I’ve always been a reader, and my favorite author, whose worlds and stories and characters have influenced me at least as much as anything that’s ever actually happened or anyone I’ve ever actually known, is Tanith Lee (recently deceased in 2015). She wrote in a number of styles, across a variety of genres, but one of her most memorable contributions to the fantasy/sci-fi canon was a book called “Delirium’s Mistress”, part of her fable-esque Flat Earth series. This particular story explores the coming-of-age of Azhriaz-Sovaz, a half-demon demi-goddess of heart-stopping beauty and immortality to boot.
Azhriaz’s dad is Azhrarn, Prince of Night, a Satan character but aesthetically and morally complex, as per Lee’s poetic bent. Azhriaz is essentially good, but goes through a major bad-girl streak, as she finds her footing, which largely has to do with getting out from under Azhrarn’s presumed dominance over all things (somewhat forgivable in this context). Shenanigans result, including her choosing to date her dad’s biggest rival, the Lord of Madness (think “Horsemen of the Apocalypse” here) and, at one point, establishing herself as the supreme Empress of the entire (flat) Earth, and having everyone everywhere bring her tribute in the form of all their stuff, their babies, live sacrifice, anything and everything, just being really really wicked.
She causes infinite suffering, and – as an immortal – lives to regret it deeply, and eventually to envy the amazingly brief and yet so much more meaningful lives of mortals, which she had previously scorned. In her hard-won sorrow and compassion and pity, Azhriaz begins to understand that it is mortals who are truly eternal – who live and die and reincarnate, whose souls are enriched beyond measure, life after life, drenched in the immediacy of the totally passionate, dramatic, no-guarantees mortal experience.
Spoiler here, but Ahzriaz discovers a way to enter the karmic cycle – to relinquish her immortal beauty and stagnancy, to wither and grow old and die, to know she will be born again – into uncertain circumstances, naked and helpless, to grow and learn and love and lose, over and over again – to truly live.
As an old, old woman, bent nearly double and unrecognizable except for the radiant and unquenchable beauty of her soul, her estranged father finally comes to her, towering over her in all his fierce, masculine beauty. He intends to chastise her for scorning the gifts of her demonic inheritance, to convince her to change her mind and resume her life of perfect untouchable loveliness, the earth and every creature on it as her plaything, forever. Azhriaz greets him with love, humility, and her unwavering commitment to *true* spiritual growth. Recognizing in his daughter a vision and nobility far greater than his own, Azhrarn can only bow to her and ask for her blessing, which she gives.
It’s really impossible to talk about aging, isn’t it, without a spiritual component, a context of meaning that is eternal in a world that is not. Personally, I like the bird’s eye view that spiritual inquiry lends to every one of life’s questions and dilemmas, and aging gracefully is no exception. Otherwise it’s easy to get disoriented and then caught up in a bunch of low-level, time-suck dilemmas. And any dilemma we ever face is really only about one thing: self worth. Am I expressing it or am I chasing it? With this clothing, this cosmetic procedure, this regimen, this role, these shoes, this demeanor, am I expressing my self worth or am I trying to shore it up? As someone who’s spent a lot of time and effort doing both, I feel uniquely qualified to report that the only difference between aging beautifully and aging grotesquely is that.
I understand that we’re having a bit of a lifestyle/health crisis here in the US and as such, maybe not doing as good of a job as we could of making aging look sexy, as it were, but treating that as a separate issue and then also shelving that separate issue for right now, I would like to say that I truly appreciate the practice aging has given me, the value of which cannot be overstated. Practice at what, you ask? Well, practice at having self-worth, for one (major) thing. At feeling the difference between seeking the approval of others versus expressing the joyful impulses of my own nature. We are objects in motion, we have velocities and vectors and purposes and intents, and we are always most beautiful in the context of our natural-born vigor.
In the earlier 2000’s, I taught college freshman-level English and it was really interesting because my students, in addition to being unique and wonderful individuals obviously, were also walking, talking advertisements for whatever brand of gender and personal fashion had most influenced them up to that point. That’s arguably true of everyone, but this was a generation notable for having been marketed at more heavily than any group in human history, prior.
I noticed a thing with the girls, and probably my own challenges negotiating cultural femininity caused me to pay extra attention: some girls had gotten the impression that they were still lifes. Yes, like a vase or a bowl of oranges, in art class, that everyone sits around and sketches, a still life. They didn’t move or speak very much, and their hair and makeup and clothing were very romantic, but rigidly so.
And you know what? I totally got it. They grew up seeing these *still* images of beautiful women, put up on a pedestal and admired, and when they saw themselves in the mirror, they scrutinized their own appearances from that unconscious standpoint – standing still. And please see that I’m not criticizing them, but what I’m saying is that they didn’t realize how stiff and actually off-putting their effect was, in the rough and tumble, ruddy-cheeked context of a mountain town university.
But what I’m saying, more broadly, is that we’re all making essentially that same mistake when we worship youth per se. Whether we realize it or not – but trust me, the great English teacher in the sky does – we are so much more beautiful in motion, trying to put our thoughts into words, spilling marinara on our shirts, reaching our hands into the dirty engine compartment of our life experience and tinkering around. We won’t ever be able to see that kind of beauty in a mirror, and so we have to take what we do see in the mirror with a loving grain of salt.
And, as an extremely girly girl who loves salon days, experimenting with makeup and clothing, wearing high heeled shoes and boots, doing exercises to make my butt look better, I’m not trying to talk anyone out of caring about how they look. But honestly when I hear people complain about aging – that they don’t want to age, they don’t like how they’re aging, aging sucks, they wish they were young again, blah blah blah – in my mind’s eye, they become one of my Tragic Victorian Heroine students, gazing off into some (permanently irrelevant) distance and waiting for a savior, or at least an admirer. News flash: you have to age. It’s either that or die, so I’ll take aging now and dying later, great thanks. But you don’t have to be fat or sick or ugly or badly dressed or dehydrated or poorly nourished. You can be, the world will certainly enable you in that, but you don’t have to be. Age just means we’ve had more time to become what we essentially are.
So, when I hear people talk about aging, which they perpetually seem to do, the above represents a brief sampling of my thoughts on the matter. The subject came up, in fact, because a girlfriend and I were congratulating ourselves on having bloomed so well, albeit lately. The main thing, I think she and I would agree, is to bloom. Bloom early, bloom late, just bloom. And keep blooming.