On the Wisdom of Old Women

Out of the mouths of babes and drunkards comes the truth, goes the old saying. They might be the source of all kinds of useful trivia, largely depending, of course, on what kind of information you’re after, but if you’re on the lookout for wisdom about life, listen to Old Women. 

I want to introduce to you three Wise Old Women, each representing a different but equally important walk of life. Please meet the British author and editor Diana Athill, who last month celebrated her 100th birthday, the American businesswoman, interior designer and international fashion icon Iris Apfel, 96 years, and the youngest of the bunch at 84 years, the US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whom I already introduced earlier here

What these three ladies have in common is that they have each carved their paths in life at times when many professions and other interesting stuff were still off limits to women. Despite their respectably high ages, each of them is still professionally active, which positively freaks me out and puts my occasional work-related fatigue to shame. They have, of course, all been blessed with good health and they have all kept their razor-sharp wits, but it takes extraordinary drive and passion in what you do to keep going when you’re nearing the 100 year-milestone. 

Diana Athill co-founded a publishing house in London after the war, and worked as a publicist and editor (to many literary greats over decades, including Margaret Atwood) until retiring at the age of 75 and starting a new career as memoirist. I’ve read her “Yesterday Morning” and “Alive, Alive Oh!” which are both highly enjoyable. Athill has a particular style of writing – she’s said herself that she doesn’t like a lot of words. Each sentence carries weight and there are no frills. In her latest memoir she makes a lovely reference to luxury and ageing (“when one has become very old, which I take to mean over ninety-five”):

My main luxury is now something which many misguided old people dread: the wheelchair.
​They think submitting to it is humiliating, and they are wrong.
​Nothing could be more deliciously luxurious than being pushed around a really thrilling and crowded exhibition in a wheelchair.
The crowd falls away on either side like the Red Sea parting from the Israelites, and there you are, lounging in front of the painting of your choice in perfect comfort.
​I shall never forget the first time I fully realized how marvellous this can be.

Athill’s life has been considered unconventional for a woman her age – she never married and doesn’t have children. After an intense love affair at 15 ended, she “tried to keep all relationships as trivial as possible”. On her 100th birthday she was asked about her philosophy for a long life. “Up till now I’ve been so lucky and things have come out so well for me that I’ve been able to have a very relaxed philosophy, which is enjoy yourself as much as you can without doing any damage to other people.”

Ruth Bader Ginsburg was covered already last week, but since it’s the New Year and all (time to reclaim the resolutions from last night, people!), have a look at the exercise video by R.B.G’s personal trainer Bryant Johnson to get inspiration for your next gym-trip:

Last up is the fabulous “geriatric starlet” Iris Apfel, New Yorker like Bader Ginsburg (she’s also my eyewear guru/totem animal). You have likely come across her pictures in one of the many advertising campaigns she’s been partaking in the recent years – and indeed should you have visited the White House in Washington D.C., Apfel’s fabric designs are used in many of the rooms and halls. Consultant and lecturer (teaching at University of Texas at the age of 90), Apfel’s creations have been exhibited at the Costume Institute and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Obviously also a topic of many a documentary and film, Apfel resides in New York and is still working “I don’t use the computer and I don’t do email. So technologically I live in the late 17th century which I find very comforting”. 

Given that Apfel is the quintessential visual explosion, it would not do her justice just to describe her thoughts and visions in writing. Below is a fairly recent interview, in which she discusses style, fashion, importance of daring to be different and the internet and youth.

What great life-wisdom are we to take from these great ladies, then? It is possible that it’s their high age that has given them the “zero fucks” -policy as  regards what people think of them, but I suspect all three of them were fierce (or “flaming”, as RBG described herself as a feminist) decades before hitting the big 8-0. Concentrating on doing their own thing while ignoring the background noise is something they all come back to in their texts and interviews. As said Athill in her centenary interview: “I’m more confident now. That’s one of the great advantages of getting older – one does grow out of minding what other people think of you.” Certainly an advice that can be taken up on before celebrating one’s 100 years (note to self). As regards ageing, who better to give credible statements about the first signs of wrinkles than a 96-year old fashion icon? 

“I don’t see anything so wrong with a wrinkle. It’s kind of a badge of courage.”

So here we are, 2018, another year older, yet all shiny and new ahead of us. A rapid-fire of advice for the road:

“My two valuable lessons are: avoid romanticism and abhor possessiveness.” (Athill)

“Women belong in all places where decisions are being made … It shouldn’t be that women are the exception.” (RBG)

“Never be afraid to stop traffic.” (Apfel)

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