I remember watching old women in the swimming pool locker room when I was young. They would sit on a bench, totally at ease with their nakedness. I would stare, appalled, and fearful of what might lie ahead.
I was in shape, an athlete, young in years and undeveloped in my path. I had not yet suffered a broken heart. I had not yet suffered the death of someone dear. I had not yet opened my arms to a newborn. I had not yet been moved to tears by the kindness of a friend. I had not yet fully loved. I was not fully formed.
At 15, I was alarmed by the sagging breasts of old women I glimpsed in the locker room. I tried not to look at women who stood with crooks in their backs, bunions on their feet, stretch marks, folds, thinning hair and wrinkled skin. They looked old and pitiful to me. It was hard to imagine I would ever be like that.
I would dress as quickly as I could so I could get out of the locker room. I didn’t want to see others nor did I want anyone to see me. That’s the way it was with all the girls on the swim team. We were in and out of that place as soon as our thick hair was dry. I couldn’t figure out why those older women were so relaxed in the nude and so slow about moving out. Much later, I would understand.
A wise woman once told me that time is a friend to those who wish to know. She said often that strong women are equally good at being soft. Advice poured forth from her–some sought but much unsolicited. She told me once that she never got out of bed before her children left for school. She’d have the housekeeper get them up and send them off while she remained undisturbed with tea and toast in bed. I remember being quite puzzled that she would consider this a good thing to share, particularly in light of her shared philosophical views of strong and soft women. It seemed unnatural, inattentive, hardly soft.
When my kids were nearly grown I finally asked her about this practice. She referred to the guidance given by flight attendants that given an emergency, you must secure your own oxygen mask before helping your loved ones to secure theirs. She said she had been overwhelmed by the struggle of raising 6 kids in the 1950s until she took up her early morning solitude routine. That bit of quiet time in the morning allowed her to recharge her nurturing battery so she could be energetic and attentive to those kids from the moment they got home from school. Granted, not many can rely on someone else to take charge while they snooze. But her point remains. Only by taking care of yourself can you take care of those you love. And only by loving yourself can you love and be loved. Common wisdom with a twist of her own personal experience. A life lesson she shared with me.
She was one of many older women who have kindly shared their wisdom with me. Grandmothers, my mother, a couple of teachers, friends and mentors. The older women who have most influenced my life taught by example and spoke wise words full of experience and understanding. More depth. Less judgment. More compassion. Truth.
Occasionally of late, I’ve been asked by younger women for my own words of wisdom. I guess the baton has been passed to my generation since we have now marked a fair number of life’s milestones. And as those milestones were reached, the years have passed and those experiences have shaped our souls. And while all that was going on, our bodies have been reshaped too, to various degrees.
It is ironic in some sense that when we are young and perfect in body we are so imperfect in our sense of self. Some are wise beyond their years, but most not. Most of us need those years and the gift of time to understand what we need to understand and to know what is important to know. Wisdom is truly a gift of experience and age.
And so I now understand naked old women in the locker room. They are content in their nakedness for they love who they are. They are proud not of perky breasts but proud of their depth of soul instead. They fear not stretch marks for they do not judge. They are compassionate of wrinkles, bunions, thinning hair, crooked backs and folds. For they have become wise women.
I am honored when I am asked by a younger woman to share what life has taught me to know. For perhaps that means I am on my way to becoming a wise woman. A strong, soft, gloriously naked, wise woman.