The Shame of Aging: The Big Seven-Five Has Finally Arrived

Experiencing the shame of aging, a writer has tossed old filed in a wastebasket. the Big Seven-Five. Photo by Barbara Newhall

The shame of aging: Tossing stuff out as The Big Seven-Five approached. Photo by Barbara Newhall

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.

Experiencing the shame of aging, author Barbara Falconer Newhall uses a copy of her book Wrestling with God, to cover her droopy chin as she approaches the Big Seven-Five. Photo by Barbara Newhall

The shame of aging: Notice how deftly the author covered her droopy chin with a copy of her brand new book with the perky cover. Selfie by Barbara Newhall

Barbara Falconer Newhall, author of Wrestling with God, at age 75,writes about the shame of agingl. The Big Seven-Five. Photo by Barbara Newhall

The new, shameless me, wrinkles and all, on my 75th birthday. Full disclosure: it took a total of 69 carefully lit photos to achieve this one. Selfie by Barbara Newhall

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.”

the Big Seven-Five. Barbara Falconer Newhall, blogger, writes about getting older, experiencing the shame of aging and wearing old lady shoes. Photo by Barbara Newhall

The Big Seven-Five: I don’t wear my trousers rolled. But I wear clunky, old-lady oxfords in public. Selfie by Barbara Newhall

 

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Comments

  1. Thank you for reading my “40” post and I’m so glad I read your “75” post. It’s funny, to me I find getting older to be a gift. My father was diagnosed with brain cancer at 56 years old and (miraculously) lived to be 63. All those years after? When I hear someone say that they’re 64, 67, even 75? I think it’s a gift. And the fact that you’re still pursuing your dream? Well that’s something to feel great about. So good for you for proving that there’s no shame in aging. Instead there’s grace and focus that the rest of us long for.

    • Amy, That’s how I feel. The older I get, the more miraculous life seems to me to be. I arrived at that state of mind after working on my book, “Wrestling with God,” for many years — interviewing people, trying to get some kind of certainty about the nature of the universe. I finally concluded that it’s all in the living and doing. We can’t be certain of anything, except that just being here is amazing and miraculous . . . So nice that your father’s life gave you that gift.

    • That’s how I feel. The older I get, the more miraculous life seems to me to be. I reached that state of mind after years of researching my book, “Wrestling with God,” for which I interviewed dozens of people, hoping to get some certainty about the nature of the universe. Didn’t happen. But I did come to realize that it’s all in the doing and the living… So nice that your father’s life brought you to that place.

  2. Emily Newhall says:

    You’re better than ever, Barbara! Keep on keeping on being a great writer, mother-in-law, and grandmother.

  3. Barbara~ What a gift to be able to share your journey and insights — we who are ” out there” appreciate that we are not the only ones in this road! Keep it up!

  4. Ditto to what Anne P says!

  5. Sharie McNamee says:

    What’s good about you is that you collect and organize our thoughts and feelings about our life that we share, so we notice and reflect and think about how to respond and embark on the next phases of our life — instead of life just happening to us. Thanks.

    • Thank you. Sitting down to write about something has the effect of forcing me to think a little deeper about things than I normally would. It’s an adventure, because I often surprise myself, as I did with this piece.

  6. Liz Nystrom says:

    B,
    I’ve decided we can’t grow old because Zelda needs us. Besides, you are adorable and cool, wearing mismatched socks.
    Liz

  7. Ah, every word sounds so true and reassuring, as each one of us navigates that inevitable (if we’re lucky!) path. A wonderful post that I am sharing with friends. And you might have a dozen books still in you!
    -Patti
    http://notdeadyetstyle.com

  8. My writer/poet friend Sharon Metzler Dow has this to say about old women who have written good stuff:

    “You are a kid to Annie Proulx (80) whose Barkskins novel just launched. And Gloria Steinem (82) , My Life on the Road. Jazz singer Barbara Dane (90) released a new album last week. Dolly Parton (70) released a new album.

    “Add Berkeley’s Jane Juska (82) whose book A Round- Heeled Woman: My Late-Life Adventures in Sex and Romance (2003) was made into a San Francisco play (2010) starring Sharon Gless. Jane published her first novel in 2015, Mrs. Bennet Has Her Say. Yes, she’s working on her next book.

    “Our Baby Boomer Generation is going out singing, dancing, and WRITING! Yes! Ms. Falconer Newhall — keep on writing. Your audience wants to hear more of that AUTHENTIC voice.”

  9. Anne Pardee says:

    Barbara,
    I love you — my daughter, husband, 2 kids, 4 and 2, and 2 cats are moving in for a month while they’re getting their house ready. I’m looking at all those stacks of papers and memorabilia I need to toss to make room for them. While not quite 75 (but almost )– I am inspired and motivated by your journey! Thank you for being so open and honest and sharing your inner and outer struggles – You’ve pointed the way and that, I think, is the definition of a Wise Woman.
    Anne

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