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I pee my pants a little when I sneeze too hard. I get drunk – and later get a hangover – from a single glass of wine. Last June I sprained my ankle… and I don’t even know how. I wrapped it in braces for four months. Even now, seven months later, I still sometimes feel a slight pain when walking around the house. When I told my husband about it, he said, “We’re old now. Things just don’t heal anymore.”
But as I’m heading into my 40s, it’s not just my serious contemplation of leak-proof panties and eye cream that makes me think about getting older. It’s my new relationship with ambition (can I stop aiming for the stars and just embroidering things all day now?). It’s my new relationship to marriage and intimacy (can I stop shaving my legs and planning dates and just read books in bed all night?). It’s my new relationship with my parents (hellooo sandwich generation). It’s made my guilt about certain things just fall away, finally making it easier for me to set firm boundaries and say no to everything.
With these profound changes, I’ve found myself less and less associating with books about early career shenanigans and growing up, and eventually finding myself (though don’t get me wrong…I’m still not convinced that I’m myself and I ever really found it would be great if someone could tell me where to look). Thank goodness there are memories from older writers who really understand me and who I might be able to speak openly to about having a travel urinal in the trunk of my car, just in case.
If you’re looking for the same understanding, check out these eight memoirs about getting older.
Love and Trouble by Claire Dederer
I read this memoir five years ago when I was in my thirties, but I still found much to connect with in this book, which describes itself in the subtitle as “a midlife reckoning.” Love and Trouble follows Dederer as she reconciles the young woman she once was with the woman she has become in midlife. What struck me the most was how Dederer casually revealed the worst parts of himself to the readers and displayed that no-fucks-left energy that I get to know so well. I also connected to her thoughts on sexuality and power and her deep desire to be wanted. If you’re over 15 years in a marriage and can best describe your fashion sense as mom-at-school-pickup, you start to miss that feeling of being desired by others (although at other times that sense of invisibility can be can be a blessing).
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Quiet Hostile by Samantha Irby (May 16)
What is that? Irby’s… 11 billionth collection of essays? A well-known blogger and comedian, she’s in top form in her latest (which unfortunately won’t be out until May). I think what I enjoy most about Irby’s work, aside from the wacky humor, is how it feels like she just…understands me. Whether I’m writing about incontinence, masturbation, or have the palate of a 7 year old, I’m with her. It helps that we’re the same age. The frustrating details of how things are as you get older permeate every page. bladder problems. bad knees They are all just a fact of life.
Calypso by David Sedaris
There was a time (back in college) when one of my favorite genres was white guys writing humorous essays. And David Sedaris was one of those guys. I do not know. I guess I wanted to be her? Anyway, years passed and then, in 2018, I read Calypso. Sedaris’ voice…his sense of humor was the same as ever. But things had taken a darker turn. I appreciate how Sedaris tackles some difficult issues in this book, including the death of one of his sisters and the transformation in the relationship he had with his aging father, all without losing a laugh. Black humor for victory.
The crazy woman in the Volvo by Sandra Tsing Loh
Another humorous collection of essays that tackles a very specific part of growing old (at least for those with ovaries): the journey through perimenopause and menopause. As she grapples with “the changes,” Loh also struggles to raise her teenage daughters, cope with her imploding marriage, care for her aging father, weather the ups and downs of her career, and more. In the end, she happily finds things are getting better.
Old in Nell Painter’s art school
Once upon a time, I was a freelance writer and editor in my early career who did quite well. Then there was a recession. I scouted for new sources of income and ended up earning my career coaching certification (lol). I referred to this as my “encore career” even though I was only 28 years old (double lol). Historian Nell Painter, on the other hand, was in her 60s when she went to art school and earned a BFA and then an MFA, having already had a thoroughbred career behind her. In her memoir (Triple Threats!), she explores ageism, sexism, racism and identity while recounting how she decided to start over after retiring.
Can’t we talk about something more pleasant? by Roz Chast
I read this vivid memoir just before my father was diagnosed with MCI (Mild Cognitive Impairment) and I felt like I could see my future. There is the anxious, aging father who eventually slides into dementia. There’s the headstrong, stubborn, aging mother who refuses to ask for help when she needs it. And then there’s the daughter – Roz Chast herself – who doesn’t quite know how to deal with this sudden change without completely turning her own life upside down. See the reference to sandwich creation mentioned above. Beyond the parallels to my own life, I appreciated how this book showed a woman resisting what is expected of daughters and making decisions that respected not only her parents’ care but her own as well.
Gray is the new black from Dorothy Rice
OK. Full Disclosure. I know Dorothy. She was one of my readers at Hippocampus Magazine (and always left the most insightful feedback!) and she edited my work at under the gum tree (which only makes it stronger!), so I wasn’t surprised by the fact that she was a great author is, too. Her memoir is primarily about her decision to go gray with her hair, but it’s also about all of the other insecurities she carries with her as she gets older… insecurities about her body, her eating habits, her marriage and more. These are sources of misplaced shame that I think many of us can relate to.
I Can See You’re Trying by Annabelle Gurwitch
Finally (and because I’m obviously a sucker for a comedic essay collection) we have this one by Gurwitch, a woman on the verge of 50. Addicted to lust…the anti-aging industry…losing the one she loves…this The book goes through the whole roller coaster ride of later life experiences. Because when you fall apart (and, as my husband points out, nothing heals), all you really can do is laugh.
If you want to read more of these (but fictional ones), check out this list of exciting books about women over 50. And if it’s the practical aspects of aging that scare you, this list of the best books for seniors is for you.