WISDOM & AGE & WOMEN
Dear Ones —
The other day, someone asked me why I had dedicated THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS to my grandmother. The simple answer, of course, is that I love her!
The more complete answer is because she turned 100 years old around the time I finished my book, and I wanted to honor her with my novel — especially because so much of my book is about the wisdom of women, and the wisdom of age.
In writing this novel, I very deliberately chose to tell the story of a heroine who does not come into her own power until she is close to 50 years old — and whose wisdom only grows from that point forward. I not only felt this would be an interesting story to tell, I felt it would be ACCURATE. My experience has taught me that middle-age is when women really come into themselves. Of course, popular culture does not always celebrate this reality. So many novels and movies about women celebrate only the youth and beauty of our heroines — as if to to suggest that youth is the most valuable time in a woman's life (perhaps even the ONLY valuable time in a woman's life) and that we are at our most interesting when we are at our most young and pretty.
With all respect to the flower of youth, I beg to disagree. None of the most interesting women I know are 19 years old. (Though some of the 19 year olds I know are extremely cool and promising, and I predict that some of them will become interesting — VERY interesting — as time goes on…. they aren't quite there yet. Nor should they be.)
The women whom I most admire in the world are those who have lived long and survived much. They have been through love, amazement, loss, catastrophe, sorrow. Most of all, though, they have been through DISAPPOINTMENT — and they have each individually found a way to live through it. Not only have they lived through disappointment; they came out on the other side much stronger as a result, having earned perspective, endurance, and wisdom through their trials.
One of the biggest misconceptions about women is that we cannot survive disappointment. Now, clearly this is not true — or else there would not be a woman left alive in the world, right? (Am I right, ladies? Can I get an amen? Hell yeah!)
Because who among us — after a certain number of years of existence — has not been terribly disappointed? By love, by loss, by pain, by life itself?
Yet we are still here. Still here, and, if anything, stronger as we get older. Stronger for all that we have passed through. This is the truth that all the greatest old women know, deep in their bones.
All the big tragic novels written about women (especially novels written about women by men) suggest that women are inevitably destroyed by our disappointments — especially by the disappointments of love. Our poor fragile hearts are broken once, and we are ruined forever. (As much as I love Charles Dickens, he's a terribly guilty proponent of this notion — just look at Miss Havisham, who gets stood up by her lover and then shuts herself away in her wedding dress forever, only to burn to death in a tragic inferno after having suffered through a life of rage and madness. Thanks, Charles, we love you, but…no. We're actually a little bit better at coping with life than that…)
I didn't want Alma Whittaker to be that sort of character. I wanted her to be like the real women I know in the real world — women who have the secret superpower of taking their disappointments, and (using some kind of magical alchemy of infinite grace) turning them into wisdom.
The women whom I love and admire for their strength and grace did not get that way because shit worked out. They got that way because shit went wrong, and they handled it. They handled it in a thousand different ways on a thousand different days, but they handled it.
Those women are my superheroes. This is who I modeled Alma Whittaker upon.
My grandmother (who is now 101 and a HALF!) is just such a woman. She is wise and powerful and beautiful and tough as hell. She did not get that way because things always went in her favor. She will tell you that she has lived a lucky life (because she is a stubbornly upward-looking person) but she has been through unbelievable difficulties. The world was not a wish-fulfiling tree for her, but a trial — and she rose to it magnificently. She is still rising to it.
So that's why I dedicated my book to her. And why I want to be like her when I grow up.