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When people say
"I've told you fifty times," They mean to scold, and very often do; When poets say, "I've written fifty rhymes," They make you dread that they'll recite them too; In gangs of fifty, thieves commit their crimes; At fifty love for love is rare, 'tis true, But then, no doubt, it equally as true is, A good deal may be bought for fifty Louis.
--George Gordon, Lord Byron, Don Juan
(Was Byron afraid of fifty? Probably. He died at thirty-six.)
When I undertook to write about myself I found that I had embarked upon a somewhat rash adventure, easier begun than left off. I had long wanted to set down the story of my first twenty years; nor did I ever forget the distress signals which my adolescent self sent out to the older woman who was afterward to absorb me, body and soul. Nothing, I feared, would survive of that girl, not so much as a pinch of ashes. I begged her successor to recall my youthful ghost one day from the limbo to which it had been consigned. Perhaps the only reason for writing my books was to make the fulfillment of this long-standing prayer possible. When I was fifty, it seemed to me that the time had come.
--Simone de Beauvoir, The Prime of Life
So there I am at the spa with Molly, facing my fiftieth birthday, and feeling hideously depressed. I am no longer the youngest person in the room, nor the cutest. I will never be Madonna or Tina Brown or Julia Roberts. Whoever the flavor of the month is by the time this book appears--I will never be her either. For years those were my values--whether I admitted this to myself or not--but I cannot afford such values anymore.
Every year anothercrop of beauties assaults me on the streets of New York. With thinner waists and blonder hair and straighter teeth, with more energy to compete (and less cynicism about the world), the class of 1994, or 1984, 1974, is inexorably replacing my class--Barnard '63--yikes! Thirty-plus years out of college. Most of my contemporaries are grandpŠres, as my daughter would say. They press baby pictures on me at parties, the offspring of offspring.
Having started late, I have no grandchildren yet, but I do have a couple of grandnephews crawling around Lebanon, Lausanne, and Litchfield County. My older sister's children are moving me closer and closer to the state of grandparenthood. I am the older generation now, and I'm not always sure I like it. The losses sometimes seem more clear-cut than the gains.
The astounding energy of postmenopausal women (promised by Margaret Mead) is here, but the optimism to fuel it is not. The world seems ever more surely in the grip of materialism and surfaces. Image, image, image is all it sees. As an image, I'm definitely getting blurry.
What has happened to our twenty-five years of protest about not wanting to be plastic Barbies? What has happened to the anger of Naomi Wolf analyzing beauty myths, or Germaine Greer fiercely celebrating cronehood, or Gloria Steinem showing us how to accept age gracefully and turning inward at last?
Is all our angst (and attempted self-transformation) just more fodder for the talk shows as the youth culture grinds on inexorably? Are we just a bunch of old broads talking to each other in the steamroom, cheering each other up?
We write and talk and empower each other, but the obsession with newness and youth (newth?) does not seem to change. Ours is a world of shifting video images more real and more potent than mere words. The television age is here, and we word people are relics of a past when the word could change the world because the word was still heard.
The image is all now. And the time of the image is always NOW. History no longer exists in this flickering light show.
These were some of my thoughts as I trooped around the spa in the Berkshires with Molly, doing step aerobics, aqua-trimming, speed-walking, and other fitness rituals, and avoiding my own image in the mirror. Molly dragged me out of bed for every class, and I lost the same few pounds I always lose (and gain back), drank water, steamed my pores, and felt restored--but the gloom still wouldn't lift. (I was facing the eternal question: to lift or not to lift--and should I do it before the next book tour?)
Worse than my despair over my inevitable physical decline (and whether or not to "fix" it) was my despair over the pessimism of midlife. Never again, I thought, would I walk into a room and meet some delicious man who would change my life. I remembered the mad affairs begun with a flash of eyes and a surge of adrenaline, and the upheavals they inevitably led to. By eschewing upheavals and embracing stability, by disowning my tendency to throw my life into a cocked hat--so to speak--every seven years, I had also becalmed myself. I wanted contemplation, not boredom; wisdom, not despair; serenity, not stasis. The sexual energy that had always called forth the next book, the adventurousness of a life that settled nowhere, had begun to seem rash and foolish at fifty. At last I had "settled down" to cultivate my garden. Now all I needed to do was figure out where my garden was and what to grow in it.
Because that, after all, is the question, isn't it? You can never really "fix" mortality and death even if you can snip back your chin flab and eye bags. You may look good in a glossy, but in life, there are still scars. The real question has to do with how to grow inner-directed in a relentlessly other-directed society; how to nurture spirituality in the midst of materialism; how to march to your own drummer when alternative rock, rap, and hip-hop are drowning her out.
Thoreau is our touchstone writer in defining the central American dilemma: "Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes." In this, contemporary women are more Thoreau's heirs than are men. Bill W.'s philosophy of AA is our touchstone spiritual philosophy (whether we are alcoholics or not), because we are always thirsting for spirit, looking for it in all the wrong places (booze, drugs, money, new clothes), and finally finding ourselves only by losing ourselves, surrendering the materialism on which we were raised.
Mortality is the question here, not face-lifts. Can we embrace our mortality, even learn to love it? Can we pass along our knowledge to our children and then pass along, knowing our passing is the proper order of things?
That is the problem I and all my contemporaries are facing at fifty. We have come smack up against the spiritual hollowness in our lives. Without spirit, it is impossible to face aging and death. And how can women find spirit in a society in which their most enduring identity is as consumers above all, where every struggle for autonomy and identity is countered by the relentless dicta of the marketplace--a marketplace that still sees us as consumers of everything from hormones to hats, from cosmetics to cosmetic surgery?
I wander around the spa with my daughter, knowing that my body is not the issue. It's whether or not I have the right to my immortal soul.
Even the phrase sounds suspect. Women? Immortal? Soul? You can just hear the cries of derision. Yet whether or not women have the right to their own souls is the whole question. It is not a matter of fad and fashion. It is not a matter of new-age or twelve-step hype. It is the essence of whether we are allowed to be fully human or not.
If you own your soul, you don't have to be afraid at fifty.
I flash back to a time exactly three years before my fiftieth birthday, when the age clock inside me was inexorably ticking.
I am on a plane, flying to Switzerland to attend the wedding of a former beau, now a friend. He's a beautiful Roman ten years younger than I, and he is about to marry a German princess ten years younger than that. I'm happy for them and, at the same time, desolate. It's not that the bridegroom and I are still in love, but just that we have talked endlessly about how we'd wind up together (because neither of us would ever marry), and now he is marrying and I am not.
I don't want to marry again, I think (at not quite forty-seven). I'm free. My freedom is such that I'm involved in a long-distance triangle with another delicious Italian, a domestic triangle with a man who can't decide to leave his wife, and I'm also seeing a variety of men who are as terrified of commitment as I've become. My life is a social circus, but I can never relax and curl up in bed with a book. Though I may deny it, I am off to this wedding, as usual, in search of the perfect man. Of course, I don't believe in the perfect man. Of course, I nevertheless hope to meet him.