Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Reaching youth's escape velocity

There is something transformative about a woman reaching age 36. I feel like 36 is the point at which a woman reaches the "escape velocity" to go beyond the stereotypes of youth. We are sold youth as a good thing, but the limitation of being seen as a cute ingenue who isn't taken seriously is something that I don't miss. Only in my mid-thirties have I been able to grow beyond a girlish stereotype into my own self.

Two cultural touchstones make me think about age 36 as a powerful and sometimes dangerous age. First there was the Daphne du Maurier novel and Hitchcock film adaptation Rebecca. The story's protagonist is a nameless, naive girl who is swept off her feet by a mysterious older Englishman she meets in Monte Carlo. He is drawn to her because she is a blank slate to write on, a pliant piece of clay to be molded.

Woman: Oh, I wish I were a woman of thirty-six, dressed in black satin with a string of pearls.
de Winter: (Laughs) You wouldn't be here with me if you were...please promise me never to wear black satin or pearls, or to be thirty-six years old.
Woman: Yes, Maxim.

He says this in a joking manner but we find out later that Maxim's first wife never reached 36 because he killed her.

I used to be drawn in by the romance of the "second Mrs. De Winter's" subsequent adventures, but now that I am older, I am much more interested in the mysterious Rebecca, Maxim's first wife who was magnetic, wild, manipulative and deceitful. Her spirit, her singular name, hold a spell over the household after her death. We find out that Rebecca knew she had terminal cancer and goaded Maxim into killing her in an attempt to destroy him as well. (Let's save the moral analysis of Maxim and his devoted second wife for another post.)

The second cultural milestone is the example of Princess Diana's real-life tragedy, perishing just after she reached her 36th birthday. I think many of us had the sense that the newly liberated, single Diana was about to launch into a glorious next act of her life. The portrait session by Mario Testino, five months before her death, showed a side of Diana we had never seen before. Her English rose beauty was taking on a glowing maturity. I remember thinking at the time that it would be so interesting to see how she redefined beauty as she aged. But even as she exercised her newfound independence, she put her trust in the wrong men to keep her safe and paid with her life. It's as though her story couldn't survive for long outside the bounds of the fairytale princess myth.

Diana was 7 years older than I, which might not sound like a huge gap, but when she got married, I was just about to turn 13 and it seemed like our lives could never intersect. So it is a bit surprising to realize that from here on out, I am living an age she'll never experience.

I still don't feel old but I am starting to feel emboldened. Beyond youth lies knowledge, courage, even wisdom, one hopes. I don't know too many women in their 30's or 40's who would jump at the chance to be 25 again.

Gaining courage is still a work in progress. I marvel at the ability of men to claim power and authority regardless of their actual expertise. I have had the chance to see women do an exercise where women are asked to fill in the blanks for the statement "I am an expert at... because...." and it's not easy for many of us.

Today as I write this, my confidence is really being put to the test. As I mentioned yesterday, I wrote a (parent . thesis) CNET blog posting about the possible child abuse risks associated with giving low-cost laptops to kids in the developing world. I thought I was raising an obvious, common-sense concern, but I am being lambasted by a significant percentage of commenters. The piece was picked up by Broadsheet on and the haters came out there as well. I feel agitated, upset, and a knot is twisting in the pit of my stomach. I feel very strongly about this issue and confident in the validity of my position, but the negativity spewing out still hurts. It really sucks to think that someone would accuse me of having a fear-mongering agenda or that I was self-aggrandizing rather than bringing up a topic in a thoughtful way. But I have to get beyond that reaction to keep writing.

So now it's time to call on that internal reserve of courage. I am looking for my mojo recharge and directing all shields to full power as I summon the energy to continue following the advice of wise woman and Gray Panther founder, Maggie Kuhn: "Speak your mind, even if your voice shakes."

The full context of Kuhn's quote is even more challenging. I think it will take me a few more years to be ready for this kind of courage:

“Go to the people at the top—that is my advice to anyone who wants to change the system, any system. Don’t moan and groan with like-minded souls. Don’t write letters or place a few phone calls and then sit back and wait. Leave safety behind. Put your body on the line. Stand before the people you fear and speak your mind—even if your voice shakes. When you least expect it, someone may actually listen to what you have to say. Well-aimed slingshots can topple giants.”

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Blogger Kelly said...

For me I've had several years where I feel more and more empowered and full of courage--31, 34, and now especially 37. The only thing I would like back from my 20's is my 20-year-old body. But that timid, insecure person in the 20-year-old body, well she can just stay there, way back in the past.

Great post.

5:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree! I always say that life doesn't begin until you are 35, then look out! Of course, it keeps beginning and beginning after that too. As for the folks who disagree with you, it's only ideas, only ideas, not really you. It feels slightly better if you can see the distinction, especially as you stake a claim in the marketplace of ideas.

Keep going, girl. (And who can do anything but?)

1:22 PM  

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