In the north woods of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, there is a cross-country ski trail that our boys dubbed Gut-Wrenching, as in “Let’s go on Gut Wrenching!”
The trail started tame enough and then had a steep downhill with a turn at the base of the hill marked helpfully by a tree with a thick, scarred trunk. No room for error. The only time I went on it I carried my skis down the hill. But then I was fearful. They weren’t. They were reckless. I admired that about them, their recklessness, until it developed different forms and sometimes broke my heart.
But one of age’s peculiar benefits is a markedly reduced fear of trees in one’s path even while one is careening down a hill. It isn’t recklessness as much as it is deservedness. Only some of you will know what I mean here but that is fine. Not everyone needs to share our secrets.
Parts of it were funny. And other parts were humiliating.
And even though I’ve told the story before, it deserves another telling, if only to show that maybe humiliation can diminish over time while the humor of a thing can grow.
I went to New York in July of 2015 to get a BlogHer Voice of the Year award for an essay I wrote about hearing loss called Blindsided. The person who told me I’d won, Rochelle Dukes Fritsch, a good friend also from Milwaukee, won for her remarkable essay What’s Behind My Tears for Ferguson which I wish I could link for you but can’t. We were flabbergasted, astonished, but both of us knew we’d written really good essays, pieces with meaning and importance. The awards were well-deserved and we glowed about being recognized in this important way for weeks before the big conference in New York. Still, I dreaded the trip for all the reasons I’d written about in my essay. Hearing loss had weakened me, taken the wind out of my sails. I was worried about navigating it all. But I went anyway.
On the night of the award presentation, we were summoned, along with a couple dozen other award winners, to a champagne reception on an elegant balcony overlooking a vast room where the names of the winners scrolled on a giant screen. Later, we would go down the stairs from the balcony to the big stage in front of a sea of people and have our picture taken. In the back of the balcony, past the champagne servers and the little bunches of people taking selfies and congratulating each other was a table with the BlogHer VOTY awards arranged in alphabetical order.
My name wasn’t there.
Rochelle’s name was there. She picked up the fancy box with her award and held it to her chest. Then she joined in the search for mine. We went through the rows of awards a dozen times. No Jan Wilberg. I checked the emails on my phone to confirm that I’d actually won. I did this while wearing a name tag identifying me as a BlogHer VOTY. Maybe I was some kind of auxiliary VOTY, I thought. A runner-up. Maybe I was supposed to be at the root beer reception. I checked the BlogHer website. Maybe they’d reconsidered. and I hadn’t been paying attention. No, my name was on the list of winners, plain as day. Jan Wilberg for Blindsided.
“Here. I think they just got your last name wrong.” She handed me a box with the name Janice Winkler. “That stuff happens all the time. This has to be you. Here.” And so I took the box and decided it must be mine but wondered hard how Jan Wilberg had become Janice Winkler.
We joked about it. I untied the ribbon, opened the box and showed the lovely glass award to people I knew only because of their blogs. We had instantly become birds of a feather and I wanted comfort and support from my new flock. “Look! They got my name wrong.” Oh, they’ll fix it, they all said. So funny. To come all this way and have your name wrong but so what, that’s life. It’ll make a great blog post. Ha, ha, ha.
Then, Rochelle nudged me hard and gestured over her shoulder. Behind us, Janice Winkler’s name was scrolling on the giant screen. She had won an award for Photography. For a photo of two people skydiving. Which is what I felt like I was doing at that very moment. I crammed her award back in its box and tried to retie the ribbon. It looked awful, like a present a kid had swiped from under the Christmas tree and then put back hoping not to be discovered. I was terrified someone would see me fumbling with Janice Winkler’s award. That I was wearing a hideous striped red and black shirt didn’t help. The thief wore neon.
My goal then was to melt into the crowd, pretend I’d put my award somewhere so I could handle the champagne with both hands. I felt naked though like I’d lost my pass to the Jamboree. So when I spied the leader of BlogHer coming down the stairs, I went up to her and told her that somehow my award hadn’t been on the table.
“Are you sure you’re a winner?”
Here’s where the humiliation part of the story picks up. She waved me away like I’d somehow wandered into the wrong room on my search for the Needlepoint Convention. This old broad with her two hearing aids and her hideous shirt must be lost because she couldn’t be one of us, nope. I was incredulous. Me, an award winner, albeit without the physical evidence, being waved off like a champagne server with an empty tray. It was a scorching, eye-blinking, I wanna call my mom to pick me up from school moment which I will probably never forget. There was more to it, you know there would have to be, more back and forth, more questions and answers. But what I remember most clearly were the accordion folds of my age, my disability, the disregard, the embarrassment, and my horrible shirt, a squeezebox of humiliation.
But I overcame. There was no choice. And there was Rochelle, my kind, funny, compatriot friend. I decided to act like I belonged there, like I was a winner, isn’t that what they say to do? So that’s what I did. I drank champagne and later I stood on the stage with all the other winners, next to Rochelle, and had my picture taken. A few months later, my award came in the mail. No ribbon, but with the right name. It’s right here sitting on my bookshelf, looking like it belongs there.
I’ve been having trouble managing my joie de vivre.
Or finding it.
It went dark on me this month.
I think some of it had to do with my eyes. Having my cataracts removed meant that I could see a lot of things more clearly, including myself, unfortunately. And things in the distance, or not so far distance, like age and weakness, lost abilities, dependency. Someday, I won’t be able (or allowed) to drive my own car.
I’ve thought these things before, for years actually, even though I am healthy and sane and able. When I do, I usually put the top down on my convertible and drive faster. But that hasn’t worked this time. Everywhere I go, I hear the clock ticking. Like Captain Hook, I am tortured, running from one side of the ship to the other. Where is that damn crocodile? Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock.
Resignation or struggle. Those seem to be the two options. And self-pity. But because self-pity has sort of an entitlement threshold, not many people talk about feeling sorry for themselves for getting older because, you know, there is the alternative.
The other night, after a long futile search for the hearing aid that goes on my left ear, I ripped the cochlear implant receiver off my right ear, fed up with its weight, its claw around my ear, threw it on the dresser where part of it splintered off to the floor, and yelled “I’m sick of all this machinery!”
Then I fell into bed and started crying. Crying like somebody died. Great, heaving sobs. About having to wear things on my head that help me hear.
But it wasn’t about that. I don’t know what it was about. If I said I knew I would be pretending, posing myself as a master of this aging process when, right now, I feel like its victim.
I do know that, like most tough times, the only way out is through the middle. And through the middle lies something – survival, possibility, life, happiness? Every time I’ve put my head down and kept on in my life, it’s been worth it. It will be this time, too, I think.
Here in Milwaukee we’ve gotten ourselves engaged in a debate about senior centers. The county government, always strapped for cash and having put off needed maintenance for years is now looking at five aging senior centers and wondering what to do.
Senior advocates like myself and my comrades in the League of Progressive Seniors sense the beginning of the end for senior centers and so we are making noise, a lot of noise. But none of us ever really goes to a senior center. It’s not that we wouldn’t be caught dead in one, it’s just that we’re not there yet. We might never be there.
My father, widowed at 89, lived across a ball field from the local senior center.
“You should go, Dad.”
“Nah, just a bunch of old people over there.”
And at the time, I remember laughing at his reaction and being a little proud that my healthy, capable father didn’t want to be lumped in with old people but he was in fact old, very old, and lonely as only a man widowed after a 64 year marriage could be. But I reinforced the stigma of aging by basically patting him on the back for repudiating his own age peers.
The stigma of aging is profound and powerful, at its most intense when we who are old accept the stigma as valid. I’ve been struggling against that by being very public about my age and calling out ageism when I see it in conversations or social media. I want to be a role model for meaningful aging, not so much to other people but to myself, hoping my external life of action and community involvement will beat back my internal fear and loathing of my age.
“You’re not old,” a younger colleague said to me yesterday. “I wouldn’t consider you old.”
Why? Because to consider me old would put me in a stigmatized group? And you like me too much to do that? That’s sweet.
A local think tank released a study of senior centers called “Young at Heart.” To me that put the stigma of senior centers in capital letters. Of course, they think, old people would want to be young at heart because that would be tons better than being what they are – old at heart. The title felt weird and patronizing, like we were worn out adults on our way to become children again.
Even though I hang around with younger people a lot of the time, there is a great comfort and camaraderie being with people my age. We are funny and profane, wise but impatient. We don’t, after all, have all the time in the world. We understand each other’s jokes and remember the mistakes and painful alliances from years ago. We feel free and triumphant in a lot of ways but, despite that joyfulness, we are often stuck in the mud of stigma, not coming from other people, coming from ourselves.
Maybe senior centers, reimagined, could be the place where we learn to love the age we are. Maybe a different kind of senior center might have gotten my father to cross that ball field and be with people who remembered Benny Goodman and could dance a great swing. We need to be with people who know the words to Dylan’s songs and want to compare notes on anti-war protests. We’re out here. We just need some magic.
On the bus last night, doing outreach to homeless people in our town, bundling up hot meals in plastic bags, forgetting sometimes to include a fork because I always make at least one error when I am doing this work, I loved my colleagues for their matter-of-factness about life and situations, ours and theirs, and their distilling compassion into tangibles like underwear and bug spray, and I follow one of them deep into the woods where a man is sitting waiting, his speakers blaring rock music that has him mesmerized, so loud it is that I stand back by the trees and wave to him, his friendly visitor who asks no questions until we are on the path back and then the answers are spare because that’s not how we do things, we wait for information to find us not the other way around and back in the bus my friends talk about how they loved New Kids on the Block when they were younger and how their bedrooms were plastered with posters and I remembered but didn’t tell them about Elvis and the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and because those things felt like artifacts from a hundred years ago so I just sat and listened which was just as well.
The week has been eye-opening. Illuminating. Clarifying. Humbling.
I had cataract surgery on my left eye. The process had all the accouterments of having surgery except I got to keep my jeans on which gave the whole thing kind of an outdoorsy feel. The operating room, the IV, the warm blanket, the faraway chatter, the fleeting admonition to myself to think only of paddling our canoe as a way to steady my nerves, the sudden having it be over and finished, all of it was like getting my cochlear implant although then they drilled a hole in my head while I was busy paddling.
This time they inserted a tiny tool in my eye and broke up my old lens. Oddly, I could see this happening, the shards of the lens like pieces of glass in a kaleidoscope and I was fascinated and taken by this, the colors moving, and then I saw the looming dark profile of the surgeon bending over me like a shadow in a closet in a very scary movie. I knew it was the doctor though so it was all okay. After the light show, unbeknownst to me, he inserted another little tool which had my new lens spring-loaded so it unfolded like magic while I was dozing, I guess, because it wasn’t clear to me, as they say, until much later.
Since the surgery, I have been washing my face every morning, yes, with soap, and putting on moisturizer and walking out the door. I figure with all the doctor’s precautions about infection and the four times a day steroid drops I ought not be confusing things with Maybelline Great Lash. Why screw things up for the sake of vanity.
But truth be told, I have been feeling lately as if my true face ought to be sufficient, that I can’t be bothered doing everything I used to do to make my face look better. I will just go around and have my face. I do have a killer haircut, that is one important indulgence, but make-up, I’ve been letting it dry into shards on the shelf, like my lens, I guess.
Years ago, I would look at older women who didn’t wear make-up, the ones who wore flannel shirts and old jeans on their way to the day’s garage sales, usually these were women who five minutes ago were doctors and lawyers but were now retired, and I’d think “Why are you giving up?” After a while, the older I got, I started to regard their facial nakenness as liberation. They earned the right not to care anymore. Soon I would be there and not care, too. Just like them. Screw the patriarchy and its fucked-upness about what women should be doing with their faces.
But I looked at myself in the mirror this morning, my bare face and mascara-less eyelashes blending into a beige, unremarkable landscape of deep wrinkles offset by my two blue eyes, one of them way more capable of taking in the detail than the other and I thought, “Jesus H., Jan, why are you giving up?” So I went to Target this afternoon, which, yes I know there are whole stores devoted to make-up where some 25-year old could give me advice but I’m not there yet, I’ll never be there, there isn’t enough time left for me on the planet to make that leap, and at Target I bought all new make-up – foundation, powder, new eye shadow, new mascara, and, a brush for my blush.
I also bought sunglasses. A pair of $15 sunglasses. This is remarkable in its own right because the years of prescription sunglasses which cost what I paid for my first car are over. I can also push my sunglasses up on the top of my head which makes me feel young and sporty like I used to feel when my sunglasses doubled as a headband for my hair.
I guess all of this goes by way of saying. I’m not dead yet. And I’m not giving up.
I have cataracts, just like my old dogs who are dead now but not from cataracts, from other things that happen at the same time like extreme old age which I don’t have yet but I’m working on it, the cataracts giving me a hint of what is to come, the blurring of everything valuable into one big colorful stew like the lights on the San Diego freeway a few days ago where I resolved to drive like I lived there so I punched the gas going down the ramp and merged like a Las Vegas dealer hides the Ace of Hearts in a deck of cards he’s shuffling for tourists from Des Moines, the turn signal on my rented red car clicking like a timer, there is only so much time, I tell myself, make the most of it.