Saturday, November 28, 2009

Aged by Culture, Margaret Morgenroth Gullette

Aged by Culture is an academic book and was not an easy read -- in fact, I read only 5 to 10 pages at a go. But sometimes hard books with a goodly share of academic jargon are worth the effort. Gullette analyzes how our culture insidiously assigns an identity to each age; this is not static. It changes as our culture changes. Other people are writing glib books, and wishful books about "aging" but they do not have the perspective and have not done the amount of research Gullette has brought to this book. She describes the "age narratives" that each of us tell ourselves. She calls it our "virtual identity".

A couple of posts ago, Kass replied to something I wrote saying that aging is a matter of loss. I reacted immediately. I know where that feeling comes from -- the cultural narrative that has been assigned to us which Gullette discusses at length. We women, especially, worry about our appearance and the loss of a youthful body and face. If we have vested our physical appearance with our identity, we will lose it unless, like a great many actresses and wealthy women we can afford to constantly pay specialists to make us look younger than we are. When our youthful appearance gives way to a mature face and body, we have not become a different person, we have not lost who we are. We have naturally gained the look of maturity.

The loss that comes with menopause is not a loss of identity, only of child bearing capability and in this age few of us want to have children late in life. The empty nest when children go to college, is not a loss of motherhood. You cannot stop being a mother. If you have raised your children into young adulthood they have become people with whom you can share a loving friendship that is, or can be, the deepest of friendships possible. And then there's that horror that many women fear -- the husband who, because he cannot face his own aging, [or for some other reason] choose a younger woman or a more exotic one. That is a loss of social prestige but can be an enormous gain in freedom and self-possession once the woman realizes that "wife" is a role, not an identity. In our society divorce is often a financial loss for the woman and that is very painful. But many times that financial loss forces her to assess what she needs and how she can live as herself, what resources, talents and skills she has. I do not see maturity as loss in any way -- sometimes it's a forced jettisoning of the unessential.

Yesterday I found a poem I did not know by a poet I know nothing about, David Whyte, the poem is called "Sweet Darkness" and the last lines are:

Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
to learn

anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive

is to small for you.

This you appreciate when you are mature enough to know who you are and what you really need -- not what our culture says we are and what we need to be that person culture wants to make us.


Kass said...

Thanks for this wonderful post, June. It was Marie that said she had read something about aging being a succession of losses. I think society imposes this paradigm on everyone.
David Whyte is one of my favorites. I needed to read this today, "Anything or anyone that does not bring you alive, is too small for you."
Thanks again,

Ladydy5 aka: Diane Yates said...

Well, ladies I have a lot of too
small people around me, a variety