Liminal: “Occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold. (OED online)
Anvil: “A heavy block of existential dread that somehow hovers and follows one around in spite of its weight.” (Rebecca’s Big Book of Flexible Definitions)
Tomorrow is my fifty-ninth birthday and I don’t remember ever being so ambivalent about an occasion in which cake is guaranteed. I barely noticed thirty and sailed past forty. I only took note of fifty because my much-younger partner ostentatiously switched to grandma porn, (as if to say, “See how hard I’m working to find you still attractive?”). If I list all of the reasons why that blew, we’ll be here all day.
Fifty-nine is different. For one thing, what it really means is that I have already completed my fifties and am crossing into my sixtieth year. It also means that from now on anything I do (or have done to me) that is worth mentioning in public will likely be accompanied by the words “elderly woman” or “grandmother.” If I win the Nobel Peace Prize, the headline will read, “Nobel Goes to Grandmother.” If I am the victim of a crime, the top line will say, “Elderly Woman Among Victims of Claw Hammer Massacre.” Remember the notorious Black Friday Furby stampedes a few years ago? My mom was one of the casualties, knocked over at the local Walmart. For the first time in sixty-four years, an event in Mom’s life was a national story. “During an especially vicious charge in Illinois, an elderly woman was pushed to the ground,” said Dan Rather, and there it was. Bam! Negated on the CBS Evening News. At Christmas, no less.
And that–negation–is the anvil that hovers over my liminal-birthday-girl head. I am not a youth-chaser. Running after the past-tense is an exhausting and expensive waste of resources. (Also I can achieve the same basic effect, at least to myself, by taking off my glasses. I look look ten years younger when I’m blurry.) Fretting over death’s closer proximity is even more pointless. I mean, it’s death, the ultimate in inevitable inevitabilities. What am I going to do? Blame Obama? Stage a protest? There is no way to outrage one’s way past death.
Negation, however, is a condition that I am unwilling to accept, yet even as I write these words, I can see the battlefield stretched out in front of me and it looks a whole lot like the opening sequence of The Fellowship of the Ring. For every Wizard of Relevance there are ten-thousand sneering Orcs of Nullification. It’s not that I’m frightened. I have some pretty good weapons and a strong will. The feeling is closer to weary resignation. This is a battle that I have to fight and fight it I will, but damn…old lady-hating Orcs!
It doesn’t help that there are so few elder female warriors to model myself after. The recently departed Elaine Stritch was one of my go-to gals. Coincidentally, I watched Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me just a few days before she died. The scenes of that old woman hobble-swaggering across Manhattan intersections in her forty-year-old furs, bellowing orders to cabbies and the film crew, were wondrous. (Also terrifying. So that’s how hard one has to work to stay visible? I need my own rehearsal space STAT.) I’m also partial to Catherine Deneuve, if only because she gave me permission to put on a few extra pounds. Eighty-three-year-old Carmen De Lavallade is more beautiful, graceful, and elegant than I was at twenty-three. In my eyes Ms. De Lavallade is the Goddess of Transcendence.
Ah. There is the word that I have been seeking. Transcendence. As far as I can tell, there is no way to escape aging itself, but it does seem possible to surpass it as a situation. The common trait shared by all of the old women I admire–the brassy dames, the sublime ladies–seems to be a willingness to dive into ambiguity: to accept the situation of aging while refusing its arbitrary conditions. It is impossible to ignore a woman who shouts “I’m still here!”; no one dismisses an eighty-three-year-old who can still execute her own choreography.
Of course, I could be wrong. My strategy is to keep trying to surpass myself, to remain visible to the world through shear force of will, but for all I know, by this time next year I could be babbling about vaginal dryness and my collection of Hummel figurines and wondering why no one is paying attention. I have my heart set on being (in my own smallish pond, Midwestern way) a Stritch or a De Lavallade, but it is also possible that all of the negated old ladies I know are right–that there’s no fighting the fade.
I have hopes and plans but not a clue. It is the day before my fifty-ninth birthday and what I’m looking at through this doorway might be the best work that I will ever do but might also be the hoards of Mordor waiting to shut me down. My vision isn’t what it used to be, so it’s hard to tell.