India – Aging

I met Shanti the day after I arrived at the meditation center, the day after their ten days of silence. She wore a floppy pink velvet hat, light blue scarves and a fake fur wrap. We were two km above sea level, so the mornings and evenings were cool. Shanti was about 5’5″ and 90 pounds. Though her face was heavily wrinkled, her long hair completely grey, she walked, talked and looked like a young girl. She reminded me of my mother, and what I might look like when I reach sixty‐nine. 

Age had been confusing me since my trip. Twenty something year old Europeans were mostly who I interacted with. I spent hours talking with them and looking at their plump, soft and flawless skin. Clearly defined lip and jaw lines were settling into my mental imagery as how people looked. 

Most of the mirrors I came across in India were in dimly lit spaces, hung at the level of my nose and were very small. When I did actually see my whole face I was always a bit startled. I didn’t look like the twenty year olds. I wondered what they saw when they looked at me. I wondered how they saw me. Was I their new friend, a mother figure, someone who they interacted with because I happened to be near them? 

I was very interested in talking with an older woman about aging. On a tea break Shanti joined me, with her stash of food she had gathered from the morning and her hand made ceramic mug. She made green tea, pealed her apple, opened her leftover dosa, and shared her experiences living with Osho, with the brightness of a young girl in love.  

When the space opened up in the conversation I told Shanti about my experience at the last meditation retreat I was on. There were ninety of us in silence for ten days. I essentially kept my eyes down for most of the retreat, keeping my focus deeply internal, even in the midst of sharing a relatively small room with eleven other women (one of whom slept in the bunk above me) and a bathroom, that was constantly running out of water, with even more women sharing it. 

On the last night of the retreat, we were to do a special candle lighting ceremony around the newly renovated stupa. The teacher offered the first lighting to the eldest man in the group, as a sign of honor and respect, as they would do in the Indian tradition. He was in his sixties. Then the teacher said, “To balance it out, Amina will you be next, as the oldest woman?” 

I had a moment, or more than one moment, of freezing, incomprehension, humiliation, exposure, denial. I could not possibly be the oldest woman in the whole group. This idea felt like more than an insult. I felt shame. I didn’t feel any of that about the oldest man. He was clearly the oldest and that was just true and fine. But the oldest woman, that seemed equivalent to saying, “invisible, dried up, finished, on the outside, no longer a part of, separate.” Inside I didn’t feel any of those things to be true for me, but in western culture using old with woman in the same sentence often brings up these associations. 

I lit the candle with great mental disturbance around word association. In that one act of “honoring”, my teacher brought to the surface what I had been grappling with for a few years, more intensely in the last month leading up to the retreat. My appearance was changing. 

I asked Shanti how she dealt with aging as a woman. She said she didn’t feel like she was sixty‐nine. “But what about how others perceive you?”
She shrugged her shoulders and smiled coyly, “I guess other people’s perception of me might just be different than my perception of myself.” That was it, no need to talk about it anymore. 

A week later Shanti came into the dining hall and sat down next to me. She looked off. She said, in her normal, upbeat tone, that her heart rate was high. It had happened before and just went back to normal. I offered to get her food. When I came back she said it was still high. The beautiful Greek man sitting across the table asked if he could feel her pulse. That was the first time I’d heard him speak. He kept very self‐contained in the week I had been there, except for the couple of times where we made eye contact. His large brown eyes emanated love. His smile was not a transitory polite gesture; it was more a revealing of the truth of love itself. 

He asked Shanti some questions, revealing his occupation as a doctor. Her heart rate was one hundred and sixty. The doctor suggested that she lay down. Shanti wanted to eat. She had a hard time keeping weight on, though she ate as much as any man. I finished my meal, along with most everyone else, and her heart rate had not shifted. Shanti said she felt faint and maybe she ought to lie down right there. Rene and I made a make shift bed with our laps and a chair and Shanti lied down. Her demeanor did not change a bit. We could have easily been in one of our many conversations where she was sharing about her experiences with Osho or her beloved, or Genghis Khan and Chinese history, or the recent book she was reading by Annie Dillard. 

The doctor returned and suggested that she go to the hospital. Shanti said cheerfully that she didn’t want to go to hospital. The doctor offered to carry her to her room. She accepted. He effortlessly lifted her tiny‐framed body, draped in pastel colors. From behind, her long hair fell over his arms, her frail looking hands locked together around his shoulder as her feet dangled. 

She could have been my mother. She could have been his mother, child, lover. It all blurred together. My new friend might not be here tomorrow. 

The calm doctor laid her in her bed, propped up her legs, and again suggested, without pressure, that she go to the hospital. Shanti said she didn’t want to go, while smiling. “My mother died at home, the way she wanted to. I don’t like hospital. I’d like to be touched.” 

Rene placed her hands on Shanti’s belly and heart. Mineesh held her head and I held her feet. Melanie brought in a mister with Frankincense oil. Meg made some lemon grass tea. 

Shanti talked about the lack of physical connection and deeper emotional connections in her life. She lived in an “intentional community” designed to be a Utopian society, but through the years there had been more and more space between people, and not so much community. She really appreciated the friends she made at the retreat center. We calmly joked that she created her heart condition so she could be touched. She laughed and agreed. 

After about a half hour Shanti said her heart rate was normal again. The doctor came back in and confirmed, still suggesting the hospital. Shanti said that touch was the right medicine. 

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