One of the things that struck me last year about the beach town of Estoril/Cascais in Portugal is that everyone goes to the beach. I mean EVERYONE. There are naked babies and topless grandmas. Bodies (or “houses” as my friends who live here call them) of all shapes, sizes, colors, ages, and stages of undress.
Granted, I live in a beach town in California, so I do see many bodies at the beach. But not in the variety that is here. Particularly, I noticed how many old people are enjoying the sand and surf and a cold imperial. These old people are neither the fit 70-something’s that pass as 50-somethings in pharmacy commercials nor are they the frail shrunken birds that hover over their walkers. Rather they are simply old. They are splashing in the waves, laying on towels to further bronze their skin, laughing with their families, sometimes teetering delicately up the beach to the walkway but not in a way that cries “helpless” or “frail”; it’s just that the sand is uneven and hard to walk on. These are aged people still living life without trying to pass for someone younger.
I’m trying to remember if I see any old bodies on the beach in San Diego. In my memory, the age seems to stop in the 50s—no one missing a few teeth with swinging skin tenting their body enjoys Southern California beaches. At least in my memory.
And that is what struck me most about my observation. Sure I could do a whole thing about how in Southern California (or the US as a whole) we don’t make space for aging. But what if the real problem isn’t that there is a whole demographic of old people who sit huddled alone and forgotten by society but that I have learned to unsee them as they live their lives in the same spaces as I do?
I got the term “unsee” from a China Miéville novel, The City & The City. In this book, there are two cities who occupy the exact same geographical space but not the same lived space. So they are superimposed on each other with only a few breaks where one city would bleed into the other. The thing is you could go visit either city: there was a lengthy and official boarder crossing. You could also just step through the breaks. But the latter was considered wrong and illegal. In fact it was so wrong to associate with the other city in any way other than through the official immigration process that when people from different cities passed each other in one of the breaches, they would unsee the other so as to not embarrass anyone.
Unseeing wasn’t just ignoring. It was willing that other person out of existence because they didn’t belong to your reality. It also wasn’t something the residents of the city were born with: they had to learn to unsee from childhood. The entire culture of these cities was built on refusing a reality where the other exists. There’s a scene where the protagonist and an old lady from the other city see each other, realize their mistakes, so “immediately and flustered I looked away, and she did the same . . . . after some seconds I looked back up, unnoticing the old woman stepping heavily away.”
Miéville claims in some interviews that he welcomes the obvious connections we can make to cities with racial or cultural divides. In many ways, San Diego is very much that type of city, so close to the Mexico border. We discuss the problems of illegal immigration and drug and human trafficking, yet unsee the people most affected by these problems that we hire for cheap labor.
But I’m talking about a more subtle and less overtly violent unseeing I think goes on. I’m not in my normal space in Portugal. So in this unfamiliar, I am seeing a lot which includes those old people alone or with their families. And I wonder if my perception of a lack of old people in my city doing these kinds of things is a true lack or the result of my unseeing their bodies. Have I been taught by society to wipe from my reality that old people who are aging normally exist? That they have the same passions and dreams and desires that I have just with more life as ballast?
In one of my runs along the Atlantic coast here in Portugal, I passed an old lady—-grey hair wiry and tangled by the sea wind—wearing a shirt that read “Young and in Love.” I saw her and she saw me. And while we smiled at each other for different reasons, we still exchanged a moment where we both looked and acknowledged that yes, you do exist and isn’t this a nice world to share.
Lately I have been thinking a lot about the unseen. But in my case it is the unseen parents and how they deal with their children when they’re out and about. Now that I’m a mother thinking about the logistics of even taking baby to the grocery store, I pick my brain to remember how others deal with such tasks. Do they use a carrier? A snug body wrap? No doubt I’ve seen this thousands of times but it has never registered. And here I am now struggling to see….