‘Only yesterday I was thirty one’

You can always tell the age of a woman by the state of her elbows and of her neck. Or so my mother told me.

Old necks turn to turkey flesh and pucker. Elbows take on the look of sphincters, those muscle bound orifices that are best left concealed.

I do not make a habit of studying women’s necks and elbows but the thought remains embedded in my brain as if it is yet another aspect of being alive that we must overcome: cover your neck and elbows so that no one else will notice, the fact of my ageing.

More and more we read about it, not just the stuff on the surface, the stuff underneath, the creaks in muscles especially those that form part of your back and hips, the ones that help you to stand upright, to walk and to run.

The cracking of your bowels and the occasional reflux from your gut that tells you even down there, where the food is received and expelled, things no longer work so well.

My mother told me, you can always tell the women who’ve spent too long in the sun. Their skin turns to gravel, pocked and pitted like the stones on a riverbed but not so smooth.

My mother told me about her sister who wrote from Holland about a prolapse. As a child I imagined my aunt’s insides running out through the hole below. I could see my aunt on the dance floor, her insides trailing from under her ball gown, like so many red jewels.

It happens when you get older, my mother told me. And when you have children, too many children like her, your stomach muscles lose their elasticity and you need to wear girdles or supports to keep them in place, otherwise you flop all over the place like so much custard.

My mother told me, the worst part of growing old was the invisibility. People do not look up when you shuffle into a room. People do not offer a smile of admiration when you wear a new dress or perfume, when you spread lipstick across your lips the way she did when she was still a young woman able to command attention.

You slip back into the place of childhood, into that place where you might stand longest in the queue because the person serving has not noticed you standing there huddled over in your thick coat to keep warm.

The greyness of your hair merges with the colour of the sky on a winter’s day, which becomes a type of Ground hog day when it slows itself into a predictable routine.

And nothing new happens from one minute to the next save the tedium of getting dressed each morning, of showering with assistance and of getting yourself to meals in the retirement village where you can no longer have conversations because you and all the people around you repeat things again and again as if you had not already said them because those in the dining room together with you are too hard of hearing, and too lacking in short term memory to be able to chat.

My mother told me you slip out of the spotlight and even your children begin to forget you, other than as an obligation that they must honour once a year on Mother’s Day and if you’re lucky on your birthday, but hardly ever at Christmas anymore because they are too busy tending to their own lot.

Look at you in the mirror there. No longer smooth skinned and full of life.

And when you meet someone for the first time in ages, the thought goes through their mind as fast as it goes through yours: You’ve aged.

As if it were a crime. A crime of indecency, an insult to others, but most of all to yourself.

As Joan Didion writes:

‘I have watched tears flood the eyes of grown women, loved women, women of talent and accomplishment, for no reason other than that a small child in the room, more often than not an adored niece or nephew, has just described them as ‘wrinkly’, or asked how old they are.

‘When we are asked this question we are always undone by its innocence, somehow shamed by the clear bell-like tones in which it is asked. What shames us is this: the answer we give is never innocent. The answer we give is unclear, evasive, even guilty … there must be a mistake: only yesterday I was in my fifties, my forties, only yesterday I was thirty-one.’

 

 

Naked on the page

Montaigne shocked everyone when he
wrote about the size of his penis.  To his mind, it was small.  
Why, among the many thoughts I have encountered
today, does this one stay with me?
 There are other images in my head, too: diamonds from
the 1800s that are attached to springs so that when the wearer moves, they tremble,
shimmer and dazzle the eye, diamonds en
tremblant
I tried to have a conversation last
night with one of my daughters about a trend that’s come to my attention
whereby people post images of their so-called private bits to their
lovers. 
It’s not that new, my daughter
tells me.  It’s been around for ages.
Apparently, there is a new law that
forbids the transmission of such images without a person’s consent. 
Jennifer Wilson, on her wonderful
blog, No place for sheep, refers to revenge porn, the business of people taking
it out on others by circulating compromising images or photos of the
person against whom they want revenge.
A while ago I heard about a young woman in the armed forces who had sex with her boyfriend and unbeknown to her he had organised that the
proceedings be videoed and circulated to his friends.  
What’s behind this, I ask
myself.  Why do it?  And what is it like for the person so exposed? 
To have a photo of your labia
online so that the entire world can see, or a shot of your penis, why so shocking? 
There’s the stuff of exhibitionism,
the pleasure we get out of showing off our bodies and the sexual pleasure we get
from being on display. 
Then, there’s the opposite: the
peeping Tom effect.  The pleasure some might
get out of looking, looking in preference to being involved, or being seen. 
I used to think of this as a masculine
activity, the Peeping Tom, the flasher, but women can get in on the act,
too. 
Women whose bodies have been put on
display for centuries. 
When I was a little girl and asked
my mother why the bronze Atlas holding a globe of the world on his shoulders in
the framed print on the wall of her bedroom was naked, she told me, ‘The human
body is beautiful’. 
I had trouble believing her then.  In a strange way I still have trouble.  Bodies can be beautiful but they’re also
haunting and troubling and exciting and frightening and all these things rolled
into one.  Anything to do with body bits,
internal and external seems loaded.
The other day I talked to one of my
sisters about prolapses.  In my mind’s
eye the image that stays with me is the one that first popped in when I was
little. 
One day my mother told me about a
cousin in Holland who had suffered a prolapse on the dance floor.  This cannot be, I now know.  You do not suddenly suffer a prolapse.  I imagine they happen gradually, but when I
was little I saw it happen on the dance floor.
My mother’s cousin’s insides slip
out onto the polished wood floors like glistening red jewels en tremblant.  And my aunt is mortified.  She runs through the room to the toilets dragging
her jewels behind her. 
I have since heard that a
prolapse as described by my mother, the one that happened to her cousin, was of her
cervix.  
This reminds me of other bodily
malformations like hernias.  I’ve not
seen one of these either.  
Again the idea
that your insides slip out of their moorings and appear on the surface of your
skin, like a burst bladder, reminds me of pregnancies, late term when it was
easy to see the imprint of my baby’s foot on the surface of my skin, the round
dome of her head. 
I have dreams where my skin is translucent
and I can see inside my body to the unborn baby squashed inside.  And this can only take place when one is
naked.  Naked on the page.
There is a YouTube series doing the rounds where a woman is interviewed and during conversation the camera stays on
her as she speaks.  She perches on a
stool, against a brick wall backdrop in a well lit room and as the interviewer proceeds
through a series of questions about the woman and her life, her relationship to
herself and her body, the interviewer asks her to take off items of clothing,
one by one. 
By the end of the interview the
woman sits in her underwear.  We do not
see the interviewer. 
There is something strangely
non-sexual about this disrobing.  Something
that puts us in touch with the woman as a whole person, a woman with a body and
mind, not just a sexualised body.  At
least that’s how I experience it.  
A slow
disrobing rather like entering into a meaningful essay where the writer
gradually unfolds ideas, thoughts, images about himself/herself until in the end
we are pared back to basics and somehow have much more than just a naked body,
and not just any body. 
In the YouTube clip so far I have
only seen naked women, and not all of them with ideal bodies. 
There are young bodies and old
bodies and even physically disabled bodies. 
I’ve yet to see a dark skinned body or a fat body or a hairy body or an amputated
body but I imagine there is scope for these and many more. 
One essential ingredient is the
capacity to be articulate in the English language in this instance and a
preparedness to let it all show.    
And finally, I came across this quote
from Anne Patchett: 
‘Forgiveness. The ability to
forgive oneself. Stop here for a few breaths and think about this because it is
the key to making art … I grieve for my own lack of talent and intelligence.
Every. Single. Time. …. This grief of constantly having to face down our own
inadequacies is what keeps people from being writers. Forgiveness, therefore is
key. I can’t write the book I want to write, but I can and will write the book
I am capable of writing. Again and again throughout the course of my life I
will forgive myself.’