When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.
And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves
And satin sandals, and say we’ve no money for butter.
I shall sit down on the pavement when I’m tired
And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells
And run my stick along the public railings
And make up for the sobriety of my youth.
I shall go out in my slippers in the rain
And pick the flowers in other people’s gardens
And learn to spit…
I’ve loved this poem since I first read it in the 1970s. Even as a young woman, I was enchanted with the idea that as an older person, a tribal elder, I could feel and be less constrained by the dictates of society, more willing and able to do as I pleased, to be a more quirky and braver version of myself.
And here I am, on the cusp of what is generally considered old age — soon to celebrate my 65th birthday — and though I may not literally have a stick, or be running it along the public railings, I’m proud to say that I find myself doing a metaphoric version of these things every day. I’m much more willing than I used to be to challenge assumptions — especially my own — and to be open to different ways of approaching situations or solving problems.
With age has also come a greater willingness to say true but difficult things if I think they will benefit a person, a relationship, an organization: I’m “pressing alarm bells.” And at the same time, I see that my increasing straightforwardness contains a tenderness and compassion that I believe was missing in my earlier years; I’ve now experienced enough pain of my own to know how hard it can be to hear difficult truths.
And I’m pleased to find that my passion for and joy in life are undiminished and, in fact, seem to be increasing; I wear celebratory, invisible purple and red nearly every day. However, I have noticed that my physical stamina is diminished — I get worn out working the 70-hour weeks of my 40s and 50s — and so I’ve decided I need to sit down on the pavement a bit more, so to speak.
I’m very grateful to have the influence and wherewithal to be able to craft my “sitting down” in a way that works for me. So here’s my plan: I’m going to “cut back to fulltime,” as I’ve been saying to my colleagues. Soon I’ll be working four long days every week, instead of five (or six). Starting after the first of the year, on Fridays I’ll mostly be doing things other than working.
It’s interesting watching the reactions I’m getting from friends and clients when I share this plan. Those younger than I are generally very supportive, and see this as a great way to create a little more space for rest and reflection, while still staying active in this work I love so much. Interestingly, the only people so far who seem uncomfortable with my plan are friends my age who are still in the workforce. And their negative response isn’t to the plan itself, but to my acknowledgement that I need a bit more time dedicated to recuperation in order to be at my best when I am working. “I still feel like I’m 29,” a client scowled when I shared this with him. One friend shook her head. “I think it’s limiting to believe we can’t have the same energy at 70 that we did at 30.”
Maybe. But maybe it’s limiting to believe we must have the same energy at 70 that we did at 30. At its core, Jenny Joseph’s poem is about authenticity: discovering and being your true self. And the older I get, the truer I want to be to what I know, understand, and experience, and the more clearly I want to live as a reflection of that truth.
What’s your version of wearing purple? If you were to shift the elements of your life to include more of what you want and need at this point in your evolution, what would that look like?