On the edge of a flowerbed in the University of Nebraska’s Yeutter Garden, a man in a chartreuse vest studies a map, flips through a three-ring binder containing photographs of plants, glances at the map again. Then he pulls from a rack what looks like a weirdly proportioned golf club or dental mirror. He drives the sharp end of the club into the ground on the outer edge of a clump of cranberry-pink blooms past their prime. When he steps back, I see that the plaque atop the stake bears names: “Heartleaf-Bergenia/Bergenia cordifolia.” I consider these words. Because the edges of the large, leathery leaves are rolled in, I can’t see if they’re heart-shaped. Bergenia. Probably the name of a botanist who studied this plant. Is that with a hard or soft g? If it’s the former, I’ll see reddish stems as assertively lifting the wilted blossoms above the leaves. But if it’s the latter, I’ll see the stems as gently supporting the blossoms. If I hadn’t known the name of this plant, I might have just glanced at the flowers and moved on, without noticing the leaves or stalks, without searching for the right name for the color of the petals, without considering the connections between the name and the named.
Rather than continuing on to the library where I’d planned to spend the afternoon reading student essays, I linger because I’m enchanted by one revelation after another. The name-staker doesn’t seem to mind that I watch him work. Next to a cluster of tall, elegant spikes of periwinkle-blue flowers with fused, sweet-pea-like flowers, he drives a stake bearing the names “False Blue Indigo/Baptista australis.” How could anything about this lovely, innocent plant be “false”? The names “Balloon Flower/Platycodon grandiflorus” are staked to a plant that on this late May day is nothing but leathery, blue-green, lance-shaped leaves and stems, which leaves me wondering about the aptness of the common name. But if I return mid-summer, I’ll see the “balloons,” pop-able, light blue-violet orbs, that inspired the name.
I wouldn’t need a chart to match some plants with their names. “Morning Light Silver Grass/Miscanthis sinensis Rotsilber” belongs to the fountain of grass with narrow, arching leaves, each streaked with bright silver. But other names prompt me to look closely for what inspired them. I like those names the best. I stand before a colony of “Solitary Clematis/Clematis integrifolia.” The four petals of this vivid blue-violet flower are puckered and slightly twisted. Together, they form a bell or urn, borne on a thin, wiry stem. How can the members of a colony be solitary? Yet on occasion, I have felt quite alone even when in a crowd of my own kind. What is the name for that experience? When I gently lift one of the nodding clematis blossoms and behold the stunning contrast of the bright yellow center against the deep, rich blue, my spirit swells and I gasp. What is the name for that response?
I’m distracted by a young couple leaving the university’s dairy store, each carrying a waffle cone. They’re a pretty pair, him with his green Bavarian Mint, her with her pink Raspberry Chocolate Chip. If I bought a scoop, I’d have a hard time choosing between Scarlet & Cream (vanilla ribboned with strawberries and strawberry syrup) and Carmel Cashew (rich, shiny tan flecked with gold chunks). Could the man in neon green stake a name for this: my abrupt shift in focus following a span of rapt attention?
While I’m intrigued by the act of bestowing names and how a designation may or may not match the essence of that which it labels, I’m even more curious about those objects, organisms, experiences, and perceptions that bear no names. When I was ending my marriage over twenty years ago, it struck me that to call the legal dissolution of the unions of those with and without children by the same name, “divorce,” was to deny essential differences: that because the amount of time that a parent will have with his/her children is at stake, the effects of the dissolution might be particularly devastating; that though the legal marriage is over with the children, money, possessions, friends, and pets divvied up and the two parties gone to their separate addresses, the interactions between the former spouses will continue through their children’s dance recitals, ballgames, science fairs, graduations and weddings and the dance recitals, ballgames, science fairs, graduations and weddings of their grandchildren. The dissolution of a childless marriage lacks these consequences. The different experiences of divorce call for different names.
Another stunning omission is the lack of a name for the parent whose child dies. A woman who loses her husband is called a widow. A man who loses a wife is called a widower. A child who loses his/her parents is called an orphan. The word “orphan” has been in use since about 1300 and “widow” is far older. But the lack of a name for the one who survives the death of his or her child is curious, since I’ve heard that described as the most grievous loss one can suffer. Does the lack of a name for this bereaved state hearken back to a time when most women gave birth every year or two, yet only a portion of their brood survived childhood, and so it was too risky to treasure one’s offspring to the same extent that we do now, in this time of parenting experts, joint custody, and prolonged adolescence? Or is the omission primarily economic, since there are far fewer legal and economic ramifications from the death of a child than from that of a parent or spouse?
Noticing what isn’t yet named is a contrary process, since it involves learning to see the unnoticed or unidentified. But I’ve found it to be a gratifying awareness to develop, since it expands the breadth of what I know and can articulate. Now I know that I want a name for the combination of remembered desire and current revulsion that arises in me as I watch my cat pummel the comforter on my bed as if it were bread dough or aching muscles. I want a name for that point in my grieving when I started dreaming of my beloved dead in such a way that I felt accompanied and comforted all day and believe, really believe, that there are more painful forms of separation than death. I want a name for that transitional state following my arrival home from a long trip when, even though I’m sitting in my living room in my favorite spot, sipping tea from my favorite mug, that which governs my sense of movement and stasis is still in motion, still traveling. I want a name for that type of conversation that I’ve had a few dozen times in my life, in which the talk is so deep, soulful, intimate, and revelatory that the other conversers and I are not aware of time’s swift passage and the gathering darkness or approaching dawn, until something breaks in—the crying child, the knock on the door, the closing call—and yanks us back into ordinary time and talk.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the author of Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder (Random House, 2012), filled an emptiness by coining a name for a counterintuitive process that he observed and studied. Taleb says that “Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love, adventure, risk, and uncertainty.” Yet in spite of the ubiquity of this phenomenon, there was no word for the opposite of fragile. Taleb says that what he calls the “antifragile” is “beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better.” To illustrate, he points to the Hydra, the mythological, many-headed sea-monster. Each time Hercules cut off one of the Hydra’s heads, two more sprang forth. Because the Hydra used trauma and adversity as the impetus for growth, the creature was antifragile.
Taleb, a Professor of Risk Engineering at New York University’s Polytechnic Institute, says that in recent decades, our society has created conditions that while providing us with the illusion of safety, have also “fragiliz[ed] the economy, our health, political life, education, almost everything … by suppressing randomness and volatility.” The New York banking system, five banks, each too big to fail, is an example of extreme fragility, since the failure of one bank threatens the entire system; bailouts make the system even more fragile, since the learning and adjustments that could result from a bank closure can’t happen. In contrast, the restaurant sector, comprised of many, many establishments of various sizes, styles, and philosophies, is robust because the failure of one restaurant doesn’t jeopardize the others. And, too, the restaurant sector as a whole is antifragile because other restaurants learn and improve after observing the mistakes made by those that went out of business. A fragile education is one in which the children are overprogrammed, overscheduled, and overprotected, and so, not permitted to make the kind of mistakes that would allow them to develop strength and resilience. A robust education is one based on the chaotic and unpredictable nature of “street life”; an antifragile education is one of street fights and unlimited access to a good parental library. Taleb summarizes: “Skills that transfer: street fights, off-path hiking, seduction, broad erudition. Skills that don’t: school, games, sports, laboratory—what’s reduced and organized.”
I, too, have coined terms and have created new uses for existing words. The one that has gained the widest currency is “perhapsing,” a term I created to describe the speculation or conjecture that I engage in when I don’t have all of the information I need to flesh out a passage in one of my essays. As a writer of creative nonfiction, it would be unethical for me to fictionalize. But if I inform my readers that the information I’m including is speculative rather than fact-based through such words and phrases as “perhaps,” “maybe,” “possibly,” or “could have been,” I’m on firm ethical ground. Then, if my memory of the time that I learned a secret is fuzzy and incomplete, I can “perhaps” details and plausible dialogue. Then if the person I’m profiling can’t or won’t speak of what it was like to grow up in a good-hearted but flawed utopian community, I can “perhaps” likely reasons.
Increasingly, I find myself in need of words to name my experiences with aging, the new land through which I’m journeying. While I occasionally hear travelers’ tales about the beautiful harbors, fertile valleys, and welcoming, energizing cities in this land, the most readily available maps of the place were drawn by sojourners whose paths wound through spartan, hardscrabble landscapes and ended at waste dumps or dead ends. I don’t want to follow in their footsteps. While I yearn for maps on which the landmarks, boundaries, mileage posts, and detours are well marked, and while I yearn for signs announcing what’s ahead (“Blind curve!” or “Here be dragons!” or “Healing water below!”), I’m charting my own course, naming what I find as I go.
One experience that I need a name for is the habit of describing an attractive, vibrant older person as “looking ten years younger” than his/her chronological age or being “young at heart” or thinking or acting “progressively” or “decades younger” than you’d expect. What these statements reveal is that the beholder and his/her culture have a limited and limiting view of what is possible for an older person. Why can’t a nonagenarian be fit, supple, vibrant, and dynamic? Why is a young heart better than a big, old, wise heart, practiced in the ways of love, loss, passion, forgiveness, and generosity?
Another experience I need a name for is the blessed aversion I’ve felt since my early fifties toward some things for which I used to have a hearty appetite. For instance, I have no desire to attend another writing conference, even if it is in Iceland or Australia, Seattle or Tampa, or to tour another Midwestern Danish, German, Czech, Dutch, or Swedish heritage museum. Once I let go of what no longer nourishes me (not easy, since I’m loyal and resist change), I can, in the newly opened spaces and with the newly available energy, devote myself to more relevant, zestier, and satisfying passions. Now I, for whom work long came above all else, will cheerfully and with only a smidgen of guilt clear my schedule so I can spend time with friends or family or volunteering. Now I, who for decades wrote about the human and natural history of Iowa and Nebraska, the two places I call home, and how people shape or are shaped by the land, have turned entirely from that once enlivening but now lackluster subject to one that I find more energizing and meaningful: the relationships between and among people; how we shape or are shaped by culture.
So, too, I need a name for an experience of which I’ve become keenly aware: when a brief glance simultaneously renders an older person highly visible (one’s agedness is all that the beholder sees) and largely invisible (no matter how saucy, buff, visionary, iconoclastic, or buzzing with energy one is, no matter how much wisdom, love, truth, or grace one embodies, one’s agedness is all that the beholder sees). While the person who cannot see is the one with the deficiency, the one who has been invisibilized feels that she or he is the one who is wanting and so, unworthy of regard.
In mythology and literature, the man (it’s always a male) who donned the cape or helmet of invisibility is endowed with superhuman powers that could be used for good or ill: while invisible, Perseus escaped from the vengeful sisters of the Medusa who he’d just killed; while invisible, the soldier in the Grimm fairy tale, “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” discovered where the lovely sisters went each night in defiance of their father, the king; while invisible, Dr. Griffin in H. G. Wells’ novel The Invisible Man, robbed and murdered. While the growing invisibility that accompanies aging is generally disempowering, it isn’t without benefits for some. When she turned fifty, Carolyn C. Heilbrun, a feminist scholar and author of detective novels, said she would have made the ideal burglar since no one could see her anymore. In The Change: Women, Aging, and Menopause (Ballantine, 1993), Germaine Greer claims that invisibility is desirable because finally, the older woman can “transcend the body that was what other people principally valued her for, and be set free both from their expectations and her own capitulation to them.” Greer’s view needs to be contextualized. She has long been in the public eye as one of the most significant and controversial feminist voices of the past century. Perhaps after decades of being noticed, she felt relief in becoming less conspicuous as she aged. But it’s not relief that most of my over-fifty friends and I feel about our invisibility; rather, we feel sad, frustrated, and undermined.
When we fail to bring into words our experiences and concepts because they conflict with our professed values or point to something we’d rather not acknowledge, we render our experiences mute and impotent. The effects of that are disabling, dangerous even. Any of us who live long enough in this youth-worshipping culture will be invisibilized by our juniors, but without the words to speak of that common experience, we won’t be fully aware of when and why it’s happening, how we feel when it happens, and what to do about it. When I read Margaret Cruikshank’s Learning to be Old: Gender, Culture, and Aging (Rowman & Littlefield, 2009), I acquired some of the language and concepts I needed to describe my experience of aging and to inform the way I approach it. Cruikshank says that we have to “learn” to be old, to “inhabit” our age, to “perform” our agedness. “An old woman becomes old not by any words or gestures, necessarily, but by having projected onto her [the] younger women’s culturally-shaped notions of what old is.” Chief among these values is that the old don’t merit being seen and regarded. Too many of us older women voluntarily, or perhaps with a little persuasion or coercion, wrap ourselves in the cape of invisibility that society has fashioned for us. Yet if the way we express our age is determined more by culture than biology, then we have choices as to how we inhabit or perform our age.
The name-staker at the Yeutter Garden works with plants in the berms and rock garden that already bear layers of names. His job is simply to match the name to the plant to which it belongs. But my task of staking my unnamed experiences is more demanding. To prepare myself, I read lyric essays so that my head is full of compressed, precise, dazzling language and associative leaps. I read the works of age theorists like Kathleen Woodward, Simone de Beauvior, and Margaret Morganroth Gullette, as well as Cruikshank, Heilbrun, and Greer so that I’m sensitized and defiant. I recognize and delineate my perceptions and feelings and talk to perceptive others about theirs. Then, I begin naming what grows in my garden.
“Age passing” is what I choose to call the acts of one who invests time, money, creativity, and energy in disguising him/herself as a younger person. “Passing,” according to Wikipedia, “is the ability of a person to be regarded as a member of social groups other than his or her own, such as a different race, ethnicity, caste, social class, gender, age and/or disability status, generally with the purpose of gaining social acceptance or to cope with difference anxiety.” I quote this definition only because every item in the list is blue and hyper-linked except for age—the stage in life for which we have the least adequate vocabulary, the stage in life which will affect each of us who lives long enough. Dying your gray hair black or blond and spending hours at the gym each day to give your body a shape that is more angular than round might make you feel more secure about keeping your job and your boyfriend, yet the gains are offset by the losses of not being able to set photos of your teenaged grandchildren on your desk at work or tell anecdotes about your thirtieth or fortieth high school reunion or eat lunch with the other older employees who are chatting about that great article in the most recent issue of AARP The Magazine about how to get along with your young boss for fear of appearing old and out of the loop. Because of the greater distance between your real and your perceived identity, “age passing,” makes you vulnerable, susceptible, fragile. One revealing or uncensored moment (when it’s your turn to talk at the meeting, you flush bright red and break a sweat because of a hot flash; when you receive news that you won the grant you applied for, you exclaim, “Now we’re cooking with gas!”), and the jig is up.
I call those who encourage and praise people who are “age passing” as younger than their years “age disclaimers,” since they deny or repudiate the full range of what is possible in older people. The author of an article on a pop culture website was “disclaiming” when she wrote that sixty-seven-year-old Helen Mirren is “forever frozen as a classy, regal woman of 50.” (italics mine) Gloria Steinem was “claiming” when, on her fortieth birthday, she said, “This is what 40 looks like—we’ve been lying for so long, who would know?” Steinem’s friend Robin Morgan was also “claiming” when instead of saying that at eighty, Steinem has the energy, power, and drive of one several decades younger, that at eighty, her friend is “a better organizer … a better persuader … a better writer than she ever has been.” Disclaiming one’s true age (sixty is the new fifty) is dishonest and thwarting; claiming one’s true age (sixty is sixty) is honest and liberating.
“Afternooning” is what I call the weariness, boredom, or ennui I feel toward what held my attention when I was younger and using that newly released time, energy, and creativity for activities that I now find more vibrant and fulfilling. In a 1933 essay, “The Stages of Life,” psychotherapist Carl G. Jung observed that during middle age, what he called “the afternoon of life,” one cannot live “according to the program of life’s morning—for what was great in the morning will be little at evening, and what in the morning was true will at evening have become a lie.” Middle age, the afternoon of life, is just as meaningful as the morning; yet, its meaning and purpose are different. This letting go or shaking off of what once gripped one’s attention and embracing the new and more consequential is vital, since as Jung says, middle age has “significance of its own and cannot merely be a pitiful appendage to life’s morning.” During the afternoon of life, we can develop those parts of ourselves that we ignored or postponed attending to when we were younger. Thus the one who long sought personal success, power, and approval in the marketplace, craves time at home, playing with the grandchildren, making and eating slow, homemade lunches, reading those books that one never had time for before, and never again wearing make-up and uncomfortable but stylish shoes. One who devoted decades to creating harmony, order, and abundance in the domestic sphere is wild to be out in the public sphere, honing one’s leadership skills, commanding audiences, eating fast lunches on the go, never again sitting in the back corner as one seeks to create harmony, order, and abundance in one’s city, country, world. Both are afternooners. By balancing and integrating their hungers and surfeits, their strengths and weaknesses, both types are becoming less fragile, more robust, even antifragile.
My chosen names for the act of being rendered invisible because of my age or of my invisiblizing others because of their age is inspired by the 2014 invention of an invisibility cape. The Rochester Cloak, so called because it was invented at the University of Rochester in New York, isn’t really a cape but a physical structure that hides from view both the obscuring device and the object that lies behind it. The cloak consists of four carefully placed standard lenses (they look like magnifying glasses to me) of the correct power, spaced the correct distance apart in terms of focal lengths, and held in place by an optical bench. The two outer lenses focus the light from a wide area onto the two smaller lenses in the middle, which creates a region where the incident light can’t reach the object, and the reflective light can’t reach the beholder. To make a pencil disappear, you place it between the first two lenses. Then when you look through the lenses, what you see isn’t the pencil but what’s beyond the farthest lens, the picture on the wall. The Rochester Cloak doesn’t create transparency; rather it guides light around the obscuring object, so that the object you want to hide isn’t visible. Optical cloaking, it’s called. The photograph accompanying the article from the University of Rochester NewsCenter about this invention shows a man holding a lens before his right eye. I had to look at the photo again before I realized that where the man’s eye socket should have been is the picture on the wall behind him. “Invisibilized” and “invisibilizing” are fine terms, but I prefer the simplicity of “cloaking” and “cloaked” for this phenomena because they suggest, in concrete terms, the illness (cloaking another; being cloaked) and the cure (refusing to cloak or be cloaked).
Usually, I’m not aware that I’ve wrapped myself in an invisibility cloak, or more likely, that one has been thrown over me, until I realize that even though I’m standing directly in front of someone, he/she is looking past me, as if there are four lenses between us bending light rays around me, concealing my softly creased face, the gray hairs among the blonde, my direct, unwavering gaze, my yoga-supple spine, joints, tendons, and spirit and the wisdom and experience I’ve gained over many decades. Also, I’ve had to learn to see the cloaks that I’ve thrown on others, something I do with far less frequency than I used to now that I know how it feels.
Now, when I encounter someone who is “age passing,” “afternooning,” “cloaking,” being “cloaked,” “claiming,” or “being disclaimed,” I slip the name for the phenomenon into my conversation with him/her. If I see a look of perplexity flash across his/her face, I define the term and provide examples. While my hopes are lofty (I want these neologisms to catch on and cause a revolution in how we see and respond to aging), of more immediate concern to me is that I remember these terms when I’m sad, angry, or rattled about having been cloaked or disclaimed and want to name and challenge rather than run and hide from the affront.
When I return to Yeutter Garden in early July, the name-staker is gone. The garden is crowded with flowers and foliage that grow so quickly in the heat. People stroll along the paths on the edges of the flowerbeds, marveling at the lilies, balloon flowers, speedwells, hawkweeds, coreopsis, harebells, bees, and butterflies, and reading the names on the plaques. The blossoms of the Heart-leaf Bergenia are gone, but the large, shaggy, brilliant red-orange flower heads of “Gardenview Scarlet Bee Balm/ Monarda didyma” are in full and luscious bloom, as are the lovely, airy blossoms of the Balloon Flower. Every plant is staked and named; every plant is worthy of consideration. Yet it occurs to me that I should look again, since there might be something growing here that I can’t see because it hasn’t yet been named and staked.