A Glorious Freedom: Older Women Leading Extraordinary Lives

A Glorious Freedom: Older Women Leading Extraordinary Lives

by Lisa Congdon


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781452156200
Publisher: Chronicle Books LLC
Publication date: 10/03/2017
Pages: 152
Sales rank: 95,367
Product dimensions: 7.50(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Lisa Congdon is an author, illustrator, and fine artist. Her other books include Whatever You Are be a Good One; Art, Inc.; Fortune Favors the Brave; and The Joy of Swimming, also from Chronicle Books. She lives in Portland, Oregon. You can see more of her work at www.lisacongdon.com.

Read an Excerpt


THE SWELL by Caroline Paul

One day I decided I wanted to be good at surfing. I was 49.

It probably wasn't the best use of my time, energy, ego. But, what the hell. I loved being pinballed by the waves. I loved the dolphins that often cruised by. I loved the pelicans, dipping toward the incoming swell to catch its lift, millimeters off the water, graceful, calm. Was it pity or disinterest, that glance they gave me as they passed and I attempted to lurch to my feet?

And I loved the actual surfing, those few seconds when I managed to transition from prone to standing, and felt the board lunge forward.

I had some things going against me, things that my advancing age didn't help: knees stiff from almost ten surgeries, back when I was younger; one ankle that didn't move well from an accident. I had fears about these things too, that by the time I was in my 50s I'd be limping and lopsided like someone in her 80s.

So, vowing to get better at surfing wasn't just a lark. It was a war cry against my injured body. Following each surgery, there had been a preview of life at old age: the catheters, the slow movements, the escaping groan as I maneuvered into the front seat of the car. It was more than the physical limitations, though. It was the feeling of fragility, as if I would be blown over by the slightest movement, and shattered into a million pieces.

On the other hand, there's nothing more robust than being in head-high waves, in 52-degree water. I didn't even have to actually catch anything. I just had to be out there.

The plan: for four days every month I would relocate to a house near an isolated Northern California surf spot. I'd leave my partner, Wendy, my cell phone reception, and my pride behind. I'd bring my work, my dog, and my willingness to be beat up by waves.

There were rules: paddle out in almost anything; stay in the water for at least half an hour; arrive at the surf spot already in my wetsuit. This latter commandment was the strangest to most surfers, but I figured the hardest part of the sport was actually getting in the water, so any impediment, especially the hand-to-hand combat with the wetsuit while half naked in the morning cold, had to be removed. Accordingly, I got into my wetsuit at home, in the garage, then drove to the beach. This was a great idea, until the day I came upon an accident on the freeway. I walked around the middle lanes, looking like Batman. I peered into the shattered cars to offer assistance, but mostly just scared the occupants.

I did paddle out in almost anything. On only a few occasions did I lumber back to my car, dry-haired, unsalted. Once the water had been flat. The other time, I came upon three sea kayakers pulling onto the shore. A great white shark had attacked one of the boats. Eyes wide, faces pale, they spoke over each other like auctioneers. I listened to the story. I marveled at the teeth marks in the plastic. Then, in a move most non-surfers won't understand, I continued to the spot anyway. I looked at the waves for a while. They weren't very good. I decided not to go in. It wouldn't be worth it.

"What waves would have been worth it?" Wendy said later, dismayed.

When I wasn't surfing, I was practicing. I began yoga. I made up a weird jumping routine in the gym. I watched surf videos. I turned 50.

Here's the thing about aging for women: we become invisible. The barista looks right through you when you give your coffee order. The teen on the skateboard narrowly misses you and doesn't even swing her un-helmeted head your way. Straight or gay, you're getting no response when you use your tried-and-true flirtation methods; the head tilt and slight smile fall flat, the penetrating stare looks creepy, the giggly laugh sounds like a symptom of unadjusted meds.

The ages vary, but it happened to me around this time. I remember the moment. The checker at the store never caught my eye, didn't seem to register a human was even there. He asked the corner of the counter if it had brought its own bag. He asked the rack full of candy if it wanted a receipt. I finally understood what my mother had been talking about.

At first I was a little stunned. I was now officially unvalued by society.

But here's the thing. Invisibility is a superpower. Especially if you're a surfer.

So when people joined me at the surf spot, they didn't pay much attention. If they did, they mostly felt sorry for me. They let me have waves that were rightfully theirs. I faded in and out of their consciousness, depending on how distracting the conditions were. I was left to my own learning curve. I could suffer my small humiliations in peace. This meant I wiped out a lot. This meant that I was often "caught inside." Incoming waves dropped on me like giant pianos from a Saturday-morning cartoon. After one such session, I lurched to shore spitting saltwater from my mouth, wiping it from my eyes, watching it stream from my nose, and a surfer walked over. His eyebrows were lifted, his mouth curved in a half smile. He'd been watching, he said, and couldn't believe I hadn't just given up, but instead kept paddling to get past the break (and finally did). I said, "Yes, I'm pretty bad at this sport," and gave him a sheepish smile. Where had my invisibility shield gone? Then I realized: from that distance he'd thought I was a man.

"Well, I wouldn't have kept trying," he said. There was admiration in his voice.

I became a better surfer. Not good, mind you, but better. I enjoyed each small advance. Because these are the gifts of being older: little to prove, (mostly) invisible.

A glorious freedom.

So no one noticed but me: last month, there was a quick get-up. This month, a longer ride. Next month, a turn? A graceful exit from the wave? It didn't matter. It only mattered that I was out there, a vague quest urging me on, those endless mistakes, those brief moments of triumph, unseen by most, but celebrated by me.


Beatrice Wood lived a vibrant bohemian life immersed in the avant-garde art movement before she found her passion for ceramics, producing most of her work in the last twenty-five years of her long life.

Born in San Francisco in 1893, Beatrice had a childhood rich in art, travel, and culture, but she was rebellious and restless from an early age. Rejecting her mother's plans for her debut in society, Beatrice left for Europe to study painting and acting. Her parents insisted she return to the States at the advent of World War I, and she immersed herself in the bohemian culture of New York. She met the writer Henri-Pierre Roche and the artist Marcel Duchamp, and the three created the Dada art magazine The Blind Man. Beatrice became known as the "Mama of Dada" for her association with and support of avant-garde artists. In the 1920s, she became interested in the Theosophy movement and started following the Indian sage Krishnamurti, following him to California.

While living in Southern California in the 1930s, Beatrice was frustrated that she couldn't find a teapot to match some pottery she had brought home from Holland, so she enrolled in a ceramics course to make her own. Initially believing that she was not meant to work with her hands, she persevered and fell in love with the craft. In her late 40s, she studied pottery techniques and developed her own free and expressive style, creating both traditional vessels and primitive figurative sculptures. She opened a studio in Ojai, California, near her spiritual teacher Krishnamurti, and continued to hone her craft and distinctive style of glazing. Soon, she began catching the eye of galleries and collectors.

She continued to think and work in new ways, creating some of her most complicated sculptural work and writing her autobiography, I Shock Myself, when she was in her 90s. She worked daily nearly until her death at age 105 in 1998.


Jennifer Hayden discovered graphic novels at the age of 43, around the same time she was diagnosed with breast cancer. After two decades of writing fiction and illustrating children's books, Jennifer decided she wanted to make comics. Her first book, the autobiographical collection Underwire, was published in 2011 and subsequently excerpted in The Best American Comics 2013. In 2015, Jennifer published her debut graphic novel-a 352-page memoir about her life and experience with breast cancer. Aptly titled The Story of My Tits, the book was named one of the best graphic novels of the year by the New York Times, NPR, Forbes, and Library Journal, among many others. Jennifer's comics, full of moxie and humor, have been featured in The ACT-I-VATE Primer, Cousin Corinne's Reminder, and the Strumpet. At age 55, she's currently finishing a graphic diary spanning the trials and successes of the last three and a half years, along with a new fiction graphic novel.

Lisa: Tell us the germination of your creative journey.

Jennifer: From the start, I was drawing and writing. It was always those two things, and I never wondered until I got out of college which one I would do. In college I majored in art history, but quietly on my own I minored in English. I saturated myself with books because I wanted to be a writer, and if I was going to do art, I was just going to write about it. This was always a war within me while I was learning about both art forms. Then I graduated from college and tried to become the great American novelist and sucked big time. I wrote three really long, very bad novels — even winning a grant for the first chapter of one of them, but that book never panned out. So by the time I had children, I was a disappointed novelist and I craved drawing again. I began illustrating anything I could get my hands on, and then that turned into illustrating children's books. The problem was that it was a very G-rated community and I swear like a sailor. It was like Mae West going to Sunday school. And then I was in the middle of illustrating a children's book when I was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Lisa: And that became the beginning of a new chapter for you.

Jennifer: I was 43. The world came crashing down around me and I discovered comics. I had read comics when I was a little girl — but then I discovered graphic novels, which had really come of age and gotten interesting. Believe it or not, a New York Times article turned me on to them. First I read all of the women's books in the article and then I branched out and I couldn't stop reading and I said, This is what I should be doing. This is drawing and writing. I knew I wanted to tell my own breast cancer story to other women who were going to go through it or had been through it. In the course of it, I realized I actually wanted to expand it to a full memoir, of which the breast cancer survivor story would be a piece. And I gave myself a year to read all of the best graphic novels I could find — if I didn't like one, I threw it out the window. Then I made myself sit down and start, not knowing where it would go or how I would do it.

Lisa: What did your process look like?

Jennifer: I did it the only way I could think of doing it; I took my format from Lynda Barry (and I recently had a chance to admit to her that I took it and she threw her arms around me and said, "Of course you did! There's no copyright on this shit! Go for it!" and that really made me feel better), because I just decided it doesn't matter what the format is. It just matters that you begin, and you know what you want to say. Once you have the format, you'll just squirt it in there, like toothpaste. So, I took that and then I decided what size I wanted my little boxes to be. I wasn't going to mess with page layout because I was a beginner. I made a little cardboard square the size I wanted and cut it out, and I used that as a template. I drew panel by panel rather than page by page, the way most artists do, because repeating characters is hard for me. And I would assemble the pages in Photo shop after scanning the individual panels. Oddly, even though I'd been doing a lot of it, the writing was the hardest part for me. I was afraid I'd fall into the same bad habits I'd had when I was trying to write novels: I was very self-conscious, I was heavy-handed, it never sounded like me. That didn't happen. I was so relieved. But I always kept a notebook next to me and I would decide on the narrative that would go into the panel, first by writing and rewriting until it sounded right in the note book, and then I would write it down in pen in the panel.

Lisa: From start to finish, how long did it take you to complete The Story of My Tits?

Jennifer: Well, I worked on a lot of other things while I was doing it, but it took eight years. I finished it when I was 52.

Lisa: Did you have a publisher when you started it, or did that happen later?

Jennifer: It happened later. You have to understand that I'm a very impractical person. When I lived through breast cancer, a number of things got sort of burned off me and one of them was that I let go of being a working, paid illustrator. I realized I didn't know how much time I had left — and because of that, I just wasn't going to fuck around. I wasn't going to do anything that wasn't absolutely mine and from the heart, and that extended to the words, the pictures, the number of pages, what I included in the story, and the fact that I might have to self-publish it or it might not get published at all. But it was my document and I was going to do it my way. And that's how I really picked my publisher, and sort of how they picked me.

My publisher, Top Shelf, is famous for publishing really heartfelt, sincere, and wonderful books, and part of the reason is they give their artists a huge amount of legroom and let them do what they're doing. They rejected me about four or five times. I started going to conventions — these publishers are at the convention and you can just go talk to them. I would go talk to this guy and say, "You know, I have a couple of kids, I'm still doing children's book illustrations, and it's kind of slow, but here's what I want to do." And he'd say, "Oh, that sounds good! Keep submitting it, we'll see." And finally, when it was ninety pages, he said, "Yeah, yeah, we'll sign this. We want this." But then I didn't show it to anybody for the next five years. I just did it alone, and he didn't ask for anything.

Lisa: I think that's how more and more people — especially self-taught people who aren't already connected to an industry — get started. They're just very perseverant in working on something that they feel very strongly about.

Jennifer: And ironically I've made more money off this book than off any other project I've done, but I had a feeling that you had to cut your heart out and put it on a platter and serve it to people to get anywhere in this life. I'm pleased that's true, it's just that it's a great deal of internal labor. But if you think you can shortcut that, you can't. And luckily something happened to me that really cut me open so it was, in a way, easy.

Lisa: By the time you published this novel you were over 50 and you were just starting out — this was your debut novel. Comics and graphic novels are a very male-dominated genre, not that there aren't a lot of amazing women who gained notoriety in the last ten years. Have you faced any adversity due to your age and your sex, and if so, how do you deal with it?

Jennifer: When I'm at shows, I definitely get the look like, "What, are you here with your son? I mean, what are you doing here? Are you someone's mom?" So, that was my only issue. And I think women get much more trouble from guys in the more profitable superhero comics industry. There are entrenched behaviors there that finally are getting rooted out — sexism, discrimination and harassment, and awful shit going on. But in indie comics, I haven't seen that. There are a ton of really talented women in indie comics, and they've done great work. And the guys aren't sitting around saying women don't know how to do this.

So when I got into this, I became part of ACT-I-VATE, a comics studio based in Brooklyn. We used to go out and do things, like New York Comic Con and some other conventions. I was so happy with this environment — it was so freewheeling and welcoming, and I really didn't get any crap from males except young men who couldn't figure out what this old bat was doing at the table.


Excerpted from "A Glorious Freedom"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Lisa Congdon.
Excerpted by permission of Chronicle Books LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

INTRODUCTION by Lisa Congdon, 7,
"The Swell," an essay by Caroline Paul, 11,
Profile of Beatrice Wood, 15,
Interview with Jennifer Hayden, 16,
Profile of Vera Wang, 23,
Interview with Christy Turlington Burns, 24,
Profile of Louise Bourgeois, 29,
"Because Love Let Me Be," an essay by Jennifer Maerz, 31,
Interview with Emily Kimball, 35,
Profile of Sensei Keiko Fukuda, 41,
"Roaring Over the Tiptoe," an essay by Heather Armstrong, 43,
Interview with Stephanie Young, 48,
Profile of Laura Ingalls Wilder, 53,
"The Unexpected, Exhilarating Freedom of Being Single at 41," an essay by Glynnis MacNicol, 54,
Profile of Minnie Pwerle, 59,
Interview with Paola Gianturco, 62,
Profile of Julia Child, 69,
"True Roots," an essay by Ronnie Citron-Fink, 71,
Profile of Mary Delany, 77,
Interview with Cheryl Strayed, 78,
Profile of Sister Madonna Buder, 83,
Interview with Zoe Ghahremani, 84,
"Girl, You Don't Know Nothing," an essay by Tara Rodden Robinson, 90,
Profile of Carmen Herrera, 95,
Interview with Fay Westenhofer, 96,
Profile of Helen Gurley Brown, 101,
Interview with Della Wells, 102,
Profile of Angela Morley, 109,
"When They Arrived," an essay by Shauna James Ahern, 110,
Profile of Eva Zeisel, 115,
Interview with Ilona Royce Smithkin, 116,
Profile of Anna Arnold Hedgeman, 121,
Interview with Debbie Millman, 122,
Profile of Grandma Moses, 131,
Interview with Dara Torres, 132,
Profile of Katherine Johnson, 137,
"Are You with Me?," an essay by Chrissy Loader, 138,
Profile of Marguerite Duras, 143,
Interview with Betty Reid Soskin, 144,
Acknowledgments, 150,
Bibliography, 150,
Credits, 152,

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A Glorious Freedom: Older Women Leading Extraordinary Lives 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
bookwomen37 More than 1 year ago
I loved this book. I enjoyed reading these short bios and interviews with inspiring older women. Some will be familiar, others are long forgotten and some were new to me. The text is accompanied with sketches. This book will make a wonderful gift. Enjoy