In our world, where youth is so highly valued, one might imagine that being a 50-year-old undergraduate among so many young women here at U.C. Berkeley is hard on my pride. These “girls”—virtually every one of them tediously beautiful for some reason—are prized by evolution’s goals and society’s tastes. And they have time in a way that I am aware I do not. Most of life is ahead of them, and their baggage is as light as a knapsack, comparatively. Their skin glows, wrinkle-free, and makeup is a complete option. They wear sleeveless tops when it’s hot because nothing waggles if they shake salt and pepper onto their food in public restaurants or wave to friends across a crowded lecture hall. They can even wear the shortest of shorts and attract—rather than horrify—males of both their own age and mine.
But, funny enough, I have only come to feel better about myself the further I go in my rather belated education. The other day, I was trying to understand why that should be. It’s not as if I am a wise, elder professor, settled into a successful position in life, teaching and mentoring the youth from my podium at the front of the class.
Still, sharing the student seats with women who could be my offspring, I would honestly rather be in my own shoes than theirs, as well as in my own skin—wrinkles and waggles and all.
The reason, as it turns out, is that I like who I am now, living what I’ve lived, knowing what I know. How life will blindside some of them! How marriage and raising children will be full of—joys, yes —but also hard lessons, wrong paths, tough choices . . . It’s lovely knowing how many children I will have (one), and what kind of person he will be. I also like knowing that I have had some heartbreaks that were humdingers, and yet I survived them—and will again, if that’s how it goes. And I really like knowing within a date or two whether a relationship with someone is even a workable venture. This is a time when, with so many mysteries and decisions behind us, we can think on other things.
It has begun to break my heart when I hear a woman speak as though her best years are behind her, or that she is no longer valid as a player in life’s game. It’s as if the rules that were true when we lived in caves were still in place and most of us have agreed to keep living by them. In evolution, surviving to pass on genetic material is ultimately all that matters. Attraction and sex and offspring, period.
Men can contribute much longer, but once a female cannot attract a mate and bear that next generation, she is of little further use to the evolutionary scheme. Indeed, unless we want to babysit, it’s kind of hard to figure out what role we’re expected to take up next, even today. Ironically, this lack of an edict might be our ticket to set our own course. So much freedom can leave one feeling adrift, true, but knowing who we really are, it’s easier to unearth the source of one’s particular joys, and therein lies the guiding star.
Someone asked me once if I could recall a time when I had been truly content. I had to think about it. So often, the happiness was mixed with some anxiety or other. But then I remembered that time after a breakup years earlier, reclining on my sofa with a stack of books and no plans on my calendar. I had some charming idea that I’d read for as long as it took until I could comprehend where we’d gone wrong. That did not happen—well, maybe a little—but I did find that I enjoyed the quiet, the stack of books, and my goal of researching to understand.
This wasn’t all of my happiness, but it was a key. Certain friendships—and not others—gave me joy. A certain amount of order, but not too much. A degree of quality in my clothes and possessions. A cat. A dog (but not a puppy). A bay nearby with boats on it. Impassioned anger at injustice. Compassionate acceptance of my flaws. The pieces came together and I saw myself and how I wanted to live.
In my imagination, my human companion would be a fit to this. Visual, funny, content just to be, gentle in nature, empathic and able to connect. When I meet this combination, I will recognize it. Until then, I am happy. And, happy, I have so much to give.
We older women may just be the bonus that evolution hadn’t planned on.
From this place—one that is there for us all, if we’d only inhabit it—we are an asset to our communities, to those we meet, to humankind.
There are realities we all face, I know that. The world believes what the TV set tells it, and this affects the work we can do and the money we can make. But if we can become a sort of unofficial club, we could acknowledge, at least to each other, that we have a secret knowledge others can’t imagine. The knowledge of women who have seen much, lived much, survived much. With a light heart, let’s write our club motto over our mirrors: Experientia. Sapientia. Gratia. Experience. Wisdom. Grace.
Look around, to our club’s leaders—those who have excelled, who have confidence and intelligence, even with imperfect bodies and too-real faces—and don’t pick them apart by TV’s standards. Rather, know that they are we, and we are they. Young women, bless their hearts, cannot possibly compete with what a woman of a certain age can accomplish when she brings the force of her fully formed personality to the table. And it is sexy stuff.
As Michael Drury, the (yes, female) author of Advice to a Young Wife from a Old Mistress, put it: “One is born female, but being a woman is a personal accomplishment.” We have achieved it. Now we need to know the worth of it and let others know it just by how we carry ourselves and refer to ourselves. If we know it, it will come through as loud as any TV signal, and we can be our own best advertisement. It is late; there is no time to lose.