At our family celebration of my 79th birthday, my daughter noted that I was now entering my 80th year. Eighty! I hadn’t thought much about turning 79, probably because I don’t like odd numbers or the ends of things, in this case another decade. But 80! When people in their 80’s die, visitors to wakes or viewings (shudder-inducing term) or Shivas often comment consolingly, “She lived a good long life” or, in the case of the still-popular open casket, “She looks good for a woman of 80.”
If I make it to 80 on this side of a hearse, I have been very clear about my expectations for the celebration of my birthday: I crave a full-blown party with attendance mandatory for family and friends. While I no longer drink alcohol (long story there, each chapter an embarrassing record of one or another fall from grace –or just plain fall on my face on 14th St. in Manhattan, one example of why I no longer drink alcohol), I want champagne to be served along with delicious food. Bring on the tributes, spoken and written and even sung. If I am at 80 on the verge of devolving in the crucible of fire to unrecognizable ashes, I want to go out with a bang, not a whimper, while I can still participate in the fun.
As some of my (few) readers have noted, I haven’t posted a word to this blog in months. I have been rendered literally speechless by my own anger and indignation at the state of our country and the world. I have written rough drafts of several rants and then fallen into the swamp of my own inadequacy to say anything important. My blog file lists several possible topics about which I was briefly energized/indignant/enthusiastic. Among the labels: patriarchy (no surprise), St. Therese of the Blessed Sacrament (my college writing professor, rumored to be a mystic), sentiment vs. sentimentality (That one I still plan to pursue.). And Aging. Since I am considering the imminence of my next, 80th, birthday, I’ve decided to click that draft back into life.
When I opened the “Aging” file, I saw that all it contains is a New York Times (January 12, 2019) opinion column by Mary Pipher entitled The Joy of Being a Woman in Her 70’s. Her thesis is best summarized in the subtitle: “Many of us have learned that happiness is a skill and a choice.” Reading that precis, I remember why I copied her piece into my file. While I enjoy and respect most of what Mary Pipher has written, this piece rubbed me the wrong way. Pipher begins by asserting an obvious truth: “…ageism is a bigger problem for women than aging.” I certainly agree, having been micro-aggressioned to virtual death by endearments like “honey” and “dear” and, most maddening of all, “young lady” delivered gratuitously like pastel teddy bears on a pediatric ward by people (doctors, nurses, waiters and waitresses, flight attendants, gas station attendants, clerks of various establishments.) I know what many of you are thinking; “They are just trying to be nice/polite/kind.” So was my dear mother being kind when she patted a small Asian child on the head and crooned, “What a little China doll!” I suppose tolerating kind endearments from people who look no older than 12 is better than enduring howls out a car window by thuggish young men crudely disparaging the physical adjustments old age has made to my body. And then we have the ads, with women who look no older than 60 marveling at the comfort and joy of the latest incontinence diaper-designed-to-resemble-sexy-underwear or the gentle relief, without the embarrassments of gas or leaks, offered to a glowing silver haired woman by the latest laxative. There is also the ongoing insult of plastic surgery’s omnipresence and the almost mandatory tone of those ads encouraging women to have bits and pieces lifted, smoothed, plumped or reduced. Jane Fonda et. al, make natural aging look cheap and aesthetically offensive.
Let me share my latest experience with the medical establishment. A few months ago, I had what has been called a “small” stroke. In the aftermath, I had Dopplers and scans and blood tests and finally an appointment with a neurologist. I couldn’t get in to see the woman most recommended, so I was given an appointment with a man in her practice. Given the fact that he is an attractive and healthy male specimen who looks maybe 16, I assume he is relatively new to the game, although he didn’t seem uncertain or tentative. At his request, I told him the circumstances of the incident. He leaned casually against the exam table that I had not yet mounted. (I try at initial medical appointments to greet the doctor from a regular chair, maintaining the fiction that we are on equal terms.) The young doctor asked a couple of cursory questions, told me to “hop” up onto the table, and ran me through what seemed a very cursory series of exercises to determine if my stroke (I’ve come to have a rather proprietary relationship with the incident.) left any residual damage. So I touched my nose, raised and lowered my arms, and so on. He pronounced me free of damage and asked if I’d like to see the scan of my brain on which the “small” stroke appeared as a kind of fuzzy milky spot. As he seemed to be indicating the end of our session, I asked him if I was a greater risk for another “incident” and what he recommended as preventative measures. Smiling patronizingly, he said that really the greatest risk for a recurrence was “your advanced age.” He assured me that all people of my “advanced age” were prone to strokes. He seemed not at all interested in salt restrictions, blood pressure meds, weight loss, exercise –any of the various easily Googled measures recommended post stroke. He ventured that baby aspirin and the prescription blood thinner my regular doctor has prescribed were more or less interchangeable as perhaps reliable attempts to forestall future strokes, but repeated (for the 4th time) that my “advanced age” was my greatest risk for finding myself drooling in a wheelchair, wearing not-so-sexy institutional diapers. He said a pleasant goodbye with no encouragement that I return. My conclusion is that he was faintly bored when he realized that he was dealing with a garden variety “advanced age” incident, not a more exotic brain injury. I know I am making assumptions here, but I left that exam room feeling older and closer to death than when I entered.
I digress in the service of anecdotal experience. Back to Mary Pipher. What really sticks in my craw, as my New England farmer ancestors would have it, is Mary’s choice to speak in the collective “we” as she rolls out her argument. She says, “Most of the women I know describe themselves as being in a vibrant and happy life stage. We are resilient and know how to thrive in the margins. OUR happiness comes from self – knowledge, emotional intelligence, and empathy for others.”
Whoa there, Mary Pipher! Who is/are this WE about whom you make such confident statements? She assures her readers that WE older women don’t make assumptions as we were wont to do when younger. What about this assumption of the WE/US? She goes on paragraph after paragraph to describe US as choosing happiness, making everything work, finding serenity in even the worst circumstances, like the woman she describes, “old, crippled and living in a tiny apartment facing a brick wall” who claims she is happy because “I have everything I need to be happy right between my ears.” I guess she’s the antonym to Melville’s Bartleby, who chose to die facing his brick wall; she simply chooses to be happy, no protest against the political and economic forces that have abandoned her to her fate. And that’s one of Pipher’s main points – WE (old women) just merrily accept the slings, arrows and depredations, throw on our yoga pants without apologies for sag, and add blessings to our gratitude lists every day. Describing the state of collective bliss WE can achieve, Pipher offers as an example that now she “can feel it [bliss] “when I look at a caterpillar on my garden path.” That’s some caterpillar! As Mary says, “Attitude is not everything, but it’s almost everything.” That’s a line with a familiar jangle. Isn’t that what some Trump official, Ben Carson, I think, said recently about the poor? Of course, he is not the only one in a long line of privileged power people who dismiss the discontents of the poor and oppressed as simply a problem of attitude. They need to pull themselves up by the proverbial bootstraps! Who cares about the aging poor? Or the incarcerated elderly? Or the demented? The lonely, abandoned, hungry, cold, homeless senior citizens all over this country? I wonder Pipher expects them to alter their negative attitudes in order to feel that caterpillar bliss.
And my point is? That articles like Mary Pipher’s are themselves ageist-sexist, in that they glorify another aging female stereotype: the wise, kind, patient, forbearing, accepting old woman who avoids anger, criticism of others, complaints and ingratitude. And that WE? It doesn’t even encompass me, even though I enjoy some measures of middle class privilege. Given that much of what Pipher praises about these women she “knows,” who seem in her telling to constitute the collective containing the pleasures she and her WE and Us experience – yoga pants, good friends and long term partners, stimulating books, homemade pie, friendly phone calls –. I would suggest that she is dallying in the feel-good fields of economic comfort, lots of company, physical agility and health, good reviews and book sales. How else could she prattle on with her sentimental vision of the way WE are?
Yesterday, standing at my dresser, looking at myself in the mirror, I noted a long hair growing witch- like from my chin, the puffy blue pouches under my blue eyes, and the dewlaps that my grandchildren love to jiggle. Then I looked down. There on my dresser were the little black casket in which my very expensive hearing aids hang out each night to be charged; my home blood pressure monitor that I should be using every day according to my regular doctor and useless according to the neurologist who knows it’s really all about my “advanced age;” the base of my emergency alert system, currently disabled after the cat knocked it off the table, given to me by my daughters to reassure them that I can summon help at the push of a button; and an extra pair of glasses. Oh, also a bra that more closely resembles an architectural support system than a piece of sexy lingerie. As a retired English teacher and constant reader, I know a symbol when I see it. These metonyms speak of and to the realities of old age for women as privileged as I am to have good medical insurance, generous children, and enough education to rely on irony, literary and otherwise, instead of sentimental gratitude, to get by one day at a time.
How can I (not WE) be happy in the “miracle” and “privilege” of life that Mary Pipher lauds? Although I don’t believe in a generic attitude of happiness, I do believe in heartfelt defiance, full awareness of the human condition, and love. Not sentimental, feel-good love, but fierce love that resists easy platitudes and hymns to the beauty of aging and death. I’m with Dylan Thomas here: “Do not go gentle into that goodnight.” I recently saw Glenda Jackson on Broadway in a production of King Lear. She was splendid. I have discussed the play many times with students and with colleagues. I only began to “get” it, however, as I grew older. At this production, seen at 79, I felt its full tragic majesty in my bones (and in the backache that resulted from four hours of theater sitting). So much is great about the play, but for me this time around, I was struck by how emotionally dynamic the drama is, how much Lear (and Gloucester) learn about themselves, about others, about love. The play is cruel and fierce, as tragedy should be. In its fierceness I see illuminated the possibility of transformation even at the very end of life. As fortune turns against him in the form of his ungrateful daughters, and his confused ego drives him mad, Lear realizes something surprising for a man who has taken advantage of his privilege to ignore the sufferings of others. In the raging storm, he takes a first step outside of himself to recognize the suffering of others:
Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? Oh, I have ta’en
Too little care of this!
First he is humbled to the edge of empathy for the “other,” and then, annealed by a descent into madness, he learns to love. Reunited with Cordelia, he is ready to be go to prison with her, where “We two alone will sing like birds i’ th’ cage/ When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down/And ask of thee forgiveness. So we’ll live,/And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh.”
And then, of course, she is murdered, his “poor fool” is dead and he must take his new-found wisdom and love with him to his grave. The grave to which we all take whatever we have learned, unable to judge the effects of what we leave behind.
Piper says that WE all have more tragedy and bliss than we expected in life. She doesn’t account for the vast inequality of both tragedy and bliss in the widely divergent lives of old people, even in OUR own privileged circles. I for one have known more sadness than bliss, and that is probably at least partly a function of my own psychology, a lifetime of the kind of chronic depression that so many women face, adding to the physical insults of old age. Like so many other women, I have known lots of loss.
Loss is out of my control: death, especially the death of the young to disease and to suicide; disillusionment, especially the failure of democracy to keep its promises; divorce, the failure of what I thought of as enduring love; dementia, my sister, mute and frozen in a locked ward. I am often reminded to feel lucky that I am still showing strong cognitive function. Sure, but at every visit to that ward, I also feel the weight of human pain, what Arnold in the poem “Dover Beach” called “The eternal note of sadness…” that “Sophocles long ago/Heard it on the Ægean, and it brought/Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow/ Of human misery…” To borrow from John Donne, “No [woman] is an island.” I cannot control but I can choose to make each woman’s grief my own.
I know my old age is fortunate in that it is comfortable, I am loved by my children and a few dear friends, and my health is more or less stable. I know that the appropriate old woman thing to say is that I am not afraid to die. Sometimes, however, I am tempted to agree with Ezekiel Emanuel, oncologist, brother of Chicago’s ex-mayor Raum, who wrote an article for the October 2014 issue of The Atlantic, explaining that he hoped to die by age 75, preferring death to endless tests and procedures, being a drain on the medical system, and watching his family witness his slide into old age. Of course, Dr. Zeke was in his healthy, active 60’s when he wrote of his preference for death over aging and left himself the option to change his mind when the time came. He did not encourage suicide but rather cessation of medical tests or treatments for anything except an emergency such as a hot appendix.
Another writer I admire killed herself rather than hang on into the declining years. Carolyn Heilbrun, feminist scholar and activist, wrote that she planned to kill herself by her 70th birthday, then reversed herself when she found she was enjoying her old age. Later, at 77, she did commit suicide, leaving little behind to explain herself except that earlier commitment. Having read all of her works, I think I understand why she chose to take control of the timing of the inevitable, to go out on her own terms.
I am not advocating for suicide, but I now believe that it’s a reasonable alternative to an impaired and senile old age. Pipher says “it’s been a miracle and a privilege to be alive.” Perhaps, but we don’t get to choose the beginning, the circumstances or the end. Maybe that’s her point: that we can choose to be happy or act as if. But what if it all ends in a dementia ward, a cancer treatment center, in a homeless shelter, a warehouse for the aged. What about elder abuse? Hunger? Loneliness, a condition considered epidemic among the old. I am NOT as Pipher says, “less angst filled and more content.” Like Lear I have learned so much about how human beings suffer, what they suffer at the hands of other human beings; I have educated myself into the real mysteries of human life: cruelty, indifference, selfishness. I think often of James Baldwin’s “There are so many ways of being despicable it quite makes one’s head spin. But the way to be really despicable is to be contemptuous of other people’s pain.” What I have seen and read and learned in this long life is that there are so many ways, overt and covert, to look away from, denigrate, and blame others for their pain, if not actually to inflict it, that I can’t choose an attitude of personal happiness as my default emotion. I can and do know moments of joy and satisfaction, sometimes serenity. But I don’t really aim for happiness in the sense of feeling wise or fulfilled or part of some larger mystery. Life is what it is, my life has been my own, partly of my making, partly controlled by forces within and without of the self that is my own. If I seek to be fully human – and I do – I can’t assume that my experience of old age is universal nor can I pretend that a woman’s attitude toward the depredations, physical and social, of old age is more important than defying and decrying the ways our culture denigrates, mistreats and ignores old women.
I think I am saying – and please don’t read it as prescriptive for anyone but myself – that I don’t think I should be happy, knowing what I have learned, seeing what I now see, refusing to look away from the hard reality of being mortal, of living to a “ripe” old age. To me, if, as Hamlet said, “ripeness is all,” we should remember how short the time is between ripeness and rot. And we are all destined for that rot, one way or another– “Green” burial, tree fertilizer in a pot, old fashioned lead- lined casket, or the finality of fire. As I move into the genuine agedness of my eighth decade, I’d like to think my life has been worth something, that I have made a difference beyond the important but quotidian bearing and raising of children, my reproductive duty to replace myself and the long absent partner who donated not much more than genes to the project. But I am not sure. I have been more or less existentialist in my philosophy, long in love with Albert Camus and his unwillingness to commit himself fully to any cause, even as he participated in the work and goals of several. Although I have long eschewed formal religion, I sometimes attend a Friends meeting for worship, finding nothing objectionable in Quaker silence, so my inner critic gets an hour of rest. And since I first heard the advice attributed to Rabbi Tarfon – “You are not obliged to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it” — I have tried to act with integrity, never sure that my acts make a difference but sure that I must perform them anyway.
I feel a prick of guilt for launching this critique of Mary Pipher’s rhetorical use of all-inclusive plural pronouns. I am sure she was thinking, as she said, of her friends; but her choice of collective pronouns was ill-considered and exclusive. She might at least have mentioned socio-economic-educational status as factors in the female experience of aging. As it is, her cheerful description of how WE all feel doesn’t apply to me, for reasons I have carried on about long enough now. I’ll never accept learning “to thrive in the margins” because the margins are artificially drawn and too narrow for me and so many other women. So, Mary Pipher, whose work I usually admire, forgive me. I don’t fit into your WE and US categories, and I suspect many other women can’t see themselves there either.