Cheatham County Exchange

Susan Steen: Color outside the lines to hear great stories


“Age should not have its face lifted, but it should rather teach the world to admire wrinkles as the etchings of experience and the firm line of character.” ― Clarence Day Jr.

Although I don’t wear much makeup these days, putting on eyeshadow has never been too difficult a task for me.

Well, it wasn’t difficult until a few years ago when I pulled the applicator across my eyelid and an unusual thing happened. My skin moved with the brush as it always had, but it didn’t bounce back. It reminded me of the pull-on pants my boys wore when they were little: too many times of pulling resulted in the band losing its elasticity. I could change the boys into another pair of pants or use a safety pin to secure the waist, but for my eyelid I knew there was no quick change or an immediate repair.

In this moment, I discovered the value of Clarence Day Jr.’s words, as I noticed my aging skin with some wrinkles, seeing them not as flaws but as the etchings of experience and the firm line of character.

When Clarence Day Jr.’s book “Life with Father” was published, Day was only months from dying at the young age of 61. The book became a bestseller, still being referenced almost 90 years later.

It makes me think of people around me, whose talents are not properly appreciated (yet), when I think of Day. He was a graduate of Yale who once worked on Wall Street, leaving his greatest treasures in the form of writings not truly appreciated until he had died.

I’ve written before about the work people have performed in their earlier years, before they were wrinkled and viewed as simply one of the elderly. I’ve mentioned in other writing how important I think it is that we take time to hear the stories of someone’s life when they were younger than they are at 70, 80, or 90. There is such value in the work people have performed, and like Day, it is often unappreciated until they are not here to thank and to celebrate.

Several years ago, I noticed an older friend had begun to stoop and move more slowly. He couldn’t stand nose to nose with me, and I watched as people spoke not to him, but over him. It became my goal to bend down and meet his eyes when I spoke with him. We talked about our love of photography, his love of and my interest in genealogy, and the lack of care people in general have for people who aren’t able to be on their level.

As is often the case when we meet “older” friends, I had no idea what he did before he was a retired person. It turned out he worked with NASA after having served in the Navy. I was so glad I asked. It is worth our time to ask people questions about themselves, and it is worth the time to put yourself at someone else’s level.

Being on someone’s level might mean physically being able to look someone in the eye, but it also means that one person might not hear as well, which requires slower and louder speech on the end of the speaker, or that one person might not think as quickly as she once did and requires your patience. Life is full of wrinkles, and wrinkles are reminders that life has been lived. Remember, there are stories where there are wrinkles.

I love the thought that the elderly and children seem to get along so well, with some schools even partnering with senior living facilities to encourage interaction. I wonder if it is because they (both the youngest and oldest) feel the rest of us don’t hear them, don’t see them or don’t have time for them.

You might not be the person rushing through life, but I sometimes find that I am, and I am choosing to make some changes to be the person I would rather be. I love children, and I love older people, and I find myself enjoying the company of those two groups more than the folks who are hurrying through life with time for only themselves and their goals.

All of that hurrying can create a lot of stress. Too much stress, too much sun, and any cigarettes create lines earlier and are not as interesting in the stories they hold. Covering wrinkles with cream might make the lines fade, but we can’t un-live life, and trying to erase the journey seems kind of sad to me. 

I think older skin, softened with creams, lined with stories is beautiful skin. It holds the stories we might not yet have lived, and the wisdom we hope to gain.

Age is a funny thing, and if you are 20 reading this you have a much different perspective on life than I have at almost 60, or than my friend Bill had in his 80s. I think of how many times we hear the words, “If only I had known then what I know now…” and the sentence ends with a variety of scenarios that would have played out differently. The truth of the matter, though, is that what happened then is why we know what we know now.

Life is a journey filled with happy stories, sad tales, and a few lines, all of which deserve to be noticed. Perhaps, we should try to appreciate all of the experiences, even if they seem uncomfortable at the time. Easiest to say when you are 90 and looking at the wrinkles through faded eyesight, age is a gift to embrace, a treasure to behold.

Maybe a face lift is what you think you must have to feel more attractive. That’s fine, if that’s what you need. I’ll encourage each of us, though, to look at the lines a little differently today. Instead of viewing wrinkles and lines as imperfections to be eradicated, we can choose to see them as symbols of our life’s journey, rich with stories and achievements.

Look around you. The next time you encounter a face marked by time, take a moment to appreciate the depth and beauty of those lines, for they are the etchings of experience and the firm line of character. Thanks, Mr. Day.

Susan Black Steen is a writer and photographer, a native Tennessean and a graduate of Austin Peay State University. With a firm belief that words matter, she writes and speaks to bring joy, comfort and understanding into each life. Always, she writes from her heart in hopes of speaking to the hearts of others. She can be reached at (

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