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A Breath Before Sixty


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My hair is grey.

I return from my hairdresser having had the last bits of colour chopped out.  I’m now sporting a choppy, silver and pepper pot, topknot, not entirely dissimilar from my beloved dog.

I don’t fully understand the impulse to grow out the colour, which had me ditch the hair dye in April. I knew it was related to my sixtieth birthday, which is now a mere two weeks away. I wanted to see my hair. I had been using colour for fifteen years, ever since my hairline started to grey.

It wasn’t anything clichéd about aging and grey hair, that drove this. It hasn’t been comfortable at some points during the process, seeing the half in, half out thing going on, on a daily basis. Now I’m here. My hair is grey and I’m surprised by the strength of my feeling. Oh. I say to myself in the bathroom mirror. Hello.

I limp and lurch towards my ‘big birthday’ not only as a metaphor, but literally, as I’m long overdue for back surgery. Limping and lurching is what I do – though, my bulging discs notwithstanding – it is a blessed relief to understand that stumbling, staggering and lurching, is the human condition of our little lives. My own little life has become much sweeter, since giving up on getting life right.

Sixty.

Caroline Bobby by Elainea Emmott
Caroline Bobby by Elainea Emmott

The shoreline. The beginning of being old: to my way of seeing it, anyway. No, I am not the new forty. I am not still middle aged. I am averse to ageing euphemisms.

My mother died, just days after her sixtieth birthday. She was bitterness and sorrow as an art form, and I never really understood how that came to pass. I was on the other side of the world, caught up in my own version of sorrow and bewilderment. We were estranged for years. Her death coincided – although I wasn’t to know it for quite some time – with the death rattle of my addiction. No coincidence. I was so nearly dead myself, on my knees in the shadows of Sydney’s yellowest sun. My mother died and I stayed alive.

Thirty years ago: half my little life ago.  And, here I am with my grey hair, having somehow descended into tenderness. I wish my mother and I had had more time together, an opportunity to see if there was any other way to dance our dance. It was a brutal dance and I needed kindness like a desert landscape needs water. I nearly died of thirst. I believe that is exactly what she died of – she was latched on to the breast of death, and didn’t ever get to know there was another place to drink from.

Twenty years ago, when I was in therapy and starting to interpret past events, I went to the graveyard on the edge of Dartmoor where she’s buried and lay down on her grave. It was a pilgrimage of sorts, though I was making it up as I went along. I didn’t know what I was doing or why, but I managed to trust the imperative. If it were physically easier (those discs again), I’d go back there now to lie on the ground that holds her body. A mother and daughter, with a hundred and twenty years between them: thirty of them in this world at the same time.

This turning a new decade, it has some juice. As an exquisitely understated friend of mine would say – ‘it’s not nothing’.

Credit: Elainea Emmott
Credit: Elainea Emmott

I don’t have any recollection of reaching ten except for a tiny, waft of unease. Neither do I remember a twentieth birthday, which was undoubtedly due to drugs and alcohol. Turning thirty was the milestone of my life. I don’t remember anything at all with my conscious mind, but almost dead from self-hatred and drugs, I finally turned my face towards this human world.

Ten years later, I celebrated becoming forty around a table with friends. I had a profession: psychotherapy, and a partner. I was trying to force myself into an idea of myself and it was only a partial success.

By fifty, I had escaped the partial partnership and some internalized constraint. I had found and then lost again, the love of my life and the daughter we called in. I had a proper party with catering and dancing and wore a sea green dress. It seems so long ago.

Sixty.

With a light, yet serious touch, I’ve dedicated a few ritual acts of love and kindness towards this birthday. In May, I went on a pilgrimage to Hydra, the Greek island where Leonard Cohen lived, wrote and loved. More recently, I commissioned a photo shoot. At home with Leonard The Dog and Bebe The Cat. Family life. Love.

Credit: Elainea Emmott

And, it was not nothing – to see the sweetness and comedy I live inside, from the outside.

These last ten years I have been winding myself home. Many things I’d thought I needed, turned out not to matter much. I found the Fields of Kindness and Simplicity. I discovered they had been here all the time. I had been here all the time.

I wonder what the next decade of me, and of this wailing world will be. I’m viewing my personal next decade through the lens of no real appetite for more than that. My sense of having the capacity for another ten years, but not much more, is clear as a mountain stream. No drama. Nothing complicated or ambivalent. Just its ring of truth. And, of course I know ideas, beliefs and passions change, so I’m not gripping on too tightly.

I am trusting my own precious heart. If this is my last decade, I’ll do the very best I can with it.

If you are wondering about why a person might ‘only have another decade to give or to live’, I can only say I’m very tired. I’ve been tired all my life. Living with depression is tiring. I’ve been dragging myself through the days of my life, and while I finally fell from the self-violence that came down through my mother’s line, into something like Grace, it will always be heavy. Dragging the heavy is wearing and I am worn.

The thing is, all of this is gentle. I did, eventually get home to that precious heart I mentioned. The fact that it took a long time, and that in many ways I’m ready to go now, just makes me smile. Maybe I’ll make it to seventy. Maybe I won’t. If I do, and still feel like this, I’ll be writing about ending my life. If I get to seventy and don’t feel like this, I’ll be writing about that instead.

Depression and weary aside, I know I don’t want to be old, old. Seventy feels doable. More than that feels dangerous. We don’t hold old age with compassion and respect in these broken systems of our government. I am crystal clear I don’t want to spend my last years in that system. Unequivocally not.

So, here I am, stumbling sweetly towards my sixtieth birthday, which incidentally I’m celebrating by going on a Death Retreat. I tell people, and they mostly grin at the perfect pitch of it. So very me, and so very lovely to be seen and understood in my deepest longings.

As Leonard (Cohen)would say:

And here is your love
For all things.

And here is your love
For all of this

May everyone live,
And may everyone die.
Hello, my love,
And my love, Goodbye.

OLD, OLD, OLD – Let’s Take It Back


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Old – English ald, of West Germanic origin; related to Dutch oud and German alt, from an Indo-European root meaning ‘adult’, shared by Latin alere ‘nourish’.

I was writing this piece before AoA – Suzanne Noble and I – went to the Byline Festival in East Sussex at the end of August 2018 where we gave a workshop there around the taboos of getting older. A few women participants – one was 64 – were adamant that they were still young. Which propelled me into action again.

I had an age crescendo myself before I had my 60th birthday. A spike, an emergency, a horror story. My internal waters cascaded. My refusal to grow old imploded, exploded and derailed me as a woman. I’d just got used to being post-menopausal, in other words, non-fecund, not so attractive to men as I thought I should be and then along came 59.

The edge, the precipice, the chasm of no-return. Could I be The Fool?

In the tarot deck, The Fool is the major arcana card, which depicts the young man (it should be a woman, of course) with his knapsack and his dainty step right on the edge of the cliff about to step into the Big Unknown. For me, this is the Thelma and Louise moment, the car over the cliff, the new life or the oblivion.

I decided that I would fulsomely fling myself over that edge and welcome OLD. Such a little adjective with so many fears in its sub-textural bag. So many cultural and societal demons entangled and ugly. The sag, the disappearance of desire, the looming energy loss, the not being seen as a desirable woman, the disappearance in the world of work, the atrophied vagina.

NO, I was not going down that waterfall, that cultural fall into darkness and non-existence. That bleak, bleak mid-winter. I was searching for the summer instead.

First of all, I stopped being so quiet about my age. To anyone I thought might miscalculate in the puella aeternus direction. To younger men. I mean who were 50 and might, at a pinch, think I was the same age them. That all stopped.

And on dating sites where fear reigns. Particularly from women. If you are honest about your age, you will only be visually visited by men at least 10 years older than you. Or a lot younger. That was so dispiriting. I raged against this particular dark night but in the end, I gave up lying.

Liberation.

And then I had a huge 60th birthday party. I went the whole hog. Without the pig. Voewood House in Suffolk was the location. A butterfly house architecturally, it turned into my own emergence as elder. Or as older, as Ashton Applewhite, the activist and author of This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, likes to say so acknowledging that wisdom is not integral to the greater age!! We – there were 40 of us staying in the house and another 30 in B&Bs – danced to all that 70s funk. I did a speech about owning my 60th year. I hate the way so often we British only have a party and are silent about the connotations, the feelings, the meaning in our hearts.

There were performances as gifts. And there was a Rites of Passage ritual on the Sunday morning. That was BIG for me. Co-created (oh no one of those contemporary words) by two of my close women’s group friends, I spent an hour in silence with myself, then I was invited to join the rest of the guests who were in the main hall. Slow, heart-opening music was playing and I found myself in the circle of women dancing with them one by one keeping our eyes in deep contact. Sometimes there was an irreverence as with my old school friend – yep, 45 years – Sarah, sometimes a flowering grace and tears as with psychotherapist, Juliet, sometimes a gorgeous acknowledgement of relationship as with my French friend, Isa and on it went, this womanly interweaving.

And then there was the people-tunnel, many feminine hands caressed me through the decades, softness prevailed and then I was hugging someone at the end, which turned into thunderous tears.

My son. And all that signified. OUR huge love. So gorgeous to be in it and realize whom I was with!! And his male friends at his side, also in so many tears; I savoured every watery, heart-split-open moment. This was being in love.

The men appeared and whisked me into the air. The energy changed. Trust, trust, trust. In their hands and care. That masculine/feminine relationship. I surrendered fully to the carrying, to the being carried. Away.

And then the final stage, crossing the threshold to elderdom – there was a distinct lack of peer elders but one or two appeared, one reluctantly – amid candles to acknowledge this new life stage. I spoke quietly.

Old, I was old and fully there. Now I had the rest of my days to inhabit that previously feared place.

Co-founding Advantages of Age when I was 63 – was another way to relax into this BIG declaration. We’re always saying how old we are, literally.

And it’s such a freedom.

Mary Beard, 64, is the high priestess of OLD. In this social media world, in this age-industry world of chasing young, chasing the lack of lines, the super horn, the porn delusion, Mary Beard is in the public eye looking and being proud of looking her age.

Hurrah!

And at the forefront of re-claiming OLD in all its glory, in all its positives as opposed to the disease-laden, hideous beast that it is cast so often to be.

She has declared that OLD should be reclaimed, re-appropriated. Very much in the mode of when the gay community took back queer. And the black community took back nigger. And the BDSM community took back perv.

“I’m rather keen for a campaign to do that for old, instead of ‘old’ instantly connoting the hunched old lady and gentleman on the road sign, or the picture that you get on the adverts you get for senior railcards.

I hope by the time I die, old will be something that makes people fill with pride,” she said in the Telegraph.

In the taking back – the shame, the negativity, the fear melts away.

The Gray Panthers in the US are on the same track. An advocacy group that works on all sorts of anti-ageist campaigns – from highlighting forced retirements to what goes on in care homes – they have peppered their name with a little Black Panther/Gray Panther warfare in the name of activism on the age front.

Already in the UK, a third of the population is over 50. In Japan, it’s a quarter. In the US, it’s a third too. We need to find another way with not just the word old but the fears that it evokes and the results of those fears.

David Weiss, assistant professor of socio-medical sciences and psychology at Columbia University’s Aging Center has identified a phenomenon, he calls Age Disassociation.

“As people grow older, they distance themselves from old age. This behavior maintains ageism and the notion that nobody wants to be old. It’s hard to impose a positive meaning of old age in that case, and potentially difficult to counteract negative age stereotypes.”

Can old become groovy? Yes, it can. Janet Street-Porter is on board and recently wrote an article where she declared: “At 71, I don’t see my world as diminishing, quite the reverse. I see nothing but opportunities and challenges ahead.”

At Advantages of Age, we’re promoting the idea that we can be a funky tribe of oldsters if we want to. The Flamboyance Forever Bus Trips – where groups of us dressed up to the nines in jewels, sequins (hot pants, thanks Serena) and colours gave us the opportunity to thoroughly relish our visibility, verve and hilarity. We also talked to each other a lot, new connections were made. In NYC, we did a smaller Flamboyant Forever outing on the subway. 83-year-old purple-haired and head piece-bedecked Topaz Chanteuse came along in all her dazzling glory. We were transfixed by her spirit of fabulousness. And inspired. At a later date, she showed us her tinsel-adorned walker!

This is the way forward. Not necessarily the flamboyance which is fun, but the attitude of putting ourselves out there and not cow-towing to reductionist age industry-influenced negativity.

In fact, the Office for National Statistics reports that older people are more satisfied with their lives than many other groups. I can’t tell you how relaxed I feel now that I am fully out there age-wise, it makes a huge difference to my life.

So let’s start fully re-claiming old in all its magnificence.

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