After feeling like a misfit for years, a move to Thailand and a chance encounter opened Stefania’s eyes to her self-worth. Inspired by an elderly Asian woman, she launched a blog, The Age Buster, that decodes the cultural conditioning about aging.
Tell us a little about your background.
I grew up in a small town outside Milan, in northern Italy. Even if I was a few steps away from one of the most fashionable cities in the world, I felt removed from the action. The slow ticking of the clocks and the cornfields hiding the horizon made me long for something more. I used to dread the end of summer, when harvesting laid the fields bare and I knew that we had months of fog, cold, and gloom ahead. While my friends seemed to dwell peacefully in this scenario, I was a complete misfit. Progressively, I spent more and more time with books. Writers eased, but didn’t cure, my sense of intimate solitude.
When I turned eight, my grandmother bought me a set of luggage. Ten years later, I left Italy and spent two years traveling the world: Europe, North America, and Africa. On my return, I was a different person. I moved to Milan, entered university to study sociology and, to pay for my studies, I got a job at La Scala theater. I found a very old flat a few steps away from the theater. In winter, the house was so cold I had to wrap myself in a blanket to be able to focus on my studies. I had a black bicycle to zip through the city, very little money in my pocket, but I could buy the books I wanted to read. I was immersed in the music every evening, spending time with interesting people; I couldn’t have asked for more.
After graduating, I got a job as a journalist in a trade publication. It was the end of the nineties, the internet was picking up and, just as it happened in the theater—where I found a place on the “flies” (the hidden space above the stage) that allowed me to see the audience, the orchestra, the conductor, and all the people working behind the scenes—I could contemplate the whole communication machine, something I’ve always been interested in. On top of that, I had a chance to keep traveling as ghost passenger (free ticket in exchange for a review of the flight) for an airline: every month, I was in a different city.
While I was able to blend in my peer group, that longing for something was still within me. Sports helped: I enjoyed long solo mountain walks, jogging in the park in the early morning, horse riding, and skiing the Alps. It was at the end of a press conference on the eve of my 33rd birthday that I talked about traveling to Southeast Asia with a person I met at the buffet. Fast forward a few months, we were engaged; six years later, our twins were born, I was writing for major Italian magazines, and we moved to Thailand.
When did you start to think about making a change?
One morning, I was driving our girls to school on a narrow country road. Coming from the opposite direction, I saw an old lady on a moped. Because of the size of the road, I had to slow down and I noticed that her gentle smile transformed her wrinkled face. I encountered her again in the following weeks. I began to acknowledge the beauty of this mysterious woman and I realized how aging felt completely different in Asia.
This is the moment when things began to change. After having spent my life feeling like a misfit, I finally embraced my perspective. It made perfect sense. It wasn’t only that I saw different things compared with other people, but I also saw things differently. I validated my point of view and began to share it with the world through a new blog.
What is your next act?
I am the author of the blog, The Age Buster, a platform designed to decode the cultural conditioning about aging. In my interviews, I pick the brains of the finest minds in academia, art, and economy. For example, Julia Twigg, Professor of Social Policy, Sociology, and Social Research at the University of Kent, explained how women and men use clothes differently as they age (read her interview here). Professor Abigail T. Brooks, Director of the Women and Gender Studies Program and Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at Providence College, Rhode Island, discussed in depth the role of cosmetic surgery in aging women (read her interview here). Every interview adds a new piece to the puzzle.
In the year since I embarked on this journey, my perspective on aging has been turned upside down. While my initial intuition on that tiny country road confirmed that the culture we grow up in influences our thoughts on aging and how we relate to difference stages in life, I have discovered much more. I am beginning to notice nuances and to question assumptions we take for granted.
For instance, we do not think about aging for what it is, but for what it is not. We might not be aware of is, but our image of aging and old age is based on a contrast with youth. Being young, in fact, is the measuring stick for being old. We think that being old means being slow or frail in contrast with the speed and strength of the young cohort, thus implying a diminishing trend. We do not think of being young as lacking awareness or perspective.
Along the same lines, I am beginning to question concepts like “successful aging” and “pro-aging.” These are labels that project a bias. Notice: We do not talk about “successful adolescence” or “pro-adulthood.” Aging is an unexplored continent and because of my background in sociology, media, and journalism, I have a knack for going to the root of our views.
My next act is a transformation. Because of my life in South East Asia, my view is influenced by the nature I’m surrounded with. So, instead of thinking about my next act as an event, I think about it as a process. It’s not like the cracking of an egg, it’s more like a snake shedding its skin.
Just like a snake that spent its life being a snake, I spent my life being a writer. At this point in my life, I don’t have to prove that I can write. My transformation is allowing the process of writing to take me in another direction. I’m still a journalist (that’s where my income comes from), but I’m exploring new territories.
I am giving myself permission to write for myself and not for an editor, to embrace long term goals (like a website and a book) instead of short term/economic rewards.
How hard was it to take the plunge?
What I like about the way life works is that you don’t exactly have to take the plunge. More often than not, you’re pushed by the events into that pool you’ve been staring at for a while. We all experience it. The difficult part for me was to recognize, and most of all to accept, that I’d reached a crossroad.
I prepared by looking back and connecting the dots. I realized I’d encountered this red flag before and I asked, what did it stand for? What does it mean this time? With time, my navigation system became more accurate and I am now better equipped to tell the difference between a dead-end road and a challenge disguised as an obstacle, one that allows me to prove my determination.
How supportive were your family and friends?
I couldn’t have embraced this change without them. Sometimes, we have to give ourselves permission to embark on a new journey and my husband supported me unconditionally in the exploration of new options. My kids are patiently sharing their mother with her laptop and paper.
My friends actually begged me to create The Age Buster to address their silent concerns about aging. They shared their professional knowledge with me to help me make this project a reality.
I also made some friends along the way who are constantly supporting me, like my proofreader who kindly and tirelessly tightens my English and gently guides me. I think of her as the midwife of my new life stage.
What challenges are you encountering?
The biggest challenge so far has been finding a balance between The Age Buster and my work as journalist. Uncovering the roots of what we are culturally brought up to think about aging is such an interesting journey that it’s hard to turn my attention to my work. On the other hand, my work is benefitting from my blog: It’s a space where I have more freedom to explore and to express myself and I bring this exercise in creativity into journalism.
What did you learn about yourself through this process?
I learned a lot. First of all, as I said before, I learned to embrace and value my ideas. I learned how far I can go and how much I enjoy the process of challenging what I thought were my limits. I learned that I can be patient and immerse myself in the process without obsessing about reaching a destination. I learned that I have the determination to show up again and again, even if 90% of my requests for an interview are turned down. I learned that fear doesn’t belong to me. I learned that I have the power to give what I have, namely ideas and words. And ideas and words change the world.
Looking back, is there anything you’d have done differently?
No, I don’t think so. I might have embarked on this journey earlier, but I was probably not ready. I’m still working on managing my time more efficiently, but considering how many hats I wear, I try to keep my high expectations in check.
What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?
Trust yourself. Trust yourself against all odds. That nagging voice you hear is real; if you don’t listen to it, it will become louder. We have to look at our life as an adventure. We would close a book we were reading in which nothing changes, in which the main character navigates a peaceful and eventless 9-to-5 existence. Instead, we want to see how the protagonist faces and overcomes difficulties and challenges. The same applies to our evolution: Change is what makes the story so interesting and allows us to discover and reveal who we really are.
If you have kids, keep their story in mind. Starting from a couple of cells, they developed their whole body organically—they didn’t grow their hands and then their eyes. The same goes for every enterprise: Everything must be there from the beginning and grow with time. When your idea has turned into a reality, remember how a child learns to walk. She falls and picks herself up again and again, until she walks, runs, and climbs mountains. You need to become a sort of a philosopher in order to embrace the reinvention.
What advice do you have for those interested in writing?
Don’t fear your solitude. Being an author is a solo journey dotted with doubts. You need to be extra gentle with yourself and praise your effort. Don’t take anyone else’s success as a measuring stick, but consider the difficulties that other people faced as proof of how much human beings can endure and persevere.
I like to think about being an author as being a gardener in charge of a piece of land. It’s a daily activity, it’s tiring, it breaks your back, you don’t know what Mother Nature will throw at you (Insects? Drought? Frost in April?), but if you show up day in day out with care and humility, when the season comes you will ripen the fruits of your work.
What resources do you recommend?
Being a book worm, books are the oracles I turn to when I feel lost. One of the most significant books for me is Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, an Austrian-born psychiatrist who endured life in a German concentration camp and was the sole survivor of his family. It’s a book that doesn’t give answers, but changes the question. It’s a book that invites you to consider the meaning of the difficulties you encounter and ask: What does life want from me?
Another book that helped me to embrace this change is Ideas: A History of Thought and Invention, from Fire to Freud by the British journalist Peter Watson. Starting from the invention of fire, Watson runs through history shining a spotlight on the ideas. Thanks to this book, I realized how everything is in flux, a key concept for those who feel the need to add another piece to the world’s puzzle.
I also credit Sivananda Yoga as an ally in this process. To me, it’s a very mystical type of yoga that helped me to make peace with some aspects of my past and move towards my future. If you don’t find a teacher in your area, look for online resources.
Finally, because our girls attend a Buddhist-inspired school here in Northern Thailand, I had a chance to learn about the tradition of the Thai Forest monks. Their teachings are like pebbles that I collect along the road. I keep them in my pocket and when I need them, I hold them in my hand. They make me feel grounded. You can find out more about it here: https://forestsangha.org/
What’s next for you?
While broadening the perspective on aging with The Age Buster, I’m working on a book that explores how we are culturally conditioned to thinking about aging. Just like one of those rocks I jumped while crossing rivers in my solo hikes, I consider this a step towards something else. Time will tell what’s on the other shore.