Thursday, March 1, 2012

“AGE CANNOT WITHER…”

To me, youth means having a face that is alive. I’m not talking about mascara, eyeliner, lipstick or lip gloss, make-up, and all the other masks touted by conventional society and its ideas about female beauty – I’m talking about the vitality in a person’s eyes and the inner spirit reflected in the naked face. When I read and hear the comments of some women now in their middle years who’re grasping at physical youth or a “presentation” of youthfulness – cynical women who have begun advocating that aging women have nothing to offer society, bypassing the wisdom and compassion of women in their last four decades of life, I sigh. I sigh because in their faces, I already see a certain toughness and bitterness, pinched looks that reflect no beauty, connectedness, grace and unconditional love. I read a passage in Womanspirit Rising by Carol Christ and Judith Plaskow and sigh again: “the power of the young woman is illusory, since beauty standards are defined by men, and since few women are considered (or consider themselves) beautiful for more than a few years of their lives. Some men are viewed as wise and authoritative in age, but old women are pitied and shunned…”

I love Shakespeare’s description of Cleopatra: “Age cannot wither nor custom stale her infinite variety.” About nine years ago when I was 68, a good friend gave me a book of photography entitled Wise Women by Joyce Tenneson, inscribed with the words “For a wise, spunky and lovely woman,” and I treasure both the book’s contents and the inscription. Wise Women is a book that underlines the vitality, courage, and grace of women who are still practicing their vocations – poets, activists, dancers, musicians, grandmothers in photographs that reveal what it means to grow in strength and grace as they get older.

Tenneson’s work accomplishes what she hoped in producing this book – it helps dispel the negative attitude that advancing age is a time of degeneration, physically and mentally. She photographed the faces of women in their last four decades of life who remain dedicated to bringing a sense of beauty and connectedness to other women, portraying many women whom the aging process has actually enhanced. The book is filled with wonderful pictures of role models for older women… and for younger ones who fear aging and try their best to claim the Fountain of Youth through cosmetics, aping youthful styles in dress, focusing obsessively on fitness, crash diets, even becoming anorexic to achieve perceived youthfulness.

Women once died early before reaching the stage where their insights, wisdom, and compassion could be shared with society, but today we’re living longer and making use of our faculties to convey a positive life spirit. The women represented in Wise Women are women whose closeness to death gives them perspective on the problems of life and who continue to be healers, writers, lawgivers, wise crones… In the words of my friend Isabel Anders, writing in The Faces of Friendship: “We have not come to this point for nothing. We have been called to be part of others’ stories as they have been within ours. As we stay together, with, by, and for each other, we are saying ‘Keep on, there’s more ahead!’”…

Several years ago, I wrote a book of poetry entitled Just Passing Through, and one of the poems symbolized my attitude toward this notion of growing older:

GOING TOWARD OCTOBER ON THE MOUNTAIN,
the trees are promised gold, red, brown,
yet only the dogwood acts
as though change is welcome,
accepts the leaf turning, departing green,
shakes out hues of flaming flower,
embracing the grace of diffraction.

The painting on the cover of Just Passing Through was rendered by my brother Paul.
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