Christy Ann Conlin is a writer living in Nova Scotia. Her latest book is The Speed of Mercy.
When I was 20 years old and donating blood, a nurse complimented me on my amazing veins. She was impressed by how easy they were to find. It was a curious compliment but even at that age, full of self-loathing for my body, which was lumpy, puffed and stiff – the result of an undiagnosed autoimmune disease – I would take it. Until the nurse went on to explain how they’d serve me well as an old lady, popping out of my arms, blue and green. I felt faint, not from donating blood, but from this unexpectedly early glimpse of myself as a saggy hag, with veins perfectly suited to receive needles for all the medicines I would need as I grew infirm, loved only by my cats.
I have yet to become the woman I glimpsed, horrified, that day, but the pandemic lockdowns almost snapped my middle-aged being into a zillion frazzled pieces. My friends and I joked in e-mails, on Zoom and in texts that we were aging in place. Until suddenly it wasn’t a joke. For the first time, probably because of total exhaustion brought on by the events of the past 18 months, I came face-to-face with the old lady I’ll one day become.
I’m a writer living in general obscurity in backwoods rural Nova Scotia, where I was born and raised. My recent novel, The Speed of Mercy, features young, middle-aged and old women who are empowered because of their invisibility. It allows them to see what others cannot. As a novelist I’m interested in telling stories about women who are dismissed as mentally ill, disabled, elderly or useless. I want to show the validity and magnificence of their lives by giving them voice and agency, casting them in the role of detective and protector. I want to re-establish the power and wisdom of people normally completely invisible and dismissed by society. My hope is also to restore the elder in the elderly.
In mainstream society we feel sorry for old women who didn’t have children or never married. We don’t think that their career and work count as a true legacy. And then there are the old women who feel regret that they did marry and have children, and haven’t created a legacy which is beyond that of begetting and caregiving. Either way, these are old women who we overlook, who cannot be in possession of any true knowledge because they have no power – except the power of invisibility. Our cultural currency is in our fecundity and youth. It wasn’t always so, but in my generation aging equals irrelevance. European immigrants, as American therapist Resmaa Menakem writes in his book, My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies, have lost touch with their history and ancestors. This helps keep the machine of white supremacy and colonization running. No one but my maternal grandmother ever mentioned our ancestors, and the poverty and violence that drove them to immigrate.
What I realized was this fear of being an old lady is rooted smack at the centre of a patriarchal society defined by consumerism and white supremacy, where women have currency and value as breeders, sexual objects and handmaids of this system, keeping other women in place.
My elderly mother tells me the thing about an old woman is that you don’t have an esteemed place in society. She was a nurse and a tireless community volunteer and yet her work was never taken seriously, even though she was the primary breadwinner. My mother dealt with aging women in her work and saw the traditional role of old women change. She saw the rise of old-age homes, of elderly people isolated and shut in, diminished and cut off from younger generations.
As an old lady, my mother says, you can finally stop conforming because no one cares any more precisely because you are an old woman. British poet Jenny Joseph wrote Warning about this exact experience. The first line is a battle cry for old women: “When I grow old I shall wear purple.” Ms. Joseph was only 29 when she wrote this poem, realizing she had decades ahead of conforming.
But despite my mother’s sense of freedom in her invisibility and her long career as a nurse, she has regrets. She regrets that she came back from Vancouver to rural Nova Scotia, and had children, and a lifetime of working at a job she felt wasn’t really valued. I understand this particular regret involves wishing she had never had me. She wanted to be an artist. When she used to say this when I was younger, I felt angry, that being a mother wasn’t enough for her. Time has humbled me as well. I see now how few choices she had.
As women age, from my experience, we encounter not just the inevitability of aging, but the revulsion we have internalized for the old lady who awaits within us. In a youth-obsessed culture, amplified with the likes of Instagram, filters and Photoshop, it’s hard to escape the lust for youth, vitality and timelessness. Cosmetic surgery, fillers and implants are becoming normalized at an early age, not to just stave off old age, but middle age itself. The selfie is ubiquitous. Celebrities, once mysterious and out of reach, now bring us right into their homes and bombard us with their altered, filtered vampiric faces.
Perimenopause and menopause arrive, throwing the female body into a maelstrom of hormonal changes and distresses. Until recently, this “stage of life” has been a taboo. My own mother hardly mentioned it. When perimenopause began, I thought it was the onset of some horrible cancer. Fortunately now there is a huge effort under way to demystify menopause, to bring it into the mainstream, where it’s always been, but often trivialized or ignored. Dr. Jen Gunter recently published The Menopause Manifesto, a fantastic illumination of this normal stage of life for women. Her voice is late in coming for something that’s been happening for thousands of years. In a recent interview, Dr. Gunter commented, “The patriarchy is writing the narrative. … If you’re a menopausal woman and you have shoulder pain, well, it’s your uterus. But if you’re a man who’s 55 and has shoulder pain, well, obviously you worked too hard and injured your shoulder.”
I assumed my experience here in seaside Nova Scotia was no different than that of most women in North America, that middle-aged and old women are still largely invisible and the gains merely smoke and mirrors. But when I started asking my female friends about aging in our culture something else emerged. I realized my perspective is not the only one. It is, frankly, a white perspective.
Sylvia D. Hamilton is an award-winning filmmaker, journalist, writer and artist. She was kind to me back when I published my first novel in 2002, when I was young, broke and mentally ill. She’s continued to inspire me through the years. Sylvia is in her early 70s, still immersed in her art and African Nova Scotian community. She reminds me that we can’t consider women and aging without addressing race, ethnicity and class. As a white woman, my goal was to lurch my way to middle class, where I remain as invisible as I was in my working-poor background. But Sylvia’s identity is rooted in community and her ancestry and how this has defined her at all stages in her life. This is what matters to her.
“White supremacy has obliterated many of the experiences of women of African descent, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t exist,” Sylvia says.
She reminds me how my experience of aging is influenced by the white world, and by patriarchal capitalism, which encourages us to consume, to comply. It’s a world where domestic work isn’t valued, where child-bearing and rearing have no significant meaning when we think of accomplishments. Sylvia points out that dominant society still qualify women’s work – she’s “just a nurse” or “just a teacher” or “just a mother” as though their work isn’t of value.
I became friends with Amanda Peters when she took a creative writing course I taught. At that time, she was working for her community, Glooscap First Nation, as the director of policy and planning. Amanda’s in her 40s and I’m in my 50s. She had cervical cancer, the same kind I had, but she had a hysterectomy and wasn’t able to have children. Mine was caught earlier. I had a baby, at what is called advanced maternal age. Amanda is a fiction writer, and now a manager in Capacity Development for the First Nations Financial Management Board. Amanda says in the culture of the Mi’kmaq there is great respect for the old matriarch, a reverence for earned wisdom and experience. Visible age is a mark of this wisdom and insight. Despite Amanda’s many accomplishments, being unmarried and childless instantly disqualifies her from having value in any society. Amanda says she looks forward to the day when she’s an old woman, worthy of respect for the wisdom and knowledge she hopes to have earned, whether she is childless or not. This is not the settler way, that’s for sure.
Silmy Abdullah is a Bangladeshi Canadian lawyer and writer living and working in Toronto. She’s another friend I’ve stayed in close touch with through the pandemic, discussing the challenges of the elusive “work/life” balance. Silmy explains to me that her culture holds old women in very high regard, whether they’ve had successful careers in the home, or are working in a profession outside the home. Multi-generational families are still common, which makes elderly people more visible and valuable. It might have once been so for European immigrants but historically women were not power holders, unless you were the Queen. The pandemic has shown us how many women have juggled work and parenthood and running the home in lockdown, and the resulting toll it has taken on women’s health worldwide.
Another friend, Vancouver cartoonist Katherine Collins, is 74 years old and transitioned at the age of 42, at the height of her cartooning career. Giving up a straight white male identity to be a queer woman was anathema in the misogynist comics world. Then she experienced professional invisibility and exclusion she couldn’t have imagined. It was a devastating time for her and she gave up cartooning for decades. It was only in 2017, when her collected work as Arn Saba was published and she was inducted into the “Giants of the North” hall of fame, that she finally felt respect and acknowledgment in her career. But in her day to day life, Katherine says she experiences the same invisibility any 74-year-old woman does. Her first exclusion in society was owing to her transition, and the second, as an old woman. Katherine says she was raised in a very wealthy family, and along with that came what she calls the totally unwarranted confidence we give to white men of privilege, a confidence that has allowed her to persevere as an old lady.
The way forward, I have come to understand, is to acknowledge this multiplicity of ideas of what it means to be an old woman, away from the mainstream world of appearances, to take apart our enculturated negative images, and redefine all the stages of what it is to be a woman, from girlhood to middle years to old age. Thanks to my incredible friends I have a new found sense of courage and value in hopefully being an old woman myself some day.
In 2003, the late great Carol Shields published her play Departures and Arrivals, a play of criss-crossing vignettes in an airport. Would Ms. Shields laugh knowing that one of her most powerful vignettes, where an older woman leaps to the defences of Little Old Ladies, LOLs, as Ms. Shields calls them, has now become shorthand for hilarity. While we may laugh and ridicule old women, they fill many of us with fear and loathing. They are walking and talking symbols of mortality, of a life well-lived but forgotten. Of course, LOL did not become a ubiquitous term thrusting old women into the spotlight or common parlance. Would Ms. Shields see the irony? There is no doubt.
Like Carol Shields, I believe that by writing about the invisible lives of women, by taking up her torch, we slowly, oh so slowly, illuminate, and bring majesty and grace to, every stage in the arc of being a woman, including the final one.
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