“I don’t want to go to Heaven. None of my friends are there.” — Oscar Wilde
On some mornings, if it isn’t too cold, I head to the port for an open water swim. No matter the day, there is almost always a group of elderly Spanish women already in the sea about ten meters from the shore where the water becomes clavicle-deep. Depending on the time of year, they number anywhere from three or four during the off-season to as many as ten in July and August. They converse, laugh, and argue with each other; gesticulating dramatically with their tanned, manicured hands as they soak up the salt water, the morning sun, and the easy comfort that stems from lifelong friendships. Watching them bob gently up and down in their lazy sea dance, in sync with each other’s rhythm, is at once peaceful and hypnotic.
My friend and fellow swimmer, Kris, taught me that if I arrive early enough I can sometimes catch the women as they carefully climb down the short but rather steep slope from the sidewalk to the sand. They wear gauzy swimsuit cover-ups accented with sequins or rhinestones, and metallic leather sandals, straw tote bags slung over their shoulders. Once on the beach, they search slowly and methodically through the sandy grass that abuts the stone wall separating the beach from the sidewalk on the hunt for the perfect size pine twig. Upon finding one, they insert it carefully into the rocky wall to form a little clothes peg. Only then do they remove the bags from their shoulders and hang them on their respective sticks, followed by their cover-ups and then their sandals. They wait until the entire group has finalized these preparations before picking their way carefully together down to the water’s edge, in flowery, ruffled bathing suits accessorized with bright lipstick, gold earrings, and floppy straw hats. They are nothing short of fabulous.
Once, as I was wading into the waves to begin my workout, one of the women called out to me from in the water. Between the sound of the surf and my still limited Spanish, I couldn’t quite make out what she was saying, so, clad in my utilitarian navy Speedo, goggles, and rubber swim cap, my day-glo orange “sausage” strapped around my waist, I swam closer. The woman appeared to be in her mid-70s and was wearing white enameled earrings shaped like starfish, dark red lipstick, and oversized sunglasses rimmed in gold. About four of her friends, similarly accessorized, floated around her, watching me with gentle speculation as though trying to make sense of something vaguely alien. I realized she was asking for the time. I froze, trying to formulate my reply, frantically trying to recall my Duolingo lessons on numbers but coming up empty. Smiling helplessly, I managed to say, “Por favor, un momento. Estoy aprendiendo todavía.” The woman lifted her glasses and paused for a moment, looking me directly in the eye. Then, suddenly, she smiled a broad, lipsticked smile and replied, “Eso es bueno, lo estás intentando.” And in the blink of an eye, I was enveloped by the whole group, all peppering me with questions in rapid Spanish: Where I was from? Where did I live? How did I like it here? Where was my mother?
Before I knew it, twenty minutes had passed, with me bobbing and floating neck deep in the water in sync with the others, my goggles around my neck, my workout long forgotten, laughing and trying to converse; the women smiling encouragingly, gently correcting my grammatical errors. I told them about my brother and his family here in Jávea, my husband, my parents back in Virginia, even the cat I had to leave behind with a dear friend in the States. One of the women pointed to the rings around my eyes left by my swim goggles, shook her head and tsked, “No es bueno para tu piel.” Lifting her sunglasses, she pointed to the skin around her eyes, which had remarkably few wrinkles. “Mira!” she commanded. At that moment I noticed my husband exiting the sea, his swim finished, scanning the shoreline for me. Saved from having to formulate a reply about my goggle indents and the potential long-term effects on my skin, I said my goodbyes to the group and waded back to shore, waving to the women as I went. I felt as refreshed and revived as after any intense swim. Once home, I peered into the bathroom mirror, examining the imprints around my eyes and shook my head. I also realized it wouldn’t kill me to put on a little lipstick.
And it’s not just in the sea. Two months after we arrived in Jávea, we found ourselves in the old town on Palm Sunday just as the bells of San Bartolomé began ringing. Suddenly, we were surrounded by elderly women from every direction hurrying along the ancient, narrow streets; olive branches in one hand, the other on the arm of a friend. They chatted animatedly as they made their way up to the heavy, ornate doors of the fourteenth century church, with its Moorish foundation and pockmarks from cannonballs fired during the Civil War. Then, just as suddenly, they were gone; disappeared inside, leaving in their wake the odd stray olive leaf and the gentle scent of perfume wafting through the again silent square.
After these encounters, I began to increasingly notice pairs or small groups of elderly women walking through the narrow streets of towns and villages. Sometimes arm-in-arm, sometimes pulling small, wheeled grocery carts, they move slowly, taking the time to greet passers-by they know, but they still move. They still take pride in their appearance. In neatly pressed slacks, elegant blouses, and sensible but dressy shoes, their hair and makeup impeccable, they accompany one another on their daily rounds: to the supermarket, to the post office, to the neighborhood cafe, to daily mass. They do not shrink away behind closed doors, in faded house dresses and messy hair, the best of their life behind them. Instead, they continually insert themselves into the sunshine, the fresh air, and the public realm, claiming their place and their relevance in the community and in the world. Mostly, they are there for each other: shopping, eating, praying, laughing, gossiping, and bickering together. Every day, no matter what.
By now, most of us are familiar with the Mediterranean Diet. But increasingly, there is more being written on the entire Mediterranean lifestyle. In his book, Blue Zones, Dan Buettner examines a handful of communities all over the world where the residents tend to live well into their 90s and beyond. Although they differ in climate, culture, religion, and diet, there are still a number of powerful common denominators, which enhance not only longevity but good health–physically and mentally–right up until the end of one’s life. Gentle but consistent physical activity is one such marker. Another is lifelong friendships.
I believe in the restorative properties of the sea; the salt water, gentle rhythm of the waves, the buoyancy, the sea air, the immense vastness. And there is something about being active, even gently active–or maybe especially gently active–outdoors that indoor “workouts” just can’t replicate. No spin class, no treadmill, no rowing machine, no crossfit can provide the perfect combination of elements found in nature. And recent scientific studies have supported this. But I also believe in the healing power of friendships, and the vitality that comes from being recognized as having a place in the world that is not peripheral or patronizing, no matter one’s age.
Most of these women have at least a good twenty years on me, and perhaps a few pounds. And I would be willing to bet almost none of them “work out” or feed themselves daily rations of kale and turmeric. Yet I do often wonder which of us is healthier. And I am not sure I’d be surprised if they were still walking arm-in-arm, laughing and gossiping along the way, well after most of us are gone. Because let’s face it, carbs, saltwater, and a little lipstick do wonders for your health.
Not to mention lifelong friends.
This post is dedicated to my dearest friends, many of whom I’ve known since we were kids, and all of whom I love. I hope, as the years pass, we are still going along, arm-in-arm, laughing, gossiping, bickering, and, above all else, in the words of Ram Daas, “walking each other home.”