Women are often urged to run from aging: you could stock a bookstore entirely with volumes promising that a particular diet, exercise routine, skin care regimen, dermatological procedure, or attitude will help readers outpace the passage of time. In the piercingly intelligent and bracingly honest memoir The Middlepause: On Life After Youth, Marina Benjamin, on the brink of fifty, resolves not to run but to take stock and wrestle with the meaning of aging instead.
”I am all hard angles, sagging pouches, and knobby joints,” the author observes at the outset. “I am past ripe, like those blowsy summer blossoms on the turn, and I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t aggrieved by these changes.” Her mournfulness is compounded by the emergency hysterectomy that catapults her into menopause, a process that typically spans years; as a result, Benjamin feels “ambushed” by middle age, beset with dread as her milestone birthday approaches.
Hoping to find wisdom in books, however, she discovers that apart from the grimly cheerful self-help genre, not much has been written about what is lost and gained as women grow older. The Middlepause feels wholly original, with Benjamin seeking guidance from science, psychology, and literature and from her own experience caring for elderly parents and parenting an adolescent daughter. Most notably, in chapters titled after parts of the body — “Skin,” “Muscle,” “Heart,” “Guts” — she insists on mapping the physical effects of aging with forensic attentiveness.
For instance, Benjamin — author of two previous memoirs, Rocket Dreams and Last Days in Babylon — writes of the different ways, in middle age, that she steps in front of a mirror. Sometimes she examines herself for “signs of decay . . . scanning for general puffiness, haggard-looking eyes, drooping lids, fine lines, deep furrows, burst capillaries, and whiskery hairs.” Other times she approaches the mirror as “a supplicant, determined to intercede against the weight of the evidence.” She continues, “I adjust the light, force a smile, and tell myself that all is not lost, that with some good moisturizer and foundation I can be fixed up to look almost as good as before.” Finally, she is an accountant, carefully tracking losses and gains: “a graying temple for a softer curve of the cheek, a new wrinkle for a better haircut.” She is aware, however, that “the ledgers cannot be balanced forever: in a year or two they’re going to register a net loss.”
This is not as bleak as it might sound. After a lifetime of pressure to make herself attractive to others, Benjamin, once she comes to terms with an unpleasant sense of having been demoted, feels an unexpected liberation. Walking around her London neighborhood, she experiences “a dawning sense of relief at having been recategorized among the nonvisible.” I was reminded here of a wonderful essay by novelist Sarah Yaw, “Midlife Woman Loves Being Invisible to Men,” in which Yaw describes her “huge relief” that strangers passing her on the street no longer exhort her to smile. Benjamin also begins to discern invisibility’s flip side. “In consequence of being seen differently, you begin to see differently in turn,” she notes, with the “unanticipated freedom of being able to look — and not just to look, but to stare and ogle and glare.” For a writer with Benjamin’s remarkable powers of observation, this is surely a gift.
Reading the French author Colette, known for her sensuality, Benjamin is inspired to consider additional benefits of aging. The autobiographical novel Break of Day, written when Colette was in her fifties, finds the protagonist, also named Colette, swearing off love and living alone in a cottage, happily tending to her garden and her pets. “Colette seems to be suggesting that renunciation is not to be equated with self-denial,” Benjamin writes, “but with an unburdening or unfettering that allows the spirit to soar.”
By the end of The Middlepause, Benjamin’s spirit is also soaring. She’s on the other side of fifty. She struggles with chronic sciatic pain, and she’s suffered the losses of her father and of a dear friend who dies young. But like Colette, she has renounced things that she once considered important — youthful ambition, sexual conquest, other people’s opinions of her. “Gradually, I am shedding ballast and gaining buoyancy,” she writes. She adds, “I suspect, looking ahead, that sixty will not represent the enormous hurdle that fifty has thrown in my path, that I have broken the back of my fear of moving forward.” If we’re lucky, Benjamin will write another memoir to tell us all about it.