I was walking to lunch with the first prize winner of a writing contest. (I had come in third.) She was tall, blonde and elegant. With the kind of bone structure and long neck that gives you a free pass to beautiful. We had each left a young child at home to travel to the retreat. In conversation, she dropped her age. Murmured. Out of all the secrets we might have shared it was this one. Our ages.
“I’m 40 too!” I chirped.
“Don’t tell anyone,” she said, “An agent once told me that he didn’t take on writers older than 40. They’re not worth it. You can pass for 26.”
In under five seconds I can name three terrible decisions I made when I was 26:
1. Quit graduate school.
2. Opened a doomed business that I did not want to open.
3. Married the wrong man. (The obviously wrong man).
Two months later I was pregnant. We were married on the edge of a cliff along the Columbia River Gorge, but I may as well have been leaping off of it, into stalagmites and fire. By the time my belly was round I was back in school. Literature and theory, airy as both are, were the only tethers I had back then. It would have been precisely the wrong time for any agents to take me on.
I was a mess at 26, and most of my young adulthood was engaged in undoing tragedy after the inevitable crashes. I could not bear to dis other young women similarly. I have been around tons of undergrads, and I’ve known brilliant, amazing women who were under 22. I have no reason to think that they would not become twice so by 44, instead of beginning to wilt or recede by 40. It is my own path to have taken it slow. To have taken slow my blooming.
But I hesitate to call myself a late bloomer. Not that I could rally any literary professionals to claim that I’ve bloomed. Still, I feel like a savant. Like someone who has managed to forge miracles out of ash. I feel like I’ve done something. Something remarkable in a short amount of time.
“Society” would disagree. People I’ve worked with have murmured about my actual age, my strange career trajectory that veers sideways or down if not up. Even my friends have chafed at my seemingly bizarre and recent decision to adopt a child, a baby, when said career has barely launched. And also, when I’m so . . . old. They all thought it was strange enough to have a second child when my first was 10. “Starting over” they called it, as in, “why would you want to?” “Accident,” someone had the the gall, not to ask, but to claim.
I actually feel like I’ve made an efficient use of my time. I’m only 44 and I’ve managed to helm a set of children who are very far apart in ages. I cannot conceive of having them as infants all in a row. I could only have ever handled one little baby at a time. Each in their own singular pod. And then of course, I have the doctorate. (Just trust me, achieving it was the polar opposite of a brisk cake walk).
Jean Slaughter wrote brilliantly about changing the story of what it means for women to have it all. She basically argues that when you factor in motherhood, it can take awhile for women to reach their prime, into their fifties and sixties.
Of course, I must remark on what everyone knows, that a woman’s value is inextricable from her external beauty. It is the strangest notion that one should listen most to women when their physical beauty is considered to be peaking. Most women will be quite unaware of this fleeting moment anyway.
First of all, insecurity is often attendant early in life, so young women are apt to miss this window. In my own case, the day which I would have been deemed most attractive by the highest male percentage occurred somewhere between age 12 and 26. I was completely oblivious to it. Strangely, I seemed to attract the most physical attention as a child, not as a young woman. At a G0-Go’s concert when I was 12, and modestly clothed, a man said loudly to his friend, “she’s thirteen, but I want to fuck her.” This pronouncement made me feel monstrous and ashamed, for summoning such a baffling desire in a grown male. And there began to breed an uncomfortable reaction to my own body and the various catcalls it activated without ever trying.
Not surprisingly, I retreated into my mind, and was not known as a talker until I was forced to teach classes in grad school, by this time 29. Three years past the prime age of 26.
I won’t speak for other women of legal age, but I didn’t do or think anything of significant note before age 27. I’m not dissing myself. I wasn’t a rube. I was talented and bright, but completely at the hot beginnings of what I could become. And I had glimmers of critical thought, passions, and occasional bursts of ideas, but . . . I would locate 27 as the age in which I began to think past about 15 pages of prose. My serious intellectual education took place in school, but also in the imaginings of what I believed was possible.
I was 27 when the wide plains opened wider and they bells went off and I clearly saw the blueprints of the pieces I would write and the things I would accomplish. Before 27, I just wasn’t confident enough yet. I didn’t have the wherewithal to give in to my possible greatness. It took me a dozen more years to become truly strong. And a dozen years and at least a dozen tragedies until I was fully formed. I do not advocate going through hell as a means of self-discovery. It just happened to be the way that I went through it. And here I am again, at 44. Apparently, unbankable in society’s eyes. But feeling very much in possession of the hot secret about women and aging.
I’m sure my beautiful and award-winning friend was being generous when she claimed I could pass for 26. It thrills me to know that I never could. I’m passed all that. It’s just unbelievably good.