Come Together

April 23, 2020 § 35 Comments

Heashot of a white woman with grey and blond hair, head tilted to the side and smilingBy Kelly Thompson

I went and hugged my husband hard this morning. Long. We’ve been isolated, home, for 35 days.

He hugged back, hard.

“What was that about?” he asked.

I’m sixty-five. He’s sixty-nine.

“The world is acting like it’s going to lose us,” I said.

His smile was wry. As was mine.

Tender wry.

“Well, they’re losing us anyway,” he said.

“That’s true,” I laughed.

“Just not en masse, like this.”

The warnings to people over sixty have been repetitive and stern, especially early on. Now we see this affects us all. We will lose the young, too. Just not as many.

We decided to stay home before they told us to. We went to Costco and stocked up on canned goods, but left toilet paper for others. We’ve had groceries delivered and tipped two, three times as much. We are so fortunate we CAN stay home.

Bob Dylan just released a new song. Seventeen minutes long. “Murder Most Foul” centers around the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas in 1963. I was nine years old. The lyrics are chilling:

Hush, little children, you’ll understand

The Beatles are comin’, they’re gonna hold your hand

Slide down the banister, go get your coat

Ferry ‘cross the Mersey and go for the throat

There’s three bums comin’ all dressed in rags

Pick up the pieces and lower the flags

I’m goin’ to Woodstock, it’s the Aquarian Age

Then I’ll go to Altamont and sit near the stage

Put your head out the window, let the good times roll

There’s a party going on behind the Grassy Knoll…

Exit song, I think, on the first listen. That’s our exit song. The baby boomers, born between 1944 and 1964. The final scene.

Am I being morbid? I can’t believe the timing, Bob.

Those over sixty are being marginalized, written off, along with those with pre-existing conditions.

Sixty-five, it feels surreal to be in this group. “Who, me?”

I am a writer. On fire. Ageism is real. It often goes over my head because I don’t think of myself as outdated, over-the-hill, irrelevant, invisible. But that is often the attitude of those younger.

Other writers, much younger writers, are often surprised to discover my age. A few years into creating a presence as a writer on social media, I attended a reading hosted by someone I initially met on Facebook. As someone who is photogenic and has a fairly youthful appearance, my age evidently wasn’t apparent online, because the hostess, upon meeting me, said, “Oh my god! I had no idea you were this old! I thought you were, like, my age!”

I had published a story that many of those attending had read and loved. Along with compliments, I repeatedly also heard, “Oh, wow! From your story, I just assumed you were a lot younger.” Clearly, my story was relatable to people of all ages. But when they met me, I didn’t fit their construct of a person capable of writing it. For the younger women who had loved my story, for the hostess eager to meet me, my actual physical presence seemingly broke some taboo, unspoken; my age defied the construct that says “Beyond a certain age, you must comport yourself differently; less visibly, less enthusiastically. Dampen your fire, recede into the background and stay out of what is deemed “youth culture,” culture occupied by youth, and constructed by youth. KEEP OUT.

If they had met me in person and I told the same story, they would have written it, me, off. I wonder what’s so terrifying about my aging face, this well-worn body?

Over sixty, they say. Most at risk.

“Wear masks for essential trips,” the governor of Colorado told the state recently. “Except those over sixty,” he added. “If you’re over sixty, don’t go out even with a mask. Stay home.”

In a movie from my youth, Wild in The Streets, everyone over thirty was rounded up and taken to camps. The youth were going to create a better world and anyone over thirty was in the way. That’s often how I’ve felt as an older, unestablished writer. My route to writing, a lifelong passion, was a circuitous one. I was a teen mom, then a solo working parent of two, and it took decades to get beyond poverty, the struggle to survive, and to find my way to writing.

On March 23, POTUS threatened to reopen the country, “We can’t have the cure be worse than the problem,” he said. He acknowledged a tradeoff: lives lost to save the economy.

No, I won’t die for capitalism, for Trump, for Wall Street.

I would for my girls, for my grandbabies.

But for consumerism? For the lie that there is not enough?

Not a chance.

Ageism is real. But since this pandemic? In addition to the snark on social media (some youth calling the virus a “boomer remover”) I have seen a sudden, and often tender, respect, concern, and care for elders. Who, me?

Healthy, active, passionately alive. And yes, over sixty.

Like my husband said, “You will lose us anyway.” We are in the third act. Age is a construct and so is time. But death is not.

Nothing like this has ever happened, kids. Not in my lifetime, and not in my grandparents because no pandemic has happened during a time of air travel and global reach. All of it working together to pull back the veil on us.

Satellite photographs of China show the view before the pandemic and after. Before shows horrendous pollution, brown and dirty, ominous. After shows clear skies and the topography untouched. Like a world without us.

If we didn’t know we are one before this, we will after. It’s time to, as the Beatles sang when I was fifteen,

Come together right now over me. 

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Kelly Thompson has been published in Guernica, VIDA Review, Yoga Journal, Entropy, Oh Comely, Proximity, The Temper, and other literary journals. She is a contributor for the Rumpus and editor and curator for Voices on Addiction. She lives in the sunlight of the spirit in Denver, Colorado. Find her on Instagram @kellyblog or Twitter @stareenite.

Living the Dream

December 18, 2018 § 29 Comments

By Dorothy Rice

Back in the days when I was scrabbling my way up the rungs of California’s state civil service ladder, I’d ask my boss how he was doing. Without a trace of irony, he always answered, “Living the dream!”

While I admired his morale-boosting, I could think of a lot of things I’d rather be doing besides moving paper from one basket to another and engaging in petty squabbles over the picayune nuances of policy memos and budget requests. I wanted to be a published—and lauded—author.

As a gangly, frizzy-haired introverted kid, I’d always been more at home in the school library than on the playground, and my first vision of fame involved having a row of my books on one of the library’s shelves. The girls who didn’t want to be my friend would read my name on those spines, and boy, would they be impressed. By high school, I still wanted to find my books in the local library, but it was even more important that my photo grace the cover of Rolling Stone. All the boys who’d snubbed me would be sorry then.

In young adulthood, I pictured myself as Woman of the Year on the cover of Time, with an accompanying spread in Vogue. After all, I’d written the great American novel and I was a glamorous fashion icon.

Fantasies of how becoming a big-time famous author would transform every aspect of my life evolved with age, but the gist remained the same; books would be my ticket to international star status and all the trimmings—beauty, dangerous boyfriends, a killer wardrobe and enviable hair.

Eight years ago, at 56, I retired to write. Having spent decades plotting award-winning novels in my head, I blithely assumed they would leap from my brain onto the page and into publication.

Intellectually, I understood this was childish, magical thinking. Yet while I’d matured in all the visible ways, my dreams hadn’t. Deep in my adult psyche, writing was still bound up with the Cinderella, star-is-born, meteoric success fantasies of youth.

Eight years later, being a writer doesn’t resemble any fairy tale I’ve ever read. As for most writers I know, the journey has been paved with plenty of rejection, disinterest, and the rude realization that writing is hard work. It involves skills and insight that don’t accrue by wishing and hoping.

I’ve published some essays and a memoir/art book about my dad. I can reread most of my work without cringing. I’m part of a supportive writing community of friends, mentors and critique partners. I consider myself a decent literary citizen, reviewing for journals and facilitating writing workshops for kids. Best of all, I write most days and my family honors and respects me for it.

Along the way, I also gained forty pounds. My migraines have intensified. I’ve avoided far too many social occasions, and, as the coup de grâce, I suffered a life-limiting bout of shingles. All symptoms (I now think) of years suspended in a state of anxious anticipation, waiting for the next e-mail, phone call or social media post to tell me I’m good enough. I’m finally a real writer.

What should have been the happiest, most freeing, time of my life, has also been the toughest and most humbling. Linking my sense of self worth, satisfaction and joy to validation from others—the one aspect beyond my control—proved a recipe for anxiety, disappointment and depression. My perceived failure to become ‘famous’ strikes at the core of my sense of who I am and hope to be.

I remain committed to becoming a better writer. And it’s time for a re-boot—a conscious shift in how I perceive and approach my work. It isn’t a race with prizes or a popularity contest.

It isn’t a contest at all.

At 64, I harbor no lingering need to date rock stars, nor do I especially want to encounter my wrinkled mug on magazine covers at the grocery store.

What I want now is to express what it is to have lived a particular life in particular places and times. When I get it right, when I read my words back to myself and think, yes, that’s it, there’s no better validation.

Living the dream doesn’t look the way I imagined it at ten, twenty or even fifty. It isn’t the incredible writing career I fantasized. But I have the luxury and time to live a literary life. This is the dream, here and now. The fairy-tale bits have fallen away, but my life is still transformed.

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Dorothy Rice is the author of T 2015), an art book/memoir about her dad, Joe Rice. She has placed two dozen personal essays in various journals and been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. Her WIP is To Dye Or Not To Dye: a Memoir of Ageism, Shame and Acceptance. Dorothy blogs at Gray is the New Black and tweets @dorothyrowena.

Late Bloomers and Perennials

August 30, 2018 § 54 Comments

by Dorothy Rice

For many writers of a certain age, myself included, Allison K Williams’ recent Brevity blog, about the tremendous response to her tweet listing beloved authors whose first book was published post-40, struck a nerve.

…the overall response was one of relief.

Thank you, I needed that.

There’s still hope.

I needed to hear that today.

A lot of people are worried they might be too old, or not published enough (the paradox of not publishing until you’re published), or that being a writer is somehow a special condition and only certain people are allowed to contract it.

I appreciated the post as another voice in the lively conversation about ageism, sexism, racism and other biases in the publishing world. I earned an MFA in creative writing at 60 and published my first book at 61. By most any barometer, I am a late-blooming author. I have mixed emotions about the label. On the one hand, I’m proud I’m beginning to realize long-held dreams. Other times I’m defensive, apologetic, even ashamed. Why did it take me so long? Is it too little, too late? What was I doing that was so damned important all those years I wasn’t writing?

“Late bloomer” implies a judgment. We use it for children who reach developmental milestones—walking, talking, tying their shoes—later than their peers. In adolescence and adulthood, “late bloomer,” often with a sigh or a philosophic shrug, describes those who are floundering, who haven’t yet found themselves, their passion or their path. The late bloomer is failing to meet someone’s expectations, be they parents, teachers, a spouse or employer, or the standards within their field.

Is it the same with writers?

Why not drop the “late” and just use “bloomer” to describe writers who publish post-forty? Yet that stresses the absence of a word, rather than the word itself. Oh, I get it, they dropped the “late.”  If a plant-related reference is called for, I prefer perennial, as in enduring. Continually occurring. Better still, how about just “author”?

I’m betting many, if not most, authors labeled late bloomers have always written. We scribbled in journals or diaries, jotted poems in the margins of memos and reports. Sometimes there were long stretches when we only managed to write in our heads while commuting, pacing the floor with a colicky baby, or grocery shopping on the way home from work. We found little ways, palliatives, to keep the writing dream alive, fertilize our ideas while life took over and the urgent left little time for the important.

I’ve done no survey, scientific or otherwise, but it does seem that “late-blooming author” and “woman” often go together. Attend any writing conference or workshop and chances are a majority of the seats will be filled with women of a certain age, there to resuscitate dormant dreams and dusty manuscripts. A panel at the Hippocamp 2018 creative nonfiction conference in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, “Breaking Into Writing After Forty,” was comprised of five women writers (myself among them). Scanning the offerings at next year’s AWP Conference in Portland, five women are slated to present “Better Later? Success and the Late Blooming Woman Author.”

What is it with all these late-blooming women writers? I imagine many, like me, spent their young adulthood and middle age juggling careers, kids, relationships, housekeeping and the rest. Not that there aren’t many men who do the same, and thank goodness for that. But we are still nowhere near gender equality in sharing all family and household responsibilities. Hats off to my younger writing colleagues who manage to keep at their craft while their children are still young and their careers on the rise. I wasn’t able to find the bandwidth.

Is the male attorney or doctor publishing a first book post-forty considered a late-blooming author, or a professional who parlayed his accomplishments in one field into another? I challenge myself to see my own life’s trajectory in a similar light.

The time I’m now able to devote to writing is relatively new—post-retirement, post-parenting, past caring how my house looks and whether supper is on the table—but it’s not as if I wasn’t taking care of business all these years. Let’s give ourselves credit for all the lives we’ve led and the myriad ways they have informed and inspired us as writers.

It’s not as if we weren’t blooming all those years. We were flowering, nurturing and gathering memory seeds. With a lifetime of experience to tap into, it’s time to plant and feed those seeds, to write the life stories we’ve lived.

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Dorothy Rice is the author of The Reluctant Artist (Shanti Arts, 2015), an art book/memoir about her dad, Joe Rice. She has placed two dozen personal essays in various journals and been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. Her WIP is To Dye Or Not To Dye: a memoir of Ageism, Shame and Acceptance. Dorothy blogs at Gray is the New Black and tweets @dorothyrowena.

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