Reflections at 79: On Not Going Gentle

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 70s. 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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reclaiming “Cunt”

BY ANY OTHER NAME….

Every Friday on the PBS News Hour, veteran journalists Marks Shields and David Brooks take to the pundits’ table to offer their polite, judicious, Public TV- style commentary on the week’s events. On June 1, in response to Judy Woodruff’s question about the relative DE- merits of Rosanne Barr’s racist tweet and Samantha Bee’s javelin-hurl of the word cunt, David Brooks, always the gentleman touting the virtues of civility, bemoaned the degradation of manners. Shields, always the more colorful and opinionated of these two talking heads, leapt to the high moral ground, sputtering, “It is—what…Samantha Bee did, was nuclear. This is a nuclear word. This is a—this is the universal most offensive word to women that I know of.”  Reading the transcript misses the visuals: on screen Shields looked as if he was about to pop, like an overinflated balloon. He appeared apoplectic, his considerable jowls quivering as he shook his head in a palsy of righteous anger.

Now let me clear: the word cunt has stopped me in my tracks when I have heard it hurled as an insult. When I saw news clips of Trump supporters in shirts that applied the cunt epithet to Hillary, I wanted to rent a flame thrower. But watching Mark Shields fulminate in full  blown hyperbole about the absolute awfulness of this little noun, I found myself asking why he declares it the “most offensive word to women.” I rummaged around on etymology and dictionary sites, finding that cunt is a very old word used by Chaucer and Shakespeare literally and punningly (as in “country matters” in Hamlet). Some sites note that the word has not always been pejorative. After some web surfing, I decided I was less interested in the history of the word than in its effects, particularly on an old feminist like me. Why did I shudder when I heard the word?

Cunt means literally, according to various sources, female genitalia; some dictionaries say it’s the vagina; others embrace a fuller context of vagina and vulva. (So few young people, girls included, have a clear idea of the complexity of lady parts — vulva, big labia, little labia, clitoris, urethra, all before one gets to the vagina.) All agree that the word cunt refers to our genitalia, our “lady parts,” the terra too often incognita down there.

So why is cunt so vile a word as to earn Mark Shields’ epithet “nuclear?” Let’s analyze dispassionately. The word refers to female genitals. One could compare it to prick, but that word would not, I am sure, earn Shields’ opprobrium at the same level of disgust. Prick is a dry word that conjures up images of the aggressive penis in contrast its opposite, the even less offensive limp dick. Cunt on the other hand evokes from Shields and many others a cringe, a wrinkled nose, the yuk effect. Why? Because there is a long cultural history of revulsion and disgust associated with female genitalia and its functions.  Think about the most obvious –menstruation. Even today in the age of TV advertising for tampons, unthinkable when I was a girl, our then president-to-be expressed disgust when he made his “blood coming out of her wherever” remark during a debate. I’ll stick to what I know well here, but there are still religious rules and traditions that stigmatize a menstruating woman as unclean. So menstrual blood (and other seepages) may be an obvious source of disgust toward female genitals.

To call a woman a cunt, the most offensive insult according to Mark Shields, is to reduce her to biological destiny, to those tucked away body parts that pee and bleed and ooze and produce lubricants to facilitate sexual intercourse, which can, in turn, if one wishes and sometimes when one doesn’t, produce a baby. To call a man a cunt is to ratchet up the insult scale; calling a man a woman (as in “you throw like a girl”) is bad enough. Calling a man a cunt reduces him even further, to what lurks between a woman’s legs, hidden, interior, mysterious, female, and disgusting.

Is cunt worse than pussy or twat or any number of other slang terms/insults? It seems to pack a greater punch, a nuclear one according to Shields. The general coarsening of public discourse, so decried by David Brooks and others, has certainly led to a greater tolerance for words formerly banned on TV and radio. (Judy Woodruff noted that Samantha Bee had used a word “so bad we can’t repeat it here on the News Hour.”) Music lyrics, the internet and our current president have “liberated” a whole lexicon of previously taboo words and phrases. Still, some vulgar references to female parts retain the power to shock.

If cunt is a dirty word, it is because women’s private parts are seen as unclean, shameful even as they are desirable. The sexual and reproductive power associated with the vagina and its habitat is both seductive and repellant. Perhaps that power is also mysterious, threatening, fearsome. In Yeats’ poem “Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop,” the old woman cries, “But love has pitched his mansion in/The place of excrement.” Talking to several acquaintance about why they remove by razor or wax all of their pubic hair, I often hear, especially from young women, that it is disgusting and nasty. When I point out, as I am wont to do, that the removal of pubic hair leaves them looking like pre-pubescent girls, they seem oblivious to the implications of that image. In this supposedly post-feminist age, women have the right to remove, alter, plump up, lift any part they deem inadequate or unattractive, I guess. I do wish, however, that they would be cognizant of the politics of such alterations. I mean, labiaplasty? Vagina rejuvenation? So many ways to make one’s cunt more beautiful, more virginal, more penis-friendly…and less natural.

Back to Samantha Bee and her now notorious use of the cunt-word. (Note, I am not playing the “c-word”game! A word is a word is a word. It gains or loses positive or negative power by the way we use it; its value either way is not lessened by expurgating all but its initial letter.) I am sorry that Samantha chose to use the word cunt in derogation of Ivanka Trump’s insensitivity in tweeting out the photo of her nuzzling her adorable child. In using the word as an insult, Samantha bought into and validated the ongoing cultural problematizing of the female body, specifically its genitalia. She perpetuated disgust for the female body. In choosing that word to do her dirty work, Samantha, usually feminist  in her consciousness, added her own brand of plutonium to the nuclear fuel that outraged Mark Shields to castigate feminists in general and the Me Too movement in particular, saying, “but I just found incredible hypocrisy on the part of the MeToo movement, on the part of a lot of feminists and a lot of liberals, that they have not been as harsh on Samantha Bee as they were rightly on Roseanne…” (What’s a week of cultural outrage without an attack on feminists from a white male pundit of a certain age?)

There is a similarity with a difference between Roseanne’s nakedly racist tweet and Samantha’s sexist name calling. Yes, I am calling out Samantha Bee’s use of the word cunt as sexist because cunt’s power to dehumanize and affront depends on the cultural feeling that a woman’s private parts are nasty, disgusting, and vile.  If Ivanka had any truly feminist smarts, she would have turned the insult on its head by embracing the word, by claiming pride in her sexual, generative anatomy that produced the adorable toddler in her arms. There is, however, no way to redeem Roseanne’s tweet that called upon a racist trope so widely available in our culture: African Americans as less than human, as ape-like. Both insults rely upon stereotypes deeply embedded in our casually racist and sexist culture. The difference I see is that one can redeem cunt from its power to disgust by reclaiming it as a powerful descriptive noun. There is no redeeming the verbal or visual image of an African American woman as an animal.

I am not defending Samantha’s use of the word cunt. She hurled it out there in the most sexist/misogynistic of ways. She validated its cultural baggage – nasty, smelly, disgusting, vile: that’s what the word has come to say about what lurks between women’s legs. She apologized; I don’t think she should be fired. After all, as Shields points out, the show was taped and approved before broadcast. Samantha did not blurt out the insult spontaneously.  Roseanne, the solitary tweeter, has a long history of racist remarks on and off twitter, not to mention her support of wacky and dangerous conspiracy theories. Samantha Bee, like many comedians, is no stranger to the shock value of vulgar language, knowing that it seems more outrageous, thus newsworthy,  when spoken by a woman. Since she has already staked out and gotten lots of publicity in the forbidden territory of cunt, I would like to see Samantha deliver a routine in which she reclaims the word; in which she takes us on a tour of cunt’s original meanings and explores why and how it has become such an incendiary verbal weapon. I’d like to see her repeat the word over and over, incite her audience, as Eve Ensler did with vagina, to chant it as a way of reclaiming cunt from opprobrium and misuse. Remember pussy hats? How they and their wearers reclaimed the word that described the female part Trump bragged disdainfully about grabbing? So perhaps, if we can knit the pussy into respectability, we can reclaim cunt from the bathroom wastebasket of contempt. After all, cunt at its four-letter core is simply a word for the collective “down there” parts that we often don’t know how to label. Cunt covers more territory than the more specific vagina. Cunt has a powerful one-syllable punch. Having typed it now many times, I feel ready to befriend the word. I think it will take practice for me to say it aloud, publicly and securely, as in “One’s cunt is a seat of pleasure and sometimes pain.” But really, readers, think of cunt as a useful addition to your conventional vocabulary. The next time some street corner tough or TBS comedian tries to insult or intimidate you by calling you a cunt, refuse to cringe or blush. Somewhere in this great country of ours, someone is, I am sure, working up an intricate crochet pattern that honors the irrepressible cunt.

 

PS: I want to laud Samantha Bee’s use of another all-too-seldom applied adjective –”feckless.” She called Ivanka a “feckless cunt.” Feckless means “lacking strength of character, weak, irresponsible.” Samantha could have stopped there, as in “the feckless Ivanka Trump.” I don’t think Ivanka or any woman should be attacked by equating her to her cunt, which, after all, is merely a collection of body parts, not a brain with the feckless will to tweet out an insensitive photo. Maybe Samantha just needs a better editor on her team of comedy writers and an online copy of the O.E.D.

 

 

 

 

Death as a Code for Living

“Life is tragic simply because the earth turns and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time. Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, the only fact we have. It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death–ought to decide, indeed, to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life. One is responsible for life: It is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return.”
― James BaldwinThe Fire Next Time

 

I suspect that those who know me will roll their eyes at the title of this  New Year’s Eve meditation. Lest I seem unusually morbid, consider how often Father Time, who chases out the old year and brings in the new, appears as the grim reaper, familiar symbol of death. Actually, the idea for this meditation began yesterday when, for no other reason than the whimsical nature of my mental processes, I suddenly thought of Heraclitus and his notion of flux –everything in flux, can’t step into the same river twice, and so forth. I learned about Heraclitus and flux over 60 years ago, in an undergraduate philosophy class, I think, and flux and the river metaphor are all I remember. When I googled Heraclitus, I realized how very little I know about him and how little tempted I am to know more. But change was in my busy mind, humming around like a wasp in search of a suitable site for a sting. I hate change, have always, for reasons probably rooted in some dark recess of childhood or adolescence, hated change. I like patterns, routines, expectedness. Of course, I know that change is the only certainty in terms of aging and its logical conclusion. We start to change (die) at birth, at conception. As Beckett reminds us, “They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.” More eye rolling, I know; they are saying to themselves and each other, “There she goes again, canoodling with death.”  I hope my dear daughter-in-law is banned from this site; I can hear the horror in her reaction now. True, I admit that death is often a theme for me, but I’ll try to put a positive spin on my obsession with mortality.

As Baldwin reminds us so elegantly, there are reasons to rejoice in the fact of death. He says it is something to be earned by being responsible for life. I take that to mean that each of us is responsible for the individual life and how we choose to lead it. I know that existentialism has become an old fashioned ism, no longer sexy in black turtleneck and beret, pale and scrawny beside its postmodern (or is it now post-postmodern?) kin. For me, reading the Sartre, de Beauvoir, and Camus opened up a sealed place inside of myself, a place where I could think about dying (Young as I was, I thought about dying!) as a code for living. That consciousness, not unlike the liberating, albeit tragic, consciousness Camus attributes to Sisyphus in the essay that bears his name, offered more meaning than the heaven I had been raised to anticipate as reward for goodness.

Look again at what Baldwin says. He sees that the “root of …. human trouble is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, the only fact we have.”  Remember: I am writing about mortality on the eve of 2017, the last night of 2016, a year so full of the totems and taboos that Baldwin lists as our prisons that I cannot get to Happy New Year without wading through the yearlong Dies Irae we have endured and to which we added our own grim dirges. I can’t prove that fear of death drives ambition, greed, or lust for power; I think, however, that at some level we want to mark our place, as we might a book with a bookmark, in human history. We scrawl a mark on a wall or a papyrus or a piece of paper. We write, paint, compose, choreograph, design, build, I think, as a way to mark our place, to say, “Look, I was here.” Those of us who have children maybe see them as our transient bookmarks. Perhaps those driven by violent gods or twisted versions of creeds, by lust for power, by fear of otherness, by ignorance, by impulses I cannot explain or understand, perhaps they choose destruction instead of creation as bookmarks in the history books that outlive them. I don’t want to oversimplify the urge to create or to destroy; I just want to try to understand Baldwin’s exhortation that we “confront with passion the conundrum of life.”

On New Year’s Eve, I turn to this medium of communication to wish my readers and myself not a happy new year but the courage to encounter the fact of mortality in a new way, as a challenge to be responsible for life. Not just our individual lives, but for every life. If we refuse to fear death, if we accept mortality as our fate, we can, as the existentialists assert, achieve a kind of radical freedom. I think that Baldwin’s challenge involves not only accepting the fact of death but also refusing to be complicit with death and its many minions.  I suspect the year 2017 will challenge us in ways we can’t yet imagine; 2016 has given us bitter samples.

Hope, however, is as persistent as the rising and setting of the sun.  Hope is irresistible, the “thing with feathers that perches in the soul.” Emily Dickinson wrote those lines and so many more in her Amherst home overlooking a graveyard. Hope invites each of us to be the “small beacon” Baldwin offers. I have been struggling against cynicism, itself a form of despair, the antithesis of hope. Re-reading these beloved writers, retyping their words, drafting this entry to my blog –these acts became for me gestures toward hope.  With a commitment to hope in my heart, I do wish us all a life affirming Happy New Year.

Why a Blog: Making an Introduction

What is more intimidating than a blank page on a newly created blog? I’m sitting here, a 76-year-old woman, wondering why the hell I thought it was a good idea to ask my Harvard educated grandson to create a blog for me. Oh wait –the suggestion wasn’t mine. After a year of reading indignant –nay apocalyptic – emails from their frantic mother, my adult children suggested (begged) me to take it to cyberspace. So here I am, an old novice giving a new platform a try.

What feels absent here is audience. I mean, to whom am I addressing myself? And why should anyone care to read what I, a retired teacher; wanna-be poet; fervent radical feminist of the old school; grandmother of six; chronic depressive; melancholic, often indignant or outraged old woman– what I have to say? When a journal publishes one of my poems or accepts an article, I can anticipate my readers, a small group of subscribers with special interests, small being the operative word. Who will read what I commend to this blog?

I guess I won’t know the answer until I publish. By the way, I borrowed the blog’s title, “One Wild and Precious Life,” from “The Summer Day,” a poem by Mary Oliver. I suspect that many of you recognize the phrase, already something of a cliché, albeit a beloved one.  Reading one of Mary Oliver’s poems is, for me, like a like an hour on a zafu in a meditation chamber. In fact, many entries on this blog will be poems, my own and those of poets I admire and cherish and turn to in times of need for inspiration, reassurance, and companionship. On this blog, I plan to talk about books I read, films I view, and current events, if I may borrow that much-abused-by-teachers phrase. Up front I admit to strong biases in favor of progressive, liberal, feminist politics; so readers should expect rants, jeremiads, and protests. I also plan to plumb the mysteries of family, its intergenerational patterns that seem, to me at least, to validate the fatalism of the Greek tragedians. Given my circumstances, I will often interrogate the meanings of aging in our culture. Beyond those plans, I am not sure what will emerge on the blog’s pages. It’s wait and see for both author and potential reader.

Today, December 30, is the penultimate day of 2016, a year that probably will live in infamy or at least shrouded in embarrassment.  For me and many women, it was a year that brought the shock of unexpected disappointment; I had been sure that we would see a woman, a worthy and competent woman, in the White House. Instead –well, dear reader, we elected him, the apotheosis of old time white manhood that I naively believed was gasping its final breaths. Now we face a new year in which it feels that everything may regress. I guess that is another reason for this blog –I feel I have to speak; silence is not an option in the face of the almost daily trauma of untruth, bigotry, and vincible ignorance. (Spell check doesn’t like “vincible.” FYI: Vincible ignorance is, in Catholic ethics, ignorance that a person could remove by applying reasonable diligence in the given set of circumstances.) A particularly appropriate phrase these days and one I will parse more fully in blogs-to-be.

So do I sign off with a tag line like “That’s all for today, dear reader” or as a friend of mine writes at the end of every message, “Have a blessed day?” I think not. I am sending this entry out into cyberspace by way of an introduction to my new medium of communication. I hope to be faithful even if entries attract few readers. In a way, this blog reassures me that I am not dead yet! That I am not going gentle into anywhere just yet. In this, my time as an old woman, I claim here the agency of a public voice.