Tuesday 25 June 2019

Liberating meditation on embracing age

Memoir: Middlepause - On Turning Fifty, Marina Benjamin Scribe €19.99

Marina Benjamin embraces change in Middlepause, her thoughtful narrative on the business of getting older.
Marina Benjamin embraces change in Middlepause, her thoughtful narrative on the business of getting older.
Deirdre Conroy

Deirdre Conroy

Despite its subtitle, this book does not contain advice on diet, yoga, emollients or wardrobe makeovers. Marina Benjamin instead pursues an intellectual perspective of her journey to 50. Living on a Victorian square in London, her home is full of character and charm, a green park abundant with ageing trees out front. Familiarity with pleasing vistas and the shock when appearances change is a metaphor for ageing that comes full circle in her landscape. Body contours and facial features change irrevocably in the autumn of life, as Benjamin approaches 50, she realises that next spring does not bring a cycle of rebirth.

Having been fast-tracked into menopause with a hysterectomy a year before writing, she had no time to get used to the rapid change caused by the removal of her organs. The shock was an opportunity to view the prevailing culture of middle age and the pressure to disguise it, deny it and disown it.

Benjamin is prescribed HRT which she finds transformational. But her research into its history reveals a chillingly misogynistic origin, from the secrecy of its trials, the concealed dangers and its source in the urine of pregnant mares.

Her 12-year-old daughter is a daily reminder of the youthful exuberance that is ebbing away from her own body. She searches for consolation through literature, Edith Wharton's Twilight Sleep and Colette's Break of Day. These books are interpreted through a prism of history that includes Frederick Winslow Taylor's measurement of time and how we occupy our productive days. This obsession with time has remained since the Machine Age. Today, it is a more precious commodity with our multiple technical means of parallel activity forcing greater output. Measuring time in productivity does not sit well for women who have always worked and brought up children. Expectations and disappointments are more vivid to Benjamin at 50. She notes the gap since 40 feels greater than any other period. By 50, the quantum of memory is vast, but ambitions are not always realised, suddenly there is less life to look forward to, or succeed in.

Invisibility can come with age and women are targeted to be more visible through cosmetic marketing. A jar of cream does not contain the serenity that comes with age. It does not contain the beauty that comes with living a good life. The patina of age in our society is only admired on furniture and buildings. Women in their late 40s have never been so ceaselessly reminded to redefine ageing in a superficial way. Youth is never lost, only archived.

One day, Benjamin returns home to find all the trees have been chopped down in the park and changes are being made to the railings and paving. She is depressed at the loss of beauty. When the project is complete however, the light is brighter, the flowers are visible, the park is serene.

After the death of her friend, Kirsty Milne, a form of 'absorbed coping' is her way of dealing with loss. Embracing change within herself and on her street is more liberating than obsessing over what cannot be regained. As a means of inducting younger women into the business of getting older, this is a welcome narrative.

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