I used to dread ageing. When I was in my teens, I joked that I didn’t really want to live beyond thirty-five or so. Old age (or even middle age) seemed like a life sentence: I’m not sure what I thought my mind would be like in my later years, but I remember thinking my body would be tired and breaking down. Ageing seemed to me to be a drawn out unpleasantness of increasing degree.
At thirty-seven (already two years past my use by date, if my teenage self is to be believed), I look forward to becoming older. I’m just old enough to feel the beginnings of the physical breakdown I so feared: I have early osteoarthritis in my spine, and mild arthritis in some of my finger and toe joints. My hair is almost entirely grey, though I don’t mind that. I don’t mind wrinkles either; but function matters to me a great deal and there are some tiny, cumulative griefs in my joints already.
Having spent the last eighteen months or so morphing into a recreational athlete, I have become much more invested in my long term wellbeing. I’ve begun to learn that although some change in function is inevitable, there’s also an argument to be made that the human body doesn’t stop working due to age – as long as you keep moving.
One of the yudansha in my dojo is an older woman, and she is older in the best way possible. She’s bright and articulate and lively, and I love watching her roll and breakfall and throw other students. I watch her and see a world of possibility: I want to reach retirement age and be able to throw students to the mat, and leap over an obstacle into a quick-sure forward roll.
That I feel strong and well contributes to this desire for a long and active life: it feels possible in a way that is new and exhilarating to me. I have come to realise though that there is another, maybe even more significant reason that I have aspirations and goals for my sixties and seventies and eighties and beyond.
The link between physical health and mental health is a complex link and not one we understand well on a conscious level, but on a more visceral level the connection is very clear. The effect that physical health has on my affect is clear and immediate: if I spend enough time in each week training for strength, I am calm and resilient, and my day to day existence is smooth enough that I can move through it confidently.
More profound though is the realisation that I now think about the future at all. I think about times a long way ahead of me, and my contented place in them. And this, this is something. I spent many years looking no further forward than a week or a day.
There were times when the black dog placed his heavy paws on my chest, and breathed hot and claustrophobic over my shoulder, and then life was a matter of minutes: just one, then another, then another. But those are not the times I’m thinking of: I’m thinking of the expanse of years, the decade or even two where I forgot how to dream. Life wasn’t bad or even particularly sad: it just didn’t have a permanent sort of texture, and I didn’t grip it firmly enough to climb.
This is what excites me about getting old: that I care enough to want it. I see a long and vibrant future, and I am there in every moment.