by Lisa Lanser Rose
It’s strange, isn’t it, to suddenly discover you’re getting old? I turned fifty last September, and yes, I can hear some of you groaning, “Oh, fifty’s not old!” but just stop.
Don’t worry. I’m not going to complain. I know some of you wish you could be a sweet, young, fifty-something bippy like me again, getting your first AARP invites in the mail and wondering for the last time if you’re pregnant and for the first time if you’ll ever be fertile again. Those are the good old days, I know. I’m blessed with lots of older friends who remind me that while my hip may hurt, it doesn’t hurt as bad as it’s going to. And I need to hear that. I do.
Look, I’m not so young anymore. One day, a few years ago, during tank-top season, I noticed that when I rotated my wrists inward, the skin on the inside of my elbows looked like crepe paper. For a month, anytime anybody looked my way, I made sure my wrists were rotated outward, arms out, palms up, like I was about to hug them. People kept hugging me. It was awkward, and sweaty, but sweet. At least while people were hugging me, they weren’t seeing that the bloom was dropping off this Rose.
But I just couldn’t maintain the deception. Same with the thoughtful, “I’m listening to you but also tucking my wattle behind my ear with my thumb” pose. I can’t go through life holding my face up with my hands anymore. I’ve got stuff to do, like teach my students, write my book, train Mick to run his weave poles, and ask my doctor if Premarin is right for me.
I have to admit, my tenure as a nice-girl-next-door has finally passed the expiration date. I always knew that if I lived long enough, I’d see the end of my girlishness, but, apparently, I didn’t believe it.
Now that I’ve entered gale-force grieving over the loss of facial elasticity, I’m wondering what’s next. Until I started to lose it, I never realized how much social capital is placed on looking like a pretty girl.
After shouldering the pressure of minor-league prettiness for fifty years, I didn’t realize that it would hurt when I set the burden down. I liked to think I was above lookism. Yet the truth is, it often weighed on me when I saw myself being seen. I don’t think I ever knew what else to do other than to try to be pretty while pretending I wasn’t and fearing I wasn’t pretty enough. When I was a little girl, I’d thought I’d been lucky enough to be born into a culture that valued women for so much more than their attractiveness–hard work, integrity, faithfulness, and the ability to skydive onto a tanker ship, defuse a bomb, and escape by blimp.
I’ve felt swindled ever since.
Now I’m grieving the loss of something I often secretly (reluctantly, fearfully, guiltily) enjoyed but also resented. Even as I grieve my fading attractiveness, I worry that I’m violating my own feminist principals, or worse, betraying those influential women in my life who happened to be past their child-bearing years. I didn’t consider them disenfranchised citizens then, so why do I feel I’m losing status as I join them now?
In some ways, I can tell, my status is going up. When young people address me now, I sometimes hear the stammering assumption that I possess fearsome powers of insight. I might see through them, judge them, and shove their self-esteem into an oven and eat it. The quieter I am, the louder their knees knock.
And daily I’m grateful that I have climbed my way over the decades to a safer, saner, higher ground, a sunny mental space unbuffeted by the meager typhoons that once leveled the likes of the young woman I was. Like having to telephone a bank about an overdraft. Getting a bad teaching review. Finding my husband hiding in the kitchen downing a peanut butter sandwich in the dark because he found my stir-fry-tempeh-and-couscous unsatisfying.
As my skin sags and my hair grays, my patience for cowardice runs short. I dared myself to say the unsayable here, so it here it is. I was never THAT pretty, but I wasn’t not-pretty either. And it made a difference. All the time. Whether it was a perk or a heartache or a joy or an encumbrance, it was exhausting. Mostly, what exhausted me was having to pretend I wasn’t aware of all the complexities of appearance in our relationships, which is probably something most of us endure, whether we’re sexy or not, or carry our race on our faces, or are too heavy or too thin or any other perceived and unjust benefit or disadvantage.
“You must take hold,” Margo Jefferson tells herself in “Death Wish in Negroland,” an essay about the triple burden of womanhood, blackness, and an uneasy middle-class privilege. “You are suffering the long-term effects of profound fatigue. This is the result of all the work, the years of work required to be wholy normal and wholly exceptional. You must set an example for other Negroland girls who suffer the same way.” To most people, I looked as if I’ve been lucky, and I have. To most people, I looked as if I had it easy, and I have. But looks are never the whole story, and luck and ease can be their own misfortune. Be careful, they say, what you wish for.
Maybe that’s why I’ve loved dogs and horses so much–they never cared how I looked. (I got my hair cut recently, and Mick didn’t even notice.) Now my looks are fading fast, and I fear I never got to enjoy them freely, and I never got to understand what I had or didn’t have. One thing that worries me about the problem of beauty in America is that the pressure on women just seems to be worsening. Now you need to fix your nose, bulk up your boobs, and rip off all your pubic hair just to log on to Facebook. Think what we could accomplish if we quit hiding and pretending and just talked to each other, forgave each other for whatever God did or didn’t give us, and freed our minds of the mental din. But I’m aging, and it is a relief to set my invisible tiara down.
So what is it I think I’ve really lost? What is an American woman at fifty?
In her article, “The Croning of America: How Post50 Women Are Learning to Love Their Inner Crone,” Barbara Hannah Grufferman explains how “feminists and new-agers across the country have been embracing the concept of the crone as a ‘wise woman'” in a cultural movement catching on fast.
One of my dearest friends happens to be facing her sixtieth birthday. “None of my other birthdays ever bothered me,” she said. “This one does.”
I piped up that I’d be happy to crone her.
My offer didn’t go over well. At first.
Before I knew it, five of us were planning to head into a Cabin in the Woods for a wild, post-menopausal weekend of mutual croning–a new kind of horror movie. We have composed a ritual and made plans to honor the women who shaped us and to embrace the memories of the women we’ve been–and I don’t know what else. I don’t know because I’m too busy, at fifty, educating students and networking and forgetting whether or not I took my calcium supplements to pay enough attention to this milestone.
The first croning assignment, I understand, is to go through pictures looking for images of women who most influenced my life. I’m afraid it’ll take too much time–I’m busy getting around to the things I should’ve done thirty years ago.
Or maybe I’m reluctant because I’m afraid.
I’m afraid of what I will see and remember.
I’m afraid of what I won’t see. I don’t want to discover I’ve lost pictures of people I’ve loved. It’s like losing those people again. Without photos, the forgetting is so much more final.
Or maybe it’s just having to admit I’ve already lost them.
“The crone,” Grufferman writes, “is part of a sacred trio — Virgin, Mother, Crone — and because the crone is closest to death (presumably), she is the wisest of all women.” I disagree. I think she’s the wisest because she has accrued the most life. Because she has suffered. Because she has loved.
If we’re lucky, we shall see what happens next in this croning process. I have to find mementos of the women who most influenced me. It’s been since high school that I’ve had an assignment like this–what did you do over your summer?
Not sure what I’m most looking forward to in the Cabin in the Woods: The Croning, but I do know this: I’m bringing the wine and chocolate and can’t wait to spend three days in the woods with these women, who seem to love me anyway, and for that, I’m just wise enough to be grateful.