HOW OLD ARE YOU?

Time and Place (mneset.me), another of my blogs, has just documented my recent trip around Southeast Asia and India. Here’s an aside.

There is some good news, women of the world. At some point in time—even when you’re much younger than I am now—you can travel the world without being regarded as a sex object, propositioned, touched inappropriately…or followed around the Egyptian Museum by a black-robed Arab gentleman whispering ‘I love you’ each time we crossed paths (a rather fond memory actually).

It is a time of invisibility. All of us experience it if we live into advanced middle age.

Now however I’m visible again…noticed and approached and questioned. Usually by men in fact. Especially when traveling. Sometimes it’s just an offer of assistance…’Can I put that in overhead for you?’, or ‘Please, sit here.’ Occasionally it’s a ‘Where are you from?’ (which in the bad old past might be a pick-up line—but now simply means ‘Most of the old women around here don’t wear jeans’)  Most often though the question of the day is… ‘How old are you?’

I should have kept a tally of how many times that question was asked on this trip. It was frequent and, oddly enough, always flattering. How could that possibly be flattering you ask? Because it was almost always said in a tone of wonderment and/or admiration. Remember I was traveling in Southeast Asia and India where life has traditionally been hard on everyone, not least on the elderly, and maybe especially on old women. So the wonder stems from the fact that few people my age are physically or economically well enough off to travel at all, much less to travel far.

The best part of course was a usual follow-up comment. ‘How old are you?’ ‘I’m 78.’ ‘Oh my, you are strong.’ Every now and then someone has expressed admiration for something for which I’ve received credit—a good grade in school, a good dance program, a good Hummingbird cake. But I’m not sure any compliment has ever made me feel quite as good as the phrase ‘You are strong.’

Trust me when I tell you that there will be a time in your life when ‘You are strong’ will resonate in a way ‘You are smart, handsome, pretty, funny, wise…’; never has nor could because you don’t need it as much. But at a time when power in every life arena is on the verge of slipping away, you can still maintain some semblance of value by being strong—Ruth Ginsburg-strong.

The age question might be accompanied by ‘How come you are traveling alone?’ When I responded that it was the only way I could go exactly where I wanted, sometimes the questioner was admiring, sometimes maybe a little pitying. The fact that I still work was cause for further astonishment…or sympathy. There was a mini-conversation in India with one of the hotel staff who found it quite astonishing that I lived alone and wondered, since I had sons, why I didn’t live with them and cook for them. It was too hard to explain that they’re better cooks than I am—and what manly Indian male would have believed it anyway.

So never mind that eat/pray/love nonsense. Go to the gym…then go forth and be strong.

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