17 year-old Cressida Anness Lorenz wins the Harbinger Prize in Photography
October 13, 2023
‘When I am an old woman I shall wear purple, with a red hat that doesn’t go and doesn’t suit me’
I first heard Jenny Joseph’s ‘Warning’ when I was young, one of many my mother read to me as I drifted off to sleep after a long day of school.
We must have gone through hundreds of poems alike, but this particular one has always stuck vividly in mine, and the nation’s, mind.
It represents the freedom of being old, and the message of seeing ageing as a positive experience – something to cherish – which has resonated with me since I first heard it at barely five years-old, about to fall asleep.
Now, I recognise the irony of talking about old age from the idea of ‘My 50th Birthday’, being that it is really not that old at all. But, understand, I am still young myself.
Turning 50 seems impossibly far away to me. I cannot even fathom how much life I will live by then. 33 years is aeons, that’s 33 birthdays! Put like this – it seems like an extraordinary amount, and it’s no wonder I simply can’t imagine how my life will be then.
I have recently had the pleasure of celebrating my 17th birthday as of writing this and… I wasn’t happy in the weeks running up to it. Of course, I loved seeing my friends, family and the overall festivities, but a birthday always inevitably seems to lead to some kind of existential dread.
Time has moved too fast. I often remember the days of playing tag with my classmates in primary school fondly, only to realise more than a decade has passed since. Scary, right?
I didn’t want to age. I wanted to stay there, playing tag and cards with my friends forever, as unrealistic as it sounds.
I was angry that I couldn’t, that I was being forced to grow up before I was ever ready to.
To me, ageing doesn’t necessarily represent being a certain age. I am not scared of being 50. Instead, ageing represents change.
Change is truly terrifying to someone like me, who seeks to understand and control the world around them.
Change is the one thing that I can’t, well, change – nor can anyone! Change only represented negative experiences to me: deaths of those I truly love, having to undergo independence too soon and the loss of friends over time from life in general. And the worst part is that you cannot escape it. You feel as if your floors are being removed from beneath you; there is no stability, and yet you are trapped from stopping it from happening.
All of these thoughts ran through my mind in the build-up to the dreaded day and I sought the one source of mental respite available to me: nostalgia.
I went through old scrapbooks, childhood stories – everything I could find. It was a bittersweet experience. I loved seeing pictures capturing moments in time that I want to preserve forever, seeing family members now gone smile and laugh once again – but it all reminded me how time has trudged on, leaving them and my former self behind.
I flipped through the dusty, forgotten pictures, and I grieved. I grieved for the childhood slowly slipping through my fingers, the cherished memories just at my fingertips that I could barely recall anymore.
I mourned a life not yet gone, yet I felt as though I had lost any grasp I thought I previously had on my youth and childish innocence. Yet still, I kept going.
Among these books was an old poetry book. Caked in dust – just like the others – yet I still recognised it as the one my mother read to me, as I drifted off to sleep as a barely five-year-old. And guess what I came across?
‘When I am an old women, I shall wear purple,
With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.’
Now I’m not going to pretend the poem immediately made me change my entire view on ageing. I still do have fears; that subtle kind of fear that resonates deep within your heart that you can’t recognise lest it grows worse. But it made me think. I realised how silly I was being! There I was, sitting on my bedroom floor, mourning the loss of time which I had not yet been given. I was still alive.
Joseph’s words reminded me that I should be carefree. That ageing shouldn’t be something to run from – rather I should treat it as a privilege. That I should try and experience as much as I can because that is what life is – experience. For every wrinkle and white hair I get I will remind myself that it represents how much I have lived and laughed to receive it.
On the day of my 17th birthday I had fun. I celebrated making it through 17 years rather than grieving the one less year I had.
Adulthood is one year closer, but instead, I thought of it as something new and exciting to experience.
Yes, I won’t be a kid much longer, but I will live the last year of my childhood as fully as I can. It will be full of stress, sadness, laughter and joy. And I will welcome it all the best I can.
As for my 50th birthday – who knows? I cannot predict the future no matter how much I want to. I will just have to wait and see – and I am truly excited to see who I grow up to be.