Shari Graydon, right is an activist and writer whose mom often told her she’d “had a blast” in her 40s. So when Graydon turned 40, she invited a dozen slightly older friends to dinner and waited for the fun to begin. Instead of gifting her with snarky condolence cards, anti-wrinkle cream, or extra reading glasses, Graydon asked her guests to show up prepared “to share with me some of the more salutary things about growing older.” Her pals, alas, let her down. They had little good to say about aging.
A decade later, when a woman writer published an essay “cataloging the litany of wrinkle-prone, gravity-challenged parts of a woman’s body and the derogatory nicknames applied to each,” Grayson knew she had to act. She was fed up with all the media attention to our flab and wrinkles. She wanted to have a blast! But where were all the uplifting, empowering voices who’d help her find the joy in getting older?
Graydon, who calls herself a “face half unwrinkled kind of woman,” invited dozens of women aged 50 or older to pen “a few bon mots that celebrated the benefits of maturity.” I Feel Great About My Hands and Other Unexpected Joys of Aging (Douglas & McIntyre, $17.95), a collection of prose and poetry (and one play) is the result.
Graydon envisioned a “positive, multi-voiced compliment to Nora Ephron’s I Feel Bad About My Neck, and she got what she asked for—although there’s still plenty of kvetching between this book’s covers (with essays like “Facing the Void.”) And the voices could be more diverse—Grayon didn’t cast her net very wide. Most of the contributors, like the editor, are Canadian feminists and activists. The American reader will get a crash course in Canadian feminist history (which I, an American feminist, found interesting.) And the decision to publish writing by activists as well as women who write for a living means that the quality of the life described can be better than the quality of the writing about that life. Still, Hands lives up to the editor’s claim that her book gives us a “rich, nuanced and … affirming picture of aging womanhood.”
Like any anthology, Hands is a grab bag, and some pieces will grab you harder than others. I fell in love with humorist Mary Walsh, who describes herself as a “brassy bit of aging crumpet on the slippery slope of fifty-five and picking up speed.” Her comic contribution pokes fun at how a culture that over-values youth and beauty can hold us back, and demonstrates the many ways in which she refuses to play that game.
I also found Diana Majury’s essay about living her feminist principles as she ages utterly fascinating. Majury, a radical feminist lesbian, refuses to wear make-up or put on a skirt. And she doesn’t shave. Anywhere. She thinks body hair is sexy—especially the hair under her arms! She writes that she’s even thought about entering the Michigan Womyn’s Festival’s “Hairiest Armpit Contest.” (I wasn’t aware that such a contest existed, let alone that there are so many contestants that Majury didn’t feel she had a chance of winning.)
I also enjoyed Gail Kerbel’s “My Colonoscopy,” in which a former member of the high school “in crowd” meets up with a former “out crowd” member years later, when he turns out to be the doctor in charge of her procedure. Her first line made me smile: “Thank Goodness for our internal organs—without them my girlfriends and I might have run out of conversation years ago.”
The women in this book respond to getting older in a variety of ways—including one who, upon turning 50, took to the road (with her husband) as a long distance trucker. There are pieces about the joys of going out with an older man, the joys of going out with a younger man, contemplating plastic surgery, deciding to dye your hair, refusing to dye your hair, going back to school, taking up tai chi, and taking up golf. Because my own father, at 72, fell madly in love with a woman in her 60s, I particularly enjoyed Susan Lightstone’s happy essay about finding new love in middle-age.
The most inspiring and affirming essays were by life-long activists like Elizabeth May, leader of the Green Party of Canada—women who are apparently too focused on the work that needs to be done to fret about diets, wrinkles and hair color. “Being a strong and capable woman in her fifties is a good place to be,” May concludes. She feels that her “calm center” is a result of being over 50. These days, “achieving life goals represents less a race up a mountain, and more a navigation of well-worn paths. Experience brings some wisdom. No longer am I hoping everyone will like me. No longer do I care.”
You can conclude after reading this book that the women who are truly aging well are the ones who have meaningful work at the center of their lives. For these women, it is often work on behalf of others. The writers here are all politically left-leaning. And while I suspect that the Sarah Palins and Michelle Bachmans of this world (or their Canadian equivalents) might also have something interesting to say to us about aging, until their book about aging well comes along, you‘re in good Hands with this crowd.