When I was asked to be a contestant at the internationally acclaimed Literary Death Match in San Miguel Allende, my immediate response was NO!! But then I thought…why not? It might be fun, and I certainly knew how to laugh at myself, even if it meant being skewered and barbequed by the panel of judges. Rather than read from my novel, or an essay from one of my anthologies, I decided to write something new and fresh. I chose something strange (and telling) that had occurred a short time earlier.
Personal essay is a genre I truly love. It tests me, challenges me, sometimes taunts me to be so truthful that I find myself closing my eyes as I’m typing. I teach it online in the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program and I’ll be running a workshop at the 2020 San Francisco Writers’ Conference. It’s an excellent conference and I’m thrilled to be a part of it. See you there!
Oh, and one more thing…I won the Literary Death Match. -Victoria Zackheim
THE MATTER OF AGE
I recently walked into my newly built kitchen and discovered a large, grayish rectangular stain on the quartz counter. Had I placed a hot pan there? Not likely. Spilled bleach? Definitely not. I wiped, scrubbed, gently scoured…nothing helped. And then I lifted my arm and noticed a change in the shape of the stain. I had been trying to remove a reflection of light coming through the kitchen window.
I laughed. Silly me! And then I wondered if this would have happened ten years ago…or five…or yesterday. A reminder of…age. We talk about searching for glasses that are perched on our head. Or putting car keys in the refrigerator. Forgetting the name of a friend. I’ve tried to answer the phone with the TV remote, or turn on the TV with my cell phone.
Aging gracefully relies on accepting ourselves. I’m no longer concerned about changing people. I try to focus where I can make a difference. GOTV phone calls, postcards, signing petitions, making donations. I no longer feel obligated to listen to marketing pitches on the phone. I believe in entitlement. I’m entitled to live my life the way it works best for me, I’ve earned that right. I hang up without an explanation.
My mother said I was a late bloomer. Perhaps, but does age matter? Please tell me why a man of seventy, fit and productive and libidinous, is viewed as a marvel, while a woman of seventy, fit and productive and libidinous, is viewed as a source of humor?
So, yes, I am an older woman. But I do not want to be an old woman…at least not the kind of old woman whose primary joys in life are sleeping through the night and enjoying regular bowel movements.
I had to give up the thought of being “middle-aged” when my children became middle-aged. I’d like to think that “older” suggests a continuum…there’s always someone older than I. Carol Channing lived to ninety-seven. That gives me another twenty-three years to write, fall in love, manage crepey skin and liver spots, learn to make pasta on one of those machines…and find the perfect dress for walking the red carpet at the Oscars.
I recently asked friends how they felt about aging. Susana said she didn’t have any debilitating ailments, so she was finding aging fun. She’s seventy-seven and submerged in neuroscience research around cognition. She’s also a cancer survivor, has tumors in her lungs, and a husband who does have Alzheimer’s…and yet aging is…fun.
Regina, seventy-six, a world traveler and bird watcher, believes that aging involves mourning the loss of physical and mental abilities. The trick is to be happy with whatever you still have and realize you’re not alone.
Anne, now eighty, recently delivered the manuscript of her eighty-seventh novel, and is working on number eighty-eight in the quiet of her West Hollywood home. Which is physically less challenging than her latest book tour in France. A lovely hotel, elegant…but a very narrow bathtub. Getting in? Easy as pie. Getting out? Well, she could not. And there was no phone nearby, no one within ear-shot. So, she contemplated her possibilities. Panicking was not one of them. Not wanting to die in the tub, she emptied it. Good, drowning was now out. No hand grips, nowhere to get traction, no hoisting-the-body possibilities. So…she very carefully and painstakingly got herself turned around, until she was able to get onto all fours…and then pretty much did a Fosbury flop onto the bathroom floor. Later, when I asked her about aging, she laughed. “Still in the bathroom!” she said. “And thank heaven for magnifying mirrors! I can see my face well enough to put on my make-up, which is a very sobering experience. You have to be brave to grow old, and still give everything your best shot!”
Aviva celebrated her 86th birthday. (Notice I didn’t say “turned 86, because that sounds too much like fruit going rotten…) She does Zumba twice a week. She believes old age is absurd…and has its advantages. She can tell a gorgeously handsome and sexy man that he’s gorgeous and sexy without his thinking she has ulterior motives…even if she does. And she never has to hoist her luggage onto the overhead bin. A far different attitude than her late husband, who believed that old age is a shipwreck.
Pat is ninety, twice-nominated for the Nobel Prize for her work with children internationally, and her organization to promote peace. Drop-dead beautiful as a young woman, drop-dead beautiful today, she gets around with the help of a walker, but she’s as active and engaged as she was thirty years ago. She knew she was getting old when people praised the agility of her body parts rather than the whole package. “Aging started with my skin,” she told me, “then gravitated towards my hair…what’s left of it.”
Which brings me to the subject of hair. Some of us tossed out the dye and went gray—what I prefer to call silver—long before it was fashionable. I inherited this silver mop from my genetic soup, the wrinkles and extra pounds were my own doing.
Liz is eighty, a silver-haired artist who works non-stop. She said, “I really hate it when people say, ‘Ooo, I love your hair. You’re just so cute.’ One woman even gave the tip of my nose a playful tap.” Liz is under five feet, perhaps ninety pounds, opinionated and sometimes obstinate. You don’t tap her nose. Ever. She went on… “I used to pick up hitchhikers in the 70s and take them home and fuck them. I wanted to tell that to the bitch, but I settled instead for ‘Thanks, you’re too kind.’”
I’m in the middle of my seventh anthology. I’m also working with a brilliant writer on a screenplay. I have two plays being read at theaters. I’m a freelance editor for writers of fiction and nonfiction. And I’m awaiting word on my new novel. Oh, and I’m in the middle of teaching an advanced course in Personal Essay and Memoir through the UCLA extension writers’ program. I work at least six days a week, eight to twelve hours a day. I’m not bragging, although it may sound like that. What I’m doing is explaining what an elderly woman looks like. Yes, even a late bloomer. Energized. Excited. Sometimes a bit smug. Sometimes…a bit too smug. And increasingly aware of age. Not the coming of age. Not the ravages of age. But the never-far-from-reach reminders.
Mary is eighty-six and undergoing cancer treatment. She told me: “I’m sorry I have nothing profound to say about ageing and death. I stopped thinking about it when I realized that the very fact of being born is a death sentence.”
And then my dear Frank: “Anyone can get old. All you have to do is live long enough.”
Is being born a death sentence? Do we have to live a long life in order to know what it is to grow old? I know that my life will come to an end. Perhaps tomorrow, or years from now. As for sleepless nights? Who can sleep, when chapter four in the new novel isn’t working? Or the eighth scene in the movie’s second act is off-spine and sure to slow the action? Or one of my students has written a piece in dire need of revisions…and refuses to accept suggestions to improve it? Or a friend is dying and I’m helpless to change that…or heal him.
I see my wakefulness as precious time. Time to work, to read, to contemplate the night, the silence, the stars, all the while making deals with the universe that I will do my best…and please, in return, let me live long enough to see my grandchildren as adults, to know who they have become…that they are happy with their lives. And if they are not, I want to be there to listen and support…to give them all the love I’m able to give…and do for them whatever I can. No matter how old I am.