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I think I have something to tell you that you may want to hear. Call me a liar if you want. Tell me I’m blind. But here it is: By some magic, the one you love becomes more beautiful with age.
All the things you yourself endure – the psychic misery and physical calamities; slow mind, fast bladder; surfeit or scarcity of hair; the incarnation of a stiffer, uglier and weaker you – seem unjust wages for life’s hard work.
Don’t despair. As you spend decades watching yourself fall apart like a stale biscuit, your loved one will at the same time become luminous.
Here’s the thing. You and your love become artists as time passes. Your medium is each other. Your failing body and shrunken intellect are trivial in the context of the important work you offer the world. Your beloved is filled canvas and shaped stone, a permanent monument to your gifts; your artistry enables that person to stay the disfiguring blast of aging.
Don’t roll your eyes. I think you’ll see what I mean.
I’m not resorting to the old cliché of fine wine or anything else that supposedly improves with age. Your spouse isn’t getting better, and neither are you.
And it’s not that beauty is in the eye of the beholder: That’s just a rationalization, someone’s attempt to comfort you as you countenance eventually loving a ruined piece of nature.
Here’s what I mean. Your love becomes more beautiful as the two of you age because your hearts agreed, in the heart’s language, long ago in the faraway land of your youth, that this is what will be.
Don’t kid yourself that it’s because you have stayed young at heart. That’s bull – doltish optimism and rank naiveté. Instead, the two of you have created beauty in each other just as masters of paint and marble create their oeuvre through decades. The master ages, but his work in later years is more finished, more perfect and more beautiful.
Far from being in the eye of the beholder, beauty is created by the two of you through the gentle touch, the brightening glance, the fond remembrance – all that which is deeper than thought and beyond utterance.
Think of it this way. You have a favourite retreat where you spend your summer holiday. A beautiful lake, a deep wood, the choir of crickets at night, the whooping of loons in the morning. You have been going there for years. This place has aged. But can you tell where the aging has happened? You see the beauty each time you visit as if it were for the first time. And yet your memory of the way it was in past days also informs the way it is now. What was and what is are joined, beauty past and beauty present.
The aging of the place has created a new delight, where memory and the awareness of the now are joined. You dive into the water and it refreshes you as surely as it did 20 years ago. Should you seek other water? The ancient, brilliant stars you see on a clear night, do you wish to replace them? Are there better stars elsewhere, younger, burning with a surer fire? Of course not. It is sufficient that they are still there, in deep, silent space.
So it is with your partner. He or she may be anguished by aging. Grey hair. Weight gain. Fading skin. You do not see these things. You say nothing. For you know that this is the point of the artistry of later life.
Consider your favourite music. Is it less enjoyable because you discovered it years ago, rather than yesterday? The melody, the phrase, the rhythm are no less poignant for being well-known; you carry them in your head as part of you.
An old birch tree stands beside water. I have observed this tree for many years. It grew as others did, reaching to the afternoon sun. This tree is nearly dead. It will continue to lean toward the sun for no purpose, except maybe as a reminder to the living trees around it that it was once like them. To me, this is the most beautiful tree of the group. It stands for the sweet pathos of the passing of time. Sweet, not bitter. No need to rage.
This tree reminds me that I have, with my beloved, watched sunrises, shared food, enjoyed friendship. These are the lights I lean toward.
I know, I know. Older eyes are not as lustrous as younger eyes. But those old, cosmetically unaltered eyes you stare into are eyes you have created. They shine the brighter for your loving them and their loving you. They are yours.
The skin on the hand you hold is softer for the years of your touching it in joy and in grief. When clasped, where does your hand end and the other begin?
As surely as the musician perfects the beauty of music through repetition over years, so you perfect the beauty of your loved one through your constant seeking of it. A fine instrument can only play beautiful music in the hands of a gifted player. Your partner can only be beautiful in your expert hands.
Let your hands be gentle and sure. What you are about to make will be exquisite.
Mark Harding lives in Toronto.
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