We had just been chastised to keep our voices down—this was, after all, a meditation retreat, and we were supposed to be in silence. But my roommates, two 60-something women named Joan and Linda, and I were amped up on late-night (in this context, that’s about 9 p.m.) girl talk. And I was about to receive the most profound insight I would all week, not from the six hours of meditation we did every day, nor from the spiritually rich talks the teachers would give. In fact, what my roommate, Joan, said next counts as one of the great insights of my life. “Jennifer, just wait until you get old,” she said. “Spending a thousand dollars on a Tempurpedic bed is no longer an indulgence, it’s a medical necessity. Getting old is the best!”
She said this without a hint of exhaustion, self-pity, or irony. I thought: She’s right. I can’t wait to get old! And the reason for that went beyond that moment, beyond a Tempurpedic bed—even though I covet that marshmallowy mattress. For the previous few years, I’d been coming to terms with the reality of aging. As I talked to Joan and Linda, however, I realized that perhaps I finally had come to terms with it, and the way I had done it was shockingly simple and inexpensive. As 9 million people underwent cosmetic procedures last year, I did something else. I hung out with older women.
But this new attitude hadn’t come so easily, nor without a dabble in dermatologic procedures. As I surpassed 30, I had grasped the impermanence of life and the sudden permanence of my smile lines. Weight didn’t come off as easily as it once had. Sunlight now left my face splotchy, not golden brown.
This all played in stark relief to what surrounded me: Many of my friends were a few years younger than I was, a result of my single-girl lifestyle in New York and, I liked to think, my youthful attitude. But they all remained unlined, while I felt worn in comparison. I also worked at Entertainment Weekly magazine, which is not the vainest magazine in the land, but is filled with freakishly gorgeous people with ageless skin and bodies. They’re from Hollywood, after all.
As my life got more stressful—working all day, writing a book at night and on weekends—my habits got worse—more wine, less working out, less meditation. The work paid off with lots more money, enough to pay for a pricey laser treatment I imagined would erase every abuse, mistake, and flaw of the last three-plus decades.
Instead of the perfect face I’d always dreamed of, however, what I got was a painful procedure in which my skin was systematically burned off to reveal a less-damaged under-layer. The dermatologist had promised a “slightly uncomfortable” operation that would feel “like a bad sunburn.” I imagined someone waving a light pen over me for a few minutes and taking away all my worries, with nothing but a little stinging. It didn’t go that way. Nothing went wrong; it just hurt like my skin had melted off, which it had. I went home and popped the prescription-strength painkiller my doctor had given me and healed up just fine. My skin looked a little better. Not perfect, but better.
My anxiety about my aging face, however, remained untouched. That is, until I met Jesse, the man who would turn out to be the love of my life.
But this is not a story about the magic bullet of finding a man who loved me just as I was, though he did, and he does, and his taste does run to older women. I am four years older than he, and I am younger than several of his exes. He’s a fan of gray hair on women. He’s expressed admiration for beautiful women who happen to have wrinkles. So, yeah, I hit the jackpot there. But it was the fact that he led me to practice Zen Buddhism that turned me around on the subject of aging, not because of any spiritual awakening I had, but because of the people with whom we practice: Namely, there are a lot of ladies of a certain age at the Village Zendo, the temple to which we belong.
The woman who started the Village Zendo 25 years ago happens to be a 60-something named Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara. Roshi—the Zen term for the head, or abbess, of a temple—is awesome in about five zillion ways, as you might imagine, but one thing strikes anyone who meets her: She is bald. Per Zen tradition for monks, she keeps her head shaven. And because she has better things to do, she wears no makeup. And because she kicks ass, she’s so radiant that after about five minutes of knowing her, you forget that it’s unusual for a woman to shave her head and wear no makeup. In fact, you start wondering why we don’t all shave our heads and wear no makeup.
In reality, I’m not quite to that level of shedding my vanity. I love my long hair and my smoky eye makeup. But I do go out without makeup more often now. Because I realize: No one cares. I look fine. In fact, I look good. Essentially, I have learned, mainly through hanging out with inspiring, vibrant older women, that I look great. Not that I look great in comparison to them, and not that they are those older women who look so good that they make us all think that 50 is the new 30. I don’t want 50 to be the new 30. That’s too much pressure.
But I do want to see that wrinkles and flaws are cool. And now I have, thanks to a string of older women who have appeared in my life recently. If you get used to looking at wrinkles and flaws on others, you realize they’re not so bad on yourself. The problem is that in our youth-obsessed culture, we barely see them anymore.
After I met Roshi, I encountered several other older women, first through the zendo. Because Roshi was the one who started the group in her New York apartment 25 years ago, a lot of the original members are her age. One of my favorites was Sybil Myoshin Taylor. When Jesse spoke of “my friend Sybil,” whom he wanted me to meet, at first I didn’t realize that she was in her 70s. I just knew that she worked on the zendo journal with him and that she was working on several book projects. He thought we’d have a lot in common.
It turned out we did. I loved talking to Sybil about my writing, and hearing all of the ideas she had for hers. It was so easy to talk to her about everything—life, sex, spirituality, work—that sometimes it was confusing when we’d get up from dinner and have to walk slowly. She was in her 70s. Her legs didn’t work as well as they once had. But her wit was sharp as ever. She was beautiful, but, yes, old. She died last year, beautiful and old and working on at least two books that I knew of. That, I thought, is how I want to die.
In my years since joining the zendo, I’ve encountered an endless parade of Sybils and Roshis. There’s this woman with long, beautiful, silver hair that she always wears in a side braid, and I think: Yes, I hope I get to have hair just like that someday. There’s Linda and Joan, my retreat roommates who have plenty of physical complaints about getting older but see the bright side in it. After one talk Linda and I had, she said to me, incredulously, “How old are you?” When I told her I was in my 30s, I was about to do the standard thanks-for-thinking-I-look-young thing. “Wow, she replied, “you’re wise beyond your years!” She’d thought I was older. And she meant it as a compliment. Somehow, it made me feel younger. If by younger you mean vibrant, alive, and happy in the moment. Which, let’s face it, is better than being lineless.
I’ve also had the privilege, throughout the last year, of meeting several smart, adventurous older women who helped to make The Mary Tyler Moore Show in the 1970s. In researching a book that tells their history, I’ve gotten to interview the show’s female writers—groundbreakers in TV comedy who’ve led full lives, many without ever getting married—and several of its stars. Producer-writer Treva Silverman exudes soft sexiness, even still. Valerie Harper, who played Rhoda, glows with generosity. Harper’s former assistant, Mimi Kirk, who inspired her to wear her famous headscarves as Rhoda, became a raw-foods expert and put out her first book at 73.
After spending months immersed in their lives and stories, I found the lines around my mouth softening, the discolorations in my skin fading. I didn’t notice them so much anymore. In fact, when I returned to the dermatologist for a follow-up appointment and she offered to do one more round of laser treatment, free of charge, to neaten things up and make them perfect, I found myself saying an easy, “No, thanks.” The pain just isn’t worth it.