Being, not doing
Isn’t it fun to discover that you’re right and everybody else is wrong?
I have arrived at this stop-the-presses realization in a circuitous route:
I was on a book tour through Oklahoma hawking my last book when I discovered that (a) the reading audiences were 99 percent women and (b) however diverse our lives, we all spoke one common language: books. Women communicate some of our most personal feelings and experiences by discussing what we have read and what it means to us.
I see that new books, like movies and TV shows, come in waves of popularity. At one time, it was women’s liberation/feminist books. More recently, the Mommy Wars books. Those of us who went through the ’70s and women’s lib to give women a choice of working or being stay-at-home moms don’t want to hear young women kvetching about that choice. Many mothers today, especially single mothers, don’t have a choice. If you do have a choice, do it or don’t do it, but hush about it.
I now feel like the Madame Curie and Nellie Bly of literature because I think I have identified a new genre of women’s literature — Old Dame books.
That is not a derogative term like “old biddy.” Old dames have lived lives of substance, courage and merit. They have achieved wisdom, and they can share it with a sense of humor and humility.
Most of my mentors have been old dames. At church, Dr. Jane Cleveland Bloodgood was one of them. After raising a family, she received her Ph.D. at age 72 and became the first Episcopal female priest in Oklahoma when she was 78. She got a hip replacement so she could process down the aisle for the installation. When Jenkin Lloyd Jones wrote a column about her, he said, “She is … tougher than a $1 steak.” And she has humor, he said.
One Sunday after church, she and I went to her tiny apartment for lunch. She cooked us a small steak and as we talked long into the afternoon, we drank so much wine we got tipsy. She told me Episcopal jokes.
“Episcopalians are known as drinkers,” she said. “They say that wherever three or four are gathered, you’ll find a fifth.”
She also told me that both of her adult sons had committed suicide and both by hanging. It takes a strong old dame to live through that and continue on to a life of purpose.
Not long after that, I began to discover life-shaking memoirs written by women. First, I found books by May Sarton. My favorite may be “Plant Dreaming Deep,” but she wrote many books until her death at age 83, many about her house and garden, a woman living alone and her work as a writer.
Years later, I found the nonfiction books by British late-life author Diana Athill. She writes about her career as an editor, her romances and her personal tragedies. Describing Athill, Canadian writer Alice Munro says, “She’s got her teeth into life!”
And so, my discovery: Old Dame literature. Penelope Lively, 80, has a new memoir written from a country she calls “old age.” Fay Weldon, 82, recently wrote a New York Times Book Review column about the difficulty an older woman has finding a publisher if she is writing about the sexual and social predicaments of her own age. Publishers want protagonists in their 20s or 30s.
Several male friends of mine seem stressed — frightened almost — by approaching retirement age. And why not? In a society that identifies us by what we do, retirement seems to be another word for worthless.
Hence, a new surge of websites and books about “being, not doing,” about inventing our later years as a Second Act and about becoming a Human Being, not a Human Doing.
Absolutely right. And who explored this country first? Old Dames.
When I interviewed Norma Eagleton, now 80, for an article in this magazine, we talked about her active life and political career. Then I asked her what she is doing now.
“Trying to grow old with dignity and worth,” she said.
A great philosophy for all of life. Women were right all along.