THOUGHTS AT SEVENTYby Alix Kates Shulman
Is seventy old? I used to think so, but now I’m not sure. Age is so confusing. Despairingly I described myself at twenty-five as "a quarter-century old,” while the gravity of turning fifty compelled me to reinvigorate my life, then write a book about it. Except chronologically, “old,” whether in the negative sense of obsolescent or the positive sense of experienced, is an ever-moving target.
Emma Goldman died at seventy and claimed to have had her most fulfilling love affair at sixty-five. When I was in my thirties writing a biography of her, I thought that seventy was not too young to die and sixty-five was rather old to have great sex. Now I think neither. At seventy, with my health still good, partner holding up, work in progress, political action urgent, seventy doesn’t feel particularly old to me. But it depends on who’s asking.
A new friend, a poet not yet fifty, with whom I’ve been drinking mango margaritas in an East Village bar, greets my announcement of my age with stunned disbelief, surprised to learn that she has been trading secrets with a seventy-year-old. It’s obvious that to her seventy is ancient. I could be her mother. But another friend, in her sixties, directs her surprise at my very question. “You’re not old in any bad sense,” she says indignantly, adding that if I think so I’ve been bamboozled, because our ideas about age are socially constructed.
I know she’s right. Otherwise the respect and stature we sometimes accord to age would graph consistently, and not, as now, slope up for some cultures, professions, people, slope down for others, and look like a dizzying roller coaster for still others.
Compared to the heavy burden of age I felt in my early thirties — panicked over the impending loss of youth about to finish me off — seventy feels positively young. Remember the 1960s slogan, “don’t trust anyone over thirty”? Remember the thirty-year-old admission age to Older Women’s Liberation (OWL)? Never have I felt older or more irrelevant than before feminism’s Second Wave, when thirty was considered over-the-hill (for women) and the last safe age to begin a family, and your life was supposed to be fulfilled by having babies. Still feeling then like a 1950s middle class Midwestern girl, though living in New York, I retired from full-time work to become a mother; and by the time my youngest started school I was a disillusioned wife with a wandering husband, no savings, no prospects, no future. A has-been at thirty-four!
Then Women’s Liberation hit New York and quickly restored my youthful ardor. Suddenly I had a compelling purpose and important work. Far from being a has-been, I knew life had not, would not pass me by. Fired by movement passion, in quick succession I defied my husband, began organizing women’s groups, gave my first speech, wrote my first essay and before long my first novel. Though that early movement euphoria couldn’t last, I never again felt as impotent or “old” as I had before it touched me. In an instant I switched from a woman with a past (“old”) to one with a future (“young”).
It’s possible that everything could as suddenly change again. A critical fall, a devastating death, dementia, the bomb, an economic crash could conceivably age me as rapidly as the women’s movement made me young. But hair has been known to whiten overnight at twenty; disaster can strike at any age, and some disasters feel like opportunities. It’s not age that could befall me but despair.
Still, some sobering changes I’ve experienced lately do derive from my age — not least, my steady awareness that my end is in sight. But other, derivative changes have an opposite effect, less sobering than elating. At seventy, many pressures I used to suffer are falling away. No more (anyway, far less) driving ambition, relentlessly prospective thinking, unrealistic expectations, utopian delusions — those anxieties of youth and middle age that keep people strained and guilty. At fifty, to ease those concerns and free myself from others’ judgments, I took myself off to an island where, living in complete solitude, I could do whatever I liked instead of what was expected of me. At seventy, knowing what I know, such anxieties seem so pointless that I am able to enjoy some of the freedoms I discovered on that island smack in the middle of New York City. On impulse, last weekend I spent an entire day strolling through the zoo without a hint of guilt. This extra measure of freedom makes me feel, paradoxically, “young,” — if young means, as cliché would have it, carefree.
Not that I’m immune to the weight of mere chronology. I admit I’ve often considered "old” those of my friends who are older than I by a decade or more, no matter how like-minded or free-spirited. Now I laugh at myself to remember that when I was forty and met my closest friend, then fifty-three, I marveled that a woman of her age and generation could feel exactly as I did about so many things. (She also knew a lot I didn’t.) When she turned sixty-five (then seventy, eighty, now eighty-three), my celebratory wonder remained — as constant as the difference between our ages. Even now, with her bones and memory getting thin, her savvy continues to amaze me. On the other hand, I’m less aware of my age difference with my younger friends (except for one, whose deference drives it home). To me we’re all just — well — friends, though they may secretly feel otherwise.
One’s age sense is inextricable from the shared culture and experience of one’s generation, time, and place. Veterans of movements or wars, of shared traumas or triumphs, often feel an ineffable, exclusive affinity. It’s the rare imagination that can permanently switch generations. Last night, seeing two movies from the 1940s on cable, I was unexpectedly reminded of how long I’ve been around, how much I’ve lived. The matchless movie stars of my childhood — Hedy Lamarr, Rita Hayworth, Joan Crawford, Garbo, Mae West — who once defined for me beauty, glamour, style can’t have the same meaning for later generations. In the back room of my consciousness they remain the ideal. Subsequent stars never seemed the real thing; I never pored over their pictures in magazines. Instead I grew up. After I had children I got so caught up in movement politics and motherhood that I was way too busy to go to the movies. When, after missing two decades’ worth of films, I finally gazed up at the screen again, I didn’t recognize the stars. Who were those newcomers and upstarts? Accomplished actors they might be — but not stars, as my cohort conceived them.
I left high school in 1950. My music is pre-rock. My defining war was WWII. My battle for justice began with civil rights. My children have reached their midlife. My parents are dead. My partner naps in the afternoon. Suddenly seeing the old stars vamp across the light years back into my life, I realize with a certain pleasure and even pride that, given the human life span, seventy may indeed be getting old.
Alix Kates Shulman is the author of twelve books, including the bestselling novel Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen, which was reissued in March 2007 in a 35th anniversary edition. She has just completed a new memoir.
(Editor's Note: This essay was first published in The Women’s Review of Books, July 2003)