I turned fifty last weekend, although turned feels too active a verb. The earth did the turning. All I did was wake up and because of how we measure time in years around the sun, I find myself a year older.
It’s February, and the seasons are starting to change; the planet is doing the work of transforming from winter to spring in our Northern Hemisphere. The world spins and we spin with it, measuring our lives in beginnings and endings: The life of a mayfly in 24 hours, the ruby-throated hummingbird in three to four years. Our beloved cats and dogs may get 10 to 15 years. Macaws can live 60 to 80 years old, and Galapagos Giant Tortoises can live to be over 100. On the other end of that spectrum, there are Redwoods in California that are 2000 years old and a Norway spruce on Fulufjället Mountain, Sweden has lived over 9,500 years.
I must be ancient to the mayfly and barely register in the long life of that Norway spruce.
Age is most definitely relative.
Yet just like the other creatures, all we get is a lifetime, and we don’t usually know how long that is going to be.
In the days leading up to and following my birthday, I have been filled with gratitude for the experiences and relationships of my fifty years: the love I have been given and shared, the stories that shaped me, the people I have known, the moments of joy and wonder that froze time.
I think about the others who have moved through this milestone before me: friends who have been talking honestly about their experiences of aging, wise women and teachers who share lessons about physical and mental health, as well as beloved elders who walk even farther ahead and lead by example. I am honored to walk in their footsteps.
I’ve been taking walks to break away from my work on the computer, spending time really paying attention to the natural world without the distraction of technology, because I truly believe that nature is our greatest teacher.
Again and again, I come back to the trees. Trees, like the rich black earth they grow in, are sacred in the stories of my Ukrainian ancestors, in our songs, in our folklore, in our embroidery and pysanky. Trees also feature in my poetry, my stories, my spiritual practices and traditions.
I believe trees have much to teach us, and here’s the thing…When I think about the beloved elders in my life, the older they get, the more they resemble the ancient tree-people. They stop being contained and defined by family and cultural expectations. Like the trees, they have allowed themselves to unapologetically grow into their full power. They may not be loud—strength can be quiet. They may not be theatrical—not all trees have showy blooms. But once trees get to a certain age, they are a landmark for life around them. Trees reshape the landscape.
I think about my Baba, Parania, my earliest example of a matriarch. She was a force of nature and the heart of our Dudycz family. Sometimes when I stand beside an ancient tree, solid and thick and in full bloom, I am reminded of being in Baba’s presence when I was little. There was a gravity to Baba’s love and protection.
Like our tree-sisters, the queens and crones of a certain age allow themselves to spread and stretch, to fill the space, to reach for the sun. They protect those who come to them. They provide shelter and refuge. They stand in the face of storms, and they dance even when eyes are watching. They reshape the landscape.
I am aware that I am losing some of the “gifts” of youth, and there are days where I’m surprised by some physical change or another. But I bristle any time I’m told that “I look good for my age.” Because that starts from the assumption that women of a certain age are no longer beautiful, and I reject that. I think that older women are beautiful, not “beautiful for their age or despite their age” but beautiful because of their age.
I took this photograph in the morning with no makeup or filters. This is me at fifty with a new birthday mug and some delicious coffee.
When I look in the mirror, I’m not afraid of the wrinkles or grey hairs. I am working to remain strong and healthy, but I’m not trying to turn back any clock. I love this little belly that has carried three children, these calves that have danced for decades, these hands that have kneaded bread and sore muscles, these near-sighted eyes with their growing frame of lines that have allowed me to see so much of this world. Sometimes they ache, sometimes they take a while to warm up, but they still allow me to do things that I love. And like my ancestors and the elders in my circle, as well as my dear tree-sisters, the work of my next fifty years, if I’m so blessed, is to continue to grow more fully into myself.