Saturday, June 16, 2018

Wisdom for My Last Year as a Sixty-something


Seventy once sounded old: Not anymore
    On Women Turning 70: Honoring the Voices of Wisdom by Cathleen Rountree has been on my bookshelf for more than a decade.  I found it among my mother's belongings when she died in 2006 at the age of 92. I thought I'd read it when I turned 70.

      Back then 70 sounded really old. Now, not so much.

      Today, the first day of my last year as a sixty-something, I decided it was time to read Rountree's book and get a head start on learning what it will be like to be in my Seventies.

      The book, published in 1999, is full of the promised sagacity. There is the usual good advice: Don't act your age. Don't give into aging. Etc. Etc. Etc. And then there are the unexpected tips from these seventy-somethings. Texas journalist Liz Smith admitted she didn't want to travel anymore. She'd rather read a book about history: "You don't read when you travel. You're too tired." British writer Doris Lessing also encouraged life-long learning. "What I think is that it is probable that we are put on this earth in order to learn...I don't know if they have it in America, but here there is an astonishing phenomenon -- everyone is off at night classes learning this and studying that."

An ironic title for an author turning 70.

      My mother had left a bookmark in Rountree's interview with Ruth Asawa, a Japanese-American sculptor, so I naturally was very interested in that chapter. My mother had never talked about Asawa and I thought perhaps she had merely placed the bookmark so she could find her place, but when I came upon this line I knew it to be the wisdom that caught my mom's attention:

     "Something very important that I want to tell women is that it's never too late," said Asawa, eerily echoing the theme I have used for this blog, which I began after my mother's death. Asawa, however, adds an astute warning: "But don't wait until it's too late, because you won't have the energy...It's important to learn how to use your small bits of time, your five minutes, your ten minutes, your fifteen minutes. All those begin to count up..."

       Most of the 16 women Rountree interviewed and photographed for On Turning 70 are not household names. At least not to me. Lessing and feminist icon Betty Friedan, both touted on the cover, are the most recognizable. As a former newspaper book reviewer, I had heard of Liz Smith and young adult book writer Madeleine L'Engle (the title of her most famous book, A Wrinkle in Time, seemed ironically appropriate for this topic), but the other women -- a political activist, a photographer, a choreographer, a sculptor,  an executive director of a multiracial and multicultural non-profit, a teacher, an analytical psychologist, a poet, a sociologist, a visual storyteller and a Ph.D. student -- were unknown to me.

     Most have died since Rountree conducted these interviews nearly 20 years ago. One of the hard lessons about turning 70 seems to be that we have to get used to the fact that people won't be surprised to learn of our demise. My neighbor Nancy Appunn, whom I wrote about on this blog in 2013 when she traveled across country with another eighty-something to meet up with everyone on their Christmas card lists, told me once that she suspected some people called her up for the sole purpose of finding out if she had keeled over yet. Two years ago Nancy had a stroke, from which she has completely recovered, but I admit each time I stop by to see her, it does cross my mind that she might not answer the door. The other night we bumped into each other in the lobby of the Palladium in St. Petersburg before a performance of "La Traviata." Waiting for her boyfriend who was parking the car, she looked great.

      The surviving women from On Turning 70 who, like Nancy, have lived into their 80s and 90s, also are real dynamos. Here are some of the updates on their lives that I found on the Internet:

An emotional Mitsuye Yamada
watching the 2016
Democratic convention
      Elizabeth "Betita" Martinez, the American Chicana feminist and long-time community organizer, will be 93 in December. After her stroke in 2005, she continued to lecture and work with Latino youth groups. Her book De Colores Means All of Us: Latina Views for a Multi-colored Century was republished this year as part of Verso's feminist classic series.

    Anna Halprin, the choreographer who broke all the rules of modern dance, turns 98 in July. She still performs and teaches at the Tamalpa Institute which she founded with her daughter in 1978. Her next workshop is in July.

     Mitsuye Yamada, the Japanese-American poet whose first book of poems was about her stay in  Japanese-American internment camps during World War II, turns 95 in July. In 2016, her granddaughter snapped a picture of her watching the Democratic National Convention. She posted it on Twitter with this comment: "Watching my 93 year old grandmother, a lifetime feminist and activist, cry at Hillary Clinton speaking." The photo went viral. Yamada's advice to young people:  "I think the worst kind of thing is passivity There's a Japanese phrase, Shikata ga nai, meaning "it can't be helped" -- it's the way it is. But then you become known as the model minority, and it's just really deadening to be invisible. You should stand up and be counted."

    Betye Saar, the American assemblage artist best known for her transformation of Aunt Jemima from a racist stereotype into a symbol of black female power, turns 92 in July. "You could say I work with dead objects, with things that people have thrown away: old photographs, and so on. But my work is at the crossroads between death and rebirth. Discarded materials have been recycled, so they’re born anew, because the artist has the power to do that," she wrote in 2016. In 2017 she had solo shows in Milan, Los Angeles and at the Tate Modern in London.
   
Betye Saar's "The Weight of Whiteness," available
for sale at Roberts Projects gallery in Culver City
     And, finally, Leah Friedman, Rountree's Ph.D. student. Friedman went on to get that Ph.D. in mythological studies at age 73 and write books, including The Power of Ritual: How It Can Change Our Lives, published in 2013, and The Unexpected Adventure of Growing Old, published last year.  Now approaching 90, Crone Leah, as Rountree called her, recently posted a video on uTube to talk about aging: Leah Friedman: Coming Home 2018 Author Spotlight. "I see my later years as a fascinating exploration of unknown territories," she says.

     "When you think about women in their seventies, who comes to mind?"  Rountree asked in On Turning 70.  She provided a list of famous people who in 1999 were all 70 or older. One was Wislawa Szymborska, the Polish poet who won the 1996 Nobel Prize in Literature at age 73. Szymborska lived 15 years longer, dying at age 88.

     Four on that list are still with us:

     Rosalyn Carter turns 91 in August. Now the oldest living first lady, she voted for Bernie in the Democratic primary and, unlike her husband (who turns 94 in October), believes the Russian intervention in the presidential elections helped Trump become president.

     Jan Morris turns 92 in October. A Welsh trans woman who began life as James reporting for the Times and the Manchester Guardian, she is an award-winning historian and travel writer. Her latest book, Battleship Yamato: Of War, Beauty and Irony, was published this year.

     Dr. Ruth Weistheimer just turned 90. The famed sex therapist currently is in negotiations to return to television (maybe sex, or at least talking about it, does keep you going).


Angela Lansbury as Aunt March, her 19th shot at an Emmy
   But my favorite long-time survivor from Rountree's list of famous seventy-somethings from 1999 is Angela Lansbury. Rountree noted that Lansbury's hit show,  Murder She Said, had just been cancelled "allegedly because of her age."  Fighting back, Landbury had appeared on 60 Minutes to complain about the cancellation and to talk about ageism.

     Too old for television? Lansbury has had the last laugh. She just turned 93 and she is still a working actor. Last month she appeared as Aunt March in the Little Women miniseries on PBS and is now in contention for an Emmy.  For the first time in her nearly eight decades in show business, she worked with a woman director, Vanessa Caswill. How did she like the experience? In contrast with many of the "shouty" male directors she has put up with, Lansbury said that Caswill comes up to the actors and "whispers in our ears...I loved working that way with her."

        Rountree was 38 when she got the idea for her first book, which she published five years later: Coming into Our Fullness: On Women Turning 40. After the success of that volume, she published On Women Turning 50: Celebrating Midlife Discovery and On Women Turning 60: Embracing the Age of Fulfillment. When she was 51, she published On Turning 70.
   
        Next month Rountree herself will turn 70. If she is alive, that is. The last mention of her on the Internet was that she published a book in 2007 called The Movie Lovers' Club: How to Start Your Own Film Group. Her two websites, still up online,  haven't been updated in years. An email I sent to her has as yet gone unanswered. Hopefully, she's busy going to the opera, writing another book (or reading one), fighting for a just cause or falling in love. You know, doing things people do in their Seventies, Eighties and Nineties.

Anna Halprin in 2013
        I'm grateful to her for introducing me to these women, both those who are no longer with us and those who are still burning bright in their 90s, aging both gracefully and ferociously. As Anna Halprin, the now 97-year-old dancer, put it back in 1999, "When I look in the mirror, I know I'm 78, but inside I don't feel 78. I'm reminded of something a Japanese painter said: 'When I was 5, I did things for the fun of it. When I was half a hundred my paintings were worthless. When I was 72, I began to understand animals insects, birds, and plants. When I am 80, I will progress a little. When I'm 90, I'll know the essence of things. When I'm 110, I'll know how things are. God of Longevity, give me the time.' I identify with that...At 110, I hope I'll be able to dance things as they are."

     
   
 


 





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