Archive | aging

Aspiration: Crone

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?

Power.

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.

Grace and Frankie Image & Maxine Waters Image

Continue Reading · 1 on May 30, 2019 in aging, Feminism, Politics

Perimenopause: Nature’s Way of Reminding Us that Adolescence Was Hell

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.”

Say what?

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.

 

Continue Reading · on February 1, 2019 in aging, Feminism, Gender, health

finishing touches

Older Son sent in his early decision university application the other day; the application to the universities in the UK went in a few weeks ago. There are more applications in the offing, and Husband has racked up any number of marriage points by filling out the nightmare that is FAFSA, and so as they say, shit is getting real. (They also say that marriages shouldn’t be about keeping score, but anyone who has been married for any length of time knows that’s absurd. It’s all about keeping score. Filling out FAFSA puts Husband ahead for at least the next few weeks.)

I am aware that I’m touching Older Son more than I used to; I walk past him and touch his shoulder, his back, his head. It is, I realize, a literalization of how I’m feeling: I’m trying to put my finishing touches on him before he leaves.  He turns 18 later this month and while I know I should be proud of the young man he’s becoming, I am want so badly for him, and his younger brother, to still be the tiny dewy-cheeked, pudgy-footed toddlers for whom I was the entire universe. I watch both boys with eyes that are clouded with nostalgia and a sense of loss. Is that inevitable? When I’m doddering in my dotage and unable to cut my own food, will I still look at them and see the babies they were?  (Or Kit Fisto Princess Star Wars Jedi, as the case may be): Ghosts. I think that aging means learning to live with ghosts, even of those who are still very much with us in the world.

Continue Reading · on November 4, 2018 in aging

The Color Purple

I read Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple when I was about fourteen, probably too young to understand its full complexity. All I understood was that the world conspired against Celie–and at fourteen, that’s sort of how the world felt to me, too.

With each re-reading of the novel, I saw more: the way that the form–an epistolary novel–drew on centuries of (white, European) literary tradition and challenged it at the same time; the fact that love between women challenged (and eventually dismantled) structures of male power; the joy and power that comes from finding work that matters, whether that work is singing jazz or making pants that fit women.

I’ve taught this novel a few times, and I love listening to students talk about what they discover in the novel, which still resonates, even now, more than thirty years after it was first published.

I was reminded about the novel’s power today, when I watched Jennifer Hudson and the cast of “The Color Purple” pay tribute to Prince, whose album “Purple Rain” came out two years after Walker’s novel.

I’m not alone–I’m one of millions, I suppose–when I say that Prince’s songs were the soundtrack of my youth. At the time, of course, I thought I was very, very adult, singing along to “I Would Die 4U,” or “Raspberry Beret…”  There was childlike joy in the music–the sheer ecstatic pleasure of making something–married to the very adult pleasures of the flesh.

His music floated out of dorm rooms and dance parties when I was at college in the early 1980s. College, for me, was a small women’s college outside of Boston, where The Color Purple was on lots of reading lists: all that female empowerment! On the weekends, the school held “mixers” — ghastly dances that drew men from surrounding colleges. Sometimes men from specific schools would be invited, sometimes men just showed up, but all of the men (okay, most) seemed certain that as inhabitants of a female-only world, we must be starving–nay, near unto death–for the lack of male company.  The standard conversation at a mixer often went something like “hey, how are you, my name is Jeff/Pete/Charlie/Biff…” and then after a few pleasantries, the question: “Is your roommate home?”  And that meant: would you please take me to your dorm room and let me see your little red love machine?

Much to the chagrin of Biff, Charlie, and Pete, we were frequently quite fine, thanks, without the pleasure of their company. Which is not to say that sometimes we didn’t make like darling Nikki and get ourselves a lil’bit of fun, but just as frequently–and often jump-started by Prince–my friends and I would dance towards each other, ignoring Biff’s entreaties. We danced, god did we dance; the boys couldn’t keep up and we didn’t want them to. Prince gave us permission to dance without worrying about what we looked like or who was watching; he gave us permission to move for the sweet pleasure of moving.

I haven’t remembered those dances in a long time. It took Prince’s death to remind me of the freedom we felt as we danced; the music made me feel like I could do anything.

Somewhere in The Color Purple, Celie writes “Everything want to be loved. Us sing and dance and holler, just trying to be loved.” Maybe that’s what Prince wanted to do in his music–be loved–but maybe, and more likely, I think he wanted us to remember to love each other–whenever, whomever, and however we wanted, in whatever fleshly and passionate fashion we could find.

Celie also tells us “I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.”  We couldn’t not notice Prince–not just his purple, of course, but the marvel of the creativity that streamed out of him, an amazing gift that I, at least, thought might never end.

Goodnight, sweet Prince. Nothing compares 2U.

 

Continue Reading · on April 22, 2016 in aging, Feminism, pop culture, sex

happy birthday, gloria steinem. I wish you didn’t matter.

Gloria Steinem spoke at my college graduation back in 1986.

At the time, as a graduate of a woman’s college, I thought to myself “oh good lord, her. Couldn’t they find someone more relevant?”  It was the era of “divest now” and “free Mandela;” we’d just spent four years at a single-sex college where “gender issues” were as pervasive as the scent of the clove cigarettes many of us smoked.

Yes, it was the mid-1980s: there were shoulder pads, bad perms, Billy Idol on the radio, and we all smoked like our lives depended on it.  We thought that abortion rights were sacrosanct and that surely there would be a woman president before we turned 30, which was about as old as any of us could imagine being.

Now I’m fifty and Gloria, omigod, is eighty and we all of us, men and women, should hope that we do eighty the way that Gloria is doing eighty. Because her eighty would exhaust my fifty, that’s what I gotta say about that.

But how wrong was I—about so many things — lo those many years ago: we’ve recovered from clove cigarettes, bad perms, Billy Idol, and shoulder pads–but women still don’t earn equal pay for equal work.  Mandela was freed, apartheid was overthrown — but the statistics for sexual violence against women in South Africa and elsewhere in the world continue to rise.  We’ve seen the erosion of abortion rights in the U.S. and elsewhere; we’ve seen health care programs for poor women and their families slashed from state budgets.

And ironically, on the same day I was reading gossip on the internet researching very important researchy things, I saw an article on Jezebel about New York State’s new educational guidelines, which have been overhauled to fit with the new Common Core History Curriculum.

I know, I know, it sounds so totally exciting!  But you have to understand: I’m a literature professor. I actually like to think about things like “curriculum” and “reading lists” and “rubrics.” Well, okay, not so much rubrics, but the other stuff? Love it.

So I read the article and here’s the gist: in the pages devoted to all the elements that students in high school will have to learn about US and Global history, would you like to know how many women get name-checked? About seven.  Would you be shocked to find out that on the lists of What You Should Know there are many, many more men?  Jezebel doesn’t connect the dots they way I do, though, in their discussion of the women who are mentioned on this list: Mary Wollstonecraft, Ida Tarbell, Ida B. Wells, Jane Addams, Margaret Sanger, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Beecher Stowe.  All of them are writers and reformers. None of them are, you know, world leaders.

I’m just wondering … if you’re talking about English history, I’m thinking that Liz I (Tudor, not Taylor) might be a name to consider; ditto Isabella of Span, who I guess maybe didn’t do anything except, I don’t know, bankroll the guy who stumbled into North AmericaAnd what about in the category of “imperialism?” Dontcha think maybe Queen Victoria might have warranted a mention?She’s got an entire era named after her bad dowager self.

A person could read through this list and come away thinking that women have never been involved with any aspect of world governance, anywhere in the world, at any point in time.

I realize lists like these can fuel the “what about” arguments for days; I’ve fought with myself about what to include or leave out, as I write syllabi for my classes (upside? I always win the fight).  I am sure that these guidelines are the product of hours, months, maybe years of people meeting and talking and yelling, of sending endless emails back and forth, of cutting-and-pasting and then cutting-and-pasting some more.  And I know these are “guidelines” and “conceptual” and not meant to be proscriptive or definitive or absolute.

And yet.

If I’m a busy, probably underpaid teacher (yes, I know, hard to imagine but just imagine, okay?) and I were being asked to re-vamp my curriculum for the next school year,  I might just scan these guidelines and zip zap zoop, add some names from the list, swap some titles on my current reading list for the ones mentioned here and be done with it.  Yes, we’d all hope for more thoughtful and considered revisions but I know how hard it is to write a syllabus and I know that it is really tough to teach a brand-new course, much less make sure that I can get all my students to pass a set of proscribed exams as a result of my brand-new course—all of which suggests that following the guidelines to the letter becomes really, really tempting.

That’s how “convnentional wisdom” starts, I think: not with conspiracy or patriarchal malice (okay, maybe a little of that), just an insidious, easily overlooked neglect, and then suddenly there we are (again): women do the soft stuff, men do the hard stuff; women write books and news articles, men write treaties and doctrines and foundational texts; women report on things, men do things.

Happy Birthday, Gloria.  I wish I’d been right, all those years ago: I wish you were irrelevant. But you’re not.

Gloria at my commencement



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Continue Reading · on March 26, 2014 in aging, Education, Feminism, Gender, Politics

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