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Issue 11-6

Beware Little White-Haired Ladies

“Just work it,” urged my friend Lois Shaw. I had been telling Lois how I was discovering the advantages of being a white-haired lady.

When lifting a heavy carry-on into the overhead bin of an airplane, I am not above inquiring of those passengers around me, “Is there anyone here who will help a little white-haired lady?” Helping hands seem to appear from everywhere, particularly those of young men who now think of me as their own moms (oh, let’s face it—their own grandmothers).

Lois is part of the reason I finally let my hair go white. Yes, yes; there was the matter of not wanting to put out all that time in a beauty salon, not to mention the outrageous cost of coloring and streaking and low-lighting. Even more reason was meeting Lois Shaw in Williamsburg, Virginia, over a 2007 Thanksgiving weekend getaway to discuss my trip to Kenya in March of 2008.

Lois was a gorgeous white-haired lady with a spiky do who was 50-something, seven years younger than I (she had gone to Moody Bible Institute at the same time as my sister, Valerie, who is also that much younger than I).

Jaunting around with Lois in Africa was another chapter in our intriguing friendship. We never get together when the Shaws are back in the States, and we hardly write except for business, yet we feel we have found a friend in one another. We love to read, and many of the books I recommend to others were first mentioned to me by Lois. Lois is one of the women I call a prime mover. She is the cheerful, competent, compassionate and shrewd center around which a kind of centrifugal force whirls. It was her idea to set up a voluntourism program in which competent businesswomen would travel to Kenya and not only do all the tourism highs (climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, go on safari, shop the Maasai markets, shop in Zanzibar), but they would also bring their considerable competencies to the discussion while working alongside African movers and shakers in successful development projects around Nairobi.

Lois and her husband, Mark, live and work at Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology (now Africa International University), and I guess some might say Lois is a “missionary wife”—whatever that means these days. (I kept wishing I could be at the Jomo Kenyatta Airport when the next jet-lagged group of businessmen offloaded for their Africa golf vacation to be met by the “missionary wife” with her spiky white hair, bright eyes and smile and looking ever so much like a Vogue magazine model.)

I came home from that 2008 trip with the Global Bag Project idea swirling in my mind but also thinking about going white-haired myself. If Lois can do it and look great, certainly I can do it and look OK. After all, my husband’s hair had graduated from an attractive grey-streaked black to all white with him hardly making a comment about it; didn’t it seem a little unattractively retro of me to be clinging to an age I was no longer counting out? And who, really, did I think I was fooling? I kept hearing a comment from my brother-in-law, an orthopedic surgeon, the first time I had my hair dyed, “Oh yes. Young hair. Old face.”

Soon after returning home, I started the year-long process of going from an artificially tinted ash-blonde with lowlight streaks to a little white-haired lady, all natural. Who would have thought it? Underneath all that artificial tinting, I had grown a stunning head of white hair.

“Is that all your color?” women (sometimes perfect strangers) ask me. “I mean, do you have it colored or anything?” “Wow! That looks great,” people who haven’t seen me in a couple years comment. Even my own hairdresser (who admittedly has lost some business from me due to my decision) says, “Don’t let anybody—I mean it—don’t let anybody touch this hair color.”

So what have I learned about little white-haired ladies now that I am one of them? Well, first of all, there is something that really feels authentic about one’s hair matching one’s face. For me, going natural in my sixth decade means I am at harmony with the fact that I am growing old. My white hair is a symbol of coming to terms with … coming to terms with the losses, the inevitability of some decline at some time in some way … and of being content.

Yet with this acceptance of decline there is a commensurate ascent. It is something akin to theologian Beldon Lane writes: “Divine love is incessantly restless until it turns all woundedness into health, all deformity into beauty, and all embarrassment into laughter.” Did he know he was also describing what I am experiencing as I approach the proverbial “ripe old age”?

It’s not that I feel wise. Objectively I realize that due to the accumulated lessons from the experience of these decades, both good and awful, that I simply am wise.

I no longer care who gets the credit—that ego need is gone—in fact, unless it’s absolutely necessary, I’d rather not have people know what I do. The most important thing for me is to finish the tasks at hand and to finish them well.

I love collaboration. I truly believe that a team of people working in harmony can accomplish more than a gifted solitary working alone.

Here are some other things I am discovering:

I have a wonderful relationship with men who are younger than myself.

Apart from conning them into lifting my heavy carry-on into overhead bins, some of my best friends are younger guys. We no longer have to play the be-careful-about-the-gender-issue game. One young man said to me recently, “Do you remember who I am?”, and I replied honestly, “Oh how could I possibly forget someone as handsome as you?”

No come-on intended; no come-on interpreted. It’s something more than just the surrogate-mother thing or the grandmother-substitute thing; it’s a quality of pleasure in relationship that my white hair and wrinkling skin affords us, a freedom from self-protection, from the hesitancy that hobbles easy interchange—woundedness into health, I believe it might be labeled. Woundedness from the sexual wars that allows us just to be friends.

Do you know how lovely it is to no longer have the concerns and worries and niggling quandaries that rise and befoul human communion due to our own personal inadequacies? I no longer care what people think of me. I can befriend kids, hang out with younger women not in my age-set, love men for their beauty and youth, converse with teens about books and films. Some of the best couple friends David and I have are 20 years younger than us.

One of my friends, one of the ubiquitous younger man, has a breathless intellect. I lie in wait where I can entrap him in conversation. “Oh,” he says. “It amazes me that you both are so cognitively lively at your age.” Oh, puh-leeze, I think at first, then: OK. OK. We are of a certain age. Does it show that much? Then I find the compliment.

Part of being content with who you are is forgetting how old you are. At this particular stage in my life, I feel so powerful, so at home in my own being, centered—and if I get off-kilter, I know how to get back to the middle quickly—so I am enjoying this sense of the power of wholeness, knowing that it is at best an impermanent condition, knowing that it is the result of the act of grace in my living.

“…all deformity into beauty and all embarrassment into laughter.”

David and I spend a lot of time laughing at ourselves. We are no longer embarrassed with our own human frailty—at least in front of each other, and not much any more with others. We laugh about not being able to hear each other so well. We laugh at the end of the day, or in the middle of the night if we find one another awake (“You up?” “Yep. Just couldn’t sleep.”) We lie beside one another in the bed we have shared for decades and we laugh and the mattress shakes from this another gift of communion.

Because I know life ends for us all, and that my numbered days are diminishing, I cherish the moments. My husband still is with me. So far he has health. We love the days and are grateful each morning for another day. He is sturdy and vital (not as driven as in earlier times) and when he turns on the charm, I am still enchanted, and when his natural humor begins to hold court, I fall in love again like it was the first time.

The ancient desert fathers, when they were disconsolate and without hope, would repeat one word, over and over, as a kind of soothing mantra. And the word wasn’t “Jesus” or “God” or “Love.” The word was “Today.” This kept them centered in the place they were supposed to be. And although I breathe “Jesus” and “God” and “Holy Spirit” consciously and unconsciously all the day (and much of the night), and although “Love” has settled on me like a kind of shawl, “Today” becomes much more of a chant as I age. This word is age’s gift to me, white-haired older lady that I am.

Let me speak to you through this page: Do not fear the years that are to come. Do not be afraid. The steps through the corridor of time also ascend, they are an upward climb for those who are determined to mount the incline. An Algerian monk, threatened with death, says to those who will inflict it upon him: “What do we have to fear after all? To be thrown into the tenderness of God?” Or as my friend Lois Shaw says, “Just work it.”

Beware the little white-haired ladies of the world. Some of them know secrets you are yet to learn. Many of them hold the brokenness of humanity together through their prayers. Some of them have learned to move the world. Most see beyond. They can smile on you without needing anything in return. They can hear the song you are afraid to sing. They can hold you and not offend. They can whisper, “How could I forget anyone as beautiful, as handsome, as brilliant as you?”

Better help them with their suitcases.

Karen Mains


Karen's Blogs for This Week

Link is Titles for this week are: “Mary’s Goats,” “Book of Common Prayer: Litany of Penitence,” “Putting Christmas Away With the Cat,” “The Dining Room Table Is Always Set (At Our House)” and “Proceed With Caution: Prayer Work Ahead.”


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Karen Mains & Lois Shaw

Karen Mains & Lois Shaw

“Theologian Beldon Lane writes: 'Divine love is incessantly restless until it turns all woundedness into health, all deformity into beauty, and all embarrassment into laughter.' Did he know he was also describing what I am experiencing as I approach the proverbial 'ripe old age'?”

The Mature Mind

The Mature Mind:
The Positive Power of the Aging Brain

by Gene Cohen

David and I are reading this slowly and out loud to one another. Cohen is a renowned psychiatrist and gerontologist, the director of the Center on Aging, Health and Humanities at George Washington University. He delivers the welcome message: The brain can get better with age.

This, of course, is good news for those of us in the aging years, but it is an important book based on much research that is an imperative read for those of in the middle years. It may help you look forward to the days that are coming; it will certainly cue you in on activities that have been proven to keep the mind healthy and growing.

In working with thousands of adults in their mid-life years up to their 100s, Cohen has determined certain developmental commonalities in this life passage. The opportunities of aging are that people:

•  Finally get to know oneself and become comfortable with oneself
•  Learn how to live well
•  Develop good judgment
•  Feel whole—psychologically, interpersonally, spiritually—despite loss and pain
•  Live life to the fullest right to the end
•  Give to others, one’s family, and community
•  Tell one’s story
•  Continue the process of discovery and change
•  Remain hopeful despite adversity

Obviously, this is a recommended read. Cohen reports, “The big news is that the brain is far more flexible and adaptable than once thought. Not only does the brain retain its capacity to form new memories, which entails making new connections between brain cells, but it can grow entirely new brain cells—a stunning finding filled with potential. We’ve also learned that older brains can process information in a dramatically different way than younger brains. Older people can use both sides of their brains for tasks that younger people use only one side to accomplish. A great deal of scientific work has also confirmed the ‘use it or lose it’ adage: the mind grows stronger from use and from being challenged in the same way that muscles grow stronger from exercise.”

Here’s to the happy years. May you all have a good old age (fearfully and wonderfully created).

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