From the Editor: Ancient Glittering Eyes

Ray Waddle

California artist Colleen Deery, 57, has friends of all ages. She goes to lunch regularly with a group of women in their 70s and 80s. This happy habit was recently greeted with consternation by some of her younger friends. Dinner out with old people? Why would anyone do that?

Their disdainful reaction startled Deery. It struck her as another proof of contemporary prejudice against aging, and it moved her to action. She created the image, called “Beauty of Age,” which adorns the cover of this fall Reflections.

“I decided I wanted to paint someone older, something that captured age, wisdom, and beauty,” says Deery, who has worked at her art – painting, sculpture, gemstones – for 30 years.

“I’m passionate about life around me. We are given this time, this one time that’s so special. And older people share in it. I hope readers looking at “Beauty of Age” see the wrinkles. I hope they see there’s somebody there. Maybe in the eyes they’ll see loneliness or wisdom, but they’ll see that a real person is there.”

The goodness of life is a guiding ideal for Deery. It’s a gift and a teaching she received from her own daughter, who died at age 12 after a short life of severe physical disability. Despite her difficulties, she always looked to the good in people.

“She couldn’t walk or talk but she was my greatest mentor,” Deery says. “Because of her, I can see the good in anyone. People assumed she was a burden, but I thought she was perfect, not a burden. That’s how people see older people – as a burden. The body gets old or it breaks down and a person is no longer ‘useful.’ I visited a friend in a nursing home the other day, and it’s upsetting to see so many people there are forgotten and unvisited. I wish I could take them home. I look to the good, as my little girl taught me.”

Deery admires tribal cultures where people raise each other from start to finish. The young people learn from the old, and society isn’t separated by age or demographic.

“Here, youngsters are isolated in school by age,” she remarks. “They aren’t exposed to other kinds of people.”

As a phrase, “beauty of age” is not something you hear every day, not in this society. Perhaps it could become a rallying cry of existential reform. Deery’s advice: for starters, stop watching the fantasy world of TV so much.

“On TV you have to be beautiful, young, and thin. Stop watching pretend life. Start living life.”

Resistance to aging runs deep in a culture that is impatient with the past, preaches the necessity of marketing oneself as youthful and cutting-edge, and assumes that old means useless in the raging, throw-away economy.

But the power of artists and thinkers is to prompt the rest of us to stop and look, listen, feel, re-examine. In the case of aging, defy the tyranny of the new and turn to unsung intuitions that witness to the intensities of later life. As Florida Scott-Maxwell declared in her remarkable memoir The Measure of My Days, written in her 80s, “We who are old know that age is more than a disability. It is an intense and varied experience, almost beyond our capacity at times, but something to be carried high. If it is a long defeat it is also a victory, meaningful for the initiates of time, if not for those who have come less far.”

More than most previous issues, this fall Reflections relies on the distinctly personal insights of the contributing writers as individuals, family members, or believers as they sort out the dramas of an aging society in the 21st century. The baby boomer experience of aging – much debated, defined, or dreaded on a historic scale – reveals a diversity of strategies and much uncertainty. It becomes, nevertheless, a journey we make together.

We hope this Reflections issue suggests the range of spiritual and practical questions to ponder. The sooner we face our conflicted thoughts about aging, the better. The test is whether all of us can finally see the beauty of age.