Ursula K. Le Guin once talked about embracing that word, “crone” as an honorific. For most, it is pejorative, inherently agist and sexist, but Ursula argued for a different take. The crone has experience and perspective, intelligence and awareness. The crone is old because she has lived long and prospered. She has earned respect, even though she rarely gets it.
“In her essay, ‘The Space Crone,’ Ursula Le Guin wrote that old women would make the best space explorers. Free from the daily tasks of rearing helpless children, free to see and comprehend without vanity, loving life because we know we may have to leave it soon, we would embark on our journey to the stars not for ego or planting flags but only for information to transmit back to our grandchildren for their future explorations. We know by then that we are part of the flow of life.”
I heard her talk about crones in the 1990s when she was about what my age is now. She wrote this essay twenty years earlier in 1976, when she was in her late 40s and I was in my 20s. It’s the first essay in Dancing at the Edge of the World, which includes her speech “Hunger” that I teach each year. Half that volume is made up of collected book reviews about writers such as C.S. Lewis, Doris Lessing, and Molly Gloss.
Kate Atkinson objects to book reviews written by authors, and particularly to a reviewer declaring her a “matron” in The New Yorker. I understand she considers the term disrespectful. I get it. She’s right. It wants to connect to “society” as in society matron, some woman with grown children who works on charitable committees without ever dirtying her hands. Matron, according to common use and the dictionary is a married woman, especially a dignified and sober middle-aged one. Like “bitch” maybe it’s time we took back the label of matron, the way Dick Gregory took back “Nigger” when he used it to title his memoir, so his mama would know that when she heard that loaded word, it was someone talking about her son’s book. Except that never quite worked and the n-word is still a bad’un.
Like racism and sexism, agism is something we’d like to pretend does not exist. In our youth-obsessed, age- and death-denying society, everyone past high school feels to pressure to be young. How many times have people declared: It’s only natural to want to be young? Maybe. But in most past cultures, even the feeble old were regarded as having earned respect. They are the holders of what we now call institutional knowledge.
A woman I worked with on the local arts council assured me decades ago that “the great thing about being 70 years old is that no one expects you to look young anymore.” She made me laugh. We both laughed. I admired her home, her view, the wooden blackbird hovering over her dining table. I admired her ability to be who she was. I was 30-something at the time, no longer “young” but still uncomfortable with “middle aged.” I clung to Gloria Steinem’s incredible birthday riff about turning forty. “This is what forty looks like. We’ve been lying for so long, who would know?” Except, she was always beautiful, still is, and she’s 84 now. Gloria Steinem is old. She is even that worse thing, elderly.
I will be 66 next week, and I am old. (In medical terms, I am also elderly, but I resist that term. It belongs to my next decade and the one or ones after, should I be so lucky.) I am old, not middle-aged, not young. And I am not “66 years young” which is a pathetic claim to my mind. I am not living backwards. I am not trying to look 35 or 45. I am what I am. I am tired of guilt about youth. I am weary of being told I should yearn for youth, that I should strive for it, that I must always be forever young. I am not young.
Ethel: “Hey, I just met the nicest couple…. In the woods.”
Norman: “Couple of people?”
Ethel: “No, a couple of antelope. Of course a couple of people. Their name is Migliori, I believe…. They’re a nice middle-aged couple, just like us.”
Norman: “If they’re just like us, they’re not middle-aged. Middle-aged means middle, Ethel. Middle of life. People don’t live to be 150!”
Ethel: “Well, we’re at the far edge of middle age,” she says: “That’s all.”
Norman: “We’re not, you know. We’re not middle-aged. You’re old, and I’m ancient.”
Ethel: “Oh, pooh! You’re in your seventies, and I’m in my sixties.”
Norman: “Just barely on both counts”
[In fact, Hepburn was 74 when she said those lines. Henry Fonda was 76. Both were genuinely old, but not ancient. Hepburn was 94 when she died in 2003, but this was Fonda’s last theatrical film—he also made a TV movie that year. He passed early the next year, in 1982.]
There is nothing I want back from youth but the ability to run distance. I could still do that when I was 58. I would like that back. Yes, I truly would. But it won’t happen. I can walk for 2 hours and run short distances, but I will never run 6 or 16 miles again. I mourn for the loss of that running freedom, but I honor what living, reading, and thinking have given me at my age.
I have experienced much, read many books, and thought deeply. I have never stopped reading and thinking and observing the world. There is still learning in my life. I am subject to change. That last should be another posting.
In the mean time, I have lived long and prospered. I have earned my age. Give me the credit I am due.