Written By: Alice Lowe
I rewarded myself with a tattoo for my seventieth birthday, a three-inch-high quill pen—feather, nib, and swirling trail of ink—on my ankle. The quill symbolizes my identity as a writer and pays homage to my muse, Virginia Woolf. Small and shy, it peeps over the top of my shoe. People don’t readily notice it, but I didn’t do it for anyone else. It’s for me, a tangible and permanent brand to mark my passage into irrefutable old age and to thumb my nose at it. “Take that!” I mentally tell the intangible destroyer.
My mood darkening as the fateful October transition neared, and with no way around it, I decided I would commemorate the historic event rather than back down from it. The idea of a tattoo occurred to me one day in February when I was walking past an attractive, woman-owned tattoo parlor in my neighborhood. That’s it, I thought—not just a place marker, but a subtle act of resistance. How many septuagenarians get tattoos? I spent the months leading up to my birthday planning my body art—what, when, who, where. I kept notes from the dawning of the idea to the Saturday in late September when I reclined on the elevated, plastic-covered table at Buju Tattoo, my daughter by my side, while a tattoo artist named Beth etched the feather pen onto my ankle.
I wrote an essay about my experience and titled it “Permanently Cool: A Tattoo of One’s Own.” It was only when I reread it after it was published the following spring that I realized how I’d copped out. Instead of saying the tattoo was to mark my seventieth birthday—which was the whole point of it—I’d hedged. I had coyly referred to my senior status, to a “significant” birthday, but had not mentioned my age. A friend who read an early draft said it gave the impression I was turning sixty. He asked if I meant to be evasive. “Yes,” I replied, “that was exactly my intent.” I believed I would be discounted if I admitted my true age. I commemorated turning seventy while hiding it. That’s why I’m so pissed off about getting old.
My tattoo notwithstanding, I’d left middle age behind and crossed the threshold to old. Old age means aches and pains that never entirely go away, creaky joints, and an aversion to sitting on the floor. The body’s outer covering is fabricated for obsolescence—I trace each new crease and splotch on my face, observe gravity’s downward pull on my sagging flesh. And that’s just a preview. Getting old, being old, portends all the possible permutations of illness and infirmity with accompanying pain, as well as physical and mental decline. For most of us, old age comes with reduced income and a compromised standard of living; for many, it means poverty and hardship, loss of autonomy. Add grief and loneliness as loved ones are mowed down by debility and death.
To those over eighty-five—designated the “oldest old”—seventy is still young. Maybe “old-ish.” But time is finite, denial is futile. If we get to live out our statistical allotment of years, we will get old, and we will die. Each decade marker, each passing year, serves to remind us that we’re in the home stretch. To be old is to be drawing closer to death.
I keep my fatalism to myself, and, as a good feminist, defend women’s right to age gracefully. When I’m told I have a great attitude about aging I think, “Like hell I do.” But I reply—jauntily, of course, flipping a (real or figurative) silk scarf over my shoulder with panache—“Why not? What’s my choice?” I play the part, exuding confidence and contentment, because what would be the point of weeping and wailing, raging at destiny, saying what I really think? Getting old is betrayal—I live in daily fear of my mind casting off and charting a course of its own, taking my body hostage—and it’s a chilling reality.
Denial is futile, and I can channel my anger, try to get some use out of it. But from here, I skip over bargaining and depression and move into the fifth stage of grief. Acceptance doesn’t mean I have to like it—I don’t—but I put on a happy face and focus on the bright spots, such as they are.
Being old means retiring from my day job and reaping the benefits of the social security I paid into for forty-five years. Being old is having an abundance of time to do those things I used to say I didn’t have time to do. Like write. Being old is feeling wiser and more confident, not caring so much what others think. It’s being selfish with impunity. I’ve done my bit—let the young save the whales, the woebegone, the world. I’m off the hook.
My performance isn’t as much a stretch as it might be. Through a combination of luck, genes, and unstinting effort, I’m one of the fortunate ones. I have a few of the requisite aches and pains that come with the territory, but the list of age-related ailments I don’t have (yet) would fill the page. I’m debt free and live comfortably on my limited income. I have a ten-years-younger husband who, after more than twenty years, still thinks I’m fabulous, gorgeous, and sexy.
All this and promising odds. Actuarial tables give me a life expectancy of eighty-six. Even better, an online longevity calculator that takes into consideration health and physical activity, height and weight, smoking and drinking history, education, income, and marital status bumps my chances up to as high as ninety-six. Thirteen to twenty-three more years may sound ample, but to me it feels ominous, like footsteps behind me on a dark street late at night, getting louder and louder, closer and closer. I don’t fear death itself—though I may be fooling myself—as much as I do the loss of health and mobility. I panic at the idea of pain and suffering. I dread losing my memory and mental wherewithal, restricting the viability of my precious remaining years. It’s like I’m running out of time, yet I’m afraid and resentful of what that time will bring.
Getting old is hard for everyone. Failing health, diminished marbles, and financial struggles are shared by men and women alike, but older women must endure the double whammy of the double standard: gender and age discrimination combined. It’s what’s meant by insult on top of injury. We’re confronted with the painful awareness of fading from view. Erasure. Invisibility. In the 2016 Summer Olympics, seventy-four-year-old Anna Sofia Botha coached several athletes, including 400-meter gold-medalist Wayde van Niekerk. When she went to congratulate him, she was turned away in spite having official credentials. The New York Times reported that, “With her white helmet hair and kindly air, event officials apparently did not believe that she was a coach of a world-record holder.” Ignored and insulted, passed over, patronized, no wonder so many older women lie about their age, disguise it in myriad ways.
Youth boosts women’s odds. It wins the job, the mate, the goodies. We live in a culture in which men become wise with age while women just get old. It’s the dichotomy I’ve been hearing since the seventies, the early days of the second wave of feminism: men are forceful, women pushy; men are commanding, women demanding; and so on. In the all-important mating game, women are considered less sexually desirable at an earlier age than men. Men like Hugh Hefner, Clint Eastwood, and Donald Trump can marry women twenty-five to fifty years younger than themselves with impunity, even admiration. “The old boy’s still got it.” He may not be young and handsome, but he has other assets—wealth, fame, power—that boost his appeal to younger women. When the age gap is reversed, women are subjected to raised eyebrows and incredulity. “What could he possibly see in her?” Once called Jezebels, now we’re “cougars,” predatory, robbing the cradle for innocent victims. I say “we,” because, by definition, I am one.
Baby Boomers started turning seventy last year. Their anxious and inquiring minds want to know what’s to become of them. Can physical or mental decline be slowed? Stopped? Is there a fountain of youth? A wonder drug or age-defying herb or miracle diet? As they enter each new decade, Boomers redefine it with their sheer numbers, air of entitlement, and buying power. The scientific community obliges. More funds and studies are devoted to the new hot topic. Research probes the recesses of aging bodies and brains, and the findings will have implications for future generations. The official demarcation puts me a nose ahead of the Baby Boom, at the end of the so-called Silent Generation, but those of us sidling in before the Boom stand to gain from the fallout of its collective impact as well.
“Aging’s Future” is a special report in an issue of Science News that I happened across serendipitously when this essay was a mere gleam in my eye. Aging is still inevitable, it confirms, but science is making advances toward slowing the process, if not the outcome. Researchers are studying the “wellderly”—those over eighty who show no signs of chronic disease—in hopes of prolonging the length of time people can live without major illness or frailty. If my luck holds, I will ascend to the rank of “wellderly,” donate my DNA to the program’s gene bank, and make my contribution to science. The concept of “fitness age” was recognized when data showed that people with above-average cardiovascular fitness generally had longer life spans than those less fit. In one study, the fitness age of Senior Olympics participants was found to be twenty or more years younger than their chronological age. I eagerly crunched the numbers in an online calculator and arrived at a fitness age of forty-seven. I scoff at the media-made and Boomer-bought concept that “seventy is the new fifty,” but the coincidence is striking.
In 2034, the youngest Boomers will be seventy (and I’ll be ninety-one). As a cohort, they’re likely to be healthier—which is, or should be, the point—whether or not they live longer. Seventy will still be seventy.
Several months after I turned seventy, I completed the San Diego Half Marathon. I’d found another symbolic act to defy my age—or maybe try to outrun it. I was a strong and fast power walker and had participated twice in the breast cancer three-day/sixty-mile walk, but this was my first timed, competitive race. I trained diligently, working up to and beyond the targeted distance and a respectable speed. On a cool, predawn March morning—sporting my Yankees hat, a pair of Saucony Ride 7s, and my proud tattoo—I awaited the starting gun with my daughter, a veteran runner who’d encouraged my efforts. Jenn took off with the faster runners while I lined up with the walkers and slow runners. After she and her friends completed the race, they assembled at barleymash, a sports bar near the finish, to cheer me on as a late burst of energy swept me through those last yards and across the line. My goal was to complete the 13.1 miles in three hours; I came in at just under 2:56, jubilant at my victory and the sight of all those runners and walkers—women and men, young and old—still behind me. I had intended this as a one-off to show myself I could do it, but I got hooked on the energy and the challenge. In the three years since that first one, I’ve completed eight half marathons and have a few more on tap. It’s never easy—each race takes its toll on my body—but each finish is a triumph. Now my goal is to keep doing them as long as I can, fueled by fury and determination.
I joined a running club last year and transitioned from walking to run/walk intervals, increasing my speed and strength. I also established a reputation—unsought—as a blazing old-timer. In polite society, it’s considered rude to ask a “woman of a certain age” (whatever that may be—over 40? 50?) how old she is. But in athletic circles, there’s no being evasive. Age is an integral part of the activity, and older athletes are held in high esteem. We may (or may not) be slower, but just being out there is a testament to our resilience and fortitude. On my first outing with the club, two women in my pace group asked my age. I told them: seventy-two. They were amazed and impressed. Word spread quickly, and I became a standard-bearer of hope and inspiration. “That’s Alice—she’s seventy-two,” I would hear behind me. Even, “You’re my hero,” though you can bet no one wants to trade places. I’m also a handy foil for self-reproach. “Jeez, even Alice runs faster than me, and she’s seventy-two.”
Participants’ ages are printed on race bibs, and event announcers have the data at their fingertips so they can toss out bits of human interest (like, “Jake came all the way from London for this event!”). As I crossed the finish line of the grueling La Jolla Half Marathon in April, I heard over the loudspeaker, “Here’s Alice Lowe, seventy-two years young!” I cringed. Did you have to say that? Then I laughed through gritted teeth and waved; after all, it was meant as a tribute. But my ambivalence was hanging around my neck along with my race medal—the same mixed feelings that caused me to dodge my age when I wrote about my tattoo, that kept me from stating it outright in other essays I’ve written about aging. I just don’t want to be old or regarded as old, spiraling downhill to that final finish line.
My last half marathon was three months ago, and I limped through the last few miles with a painful heel spur in my left foot. Since then, I’ve been sidelined, getting chiropractic treatment and physical therapy. I’m walking again, making progress one week, backsliding the next. Sports injuries happen to young runners, too, but they mend more quickly. I’m not young, and for me it’s discouraging, even threatening. Will it ever heal? Am I risking severe and permanent damage? Is it worth it? What am I trying to prove anyway? I already have a title for an essay about my running experiences: “Running While Old.”
“It’s not catastrophes, murders, deaths, diseases, that age and kill us; it’s the way people look and laugh, and run up the steps of the omnibuses,” observes the narrator of Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room. When she turned fifty, in 1932, Woolf wrote in her diary: “[I] sometimes feel that I have lived 250 years already, and sometimes that I am still the youngest person in the omnibus.” Woolf scholars have parsed the significance of omnibus references in Woolf’s fiction—class distinctions, mobility (physical and conceptual), and a kind of freedom. To me she’s implying that we’re all equal on the omnibus by virtue of its inclusiveness and anonymity: male and female, rich and poor, young and old. A liberating concept, if you believe it. Woolf considered herself old in her fifties, not uncommon given life expectancies in her day, but she didn’t dwell on aging. Rather, her highs and lows (those not caused by mental illness and two world wars) were predicated on her writing. When it was going well, she was contented; if it wasn’t, she was “so old, so ugly, so — & can’t write.” When an acquaintance worried that his creative well would run dry, she observed that her concern was quite the opposite: “Shall I ever have enough time to write out all that’s in my head?”
Woolf committed suicide at fifty-nine. My mother smoked herself to death at sixty, also a kind of suicide. At sixty-one I’d outlived both my mother and my muse. I had to find others to guide me through the passages of old age, so I turned to writers who have paved the way.
Doris Grumbach launched a prolific writing career in her forties. After she turned seventy, she began to chronicle her views from the ever-heightening perches of time. The Pleasure of Their Company invokes prison as a metaphor for old age: both beyond pardon or commutation. In spite of prevailing gloom and unconcealed anger—“Why celebrate being eighty? Why not mourn, have a wake?”—humor and irony are Grumbach’s weapons against old age’s indignities. She tells how W. Somerset Maugham was asked to lecture on “The Beautiful Recompenses of Growing Old.” He faced his audience, sat down, paused, stood up, said “I can’t think of any,” and walked off the stage. Grumbach has written three essays for The American Scholar since turning ninety. I have no use for geriatric Pollyannas, so Doris’s bracing perspective places her at the top of my list of literary trailblazers. Earlier this year, I had a personal e-mail exchange with her regarding Isabel Bolton, another late-blooming and long-lived writer whom we both championed. In response to my well wishes on her ninety-eighth birthday, Doris said, “Like Dilsey in The Sound and the Fury, I survive against the odds.”
Diana Athill wrote about her “advanced old age” from the vantage point of ninety-one in Somewhere Towards the End. She anticipated that it would be her last chance, but now, at ninety-nine, she writes from a higher pinnacle in Alive, Alive Oh!: And Other Things that Matter. Like me, like so many, she doesn’t worry about death as much as the process of dying. I’d say she’s almost home free, and I’m encouraged to think that maybe suffering isn’t mandatory after all.
A closer contemporary and kindred soul was Nora Ephron. She narrated her aging and zinged it in the collections I Feel Bad About My Neck and I Remember Nothing. She understood. She spoke for me, for so many of us. She observed that “People who run four miles a day and eat only nuts and berries drop dead. People who drink a quart of whiskey and smoke two packs of cigarettes a day drop dead. You are suddenly in a lottery, the ultimate game of chance, and someday your luck will run out.” Her luck ran out at seventy-one. There wouldn’t be a third volume of pithy observations and universal truths; she would no longer lead the way on the rocky trail with her scythe-like pen and slashing wit.
My twenty-five-year-old grandson calls me his “cool grandma.” I can’t see myself through his eyes, but I know he views me differently from the way I recall my grandmother the last time I saw her, when I was in my early twenties and she was around my current age. I see an old woman with permed and blue-tinted gray hair, Coke-bottle glasses, and a shelf-like bosom in an old-fashioned flowered print dress. Today’s seventy isn’t our grandmothers’ seventy. It’s the same downward slope, but we’re pioneers of a new kind of aging. Which doesn’t mean we have to accept it gracefully.
Nora Ephron said that hair dye—not feminism nor exercise (nor even kale)—changed everything for women. It’s helped women climb the career ladder, created fashion trends, inspired clichés like “fifty is the new forty” and its evolving incarnations. At around fifty, my hair started graying. I shrugged it off. I was single and reasonably successful. As a feminist, I wasn’t about to succumb to societal pressures to look younger. So I said. Until I started to notice a glazed look, a lack of eye contact that told me I wasn’t being seen. What is this? I thought. I’m still here, and I want to be taken seriously. I thought of Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction. I narrowed my eyes and said, “I won’t be ignored.” I started coloring my hair, and—shazam!—I magically reappeared in other people’s eyes and in my own mirror. I wrote about it, examining my ambiguity, defending my actions, expressing my glee. “Ruby Fusion” was the title of my essay and the name of my hair color. I dubbed myself a L’Oréal feminist.
I started writing in my sixties after I’d retired from thirty years in nonprofit organizations, where writing was limited to project proposals and marketing materials. At seventy-three, I’ve much more to do, see, and learn—for better and for worse—lots to say, and the facility to say it. And time. Hours in each day, for sure, but I’m also counting on having some good years left, as I consider Doris Grumbach, Diana Athill, and my fitness age of forty-seven—though I could drop dead tomorrow. My fingers are still agile with a pen and swift on the keyboard, my eyesight is serviceable, and my synapses seem to be operating on all cylinders, my mind teeming with curiosity and ideas. As Nora Ephron said, “Everything is copy.” But while there’s no age limit on a writer’s viability, it’s been my perception that interesting and relevant work may be deemed less so if the author is an unknown female presumed to be bordering on senility. The worship of youth culture suggests we keep it to ourselves, try to “pass” as younger—thus my evasion, my bitterness.
I’m morbidly fascinated with the process of aging—my aging—and I want to continue to write about it as I experience it. As Ruth Grumbach and Diana Athill, both approaching the century mark, still do. As Nora Ephron did. As I believe Virginia Woolf would have—“Observe perpetually,” she reminded herself in one of her last diary entries. I can laugh at myself and share pearls of wisdom about my body’s and brain’s betrayals: a permanent squint, forgetting what I saw last week or read this morning, falling down, slowing down. I can also rail about it. But it’s time to be honest, to resist the urge to tiptoe around the numbers or to paint myself in bolder colors or to camouflage what I feel.
I have a tattoo and eight race medals, but no matter how audacious and athletic I might be, seventy is still seventy, old is still old. There will continue to be changes in the reality and perceptions about getting and being old, but those of us living it get to own it and interpret for ourselves what it means. I can be a sprightly senior, an outrageous oldster, a crusty curmudgeon. I might run a full marathon, buy a Harley, get a nose ring, shave my head, commit civil disobedience. Or not. I’ll deal with my age the best I can, accepting that there will be times when I don’t handle it well at all, and that I’ll always resent it. Being old means thinking that at last you have your shit together. Being old means knowing you’ll never have your shit together.
About the Author
Alice Lowe reads and writes about life and literature, food and family. Her personal essays have appeared in numerous literary journals, including 1966, Adelaide, The Baltimore Review, Brevity, Crab Creek Review, The Millions, Permafrost, Room, and The Tishman Review. Her work is cited among the Notable Essays in the 2016 Best American Essays and was nominated for the Best of the Net anthology. Alice is the author of numerous essays and reviews on Virginia Woolf’s life and work, including two monographs published by Cecil Woolf Publishers in London. Alice lives in San Diego, California and blogs at www.aliceloweblogs.wordpress.