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“Forty Portraits in Forty Years”

The New York Times Magazine recently published an article on the photojournalism project of Nicholas Nixon, “Forty Portraits in Forty Years,” in which he photographed four sisters every year since 1975. I discovered the project when my college classmate, Rosie Reardon, posted a link on Facebook (re-posted here). The collection of images is a moving pictorial journey documented over decades.

Aging is not an easy topic, especially in a society that fetishizes youth, and the photos brought up a lot for me, the good, the bad and the beautiful, because one can see that what the women in the photos lose in the smoothness of their skin they gain in something else – but what (or do they)? It’s probably different for each of us.

The photos inspired me to jot down a few thoughts, and I invite others to share their own reflections in the comments field. I’ve heard many wise, honest, often funny insights from the inspiring women (and men) in my life, and I’d love to open the closet and bring in a community of voices to shed some light on this topic.

*     *     *

In my teens and early twenties I could step into a perfect arabesque. In my fifties I can rock a chaturanga.

When I was twenty I was a size eight. Now, thirty years later and seven pounds heavier, I have somehow become a size four?

At twenty it was all, anxiously and excitedly before me, while at fifty I have much to fall back on and take courage from, while still hungering for what is to come. Over time I have witnessed so many ways a human life can falter, including my own. I have grown in caution and honed my fear. My sense of urgency is no greater than when I was twenty, no less laced with panic – how little time! – but there is ballast, now, reserves of experience, of triumphs and failures to rest on as I gather speed for the next leap. No amount of time makes me less amazed; that sky, those creatures – my children? But where did they come from to reside so miraculously in the world?

Every elation and sadness is etched on my face and body, the fine and not-so-fine lines, the scars, nicks and dings of tumbling into heartache or scraping up against joy. Life has, indeed, made its mark on me, as I have on the scratched screen of my cell phone and on the lives of those I have touched.

I see, now, not more, but perhaps more clearly, the ways in which I define, discover and create the person I want to be in the world through the choices I make moment by moment each day, something as simple as the words I choose to use, or what to say, or not. This doesn’t mean that I’m never angry or in despair, but as someone once told me, it’s okay. God can take it (feel free to replace God with whatever truth in which you abide). Somewhere along the way I stopped feeling lonely. This wasn’t something I ever expected, and I sometimes feel as if I could reach out and touch the beauty surrounding me in the very molecules of the air.

When I’m gone, folded back into cosmic dust, I know that my love will live on in those I have cared for truly and well, and I know, also, that it will never have been enough. There will always be so much more to do in this world, which is filled with an abundance more vast than my heart or arms, strong and capable as they have become, can contain.

13 Comments Post a comment
  1. Janet #

    Tania, what you have written has touched a chord in my heart because of its poignancy. Hope never dies but somehow it becomes tamed. Love is always there as is longing for it to be there. Life is beautiful and yet tinged with sadness. Always loving your writing and your amazing sensitivity and creativity.

    November 20, 2014
  2. Picture this: I’m on a polar icecap floating alone. I’m freezing,and beneath me the water shifts and pushes me into different “aging” territories. I feel a sense of inner strength because I’m no longer afraid of being alone. I know I can survive, and I’m starting to love myself at this age.

    Most of my life thus far has been spent taking care of others. I was dependent on their approval of me by measuring if they liked me, or if I was good enough. Since I’m older I don’t care as much. I’m focusing on myself and enjoying walking to the art store to buy paints.

    I’ve found that life has delivered many unexpected shifts. The younger crowd has been hired for a babysitter’s salary, and I too, have been pushed around. “Why won’t you take a decrease in salary? Everyone else has!” I refuse and know, now, that it is my dignity they are talking about. I need to live with myself. That comes with age and experience. I’m working on my own business.

    November 23, 2014
    • Very cool, Kathleen. The image of walking to the art store to buy paints is so resonant, a whole world contained in that moment. I also love your introducing the idea of dignity, exploring what this might mean in our lives. Thank you for sharing!

      November 23, 2014
  3. Tania, this is a wonderful, thought provoking blog! The photo project is beautiful- it’s a great idea to use this series as a jumping off point for a conversation, and it has been grist for the creative mill. These are some of the themes I’ve tried to explore in NOTEBOOKS FROM MYSTERY SCHOOL. The nature of cycles. Our rites of passage. How we learn to step up into our own power. I believe our creative power keeps us potent. And I truly believe that every day we are re-born.

    MARGARET McCARTHY’s poetry has appeared in numerous literary magazines, journals and anthologies. She also writes heightened language plays based on her poems. THE SACRIFICIAL KING: A PLAY FOR JOHN LENNON was given a New York City production. DEIRDRE RETROGRADE was read at La Mama Theatre, NYC. Her poetry collection NOTEBOOKS FROM MYSTERY SCHOOL, is a finalist for the New Women’s Voices Award and forthcoming from Finishing Line Press. She works as a professional photographer in New York City; her photographs have been widely exhibited. She publishes an electronic broadside, A VISION AND A VERSE, combining her imagery and poetry.

    November 25, 2014
    • Margaret, thank you for contributing to the conversation! I love what you said about stepping into our own power and the the strength of our creativity. A great reminder.

      November 25, 2014
  4. Janet #

    I have been thinking more about aging. Forty years ago I had lived almost one half of my life! I felt at that time that my life was set and I would age gracefully, although in a somewhat melancholy way. But there has been almost constant change, so much that I could never have imagined or dreamt about. I was always having made-up dreams, but the life that I am living is totally different from anything that I had ever dreamt. We can dream, plan, choose, but I have finally realized that life will also take its own course.

    If I went to a store when I was blonde I was called “Miss,” but now that I have stopped coloring my hair and let it be white and brown, I am called “Ma’am,” “sweetie” or “dear,” but I am still the same person! Appearances can be deceptive because basically I am still the same person as I was 40 or even 50 years ago.

    November 25, 2014
    • Janet, wow. That is so interesting. Thank you for sharing a unique and insightful perspective. I know that I crave the guidance and experience of those who have trod the path before me, and you are one of the guides! I particularly love the way you layer dreaming with living, the twist and turn, the continual flux and change.

      P.S. I don’t mind miss, and I can handle ma’am, but if someone calls me sweetie or dear I think I might kick them.

      November 25, 2014
  5. Tania:

    As I read your reflection here, I thought of a recent London’s Telegraph piece about a 28-year-old artist who paints larger-than-life portraits of nude women. Aleah Chapin’s paintings are controversial because she portrays real women, scars and all. No romantic, idealized forms for her. Like the portraits of the four sisters you referenced, in Chapin’s work we see the women we are and the women we will be.

    We hope we are unfazed by the barrage of photos and “how to” articles on aging well, but it’s not always always fun to see the creases in our faces and the parts that no longer defy gravity. The healthy attitude is the one you expressed – life has left its mark on you.


    Linda Heuring

    November 25, 2014
    • Thanks, Linda, for your thoughts. I’ve added a link to Aleah Chapin’s work here. Very powerful. I see grief in the images, but also beauty. I was also surprised by how difficult it was for me to look straight at them, but then again, it would probably have been more awkward if the paintings were of men!

      November 25, 2014
  6. I liked this quote I came across and thought I’d share it –
    “You’re as young as your dreams, not as old as your calendar.”
    — Shimon Peres

    December 4, 2014
  7. Margaret McCarthy shared the link to the photo exhibition by Angela Jimenez, Racing Age, about retirement-age athletes. The author’s comments are very interesting, and the exhibit looks fascinating. It’s on display until January 23, 2015 at United Photo Industries HQ, 111 Front Street, Brooklyn, NY. Thanks, Margaret!

    December 9, 2014

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