Literature is the art-form of language, and words are its tools. As a painter uses paint, as a musician uses musical instruments, as a sculptor uses stone-and-chisel, so a writer uses words. ‘Hack Wednesday’, a story by Margaret Atwood, has woken me up to our shared, common, inescapable womanhood. As we are here today, perhaps, we will all be there tomorrow – older, different, less agile, more leaden…
“Once she was light on her feet, a waif. Now she casts a shadow.”
Atwood dexterously brings humour and heaviness, all at once, to one of the most disturbing realities of our bodies – their eventual decline. Like Marcia, it defines a lot of women’s choices and concerns.
“The reason she doesn’t have affairs, or hasn’t had any lately, is simple laziness. Too much energy is required; also, she no longer has the body for it, for the initial revelations and displays. She would not have an affair without doing something about her thighs…”
“Marcia holds onto the railing and takes tiny steps downward and wonders if she’s getting osteoporosis. She could fall; she could shatter like a dropped plate, like an egg…She breaks into a slow, lumbering trot and reaches the Bathurst station wheezing.”
It’s hard to imagine any of this in a young, energetic, get-up-and-go body. Organic as our wear and tear may be, we’re unprepared for decisions and considerations upon ageing gracefully. Whatever is that skill?! Does it mean we take care of our bodies as best as we can or simply accept their decline? Either way, it’s probably a mind-body formula – awareness and action all thrown in in correct measure.
And so, age brings with it wisdom and witticisms. Marcia’s gathered her own.
“Three of the city’s homeless are staked out inside the door. All are young men; two of them are Native Indians, one isn’t. The one that isn’t puts the twist on Marcia for some change. He says he just wants to eat, which seems to Marcia a modest enough wish: she knows a lot of people who want a good deal more. He is pallid and stubble-faced, and he doesn’t meet her eyes. To him, she’s just a sort of broken payphone, the kind you can shake to make extra quarters come out.”
She writes for a living about the living and the barely living,
“Her column, which is read by some men as well as by many women, is about issues. Social issues, problems that may come up: caring for the aged at home…She interviews people, she writes from the particular to the general; she believes, in what she considers to be an old-fashioned, romantic way, that life is something that happens to individuals, despite the current emphasis on statistics and trends. Lately things have taken a grimmer turn in Marcia’s column: there’s been more about such things as malnutrition in kindergartens…child abuse.”
The grim turn her writing has taken possibly comes from a soppy place inside her. Because her body is something she lives in and with – as is her mind – and it keeps making itself – (what she perceives as) its shortcomings, flaws, inabilities, anxieties and disgraces known,
“Marcia orders a sangria, and settles her widening bottom thankfully into her chair.”
“Marcia goes to the washroom to deal with her overload of sangrias, and to redo her face. It is far later than she has thought. In the mirror she is shiny-eyed, with flushed cheeks; her hair flies out in dishevelled tendrils. From the side – she can just see, rolling her eyes – she has the makings of a double chin. Her first husband used to tell her she looked like a Modigliani; now she resembles a painting from a different age. A plump bacchante of the eighteenth century. She even looks a little dangerous.”
“Her bladder is bursting; it doesn’t function the way it did.”
The guilt, shame and self-deprecation make me part-angry and part-sympathetic. Why do women do this to themselves? Why do we inflict so much judgment upon ourselves, our bodies, our appearances? Why do we have to look or feel or be like we once were or like anyone else – least of all paintings!?
The years look different on everyone. Marcia hasn’t had the easiest ride. She’s had to make compromises, she’s had to cut corners and that’s unlikely to change going forward. Most of all, she’s had to raise children. And that changes you, more than anything…
“People are already talking about a seventies revival, which puzzles Marcia. What is there to revive? The seventies were the sixties until they became the eighties. There were no seventies, really. Or maybe she missed out on them, because that was when the children were small.”
And for all that self-sabotage and lack of self-love, there is a line that did it for me:
“She must watch this tendency to give up, she must get herself under control.”
We know, lurking somewhere below all the defeat women Marcia’s age often feel, there is a definite understanding, an inner-emergency-broadcast system that reminds them to get a grip.
Like all moms,
“She’s missing the children. Tomorrow they will be home for the holidays, they and their laundry.”
“Marcia smiles…and eats and drinks, and is happy, and outside the kitchen window the wind blows and the world shifts and crumbles and rearranges itself, and time goes on.”
As the day seeps away from her, Marcia knows it will never come back. When the children arrive, one from the east, one from the west,
“There will be rummagings in the refrigerator, crashes as things are dropped; there will be bustle and excitement, real and feigned. The daughter will attempt to organize Marcia’s wardrobe and correct her posture, the son will be gallant and awkward and patronizing; both will avoid being hugged too closely, or too long.”
We will never know why the women who had a lot more going for them before they gave birth, chose to have children – to raise them, to allow them to eat into their brains, youth, beauty, to do their laundry long after they have been raised, to love them despite it all and receive them on holidays or whenever they choose to come home – perhaps, you have to be a mom to know one.
When Christmas Day comes, the rituals will be the same and yet everything will be different. And Marcia will be saddened by what hasn’t stayed like it was and what hasn’t quite changed at all…
“And later, after the dishes are done, she will cry silently to herself, shut into the bathroom and hugging in her festive arms the grumbling cat, which she will have dragged out from under a bed for this purpose. She will cry because the children are no longer children, or because she herself is not a child anymore, or because there are children who have never been children, or because she can’t have a child anymore, ever again. Her body has gone past too quickly for her; she has not made herself ready.”
Women, mothers, Marcias aren’t very difficult to understand, after all. “It’s all this hope”. Within her, for her body, for her children – a sort of extension of her body, for the beings she writes and cares deeply for, for the times that will come and find a way to stay instead of “seeping away”.
And even amidst all that hope, might we be prepared? To ‘Hack’ our way through the ages, gracefully.
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