Irish author Mary O’Donnell learns that growing older is a challenge to the imagination. And once that challenge is accepted, it offers many pleasures …
When the editor mentioned this article, initially I thought she had to be joking. Fabulous and older? Seriously? In one way there is nothing fabulous about getting older, at least where the body is concerned. For me, ‘fabulous’ plus ‘older’ equals a social lie perpetrated by market forces determined to keep women looking young, sexually available, and annoyingly kitted out in the chi-chi gym gear of a twenty-year old. O cynical me!
Still doubtful, I then began to scrape around my brain and experience. After all, my body, while looking fine because it conforms to social norms, teeters on the edge of chronic failure all the time, with its constant, whingy need for care and maintenance, a solid intake of vitamins and minerals, exercise for health, and enough sleep if my sciatica will allow it.
But, to my surprise, I began to realise that things weren’t so grim as I’d supposed, as it struck me that growing older – to paraphrase the philosopher Susan Sontag – is a challenge to the imagination. And once that challenge is accepted, it offers many pleasures.
When I was young, while I believed in myself on some levels (for example, as a writer in the making in my 20s), on other levels I lacked confidence. So I’ll admit that it gives me a kick nowadays to not give much of a damn about authority figures. Double standards simply don’t wash with me and I’m a different person now, and the silly approval for simply being young has long vanished. Perhaps one of the best things that can happen an attractive woman is for her beauty to fade so that she can really understand and recognise a world which half wants her but half doesn’t. After all, her sexual candidacy is now null and void unless she has a partner by her side. Older women are not hot. They are other things.
At my age, I don’t give a blind f*** about people who regard themselves as the sole gatekeepers of anything. Obviously, not everyone who curates, or is on a committee, or a member of a bursary-dispensing group is in that category and Ireland abounds with people of integrity. But within such groups are always one or two with an agenda, with ‘favourites’ in their sights. As for the virtue signallers who live on a very high platform? Well, I always say, you might get vertigo if you stay up there too long. I usually tell people who can’t see the shades and nuances in an important argument, that they don’t speak for me, not to make assumptions, or stereotype me because I feel differently.
On another level, being older is a time which offers an opportunity to give something back to groups and organisations that have sustained me in various ways when I was younger, especially in my life as a writer. It’s a time to step up to the plate, and if invited, to sit on committees and steering groups concerned with change, transformation, making things better, whether in business or culture. This was what I had in mind when I was a Board member of the Irish Writers’ Centre for almost four years from 2016-2019, and it’s what I have in mind now as I take up a two-year involvement as a member of Aosdana’s Toscaireacht, because this is the time in my life when, finally, I can commit to such things. It is a time to bend one’s attention and experience to the question of making things better, a time for pooling resources and for intelligent cooperation rather than competition.
I enjoy now being in a better position to dispose with my income as I choose. Money is important, and its management even more so. I’ve never been particularly frugal even when I hadn’t a cent, and am sometimes generous to a fault. I like others to have the things they want, things I know will cheer them up, because material goods in material surroundings also rate in helping people to feel better about themselves. I also love now being able to donate more strongly to various causes than I would have done when younger, and on the cultural front to buy art and books to support other artists (as they have done and do for me).
One has a clearer sense of how one’s time can be divided. For me, the morning is sacrosanct because it’s when I go to work in my study and write. But my head is full of ideas that make me wish I had a spare 40 years ahead instead of the potential 20-plus. I consider the late Mirian Finucane, called away from life’s party so brutally, and how she inspired me in my 20s when I was a young woman fresh out of university, sometimes temping in Dublin offices, but sometimes unemployed and sitting at home in a small kitchen, typing first drafts of poems and stories at the table, and what her voice and intelligence meant to me on that outstanding radio programme Women Today. And I see the philanthropic work she undertook, and continue to be inspired because it confirms how important it is to use up all of our lives, but especially our older years to work for change. We are stronger, wiser, and have basically done more than those who are younger.
One of the not-particularly-fabulous but so necessary and do-able aspects of being older involves giving a wide berth to joy-killers, misogynists, and people who protect themselves with a load of whitewash therapy-speak and go the non-directive therapy route even in a personal conversation. I value friendship and am quite good at it if I say so myself. But because I’m usually quite a direct person, I just can’t be bothered with people who won’t give an honest opinion.
As for misogyny, it never goes away, you know. Older women experience it all the time, with an added layer of ageism thrown into the mix from both men and women, the over-personal and patronising ‘how are you today, dear?’ and ‘can I have your name, dear?’. There is nothing particularly fabulous about still having to fight the good fight in that regard, but I’m better prepared now and, as I said earlier, don’t care much if I pull someone up for it.
In the end, we are simply growing old and it’s not a pretty party when the body starts to fail. But I continue to be inspired by the possibility of what might be ahead. And I rejoice at what has been achieved for women in the past 40 years, that many, though not yet all, can benefit from. The quest for fair play and equality was hard-won. It’s a privilege to be able to play some small part in the ongoing maintenance of equality – of which there are many kinds, including race and labour equality – but the positive results are here, now, spread around my hours like a cornucopia that signals – what? Self-determination perhaps? Well, that’s a very good outcome indeed if you’re an older woman in the Ireland of the 20s and I say onwards, friends.
Mary O’Donnell is an author and poet, and a member of Ireland’s multi-disciplinary arts organisation Aosdana. Her eighth collection of poetry, ‘Massacre of the Birds’ will be published in May by Salmon Poetry.
Read THE GLOSS Guide to Inspirational Ageing