Local Lifestyle

Wednesday, Sep 18 2013 11:34 AM

VALERIE SCHULTZ: Here are my wrinkles, but also my wisdom

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    By Alex Horvath / The Californian

    Columnist Valerie Schultz

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By VALERIE SCHULTZ, Contributing columnist

Aging women often become less visible in our society, in the movies, on television, and just about everywhere the public eye wants to look.

Male celebrities can somehow pull off looking older and distinguished, but women are meant to look seamlessly young. When women, famous or not, try to botox their way to eternal youth, or surgically deny the merciless march of the seasons, their look becomes plastic, unnatural, and ultimately ridiculous. When women don't try to hide their wrinkles or their graying hair, they become almost invisible.

We older women try our best to age with grace, to embrace our inner crone, to accept the effects of gravity, but there comes a time when we notice that we get called "ma'am" a lot. We catch sight of ourselves in a mirror and are surprised by the older version of the woman we forgot to expect looking back at us. We do the math and realize that all those handsome firefighters and cops and doctors we encounter are the age of our children. We no longer catch a random man's eye lingering on some part of our anatomy, which is something we never thought, when we were younger and more frequently ogled, that we'd miss.

This experience of being treated as a human being rather than as a sex object can be liberating. But it can also be secretly disheartening to realize that, in the subjective eye of society, we haven't still got it.

Which is why the triumphant story of Diana Nyad puts everything in perspective for aging women everywhere.

In Greek mythology, a Naiad was one of the Naiades, the water nymphs who lived in and presided over brooks, springs and fountains. In American mythology, the marathon swimmer Diana Nyad has presided over many bodies of water. Amazingly, Nyad is her actual last name.

Diana Nyad, known for her long-distance swimming, is one of my heroes.

She never got to swim in the Olympics, but she broke time records swimming around the island of Manhattan in 1975, and from the Bahamas to Florida in 1979. She has also been a favorite radio and television sports commentator. The insight of her commentary on National Public Radio went far beyond the competitive swimming pool, touching on both popular and obscure sports topics. Her voice was knowledgeable but soothing; her manner was smart but spontaneous. Despite her athletic prowess, she sounded and seemed like one of us.

Over the years, I have followed Diana Nyad's quest to swim from Cuba to Florida. She has tried to do so five times, failing the first four times due to storms or impossible currents or multiple jellyfish stings or trouble with her support boat.

But on Sept. 2, she finally accomplished her goal. Our American Naiad has presided over the Florida Straits, the perilous stretch of sea from Cuba to Florida that connects the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean. In about 53 hours, she swam the 110 miles from Havana to Key West, the first person to do so without the protection of a shark cage. She emerged shaky and salty and depleted, but she did it.

This is a 64-year-old woman who has made this mark of endurance and strength. In our youth-obsessed culture, she has made us believe in the value of resilience. In our male-dominated culture, she has made us believe in the power of womanhood. When I turned 50, I heard it said that age 50 was the new 30. Diana Nyad has shown us that 64 and beyond is the new ageless prime of life.

So, despite all that we miss of our younger selves as we age, Nyad, along with all marvelous, accomplished women of a certain age, reassures me that we've still got it in other ways.

We are wiser, more centered, more balanced, more assured in our own skins. We know our limits, but we also know how to stretch ourselves towards our dreams. If we've paid attention to the lessons of life, we've become more forgiving, more compassionate, but also more committed, and more aware of the urgency of each moment. And I believe that as we mature and learn to let go of the flimsy, silly superficialities that preoccupy us in our youth, we become more beautiful. We've still got it. It's just that the definition of "it" is a bit deeper, and a bit kinder. If we focus, we can see past the mirror to the truth that we've still got the 'it' that matters.

On those days when the lighting is harsh and my bones are creaking and I get my senior discount without asking for it and I feel my age, I hold Diana Nyad in my mind's eye, and I'm good to go. If she can swim to Florida, I can face the day. Because as she shows us, it's not so much about the swimming as it is about the heart.

These are the opinions of Valerie Schultz, not necessarily those of The Californian.

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