The most debilitating acting prop I’ve ever been assigned was a hand mirror. And I say this as someone who once spent 14 evenings climbing a rickety ladder to perch on a scaffold the width of a 2×4 while carrying a lit candle. Stage lights are famously bright and revealing, but I don’t generally have to study myself at close range while standing under them. For this show I not only had to stare at my face in the mirror on a well lit stage, I had to do so during a 10 minute freeze. No acting to distract me–my only job was to keep still. My eyes were free to roam critically over the caked-on foundation and blush, noting the way it magnified my pores and seeped into the cracks and crevices in my skin. Sometimes I’d be in danger of missing my cue, so absorbed was I in thoughts like, “I need more sleep, look at those carpet bags under my eyes. Is there an angle from which I DON’T have a double chin? Put me and Jabba the Hut in a neck wrinkles contest, and I would win. What does Botox actually DO again…?” This last thought even though I’ve always considered a Botoxed face to be an actor’s worst folly–why would you hamper the range of one of your most important instruments? Not to mention that the nicest comment I got about this particular performance was in praise of my “funny facial expressions.” But in those long moments confronting my harshly lit aging visage, all I could do was mourn the crag-free dewiness of youth.
And as long as we’re cataloging bodily decay, let’s talk about my pooch. Why not? I know you’re all looking at it through the internet, pondering it, wondering if I might be pregnant again (ADVANCED MATERNAL AGE.) I know this because I get asked if I’m pregnant frequently enough that I’m no longer able to make a light-hearted joke in return. People, readers, read this, make a note. If a woman has not just said to you, “I’m so thrilled to be expecting again!” don’t make any assumptions, and keep your questions on mute. It’s been particularly crushing how often I’ve had to convey this social nicety to my six year old son, whose affectionate handsiness often compels him to palpitate the pooch. He kneads it, pokes it, hugs on it, kisses me there. He says, “Mama, is there another little baby inside that belly?” He reaches under my shirt so he can stroke the soft, saggy skin over my stretched out bellybutton. Shudder. The worst part being that I know he is trying to love on, not annoy, me. BUT IT IS SO ANNOYING. I’ve spoken to him sharply so often that the other day as he was resting his cheek against the pooch, kind of bouncing against it, I was juuust about to say something to him when he interrupted, “Mama, stop. I love how soft and comfortable you are here. It’s perfect for hugging.” Which… Was one way to shut me down, that’s for sure. Out of the mouths of people who still look like babes.
I’m thinking about my grandmother a lot these days, as the one year anniversary of her death at 92 is coming up next week. She was one of the most beautiful old ladies in the world, and I say this completely objectively. She wore her soft, shining gray hair in a perfect pageboy held back with combs, such a flattering, classic style. She turned up at even the most mundane of events in a snappy coordinating outfit layered with an assortment of her gorgeous, formal jewelry. Her inner sweetness and grace radiated out through a twinkling, contagious smile. When you’re an old lady, you’re free to wear purple, but what I’d most like is to look like my grandmother. But I can remember her saying to me sometime around her 90th birthday, “I look in the mirror and feel startled at what I see. Who is that wrinkled old woman? Inside I still feel 23!”
I know how lucky I am to have gotten to age to this point. That the crags in my face are there in part because of how deeply and frequently I have smiled; that my busted pooch carried two healthy children to term. I am so much more interested in what’s going on inside my head than what it looks like on the outside, truly. I’m doing my utmost to raise my daughter with little emphasis on her “prettiness.” But I struggle to stop shaming myself for the perfectly natural process of getting, and looking, older. I don’t want to struggle with it, I’m embarrassed to be struggling with it, but I do. And by writing about it, by putting this mental tangle on display, I hope to diminish the power the thoughts have when they’re rattling around in my head raising a cacophonous din. The next time someone hands me a hand mirror, I want to remember that it inspired me to flex my mental muscles and write something true.