, I laughed to myself wondering what I would look like if I hadn’t been using that stuff all year!” — Kathleen, 60
“Turning 60 has caused quite a transformation in me. What I mindfully need, what I experience, and what’s left to accomplish are my new priorities. They give more meaning to life than any cosmetic counter ever could. Time is my new motivation. And it’s true… wisdom + care = my superpower.” — Jody, 60
I am turning 46 and feel the shift. My hair and skin are changing so much. I want to embrace it and accept each stage that life has to offer. However, there are times when I feel less confident. That is where meditation, yoga, and painting come in. These things remind me of how beautiful my life is… even with wrinkles.” — Shesna, 46
“Some of us are calling it ‘sexty.’ It’s seems to be a time of learning a new confidence, redefining beauty, planning healthy living, Increasing compassion and appreciation… and, for the lucky, more time for whatever we define as ‘fun.’ Looks? You will always look better than 50% of the population and 75% worse than the rest. Or maybe it’s the other way around. I am wearing my original face and grey hair in NYC. I stay active and try to get enough sleep and water. I’ve never been a devotee of skin regimes but I might rip a mask once in a while. I have friends of all ages who look better and worse for various reasons at various times. I love to hang with those who are excited by something in their lives, happy about this moment.” — Rina, 61
“My mom had a theory that aging was much harder on beautiful women who, although they still look sooo beautiful to everyone else, critique every flaw, every wrinkle so severely that some begin to have mental issues related to aging. I’ve always thought about that, and as I observe my friends and family as we age, I see more than a semblance of truth in her words. Above all else, while you’re trying creams, weight training, etc., please guard your mind. America’s ‘mirror’ is not kind to us over-50 women. Use your camera or paint brushes instead. My wisdom is my new beauty. My superpower, even.” — Mama G., 65
When not looking at myself under bad lighting, I think I may feel the best I’ve ever felt, possibly in my life. I’ve been vegan for five years. I exercise consistently: walking, jogging (very slowly), spinning, yoga, and weight training (in the last two months! Amazing!). I try to work on my inner self. I spend time with those I love and those who love me.
As a fun painting exercise, I followed a prompt from an artist friend to paint a “self portrait in my perfect place.” Here I am with my dog, in the tropics by the ocean, and near a pool. The temperature is 85 degrees and I have unlimited time to paint.
The older I get, the more I crave alone time. I’ve learned that this kind of dedicated time is critical to my creativity. I love the idea that as we age we can become more of our true selves, however that might look or feel. I look forward to embracing life to the fullest in this next chapter, and to aging with grace and gratitude.
This article originally appeared on Human Parts.