The Second Half of Life - Part 1 - In progress
Contributor
Written by
Vicki Madden
July 2011
Contributor
Written by
Vicki Madden
July 2011

   Recently I found myself around a seminar table with people of vastly different ages. We were discussing A.S. Byatt’s novella The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye. After listening for a time waiting to see if anyone else had anything to say about the narrator, wondering if I noticed only because I was a 50-year-old woman, I pointed out that Byatt had chosen a very particular narrator to tell this tale, a woman in her fifties who in many ways had passed beyond some of the challenges of life described in the fairy tales she studies as a narratologist. The narrator knows that she is no crone as the tales describe crones, but rather “an unprecedented being, a woman with porcelain-crowned teeth, laser-corrected vision, her own store of money....”  She calls herself redundant, pointing out that no one needs her, an unusual state for a woman.

A young woman in the group, mid-20s, objected that the narrator wasn’t really an independent woman, that a couple of the other characters seemed more independent and feminist. I responded rather impatiently: the narrator wasn’t claiming anything about her own character here, she’s observing that she lives at an unprecedented time in history, where a woman in her fifties is not dead of childbirth fever, or influenza, religious persecution or human sacrifice. She has her teeth, she has her sight and she has money. A man my age, early 50s, murmured, “She’s godlike.”

I said I thought this character - and the novella - was about the second half of life, in a Jungian sense. In the first half of life, we have ego-driven goals, to develop our courage and personas enough to leave home, find a vocation, make a living, perhaps make a mark in the world. We couple off and make our own families. But in the second half of life, which not all people have been fortunate enough to live, we move into a phase that is both more personal and more archetypal. We see that the pattern of our life is unique to us -- and yet not unique. The inner work that is still incomplete drives us to become more ourselves. We become more eccentric and less concerned with what people think. That is, if we are lucky, if we are willing - and courageous or desperate enough -  to take the psychic space and look our losses straight in the face, grieve and know that it’s our losses and humiliations that teach us who we are. They are the doorway into wisdom, but stepping over that threshold will take all the guts we have.
I thought I knew everything about loss already. I thought I’d been tested and taught through grief as much as is possible. I thought I was wise and full of acceptance. Yet, at 49, when I suddenly lost a lot of hair, I went into a tailspin. None of my previous losses - not the baby, a shocking end to a normal labor, the baby who declined to take up living on her own once the cord was cut; not the brother, dead, on Christmas Eve, of a drug overdose at 25, like so many similar deaths, both a surprise and also long expected; not the father, dead of sepsis two years after a paralyzing stroke brought on by smoking crack in his 60s. None of these shocking disappearances prepared me for the loss of my hair. I stared mortality in the face: I felt in my bones the impossible fact that I had no control over the aging of my body. Could I even call it mine? Sure, I lived in it, I’d claimed its glories - the hourglass figure - and obsessed about its shortcomings: too fat, too short. But it had a life of its own and that terrified me. Of course, I could eat right, exercise, floss, eat fiber, take vitamins, avoid cigarettes, alcohol, cocaine. I did all those things, but I couldn’t make my hair grow. And I couldn’t live with the uncertainty that it might get worse not better.
Or that even worse things might happen. That same year, two women I knew, two healthy, right-living, 52-year-old women with children still at home, died of brain cancer. I was paralyzed: how could I keep living if I didn’t know what was going to happen?
  To be continued...

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