Thursday, January 25, 2007

Invisible Older Women

At the Whidbey congregation on Sunday, we were privileged to have my colleague the Rev. Dr. Shirley Ranck, author of "Cakes for the Queen of Heaven", as our guest minister. I had been scheduled to work with an RE class that day, but that was postponed because of my overloaded schedule, so I got to listen to Shirley speak.

Her theme was "The Grandmother Galaxy" and she used the phrase "invisible old women" several times. It was one of those sermons where I was squirming internally, and not because I disagreed but because I felt some self-assumptions rearranging themselves in my brain and heart. There was a whole lotta shakin' goin' on.

Age has not been much of an issue to me, or at least I was pretty sure it wasn't an issue. I'll be 65 in June and welcome the greater tax deduction, the availability of Medicare, and related benefits. I look in the mirror and I see a woman who looks much like my age cohort members----a little gray, a little lined, a little less gorgeous but still a decent-looking woman. Invisible? Hmmmmm, gotta think that one over.

In doing so, I had to acknowledge that over the past several years, as I have become more competent in ministry, I have shifted in my "appearance" priorities, from looking like an attractive, eligible, flirtatious woman eager for a romantic relationship to looking like an appropriately dressed and competent minister and community figure. My outward expression of self has shifted because of my changed attitudes toward my life's responsibilities.

There are a lot of ways I have always been quite visible: I am extroverted. I am blessed with a good singing voice which gets me lots of good attention. I am a decent writer and speaker and use a good deal of humor in my public life. I am not afraid to strike up conversations with whoever is next to me in the grocery line or waiting room. I am a good listener. I dress well and keep my appearance up, at least in public. I live in a beautiful place and enjoy having company. I'm not invisible.

But, as Shirley spoke, I began to think about the older women I know who have become invisible, who are tired of trying so hard, who let their husbands do all the public interfacing, who don't speak up any longer because they are weary, who have learned to let their children make their own mistakes and no longer offer advice unless asked. Except for the husband part, I can see myself getting to this point.

Currently, I have congregations who care what I think, who ask for my advice and help, who respect and appreciate my point of view whether they share it or not. I have friends who like to be with me. I have a son who calls me up periodically to ask for help with his children's behavioral mysteries or just to talk. There's no way I could be invisible right now.

But in 20 years? Will anyone care what I think? Will anyone respect my opinions? Will I be helpful to anyone or will I be more of a responsibility than an asset? It's a possibility that demands some thought.


Christina Martin said...

First of all, if you're less gorgeous than you used to be, you must have been stunning.

Second, I would question the idea of responsibility and asset being a dichotomy. While I cheer those who do not stop their march into life (I have unbounded admiration for my 95 year old neighbor who still lives unassisted and tends his garden with leftover squash for the huge family next door!), I cannot see the person who is no longer as "useful" as a burden. A person who needs more from and contributes less to society is just as necessary as the provider and producer. Such people remind us to stay human. They remind us of our mutual need for one another, because each of us knows we may end up in that situation one day. I believe they help to keep us compassionate, and give others the opportunity to have the experience of helping and doing good.

That is so very, very necessary! Such a person is an asset to all of us.

ms. kitty said...

Well, Christina my dear, it was hyperbole to rate my relative gorgeousness high but I do appreciate very much the compliment.

I also appreciate the perspective you offer. It adds a great deal to my thinking.

Joel said...

You can't stay invisible for long, BTW. You've been tagged for a meme.

LinguistFriend said...

There are a number of ways of looking at what happens, especially depending on what age group (cohort as you say) one is talking about. We are about contemporaries, and I recall being impressed at how many women, thirty or forty years ago, would turn into independent and interesting individuals once their children were no longer at home, showing individuality and character that somehow did not go with the persona of mother at that time, and had been hidden. Nowadays that hiding may never have happened; if it did for you, you must have gotten over it early.
There is also the plain fact that women (given positive economic assumptions) in this time have had much better medical care and even nutrition than did the women who at this time are much older than they are. When you were born, antibiotics were just becoming available. That maintains women in better health, with corresponding effects on looks, than their mothers. They are more likely to have exercised, and not smoked. I watched the deleterious effects of long-term smoking on the respiratory, circulatory, and nervous systems of both my parents in the years before they died.
Nowadays brains and bodies last better than in the past, assuming decent care.
It is always painful to see people become defeated by events
and environments, at any age, as you describe in worn older women, or to see them lose themselves for biological reasons. I recall my mother at the point that she would look into the mirror and come rushing out of the bathroom in terror, not having recognized the wrinkled person who looked back out of the mirror. That was during the year or so before her death, for which it was time.
I have seen many other people defeated by a political system,
as in the countries of Eastern Europe, and of course the politics of a marriage may fit that model, although they do not have to.
The impression you project is that, barring accidents of health,
you will age very well indeed. There are probably statistics at UUA or the Bureau of the Census on it, but of course, they may remain to be compiled, in case you lack things to do.

LaReinaCobre said...

I enjoyed this post very much. I also appreciated that you were able to see that, although you aren't an invisible older woman, there are invisible older women out there.

Next sermon should be titled Invincible Older Women.

ms. kitty said...

LRC and LF, thank you for your thoughts. As I age, I'm more and more aware of both the opportunities and hazards of growing old and am wanting to be proactive in dealing with them. In my congregations there are numerous older women who are living independently, who contribute to their communities, and who have full and rewarding lives, at ages I consider "elderly" (aka, well beyond age 65!). They are not invisible either and they are wonderful role models for me.

Thinking more about Christina's comment above, I also believe, as she does, that we have something to offer to others regardless of how infirm or miserable we may feel.

But I also understand how weary a person might get of life and be willing to let it go, or go into an invisible place.

Joel said...

In my congregations there are numerous older women who are living independently, who contribute to their communities, and who have full and rewarding lives, at ages I consider "elderly" (aka, well beyond age 65!). They are not invisible either and they are wonderful role models for me.

I don't think anybody would have described your mother as "invisible," either. Meek and unassuming, maybe, but she was a pretty integral part of her church when I was growing up.

(You knew I was going to bring her up, didn't you?)

ms. kitty said...

Yes, and I'm glad you did, Joel.