As a woman on the verge of forty, I’m not deaf to the sirens’ call from writers who beseech me to wear a plunging neckline while there’s still time; nudging bioidentical hormones toward me, promising to spark my libido; laying out all of my plastic surgery options, right down to big toe liposuction. They are all successful authors, all of whom have been on bestsellers’ lists.
But then I think of Grace Paley.
I ran into her at a The Muse writer’s conference last spring. I was rushing from the women’s room, on my way to have my chapters critiqued by an editor at a major New York publishing house. I wanted to look my best.
At an earlier panel, a literary agent said author photos mattered; they sold hard covers and booked writers on the morning talk show circuit. Think Sebastian Junger, Candace Bushnell, Jhumpa Lahiri.
But in that bathroom mirror, I saw a middle-aged woman whose laugh lines no longer disappeared when she stopped smiling; a woman with limp hair and a thickening waist from age and too many hours spent in front of a computer exercising her mind. Pulling the skin of my face back and up, I wondered at the possibilities. Something as simple as a shot to the face or a chemical burn to strip away the top layers could work. But it was too late. Hurrying through the halls, I thought let the work matter more.
Along the way, I bumped into Grace Paley. If not for the fact that she was supported on the arm of Chris Castellani, she would have been swallowed by the crowd. Her shapeless clothes were an afterthought, as were the frayed silver curls crowning her head. She was devoid of all sense of style or youth. Tiny and hunched, she appeared so utterly frail I thought she might not survive until her lunchtime keynote address.
After my meeting with the impossibly young and winsome editor, I met Lisa, Hannah, & Lynne in the dining room for lunch. Naturally, I told them all about my meeting (more on that another time). Once coffee was poured, feedback from a microphone squealed across the room. It was Chris introducing Grace Paley.
My heart broke. Her age, her diminutive size, that weak shuffle as she crossed the stage all spoke of a woman too fragile to offer much of anything to the crowd of hundreds before her. I wondered if even with the microphone she could be heard.
And then she began to speak. Her voice was strong, richly textured and inflected with a rhythm known only to poets. She told us of the day before, how she and her husband had been protesting in New York, had a terrible argument, and then parted ways before reaching the subway. Such passion, I marveled, for both politics and a man. At her age. She then read snippets of linked essays she’d jotted down on the bus ride north to Boston. Captured in those few hurried words were brilliant observations on the human condition.
Over the next hour or so, Grace told more anecdotes, read from some of her earlier writing. I, along with so many others around the room, reached for my napkin to wipe at tears, or flung myself forward, overwhelmed with laughter. Her vibrancy engulfed the room. At the end, we all stood and cheered for a woman whose life has been one of dignity, passion, and unparalleled beauty. The kind of woman – and writer –I want to be, a woman who knows what it is to age gracefully.
Tuesday, April 24, 2007