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Old!

 

I answered this question recently:

 

‘Do you experience getting older?’

 

Sara Hart was interviewing me for ‘Prime Spark’, her inspiring project championing women over 55.

 

You may think her question is obvious: we are getting older so of course we experience it. What’s so interesting about that?

 

Everything.

 

It is a courageous act truly to experience getting older. Mostly we notice and run. So the question stopped me. I thought about it. It was big.

 

Yes, I said to Sara, I do experience getting older. And most importantly I now experience, and love, getting old.

 

By 76 ‘older’ is a euphemism. By 76 we get to be old. Finally. And hooray. I have, since I was 26, wanted to be an old woman one day. I didn’t want the oppression that comes with it, but I wanted it. This was partly because I was told at 26 that I would be dead in 6 weeks (long story). But mostly my wanting to be old came from the assumption that I could by then be, by definition, a wellspring of experience and could be of even more use because of it. I also knew that I would get to make connections between and among huge overlapping territories of knowledge that require that experience.

 

I know that ‘life experience’ has a kind of cliché non-cachet about it. But to me life experience is a resplendent, rapturous thing, a kind of live and blooming universe of offerings, always moving, always updating, refreshing, expanding. So I feel entirely blessed that all of that finally gets to be my moment-to-moment context. To me 76 years of experience is more than wonderful. It is wondrous. And only old people get to know it.

 

Equally, of course, the oppression of old people, of old women in particular, is completely un-wondrous. Even at 60 I began to realise that other people were now seeing a wrinkled face when they looked at me. And I imagined, probably correctly, their darting, silent assumptions about old women and, in that moment, about me! By the time I reached 70, I started feeling self conscious at the gym, like an ‘allowed other’ rather than an embraced member. No one was behaving differently. They were still very friendly of course. But I knew they were also now seeing me as old, as something they most likely were lifting weights and rowing like maniacs to avoid. ‘Old at the gym’ is a kind of oxymoron.

 

This gym example may sound trivial, but it is one of hundreds of daily manifestations of this monstrous fact: the group identity of ‘old’ is, in our society, the only identity whose oppression everyone absolutely will experience. Not all people will become female or Black or gay or non-binary or poor or Uyghur or wage earners. But we all will become old. (Unless, of course, we die fist, which has its own downsides.)

 

My favourite moment of challenging female age-related oppression was in a masterclass I was leading for the female editors, including the editor-In-chief, of a top fashion magazine. At one point I asked them to break into ‘Thinking Pairs’ and listen with generative attention to each other as they thought about the following question for five uninterrupted minutes each:

 

‘If you and the world knew that wrinkles are beautiful,

what would change for you and the world?’

 

There was a buzz in the room, and when they came back, many said in one way or another that such an assumption would change their lives, that it would liberate them truly to be themselves. And then the editor-in-chief said, ‘If I and the world knew that wrinkles are beautiful, this magazine would go out of business.’

 

I learned again in that moment that the oppression of older and old women is a highly strategised, calculated and bottom-line-supported force in the world.

 

So I think that, although the purpose of all oppression is to deplete and discourage, we as old women can hold onto our power by being proud – thrilled in fact – to be old. We can honour and love every sign of age. And we can become activists. ‘Prime Spark’ is for me one very welcome form of age-celebrating activism.

 

So while confronting age oppression both in the world and inside of me, I feel with each year of life more in awe of, more rapturously grateful for every minute of thinking, of loving, of working, observing, writing, learning, challenging – and of, in every sense, singing.

 

I feel gratitude to people like Sara in the world for being one part of the pallet of dignity that makes this possible for me.