On Medium today, I wrote about Harris and Warren…and their tote bags. Which satchel wins?
On Medium today, I wrote about Harris and Warren…and their tote bags. Which satchel wins?
Between March 25and April 3, Gloria Steinem, Jane Goodall, and Nancy Pelosi all had birthdays. Nancy is the spring chicken: she turned 79 on the 28th of March. When she turns 80 next year, she will be in good company: Toni Morrison, Yoko Ono, Glenda Jackson, Judi Dench, Maxine Waters, Martha Agrerich, and of course our queen, Ruth Bader Ginsburg are all in their 80s. Lily Tomlin turns eighty this fall; she is slightly younger than Jane Fonda, her co-star in “Grace and Frankie,” in which they play best friends who are in their early 70s.
What do all these birthdays signify, besides a combination of good health, good genes, and good luck?
This constellation of women heralds a golden age of powerful old women. And yes, I mean old. Not in the “they look great for their age” old, or the “80 is the new 70” old. I mean old af; I mean older than your granny (probably); I mean old as in seen it all, done most of it, and not finished yet.
Why is it a compliment to tell a woman she doesn’t look her age? Why is it praise-worthy to say that someone isn’t really that old, as if having aged is something that needs to be explained away or denied: what’s the point of a compliment if it comes with erasure?
That erasure is how America—and Western culture more generally—handles the question of aging. To be old is invisible, to be silenced. It’s a catch-22: no one wants to be seen as old, so we try downplay that reality—and then by downplaying it, we make aging seem like something to be avoided at all costs (and of course, it costs a great deal to avoid the appearance of aging).
It’s the dirtiest word in the lexicon: old.
But I think it’s time to reclaim our time, which is to say, our age.
Let’s make “Crone” hashtag squad goals.
Think about it. What if instead of the crone being the pointy-chinned bearer of poisoned apples we all remember from “Snow White,” we saw crone as a powerful wise woman who exists outside of, and independent from, the stranglehold of public opinion? Gloria Steinem told Oprah that when she turned sixty, she felt liberated from “the feminine prison,” and that sense of freedom expanded as she aged.
We are all used to fairy tales that end with “happily ever after,” and while there are increasing numbers of tales that challenge or queer that ending—the YA novel Ash comes to mind, or the picture-book The Princess Knight—there are still very, very few stories about the part of life that happens way after the “ever after.” But we need those stories to help ourselves map the future; we need the perspective and the advice of those who have been there before us.
The Crone has traversed the complex landscape of womanhood: she can tell us where the landslides are, how to skirt the quicksand. She knows what happens when the scrum of motherhood fades; she has re-invented herself mid-career; she shows us that a mid-life crisis might not be a crisis but an opportunity. She reminds us that it is possible to survive—even love—after loss. And even more importantly, the crone can help us to see the end of life as full of grace, resolve, and fulfillment.
A few months ago, on my fifty-fifth birthday, I had the good fortune to be invited to a lunch honoring Jane Goodall (who turned 85 on April 3rd). It was a small luncheon as these things go, and I was lucky enough to be seated across the table from Jane and the small stuffed-toy chimpanzee she brings with her everywhere. At one point, someone asked if I would like to move closer to Jane so that I could have a private conversation, but I didn’t move. I mean, what does a person say to Jane Goodall? “Um, hi, you’re amazing, thank you for trying to save the world?”
All I could offer her was my mute admiration, but her presence became the gift I didn’t know I’d needed. Turning fifty-five had not brought me joy; I’d spent the morning wondering if I could MariKondo my age. Fifty-five felt slow and uninspiring; the list of things I hadn’t achieved seemed far longer than the list of accomplishments.
Now, it’s true that on the one hand, sitting across from Jane Goodall can make a gal feel wildly inadequate—but on the other hand, she also reminded me that at 85, a woman can still be engaged, vibrant, and visible.
Maybe fifty-five didn’t have to be the beginning of the end.
When Amy Schumer’s skit about “the last fuckable day” went viral a few years ago, we all laughed (probably so we didn’t cry). I don’t know a woman over the age of fifty who hasn’t felt herself rendered invisible by the combined forces of the advertising and entertainment industries: “fuckability” remains a woman’s primary marker of value. That’s why the media can’t stop talking about whether the female presidential candidates are “likable.” Likeable is just the (slightly more) polite version of fuckable.
But Crones don’t give a fuck if they’re likable. They’ve got more important things on their minds—and an awareness that they don’t have time to waste with your delicate feelings. Maxine Hong Kingston, author of The Woman Warrior, says that aging reminds her to be deliberate, to think about what really matters to the world. Crones understand the urgency of Mary Oliver’s question: what will you do with your one wild and precious life?
Oliver’s question is often used in graduation speeches as a kind of encouragement to the young—but Oliver published that poem when she was about fifty-five. I like to think of it as a reminder that wildness and preciousness can be ours, even as we round the bend on sixty.
We celebrate transitions to the next stages in life with graduations and commencements—my eighteen-year old son has had graduation ceremonies for nursery school, kindergarten, fifth grade, eighth grade, and high school. There are all sorts of rites and ceremonies that mark “coming of age” but as life wends on, those ceremonies vanish. Maybe some of us will have retirement parties, but those mark a withdrawal, not a beginning.
I think we need Cronemencement parties when we hit 70. We won’t ask for gifts, because at 70, we know that the last thing we need is more stuff. Instead, we’ll put on our comfiest or our fanciest clothes, whatever we want, because at 70, you wear what makes you happy. We’ll tell stories about where we’ve been and even more importantly, we’ll tell stories about where we’re going.
It’s Valentine’s Day and a friend just asked for advice about planning a safari, so it seems appropriate to re-post this meditation on love, marriage, shit, and rainbows. You know, just your basic extended metaphor but with hippos.
One of the gifts, for me, of being on safari, is all the time spent in the jeep staring out at the landscape as we drive around looking for animals, birds, whatever. Of course, that’s also sort of the downside, too: you spend a lot of time looking for things and sometimes you’re lucky…and sometimes you’re not. It is the proverbial crap shoot, with a literal emphasis on crap (more about that in a minute).
As it happened, this safari of ours happened a week before Husband and I celebrated our fifteenth anniversary. Fifteen years starts to be a rather long time, don’t you think? Which is fantastic and also means that we are getting freaking old.
The two things started to come together in my mind as we drove around (or actually, as we were driven by our guides–the marvelously named Jelly, in Samburu, and Daniel, in the Mara), and I started to think that maybe safaris and marriages aren’t really that different, when you get right down to it.
Consider: when you first get married, you’re all we’re married! There’s that whole happily ever after thing, which lasts for …maybe a week/month/year and then it starts to be weird toenail clippings, and undone laundry, and why do you have to straighten up when I’m napping on the couch, and whose turn is it to do the laundry, and why am I taking care of the kids, and for the love of god get off the computer, and no we’re too tired/poor/busy to go to a party/dinner/theater/movie, and who messed with my Netflix queue? (At least, that’s what I hear from other married people. Husband and I have had fifteen years of uninterrupted bliss.)
Life starts to look a lot like this, except without the little birds:
Consider: on your first day of safari, you’re all safari! And you take pictures of everything, thanking the lord that someone invented digital photography: you’ve got thousands of pictures of the jeep, your camp, the guide, each other, the hotel manager’s pet dog. It’s all vastly, amazingly exciting. You see A LION. You see AN ELEPHANT. And it’s exhilarating and amazing, until it starts to be a little bit of LOOK! A BIG BIRD THAT MIGHT BE AN EAGLE OVER THERE. NO, OVER THERE. And you jounce and jolt along the trails, hour after hour, and it’s mostly amazing…and a lot of grass. You bounce along, bumpety bumpety, and you get closer and closer to Maybe It’s Something and…it’s a rock. Or a tree. Or a bunch of rocks. Or a warthog. Which is like a rock but with tusks and a little tail.
See the analogy? Bouncing along, never quite knowing what you’re going to find? One day you’re incredibly lucky and fulfill every fantasy you ever had about being a photographer for National Geographic, and then it’s hours of driving along looking at the same trees you saw yesterday and the day before. And they’re very nice trees, you know, and you’re very happy to be on safari but…is this it? Driving around looking for stuff?
Here’s another thing: when you embark on marriage, or on a safari, no one tells you how much you’re going to learn about poo. Whether you’re married with children or without, other people’s poo will become your business. It should be written into all marriage contracts—anyone settling into a long-term partnership, gay or straight, married or just shacking up—that separate bathrooms are a prerequisite. Because really. Do any of us need to know our beloveds that intimately?
On our last safari, we learned a lot about poop, which surprised me and meant that I was a little bit more prepared for stuff that looks like this:
Those of you with cats might have a sense of what we’re looking at: crap with fur in it. Which is to say, furry shit. You might think, oh my cat who grooms herself and had a fur-ball left something like that in the litterbox (although actually fur-balls make cats puke, so front end and not back end). Nope.
That there is lion poop. A lion what ate an antelope fairly recently. Fur, it seems, isn’t digestible.
Aren’t you glad you know that? You’re welcome.
So yes, you get out of the jeep sometimes, look at poop, or at ants, because hey, that’s what the safari threw you that day. And so it is with marriage: roses one day, yelling about the laundry the next.
But sometimes, just as you’re getting completely fed up, there are rainbows in a cloudy sky.
The amazing Viola Davis was on Jimmy Kimmel the other day, talking about, among other things, the care-and-tending of an Afro, the dangers of an MRI, and menopause. Jimmy asked her how long menopause lasts, and Viola said—without missing a beat—that someone needed to tell her, because it had been going on for five or six years with no end in sight. Her interview reminded me of a piece I wrote a while back for You Have Lipstick on Your Teeth, edited by Leslie Marinelli, about life on the floodplain: the endless hell known as perimenopause, the swampy induction to the joy of menopause. Here, slightly revised, is my paen to the peri.
God, I hated my period when I was in high school. It seems to me one of Nature’s cruelest jokes that just when my adolescent body was already subject to veritable tsunamis of emotion, ol’ Aunt Flo ushered in monthly waves of agita that left me wracked and sobbing on my bed at least once a month. Adding to my misery were the cramps that sent me to the school nurse, muttering shame-facedly about “that time” and asking to lie down in her dim, antiseptic-smelling office. And let’s not even mention that every month, like clockwork, one perfect zit would bloom on my chin, like Rudolph’s misplaced nose, gleaming like a beacon beyond the capacity of any concealer ever invented.
The moods, the tears, the zits, all functioned like storm clouds, letting me know that a storm was soon to descend – but like weather, Aunt Flo often took her sweet damn time to actually show up. Other girls my age clocked their periods like trains; a menses express that arrived and departed on regular schedule.
Not me. There’d I’d be, sitting in Earth Science, doodling the name of my latest crush in the margin of my notebook, and then I would have to scuttle out of the room to the bathroom, borrow a maxi-pad from the cool girls smoking in the last stall, then waddle back to class. I didn’t use a tampon until I was almost a senior in high school, for reasons I don’t fully understand–maybe my mom didn’t think it was “appropriate” or maybe I wasn’t ready to negotiate the intricacies of my own plumbing until the ripe old age of 17.
Eventually it all settled down and for decades, my lady plumbing has run pretty smoothly.
Until a few years ago.
I’d gone to my midwife, who served as my gynecologist, because I’d gotten worried about the intensity of my periods. Gushers, people. We’re talking entire boxes of super-plus-plus tampons being used up in three days; we’re talking lying awake in bed wondering how long it takes to hemorrhage to death.
“Nope,” said the midwife. “No death, just flooding.” I blinked. Flooding is now a medical term?
Yes, it is: “That’s a sign of perimenopause,” she said. “You might want to buy your tampons in bulk for a while.”
No one told me that something happened before menopause. We had this conversation long before Gywneth decided we needed an “aspirational menopausal woman” (she is, apparently the only candidate in the category).
I figured that menopause would just be a few sweaty months and then voila, I’d emerge on the other side of The Change with gleaming silver hair like Emmylou Harris and extra pocket money from never having to buy tampons again. I’d even thought about putting that tampon money in a jar and saving it up for a little me-splurge, the way people do when they’re trying to quit smoking.
My friends, perimenopause is like Mother Nature ‘s last joke. It’s the swampy marshland of menopause: frequently flooded, difficult to map, and hard to recognize until you’re in the middle of it.
Perimenopause means that your chronological age is maybe circling somewhere around 50ish but your body is behaving like it’s 15 again: hormones carousing through your body like teenagers on a drunken joy ride, causing you to hate husbands, children, careers, even the nice person who ushered you ahead in line at the coffee shop (perhaps afraid of the glower on your face). And it’s not one day of hormonal wackiness, oh no. It’s weeks. Those hormones have developed stamina by this point. They’ve moved in and are hanging out on the sofa of your psyche eating popcorn.
The only good thing is that unlike my teenage self who was sure the world was ending, I know that I should sleep early, go for a walk, and stay away from sharp objects lest I eviscerate my husband because he’s left his socks on the coffee table again. Not that I do these things, I just know that I should.
Perimenopause means you’re not yet a candidate for nicely regulated pharmaceutical hormones (which, probably, you don’t really want anyway because of the whole maybe-they-give-you cancer thing, and I’m not sure you want Goop’s zillion-dollar vitamins) so instead you’re subject to periods as erratic as they were when your body was first figuring it all out.
So there I was a few years ago, in that swampy peri-land, hanging out on the sidelines of my son’s soccer practice, half-watching the scrimmage and half-reading my email, when…yep, there it was. Aunt Flo had come to soccer practice. There were 45 minutes of practice left, I was without tampons, and there was nowhere nearby that I could drive to for supplies and make it back in time. The sidelines were mom-less; there were no cool girls smoking in the bathroom who might bail me out. In fact, there was no bathroom, only a slightly glorified port-a-potty.
And that’s why, just as sometimes happened in high school, I became the woman standing (very still) on the sidelines, a wad of toilet paper in her pants, wondering when the joy of womanhood would stop giving.
Maybe, however, the swamps of perimenopause are designed to make us grateful when we finally reach the stable sweaty ground of menopause. Menopause, I figure, is just our bodies off-gassing what’s left of our youth; perimenopause is nature’s way of reminding you that youth was hell.
As someone who has now lived outside the United States for almost eight years, I’ve (almost) gotten used to living with a different holiday calendar. The UAE just celebrated the Prophet’s Birthday, for instance, but Veteran’s Day, Columbus Day, and President’s Day? Pretty much non-starters here. The UAE has the additional wrinkle of operating its holidays on a lunar calendar (with the exception of National Day), and that means that holidays drift along the year: the Prophet’s Birthday won’t be on the 18th of November next year, for example.
The US is gearing up for Thanksgiving tomorrow and while the stores here have tried to stock up on “American” delicacies, it’s never easy — which grocery store has pumpkin pie filling, where can you find a turkey, what about cranberries? Regardless of the meal, however, it’s still just Thursday, here. No big deal.
Abu Dhabi has, however, adopted one of the US holidays as its own, however: Black Friday.
What’s that you say? You didn’t know that Black Friday was an official holiday? You thought it was just that day after Thanksgiving when people go Christmas shopping rather than sloth around and continue to digest?