Women Rowing North, Navigating Life’s Currents and Flourishing as we Age is a book I had hoped to recommend to women of the third third. It’s written by Mary Pipher, whose Reviving Ophelia immeasurably and intelligently helped me understand girls’ adolescence. So I was looking forward to Pipher’s professional take on aging women (she’s a cultural anthropologist, psychologist and writer). Instead, in Women Rowing North we get the personal lament of a 71 year-old woman and a whole lot of those blasted, banal platitudes about making do with the “less” that Pipher uses to define old age. It is as if she is demonstrating, with every page of text, her diminished capacity to produce a reliable tome about another stage of life, in this case, women’s old age. And it’s not just old, old age, she’s writing about; she seems to date our decline to pretty much anytime after 60. Instead of providing research, reasoning and psychological analysis, Pipher intersperses her self-indulgent feelings with relatively random vignettes about a few other older women who are in much tougher situations (raising their grandchildren for a drug-addicted daughter, caring for a husband in decline with Parkinson’s disease). It feels like a bid to encourage the rest of us to be grateful for the time we have to think about what it feels like to be older, and for what she asserts is our newfound ability by virtue of age to be totally “in the present.” She advocates — doesn’t everyone? — taking in the beauty of a garden or a walk in the woods or, as she does, lying outdoors looking up at the stars and the vastness of the universe. She posits the pabulum that Life as a woman of our times in our culture rewards us in old age ,despite its afflictions, with refined abilities to be authentic, empathetic, intentional, wise and “deeply happy.” She just doesn’t sound that way. Nor does she explain or share the hard work that can be involved in that quest for authenticity and meaning. At any age.
There’s nothing really wrong with what Pipher writes, but it’s disappointing that there is really nothing very insightful or original either. It is not very purposefully organized, and the metaphors are tired. Just how much effort by this respected author is reflected in an index that lists such terms as “bliss,” and “building a good day?” Pipher also ignores the fact that not everyone lives and feels as she does at 71. Indeed, I found a huge disconnect between the generalizations I was reading in Women Rowing North and what I am — happily and more robustly — experiencing at 71 myself— physically, intellectually and emotionally.
I think perhaps the problem is that I’m bored with random, hackneyed talk of old age, and frustrated by thinking about it as a monolithic state of being when, really, we’re all still living highly individualized lives. And I am further irritated by the suggestion that I am, or any of us is, defined primarily by our age. Women Rowing North is a disappointing disservice to us all.