Tuesday, April 24, 2007


By Amy

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.


Lynne Reeves Griffin said...


Hearing Grace Paley read her work is one of my fondest memories. The beautiful person she is and the eyes through which she sees the world is enviable. Thanks for letting me relive it through your post.


Ghost Girl (aka, Mary Ann) said...

Amy, what a beautiful post! I have never had the honor of hearing Grace Paley, but your description of her and her voice was so vivid, I felt as though I were there.

As far as those laugh lines go...from what I've seen, and what you've written, you are already that beautiful person and growing more so everyday.

I am fortunate enough to have inherited the "younger than" genes. I look younger than I am, but those squirrelly little grey hairs and those sly little laugh lines that I always notice, even if no one else does, remind me that I am, indeed, 42 and that I earned every minute of it.

And just think of the wisdom hidden in those lines, informing your writing, touching the souls of your readers, inspiring them with your indellible truth and your overwhelming sense of life.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for such a thoughtful post! I'm a bit of an oddball in my area, because I'm letting the hair go gray. And laugh lines? I forget who said this: "There's really nothing so attractive as a woman who looks like she's never smiled a day in her life."

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

Lynne, I remember looking at you while she spoke, each of us dabbing at tears, and realizing what a profound experience it was. So glad to have had all three of you there to share it.

GG, you DO have those young genes. I love your description of "squirelly grey hairs and those little laugh lines." And yes, all these years here have given me a perspective I couldn't have had 20 years ago.

Hi, Amy, glad to hear from you. Did you see that piece in Slate a few months ago written by the woman who kept her prematurely gray hair its natural color? As Nora Ephron said in her book, "I Feel Bad About My Neck" it's all material.


Judy Merrill Larsen said...

Great post. And now I can use my picture as an excuse for why my book's not a bestseller--too many laugh lines and not a skinny enough butt.

Seriously, I believe I've earned my gray hairs and wrinkles--I like to think of it all as texture. And there's no way I'm injecting poison into my face to get rid of it.

Melissa Amateis said...

It is so hard to age gracefully in this society where youth and beauty are put on a pedestal. Thank you for this wonderful reminder, Amy. Let the work matter more - I love that line!

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

Judy, I think it's probably a blessing when a debut novel isn't a bestseller. Imagine the pressure on the sophmore work? Same goes for a huge advance. The bean counters will expect great returns or there will be no sophmore novel. As for Botox,I'm a germ-o-phobe and the thought of putting poison under my skin freaks me out.

Hi, Melissa! Personally, I find brilliance and kindness sexy, don't you? And I think that's what Grace showed me is that they're equally attractive qualities in women, too.


Larramie said...

Where's the beauty in a smooth, flawless face? Seriously, there's no character or Life's natural glow and such faces make me wonder, is anyone home behind the mask?

And, while I also have that "younger than" gene, there are smile lines and I couldn't be happier! :o))

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

Larramie, I loved that Grace knew this, that she knew it wasn't about the hair or the clothes or even the lovely laugh lines. It was all about the lushness of one's thoughts as expressed through the heart.

Anonymous said...

I adored your post. I had a similar situation while attending a book festival last fall in my hometown. Ruby Dee was one of the speakers, reading excerpts from Life Lit By Some Large Vision, a book that she and Ossie Davis collaborated on just before his death. Like Ms. Paley, Ms. Dee needed assistance as she approached the podium. Her hair was white, and she was frail. But when she opened her mouth to speak....MAGIC! The audience groaned when the Q&A was over.

In a couple of days I'll be 43 and I've had gray hair since I was 9. I have a patch of it right in front. Briefly went the hair color route, but it didn't feel natural to me. I don't look my age either, then again no one in my family does. Not even the dogs we've owned.

So with the lines, gray hair, joints beginning to creak (gotta get exercising!), I earned it all.
Botox or whatever be damned!

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

Jill, what a great story, thanks so much for sharing it with us. I love Ruby Dee, but especially her husband Ossie Davis. I always pictured him as one of my characters when I was writing my book. So funny you should mention him!

There's something intriguing about a streak of gray hair. As if the person lived a life filled with wonderful secrets. My imagination again.

Happy birthday,

Therese said...

Speaking of birthdays...I survived my 40th AND have now survived my first copyedits!

Last week, my hairstylist told me he saw my first gray hair ever. But honestly, the news had no ill effect. I shrugged and said, "It's inevitable."

Aging is inevitable, and I always say "better that than the opposite: dying young."

I, too, hope to age gracefully and resist the cultural pressure for women to look perpetually youthful. As a writer, I have no interest in being known or praised for my looks, only my words.

The only person who needs to be satisfied with how I look is me.

Still some work to be done there, but your post is a good reminder of what's most important. :)

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

Happy birthday, Therese, and what a lovely gift, the copyedits. I can't wait to talk to you about that. So many questions. The thing that's wonderful about aging is we keep learning and realzing entirely new perspectives. A more than fair trade for those creaky joints.


Anonymous said...

Hi Amy, I was there, too and you describe the contrast between all the young publishing execs and Grace Paley perfectly. The funny thing is I remember seeing her at Dartmouth 20 years ago and thinking very similar thoughts about her then. She already looked like a woman who wasn't afraid to age and I loved that about her! Not to mention her amazing writing and voice. Gail

Michelle Zink said...

Wow. This post really touched me, Amy.

I often wonder all those same things.

Now that I wear glasses instead of contacts (my eyes hurt), flats instead of heels (after four kids, I have no arches), and a double-digit size that shall remain a mystery (those kids again!), will I be overlooked?



You reminded me of what it means to be a person of substance, and yes, an interesting, vibrant, intelligent and truly attractive woman.

Thank you.

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

Gail, wasn't she inspiring? There is substance in a life well-lived.

Michelle, I know all about dry eyes, broken-down feet, and elastic waistbands. But those children have expanded the breadth of my imagination in ways unimaginable before. To hell with my favorite size 2 suit.


Patry Francis said...


For some reason, I was able to access the blog today. Maybe because I NEEDED to read this marvelous post. Thank you for bringing Grace Paley in all her splendor to those of us who have never had the privilege of seeing her speak.

Patry Francis said...

Oh, and p.s.: you are gorgeous! No peels necessary.

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

Oh, Patry, so good to see you here! I ran into a woman at the supermarket the other day who was at our Liar's Party and she said, "I loved The Liar's Diary so much I bought a copy for my mother!" Now that's a beautiful thing!