My publisher wrote to me before my latest book, Book Ends: a year between the covers, came out to ask me whether I would mind being called that "lovely old biddy from Gabriola" on advertising copy. I said not at all, go right ahead. I love to let my publisher do what she wants as much as I can, for that allows me to argue over the odd comma I want inserted when I really want a comma inserted. After the book was launched, a concerned friend wrote to me, "I want to suggest that you discard the 'old biddy' bit you have in your info material. It's self-denigrating, stereotyping, a kind of 'ageism,' and unworthy of your notions of self-esteem."
I wrote back explaining how that phrase originated by telling her that I was having a printing job done in Nanaimo, the closest town on Vancouver Island to my small island. The printer couldn't offer perfect binding, so the job had to partially go down to Victoria.
My printer sent an e-mail accompanying the job and, by mistake, the e-mail was sent to me. It began, "I have this lovely old biddy from Gabriola..." I laughed aloud when I read it and thereafter repeated the story endlessly at my readings. It was always good for a laugh, and laughter is good.
I was not demeaning myself, because I have a very firm image of myself as a bright, enthusiastic, but rather superficial young woman. That image has kept me going to a moderate degree of success in many areas all my life. Particularly, it has allowed me to recognize my limits and to see what a clown I am, yet know at the same time that I’m also a wise clown.
It is this image that has taken me cheerfully through menopause and now, successfully into old age. From outside, people see a slightly stooped, grey, and thinning-haired elder person. I see that too when I look at photos of myself. Inside, I am this bouncing precocious, imaginative kid; naive with a naivety that paradoxically becomes a kind of street smarts. That inner image is important, even if it is only partially correct, for that is the image that sustains us through indignity and non-caring. I'll give you another example: I have a friend who was a cute child and a perky precocious teenager. She kept this image of being beautiful and youthful with her even though now she is wrinkled and obviously old. Recently, she was in a poor country and was riding a bicycle through an unknown part of town. A man leapt out and knocked her from her bicycle. Her first thought was, "He is going to rape me." She curled up tight and scrunched her eyes. Nothing happened. When she opened her eyes, she could see the man off and away on her bicycle. It was the bike he wanted, not her beautiful body. She yelled after him to no avail and, because she is young and beautiful inside, she could allow herself to laugh. Laughing at oneself is not degrading, it is empowering. She is not going to give up the image of her inner self, it maintains her; she is however intelligent enough to know it’s not how other people view her.
Soon, I will be an MC at an evening for a large group of campus radio folk. I suspect their average age will be 21. I am 79. I wonder how I am going to say anything of relevance for their already over-sophisticated ears. I don't have much energy for fretting, however, as my writing is demanding and I am also a housekeeper, garden-weeder, wife, mother and many other things that make more pressing demands on my energies. I decide to just be myself - the outer self would dress simply and elegantly, in an outfit Meryl Streep might wear to an Oscar award ceremony when all the other actresses looked like streetwalkers. The inner self would be the usual gawky, awkward, disarmingly open person I basically am: amusing people by just telling the truth as I see it, and throwing remarks around regardless of total appropriateness because I have never bothered much about being appropriate.
Ageing cannot be avoided. You will become, whether you like it or not, pushed to the edge of the crowd, rather than the centre of attention. Unless you are very wealthy, you will be slipped in as an afterthought, called in from a reserve list of substitutes, and smiled at benignly when you offer an opinion. If your inner image is still running along with you, as your shadow accompanies you on your outer edge, you will float through it all, assured that you still have value and presenting your duck's feathers for the water of old-age prejudices to merely run off. You're cute, you're intelligent, you're beautiful, you're wrong - but how right you really are.
Naomi will be reading at Qualicum Public Library at 2 p.m. on September 27, and the same day at 7 p.m., at the Red Martini Grill in Nanaimo.
SEPTEMBER 2010 SENIOR LIVING MAGAZINE VANCOUVER ISLAND
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