Someday I Will Be That Laughing, Old Woman
On The Integrity of Experience & Perspective
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Today I thought we’d talk about the integrity of experience and perspective. I went to the book launch of a friend of mine yesterday. She, like me, is a Capricorn, and Capricorns, if you didn’t know, are like the Benjamin Buttons of the zodiac. We’re all born cranky, burdened, old men and we get lighter and younger as we get older.
Or perhaps it is just that everyone else catches up to our degree of burden, but we’re so used to it all by now— we’ve developed the strength and the sense of humor to bear it all with some measure of grace and equanimity— so we seem lighter than everyone in our age set. Our age peers look around and exclaim, “Getting older is so hard!” and we shrug and respond, “Meh. It’s fine. You’ll be okay.”
I spent much of my adulthood envying folks who, in their early twenties, possessed complete clarity about what they wanted to be when they grew up. From that position of clarity, they proceeded to accumulate the skills and credentials to do whatever that thing was with singular dedication for the next several decades.
I enviously assumed they must be leading much less complicated and burdened lives than I was. They were clearly not spending their twenties, thirties, and possibly some portion of their forties, negotiating the arduous task of healing from early trauma, sloughing off inauthentic expectations and identities, or cleaning up from their wound-motivated choices.
I’ve come to appreciate this is not necessarily true. People are just different; they have different trajectories, ways of coping, and paths to walk. Sure, some folks have had it easier, but plenty of folks have had it harder. The world is patently unfair (which I still periodically resent, to be clear), and we’re all simply navigating it the best way we can manage.
Those folks who find that clarity and focus early, whether or not they dealt with difficulties along the way, are, however, held up as the ideal template for a proper adulthood. The problem being that most of us don’t follow that template. So, we get to our forties, or fifties, and find ourselves comparing the life we’ve actually lived to the one we thought we would live, or have been told we should have lived, and think, “What have I done with my life?!?!”
Author Elizabeth Gilbert talks about how she has managed to accomplish so much creatively, even with chronic mental health challenges and loss. She says it wasn’t that she wasn’t constantly afraid, but that her curiosity was always just one percent bigger than her fear. I appreciate her framing of the inevitability of fear, but I will say for me there’s a space, which waxes and wanes in size, between my fear and curiosity. It’s a tunnel that holds nothing but determination and faith.
I have spent most of my forties walking through that tunnel, shedding big fear as I entered and then smaller and smaller fears steadily as I stumbled along, without any idea of what was at the other end. Only now, nearly ten years into the tunnel, am I feeling the light of unobstructed curiosity and creativity shining in from the other side.
From this position, I look at those folks who spent the last thirty years or so pursuing a singular goal with unwavering dedication. They’re now contemplating retirement, so they can spend the next thirty years or so noodling around doing random shit. My little, Capricorn self, I realize, just did it the other way around. I spent thirty years noodling around doing random shit, and now, as Cheryl Strayed so aptly says, I’m going to write like a motherfucker until I die.
In certain Jewish communities, men were not allowed to enter rabbinical school until they had worked a regular job and raised a family. If they were positioning themselves to offer wisdom and pastoral care to their communities then they had to actually know what it was to live a real, complicated life.
No offense to the young, who are exuberantly delightful and juicy as a ripe peach, but if I’m really struggling with something I want the counsel of someone who’s been there. I want to sit at the feet of someone with experience and perspective so that when they tell me it will be okay I believe them. I can’t walk through that long, mid-life tunnel holding the hand of some sweet, young thing. I want to trail behind a laughing, wrinkled woman who looks like she has some idea where the hell I’m headed.
Someday I plan to be that laughing, wrinkled old woman. What a joy that will be!
The clarity I finally feel right now has been aided, in large part, by the opportunity to collect a reasonable level of unemployment for the last year and a half. I have been lucky and grateful to have this unprecedented time not to have to barter away my brain space in order to pay my bills. It has allowed me the freedom that most creatives never have, or only manage through the largess of spouses or family— to write without fears around basic survival.
I wouldn’t be sitting here right now writing to you without this unexpected, government-supported, survival sabbatical.
I wish that our society valued experience and perspective enough to provide that sort of sabbatical to anyone and everyone who needs it in mid-life. How vibrant and productive could the second half of our lives be if we were all afforded the opportunity to reconfigure and reset? How much wisdom and depth would we invite into the fabric of our communities?
We worship youth in this culture. We love a good coming-of-age story, though we provide few formal community rituals to acknowledge and support the passage into adulthood. We provide no rituals or support, however, for the transition from mid-life into being an elder, especially for women. We are implicitly declared obsolete unless we are willing to stay on the treadmill of chasing youth, rather than valued for the depth of our experience and insight.
The integrity of experience and perspective is not a question of personal integrity as much as it is one of social integrity— the wholeness and right-ordering of our society. We need our elders— their stories and their wisdom— and we need to figure out how to embrace becoming them when it’s our turn to lead folks out of the darkness.
On Friday I’m publishing another one of our subscriber interviews. I’m excited to share it with you. What an amazing community of folks we are!
Only paying subscribers are eligible to be interviewed, so if you think that might be something you’d like to do get a subscription and drop me a note! You can always sign up to pay on a monthly basis and see how you like it. XO, Asha