Archive for the ‘aging’ Category

It’s Not Too Late To Reinvent Yourself

Tuesday, April 14th, 2009

Sister President Johnetta

If you’ve been reading this blog for any amount of time, you know that I’m always looking for ways to spotlight African American women in their 50s, 60s, and beyond.  We are invisible to the media.  I (still) miss having seasoned women in my life and am determined to find black women role models and mentors who stare back at the camera with faces that say “I’m still here, and I still got lots more to say.”

In honor of women who are not afraid to reinvent themselves when the old way of being runs its course or no longer fits, I salute scholar, educator, anthropologist, public thinker, feminist activist, Dr. Johnetta B. Cole.

After years of serving as president of Spelman (1987-1997) and Bennett Colleges (2002-2007) and being an ardent advocate for women’s education, in March of this year Dr. Johnnetta Cole was appointed the new director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C.

The last time I saw Dr. Johnetta was in 2007 there at her last Baccalaureate service as president of Bennett College where she’d served admirably. She’d invited me to come out and speak at her last Bennett Baccaluareate ceremony. She was looking forward to retirement, slowing down, and enjoying the new romantic relationship she was in.  Evidently this phenomenal woman changed her mind. Just like she was supposed to be retiring when she’d stepped down years earlier as Spelman College’s famed Sister President. (She’d invited me to serve as Spelman’s Baccalaureate speaker her last year there as well). I could boast about being a speaker on both of these historic occasions, or I could peer closer and make out some sacred invitation being extended to me by God. The invitation to observe a woman on the brink of reinventing herself. I watched a woman stepping down from revered posts she has held and performed in admirably, freeing herself to move on to discover and create new challenges for herself. I’m pretty sure Dr. Johnetta didn’t know at the time what the future held for her, but she was old enough and confident enough to know when it’s time to call it quits and let your future  figure itself out within you.

Did I mention that Johnetta Cole is in her 70s? Google her and you’ll find her exact age.  (God, I hope my friend doesn’t mind my calling attention to her age?) But that’s the beauty of her story. In fact, that’s the whole point of this blogpost. A woman changing her mind, discovering new parts of herself, reinventing herself long past the age of lactation and lust (of the achy, breaky sort, that is). Reinventing herself and finding new things to do with her life after 60, the age when a woman is all but invisible and is expected to dodder and stay put in one place.  Women are, as we all know, judged by the body they are in. The younger, firmer, leaner her body, the more visible a woman is. The older, grayer, and thicker her body, the more invisible she becomes to everyone around her. Thankfully, there are some women who refuse to go gently into the night.

Of all the ‘rights women have sought, none is more difficult, or more vital, than the right to change and not have to do the same thing forever. This is not to say that some of what we have been doing will not still be worth doing at 50, 60, and beyond. But there’s something about women who find the courage to change course, begin anew, revinvent themselves that’s always fascinated me. Especially women whom life has counted out.

With ageing comes losses, there is no denying that truth. Loss of loved ones. Loss of vigor. Loss of health. Loss of certain activities. Loss of employment. But ageing is not all about loss. Ageing brings with it also new discoveries.  The kinds of discoveries that are only possible because other preoccupations are no longer there. New interests. New passions. New hobbies. New sides of yourself. New meaning for your life. New invitations. The truth is that we are a great deal more than our bodies, have always been more than our bodies, but it can take us most of a lifetime to learn that.

With the exterior losses that come with aging should come the good sense to let your interior life have more say about what you do and who you are.

I salute Dr. Johnetta B. Cole here on the blog today. She is a role model for many women like myself in the throes of middle age and still  contemplating all that it means to grow up and grow older.  Dr. Johnetta shows us how to stay visible, vibrant, and vital to the discussion. What use is there in growing older and having more answers to life’s questions, if no one’s beating a path to your door in search for the answers you hold?

“Our moral obligation is not, as society might lead us to believe, to ski at sixty and jog at seventy and bike at eighty,” writes Joan Chittister in The Gift of Years: Growing Older Gracefully. “No, our moral obligation is to stay as well as we can, to remain active, to avoid abusing our bodies, to do the things that interest us and to enrich the lives of those around us. Our spiritual obligation is to age well– so that others who meet us have the courage, the spiritual depth, to do the same.”

The Face I’m In

Wednesday, February 25th, 2009

ross You may be wondering what a woman’s face has to do with the topic of gendering God. A whole lot. I just don’t have the time right now to help you see the connection. But it’s there for the thinking woman to intuit.

I can’t believe I’ve been thinking of dying my hair. Getting rid of my grey.  “And you call yourself a womanist (feminist)!” mockingly says the man who lives in my house (who, by the way, is adamantly opposed to the notion). I am ashamed to say that the pressure is getting to me.  Not so much to look younger, but the pressure not to look older than I have to.  We spent a wonderful evening at dinner with friends last night. Between sips,  I noticed that I was the only woman around the table with grey hair. And I wasn’t the oldest woman at the table. Rashad

Every time I stand in the pulpit with this mane of grey, natural hair that has a mind of it own, I know that for the first 15 minutes most folks can’t hear a word I’m saying for wondering where in the world I get the chutzpah at my age to stand before audiences with wild and nappy grey hair like mine. Most days I love defying convention and am proud of the skin I’m in.  Flaws and all. But I gotta admit, there are other days when I look in the mirror and wonder where the 30, 32, 36 year old face I remember so well went.

Speaking of face.  What about those lines around the face? Aging gracefully. What the heck does that mean?

No matter how good you are at what you do, no matter how qualified you are for the job, there’s that pressure on you as a woman to look sexy.  To have gravity defying skin. To stay thin. To look glamorous.  To appear any age younger than the age you are. To nip, tuck, and botox the signs of aging away.  Don’t think so? Name some of your favorite black actresses from the 80s and 90s who are still in front of the camera.  It’s conventional wisdom that Hollywood has no use for a woman over forty. Hollywood is not the only place that turns out women to pasture once they hit 40. winfreyClergywomen too feel the pressure. Every time we stand in pulpits before the scrutinizing eye of audiences there’s the pressure to look glamorous.  Sexy.  Young-er.  Ageless.  Respectable. Ask evangelists like Joyce Meyer and Juanita Bynum.

Strange isn’t it? God is spoken of as male. But it’s women who are expected, like God, to never grow old. To look the same yesterday. Today. And Tomorrow.

Missing Old Black Women

Monday, February 11th, 2008

A grandmother’s love, I have been told, is one of life’s gifts. I wouldn’t know. Both of my grandmothers died before I was born. Which probably explains why for much of my life I have suffered from grandmother-hunger. I can not get enough of old black women. That is one of the things I cherish about the black church, despite its many warts. Where else but in the black church do you get to see old black women in significant numbers on a regular basis? Women are invisible after they reach a certain age.

What was unthinkable a century ago is commonplace today: a young woman can live out her 20s and 30s, those delicate decades, without any female kin over fifty years old in a 200 hundred mile radius of where she lives. No woman she’s bound to by blood who can get to her at a moment’s notice when she’s in trouble. No woman nearby to remind her what women in her family look like as they age. No woman nearby who has the right to correct her when she’s wrong.  No mother on hand to tell her the story of her beginnings. No grandmother to tell her what she thinks whether the younger woman wants to hear it or not. No aunt nearby to interpret her dreams. No old woman around to pat her hand and assure her, ”Baby, The Lord will make a way somehow.”

Watching this video of Maya Angelou who, the Lord willing, turns 80 years old this spring, I understand what the Bible means when it says, “The glory of the young is their strength, but gray hair is the splendor of the old” (Proverbs 16:31).

Only the godless disrepects his or her elders.

Every society has some hallowed image of the old wise woman, the crone, the female sage of the village. In the world’s mythologies,  wisdom is feminine. Wisdom is usually an attribute of a goddess or woman in whom wisdom has become a conscious part of her psyche. Wisdom is a woman, a crone, a goddess, a feminine archetype. In Greek mythology, she is Athena, goddess of wisdom and military victory, the patron goddess of the city Athens. In the Bible, she is Sophia, Lady Wisdom crying out in the streets. She is the Divine Mother, the Sacred Feminine, Mother of God, Mother Earth. Her name is Mary, Aphrodite, Venus, Kwan Yin, Tara, Gaia, Maat, Isis, Saraswati, the Shekinah, to name a few. To experience her is to catch a whiff of the Divine.

Sadly, the image of the female sage has been in recent years reduced in our community to a commodity to poke fun at. She is the loud, boisterous, overweight, sexless, middle-aged woman played by a male actor in drag. No woman wants to admit to being old in our youth crazed culture. Fifty-five is the new thirty-five.

Until we hear Maya Angelou speak. Or see Cecily Tyson on screen. Or catch Dorothy Height in one of her hats. Or eavesdrop on Ruby Dee reminiscing about her career in theatre. Or listen to Marian Wright Edelman talk about children. Or experience Nikki Giovanni read a poem. Or watch Mother Hambrick step into my church on Sunday morning and take her favorite seat.  They serve as role models for us of a possible aged self. Unbought. Unbossed. Wise. Old. Settled in the skin you’re in.

She captivates us and embarrasses us, this old wise woman does. As much as we sit on edge when she comes in the room, wondering what in God’s name will come out her toothless mouth this time, she continues to be the object of our secret longing.  Watching her sit there–old, but regal, doddering but undefeated, withered, but wise–she reminds us of all the un-mothered/ under-mothered places within. Places within each of us that still long for a (grand)mother’s touch, a (grand)mother’s voice, a (grand)mother’s guidance, a (grand)mother’s protection, a (grand)mother’s breast, a (grand)mother’s wisdom.