Caveat: Please take the following with a grain of salt. Now that I’ve written it, I’m not so sure I still feel this way!–MS
When was it I first began thinking about age? It seems to me I became aware of my own physiological process as far back as my 30s—but it wasn’t until my mid-40s that the internal dialog shifted, becoming more serious and insistent. By now—I’m approaching 62—the subject of age dominates my thinking on a daily basis.
Gender activists say that the first thing we want to know about a person is their gender; but these days the first thing I want to know about someone is their age. I look at just-met people as well as strangers on the street and try to guess how old they are. If I know, then I compare myself to them. Age has become the yardstick by which I measure character, personality, and depth of experience—even aware that I’m stereotyping. Call it age profiling.
But how I view others is nothing compared to the mental energy I expend on my own aging process. Half the time I’m wondering if I appear old to others, the rest of the time worrying whether I look and act appropriate for my years. Mind you, I’ve lived my entire life as an iconoclast, doing absolutely nothing at the appropriate age or in the appropriate manner—yet I now feel inadequate because my circumstances as an older woman differ radically from most of my peers. It turns out that iconoclasm, or the more common but less precise term, non-conformity, worked just fine in my youth and middle years—but at this stage, I find myself wishing I’d played by the rules–Code Americana for good person.
Rather than dwell on all that mishmash, I’d rather attempt to put forth a new view of the aging process, one that’s not only different from past models, but also different from the more recent baby boomer cheer-leading point of view. You know, the rah-rah-rah-sis-boom-bah, we’re so special, so healthy, so emotionally positive, we’re having a grand time at 50 and beyond. We start new careers, volunteer to save the planet, create new communities in Florida or Arizona where we have fun-in-the-sun all day and party like animals all night. None of that boo-hoo, isolated, self-pitying, TV-watching bitterness for our generation. No sir! Sixty is the new forty. Barf. To me, this is just as oppressive as the old paradigm—perhaps even more so.
I’ve never been a pioneering entrepreneur, nor have I been a fun-in-the-sun kind of gal. Why would I become that sort of person now? To prove that age hasn’t caught me in its shadowy netherland? Maybe I was just born old, but my idea of a good time has always been to putter around the house in my bathrobe, or curl up with a good book.
Actually that’s not entirely true. Sure, I’ve always loved reading and even puttering—but I also loved to party, to dance, to drink, and, as Joni Mitchell puts it, to toot ‘n talk all night long. I loved flirting—and beyond. I was the first one on the dance floor and the last to leave the party–unless, of course, I got lucky early.
Now I see almost nobody except my grown son. I stopped going to parties when alcohol on top of anti-depressants played funny tricks on me, and I had to stop drinking. Turns out that, without a glass of amber liquid, I can’t tolerate talking to more than one person at a time. This goes for any group activity, not just parties—dinner in restaurants, political meetings, demonstrations, you name it. Also, I got rid of my car two years ago, partly because, since I’m up half the night like a typical old insomniac, I fall asleep at the wheel. You can see how all this might limit one’s social life.
But I’ve still only scratched the surface. The crux of the matter is, I want to be old. I’m ready. I’ve lived long enough to deserve the perks due an old lady: basically, the right to rest. The right not to run around in frantic activity all day every day. The right not to carry packages, babies, platters of food or piles of presents (I’m writing this on Christmas Eve Day.) Furthermore, I want people to expect me to be old, to not expect me to exert myself like a younger person. I hate being told, by people who think it’s a compliment, that I’m not that old. I don’t want to be pressured to get out there again and start dating—dating!—to take a class, join a book club, or go to the gym. Doing these things just because I’m 60 isn’t a prescription for youthfulness anyway. It’s based on the assumption that older people need to find ways to pass the time. But I’m still doing what I’ve always done–reading and writing.
Fondly I remember my two maternal great-grandmothers, both of whom I had until near puberty. We called them Bema, my mother’s childhood mispronunciation of Grandma. Bema Rosenfeld was big and fat and always cooking—but she didn’t do much of anything else; she had to rest her extremely large, tired legs. Bema Lichtenfeld, on the other hand, was tiny and wizened–and not once in my life did I see her out of her rocking chair. Nobody expected them to put a cheery, young face on things. Nobody expected anything of them at all.
Okay, so they were 80-something. But while everyone’s saying we’re all going to live into our 90s or even to 100 now, the truth is we never know when that bell is going to toll. As a die-hard smoker I may not make it through my sixties. Assuming I die at seventy, that gives me just eight years. If I don’t get to experience being old now, I never will. And, should I live to topple every statistic and end up being old for 30 years, so what? Is it cheating to take up elder space and resources for 20 or 30 years? Considering that the majority of my peers refuse to go gentle, plenty of elder space should be available.
So let’s get down to basics. I want to see a return to traditional treatment of older people—by which I mean the way they were treated, in America, two or three generations ago. I want teenagers on the bus to stand up and give me their seats as if it’s the most natural thing in the world, which it used to be. Now they’re either afraid of insulting us, or else they’re just plain inconsiderate. I stopped dying my hair, hoping the gray would earn me a seat, but nooo…and that’s another thing: I like my silver hair, and I don’t want anyone telling me to start coloring it again. I want younger friends to treat me like a wise elder, to ask me about Alan Freed’s rock ‘n’ roll shows, or the first women’s march down Fifth Avenue, or the day John Lennon was shot, without being afraid they might offend me. I want salespeople to treat me with respect, to wait on me promptly, not act like I’m invisible—that’s modern, not traditional, behavior. I want cars to come to a full stop, without edging slowly forward, so I can cross the street without wondering if they’ve seen me. I wouldn’t mind it if, when I’m trudging up the hill with four bags of groceries, panting and sweating, some nice young man or woman offered to carry my bags. Better yet, I’d love it if one of them offered me a ride. (Hah! Waiting endlessly for a bus one day, I asked a familiar looking man if he’d drive me a mile up the hill. He said, I don’t pick up hitchhikers.)
When I run into acquaintances of whatever age, I’d appreciate it if they wouldn’t ask me what I’ve been up to, assuming that the answer will describe wondrous accomplishments. In fact, there are a lot of assumptions I wish people wouldn’t make: like, that I’m as busy as I always was, or that just because I have kids and grandkids my holidays are always booked. Then again, don’t assume I’m a charity case who needs an invitation.
I can just hear the judgments rolling in. Maybe not, since people don’t comment that much on my blog, much less to ‘dis me. (Does anyone actually ‘dis people on their blogs? Seems kinda rude.) But if this were a newspaper column, you bet your ass I’d be Hitler of the Week in the letters to the editor section for awhile. She’s a whiner. A complainer. Negative. Self-centered. Selfish. Let her be old, then. Let her rot alone with her television.
If readers conclude that I’m asking to be left alone in front of the television, then they haven’t understood a word I’ve written–or else I didn’t manage to effectively communicate my vision of aging. It’s only for myself, by the way: I’m not saying everyone needs to adopt my point of view–so there’s no cause for judgment. Or pity. Or even a cheer.
Because all I want as an older person is exactly what I’ve wanted at every stage of my life: to be accepted as I am.
Doris Lessing, at 87