By Barbara Falconer Newhall
It’s here. It arrived this week — my birthday, The Big Seven-Five. I am now officially old. And I look it. There’s no avoiding it any more. Ever since my aging eyeballs got their sparkling new, man-made plastic lenses, I’ve been seeing my true self in the mirror. Every last wrinkle, sun spot and neck wobble.
You might wonder, what kind of mental and spiritual preparation did I make in the final days of late middle age as The Big Seven-Five loomed?
I did the sensible thing. I got rid of stuff. I pitched notes from journalism conventions and handouts from writers conferences. I tossed out my old manuscripts. I tossed out other people’s old manuscripts. I pitched business cards from agents and publishers. I dumped reporter’s notebooks filled with notes on Mormons, Witches, Episcopalians and cranky atheists.
Basket after basket of stuff went up to the recycling bin in the garage. My going-on-75-year-old glutes and hamstrings got a mighty workout hauling stuff up the two flights of stairs.
That’s what I felt like doing as I saw old age approaching: I felt like getting rid of stuff. Letting go of stuff. Letting go of hopes and aspirations no longer dear to my heart.
The Big Seven-Five — What Matters Now
I’ve got a brand new baby granddaughter in the Midwest. I’ve got a daughter down south engaged to be married next May. I’ve got friends and cousins and one last surviving uncle all over the country that I long to see. I’ve got a brother who, post-stroke, no longer bicycles in the red zone. I have a husband who counts on my help with the daily crossword puzzle.
Those old files and papers are gone, and good riddance. But am I really ready to let go of the writing career I’ve pursued since age 24, when I left Michigan to seek my fortune in New York city? I kinda doubt it. Here I am, as you can plainly see, sitting at the keyboard, sharing my latest big thing with you.
And it’s a biggie. It’s worth writing about. Noticing that old age, The Big Seven-Five, has arrived at your doorstep? Definitely worth a paragraph or two.
The Shame of Aging
But . . . but now that I’ve written this down, I’m not at all sure I want to publish it. Tell the world my true age? My truly true old age? I don’t think so.
Being old is embarrassing. It’s shameful. In the American culture that I — and you too, maybe — am bathed in, old age is not an honorable state. It is the ultimate failure. How can you let that happen to you? How uncool! How doddering! What poor planning! What? You aren’t young and sleek and quick of mind? How useless and uninteresting you are! You don’t know what Snapchat is? You’ve still got a landline at your house? You don’t commute to a real job every day? You’re boring. Psychologists have a name for it. They call it the shame of aging.
As a young and immortal English major at the University of Michigan back in the early Sixties, I dutifully parsed T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” The humiliation of old age would never happen to me, I was certain. It happened to people who let themselves get old.
I grow old … I grow old …
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
But it did happen to me. I got old. And along with it came the shame of old age. It’s a deadening state of mind. But one that I’m pretty sure I can get over. Just sit myself down and write about it. Have heart-to-hearts with friends and age-mates in the same rickety old boat. Work on it.
Less tractable is the hard fact that, in announcing my age publicly as I am today, I am scaring off potential publishers for my next book. It’s age discrimination, yes. But it’s also simple economics: publishers want authors with lots of books in their futures.
Of course, if an author is needed to write a book on being thoroughly, ineluctably 75, I’m it.
More thoughts on getting old/older at “Is That Me in the Mirror — Or Somebody’s Grandmother?” Also, “My Upper Lip and Other Sorrows.”