When this collaboration began, around a coffee table in the Hudson Valley, I was drawn to it from a somewhat different perspective than Emily’s. I had grown up in the 1940s and ’50s, before the maps of tradition were shredded, and had come through some of the losses she was anticipating but also knew of the rewards that can follow in their wake. I’d moved to the country alone with four animals as family, lived without my city neighbors for the first time, learned to drive at fifty-three, and, most important, resumed writing and editing.
I’ve always loved the richness of anthologies, particularly essay collections created to explore a complex, even mysterious landscape. We decided to seek out writers and performers willing to go wherever our theme took them. The choices were theirs. Some of the most accomplished prizewinning writers in America, Canada, and Great Britain responded. Many of them admitted that the assignment was more challenging than they’d imagined it would be. They reported on both the fear and the exhilaration of going deep enough to tell the truth. Their bravery is palpable. Some have made discoveries that may lead to new work, even a few new books.
Two playwrights, a biographer, poets, novelists, memoirists, essayists, a physician, a musician, and two actresses are among the thirty-two women who have created this book. They have addressed the unexpected pleasures of living alone, new places as new chapters in life, giving cancer the slip, fear and boldness later in life, the luck of having role models, the solace of literature in a foreign hospital, reliance on faith, both acceptance and despair at being older, raging at the death of friends, new relationships with dead parents, swimming the Bosporus one last time and other urgent yearnings yet to be fulfilled, an adult child’s addiction, the painful disappointment of adopting a damaged child in later life. And more.
The journalist, essayist, and memoirist Vivian Gornick manages to turn the inevitable invisibility of older women into something positive in “Even Smart Women Hate Losing Their Youthful Looks”:
For a woman, existential terror is the aging face. . . . When she looks in the mirror and sees herself lined and hollow-cheeked, she thinks, “Tomorrow is here. Now I’m accountable. Now I must do it. Can I? More important, will I?”
The novelist, memoirist, nonfiction writer, and Friday book reviewer for The Washington Post Carolyn See writes in “Moving”:
You go crazy when you move (unless you live in a yurt and get used to it). . . . I could say I was in a colossally bad mood. I’d been without John for seven years; that was bad enough. Now, soon enough, I’d be without the better part of my sight and without a car. On top of that, over the years I had cultivated a public persona that I (privately until now) referred to as “Jolly Grandma,” a kind of sexless answer to Henry Miller’s mantra “Always merry and bright!”
In “It Figures,” Katherine B. Weissman, a contributing editor to O, The Oprah Magazine, reveals:
I’ve always been at war with my body. Encountering it naked in my sixties is like meeting an old enemy who has, unaccountably and regrettably, acquired new weapons since we last crossed paths. . . . I am a seventies feminist who bought Vogue secretly every month and whose consciousness-raising group once planned to have a meeting in the nude (I starved myself for days, only to learn that my coconspirators had chickened out). Over the years I have learned to assert my rights, own my successes, get angry, and not apologize so damned much.
In “Songs for Cricket,” the novelist Beth Powning says:
Something is beginning. Last week, I saw the spruce trees sharp and light-sparked as sun broke from scudding black clouds, the fields soft and taupe as deer hide. I might, at that moment, have been a blind person granted sight. Other moments shock me into stillness, out of time. Seven fox cubs sitting in a row, red fur blowing in spring wind. Or the fat silkiness of a granddaughter’s braid.
Gail Godwin, the author of novels, short story collections, nonfiction, and ten librettos, reveals, in “Losing Ground”:
After I was turned down for the home care policy and had the losing-ground moment, I went into a depression. All I desired to do was sleep. I couldn’t find anything I wanted to read, until I remembered my mother’s diaries. . . . Now, as I devoured them addictively during the three weeks of deepening winter, my curiosity about my future, whatever it turns out to be, revived. Her voice coaxed back to life a fascination for the “fatal tissue” into which I happened to be born. Surely I can do no less with my materials than has been done for me.
In the playwright Tina Howe’s essay “Bubble, Bubble, Toil and Trouble,” she observes:
When we’re young, we tend to think old people were born that way. That it’s somehow a choice. Then suddenly we hit sixty-five, seventy-three, or eighty-two and wonder what’s going on. That isn’t us in there! It’s someone else! Construction workers suddenly don’t whistle at us anymore, and waiters call us “Ma’am” instead of “Legs” or “Sweet thing.”
. . . WASPy women tend to be tall and uncomfortable in their bodies, so why try to hide it? Make an asset of your flaws. Wear feathered hats and high-heeled shoes. Affect an English accent. Carry a falcon on your wrist.
Laura Furman, a novelist, short story writer, and editor of the The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories, tells us in “Swim Swam Swum”:
Now that I am in my early sixties, swimming is my default, my pleasure, and the place I most often feel love. . . . If each swim is different, the body in which I swim has its differences also. What’s smooth and easy one day is out of reach the next. No amount of knowing one’s idiosyncrasies can stop the changes. All I can hope for is to keep swimming in the body of the day. I take this with me as I age. The water will support me. All I have to do is get into it.
The biographer and novelist Elizabeth Frank’s essay “Woman with a Pink” takes its title from a Rembrandt painting in which a middle-aged woman offers a carnation.
The woman looks at the pink and sees in it what she once was and will never be again. She will never be a bride or pregnant, and, if she is lucky enough to fall in love, it won’t be the way love was when she was younger, because when she was younger she had time. Simple, beautiful, abundant time.
The novelist and poet Erica Jong writes of her father’s death in “Loving Mr. Bones”:
What can you wish for as you watch a beloved parent struggling in Ivan Ilyich’s black sack? Should you wish for death or life? And how much do your wishes matter?
The lucky ones die in restaurants after a good dinner. Or die in their sleep in bed during an erotic dream about a lover long since passed to the other side. I hope to merit such a death.
The playwright and novelist Ntozake Shange writes of the changes a major stroke has brought to her life in her essay “what i thought i’d never lose & did/what i discovered when i didn’t know i cd”:
See, I will let you encounter the world as I do now.
“You fuckin’ handicapped bitch, get on out the way!” a young Chicano screamed at me. . . . I used to run for the bus in Philadelphia, knees high, flying through crowds & up to the driver, “Good afternoon!” I’d pant; but not anymore. I can’t run. I can’t complete a chassé or bench-press 135 lbs. I fall asleep in the middle of intriguing conversations. . . . I just need directions home sometimes . . . & I talk like I had fifteen shoes in my mouth . . . but I miss working. . . . I know how to work an audience. . . . I can attract people to my shows. . . . I am not dead, I am older. But I can still memorize a stanza or two.
Jane Alexander, award-winning Hollywood and Broadway actress, describes how content and fulfilled she’s been in later life, thanks to a happy family, a refusal to tamper with her natural aging process, and an appreciation of nature and good health.
I used to be very, very anxious myself about dying . . . [but] if one looks at one’s own death as something that’s perfectly okay at any time. . . . I just gave up the anxiety. I used to be so anxious about everything, flying, driving in a car . . . I just kind of gave it up.
In “My Narrow Escape,” the novelist and memoirist Abigail Thomas tells us:
Sometimes I feel sorry for my friends who are looking around for a mate. I don’t want one, and I don’t want to want one. It has taken me the better part of sixty years to enjoy the inside of my own head, and I do that best when I’m by myself.
I am smug. I am probably insufferable.
And then the telephone rings.
Jane O’Reilly, a journalist and essayist, in “Not Yet” adds this advice to her observations on being older:
THE VOICE OF EXPERIENCE (offstage):
Meanwhile, don’t forget to brush and floss. It is no fun to outlive your teeth. I would also suggest cutting back sharply on the use of bodily ailments as conversational topics. Let me also point out the importance of striving to be a glass-half-full instead of a glass-half-empty person. You know who you are.
Claire Bloom, celebrated stage and film actress, was asked how she’d reached some resolution of the past.
I was also very much helped by [a little book of] the sayings of Buddha. . . . [W]hen I was very unhappy . . . it always calmed me and centered me. It’s sensible and practical, particularly about age and moving forward and moving on, and if you can’t find a companion who suits you and is not a fool, he says, then go on alone. . . . [Life has] treated me well. I’ve been independent. . . . I’ve been free to work, to travel, to be with my daughter, to be with my friends, in a way that I wasn’t when I was in a relationship. I’ve found it a very wonderful period of my life.
Our later years often bear a striking resemblance to adolescence: we are simultaneously tremulous, opinionated, bold, surprisingly shy, and nonchalant or self-conscious about our appearance, to name just a few of the possible contradictions. What is not adolescent is our capacity for self-irony, which seems to increase in later life. Finally, we’re able to step back, breathe in and out, and poke some fun at ourselves.
Our contributors speak to the events, the inevitabilities that confront us all in a world bearing less resemblance to anything we’ve ever known. Here, then, are their daring pieces, engaging interplays of darkness and light, offering what is often the most comfort: the company of others.
These are the women I’d want in my lifeboat.
© 2010 Emily W. Upham