What a 20-Year-Old Ship Taught Me About Aging

jeff bogle at the hagia sophia left and the site of the ancient olympics right
What a 20-Year-Old Ship Taught Me About AgingJeff Bogle/Getty Images

In July, I ran 200 meters on the site of the original Olympic stadium in Greece, which hosted the first games way back in 776 BC. It’s nothing but green grass, dust and some scattered stone now, but as a fan of history, sports and travel, I loved the experience.

There are many 5k runs in my sneakers, yet I was winded and felt almost as ancient as Olympia itself, as I panted ungracefully beneath the hot sun. The past few years have taken their toll on me and for the first time, I truly feel old.

Guys typically have the privilege of being seen as more refined as they age, but I’m having a hard time loving this new version of me I see in the mirror. Women, I know, don't have it as kind: When I met my wife Lorelei in 2019, many told her that her time to find love was running out. She had a wealth of life experience and accumulated vast knowledge through business success, international travel and just plain living through four decades. All this should have been treated as a gift, not scorned because of the number of candles on her birthday cake.

In "Fifty-Nine and Feeling…," from Issue 28 of Whale Road Review, poet Donna Vorreyer addresses the paradox of aging and ancient treasures — one I know well as a history buff and professional traveler:

I have tried too

long to reverse the clock and the scale. Instead, I should embrace

the softening — the world a blur without my glasses, the curves

of my body plush for touching. Laugh lines remind me that this face

has split silly with joy, and each ache and twinge is a signal flag

spelling out alive.

And then again, so beautifully, in closing:

In any fine museum, the most revered specimens are the oldest,

the vessels and bones that speak through their shattering—

I was useful. I was beautiful. I am still here.

Like Vorreyer, I often wonder: Why do we treasure ancient artifacts, pay thousands of dollars and travel immense distances to stand before really old stuff, yet feel the opposite about ourselves and openly curse our weathered skin and sore bones, or worse, judge others for experiencing the very natural act of aging?

This summer, I visited Athens, Olympia, Mykonos and Istanbul on the Holland America Oosterdam, a 20-year-old cruise ship. That may not sound old, but in cruise ship terms, it’s nearly museum-ready. And yet, like us, she too is useful and still beautiful.

ancient olympias stadium
The site of ancient Olympia’s stadium.Takis_Milonas - Getty Images

Young ships, the massive ones with a million shiny things to see and do on board, are all the rage these days, but a cruise ship that’s both older and smaller, will be priced more competitively and, like this one, will have itineraries that are thrilling and include some ports that the big ships simply can’t call upon. That’s why I was on the Oosterdam, to experience Europe, alone, and to try to heal from time and tragedy that have been beating me down like a bully.

Up until about three years ago, I'd have said I was doing okay with getting old, but then I had to say a final farewell to my dad, lost a brother to brain cancer, moved my mom out of my happy childhood home and got priced out of my dream home in NYC. And in January of this year, I so very nearly lost my youngest child. The accumulation of grief has accelerated the aging process, and I now feel, and feel as though I look, more ancient than my actual age of 47. Lorelei is adamant that my salt-and-pepper hair is hot, but my mind and body have been shattered, and yet I’m enduring, and exploring what it means to live and be alive, to age and to accept it. And maybe, even to learn to appreciate it as much as I do standing in the hot summer sun before the Acropolis in Athens, built in the 5th century BC, and kneeling on the carpet inside the Hagia Sophia, dating back to 537 CE.

I walked more than 15 miles in less than 24 hours during an overnight in Istanbul, where I sought out street cats and street eats. When I got back to the boat, exhausted, the ship’s spa read my mind and offered a special on a massage, foot rub and facial. If ancient ruins can teach us anything about growing old, it’s that regular restorative care is necessary to keep us upright year after year.

As we cruised away from the port of Katakolo, Greece, which serves as the gateway to that Olympic site, I thought about those first games, the ones that took place at a time when no one likely worried about how saggy their skin might one day get. After my run, I sat in the ship’s Rolling Stone Lounge — named after the 56-year-old music magazine not the even-older British rock band — with Lorna Riley, a New Zealand radio host with a Prince symbol tattoo on her wrist. After pulling me out onto the floor for a friendly dance when the house band played his song “Kiss,” she told me that, at 53, she feels that she has become invisible. This didn’t surprise me, because I have heard many stories of the way women are seen, or rather, not seen once they reach a certain age, despite being smart, successful, and stunningly beautiful. Lorna is certainly more alive than ancient Olympia. It seems like we have our priorities jumbled.

There is romance in standing before centuries’ worth of ancient history, but really, those ruins are nothing more than crumbled stone in a grassy field beneath the burning hot sun. We are not relics, but I believe we could do a better job recognizing the compelling nature of people aging too. Maybe your backhand on the tennis court is weaker than it once was and your 5K time is going in the opposite direction from your personal best. But what you may lack in physical capability, you likely make up for in wisdom. Maybe you have succeeded and failed at business, perhaps in marriage too, and pulled valuable lessons out of what you’ve done, not done, seen and made it through. You’ve likely loved and lost, and had the losing teach you what it means to be alone, and, if you’re lucky, learned to love and be loved again.

Sure, it’ll be a harder sell to get a busload of tourists to pay an admission fee to see you or me, but a conversation, a meal, a dance, and a lifetime of experience are worth far more than the 20 Euro ticket to see the Acropolis up close.

On the plane overseas, I sat next to a woman named Elissa. She told me that, together with 15 elementary school friends she's still connected to on Facebook but hasn't actually seen in over 40 years, she was taking a cruise of the Greek Islands. "I can't believe we're all 60,” she said. There wasn't malice or angst in the statement, but rather, a sense of wonder in all that still lies ahead for her and her friends, in Greece and beyond. I'm carrying that same spirit with me from now on, as I race toward 50, acknowledging age but not in a mournful way. Like Elissa and Lorna, and maybe you too, I've got a lot more life in me and a few more ancient ruins left to see.

Editor's Note: The writer's trip took place before devastating wildfires in Greece and throughout Europe. To learn how to help those affected, visit The Hellenic Initiative or the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

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