Exclusive: June 2018 cover star Zadie Smith weighs in on the great age debate
Why we need to celebrate the inevitable
Writer, rebel, role model… Zadie Smith makes her India debut on the ELLE India June 2018 cover. The celebrated author of cult favourite, Swing Time, writes exclusively for us.
The subject at hand is ‘agelessness’, a concept I think I only half-understand. If it means, “Age is just a number,” or “You’re only as old as you feel,” or “You, too, can look young forever,” then I know I don’t understand it, or, at least, it’s an idea that doesn’t mean much to me. I believe age — and the awareness of age — is one of the few concrete ways we can measure our progress through this world, and that each stage of life has its season and something to teach us, and that either to look or think oneself 27 forever is to abandon the idea of really living altogether. But if, by ‘agelessness’, we are referring to those moments of grace when time swings and you escape the actual number on your passport, and find yourself transported backwards, then, yes, I know that feeling intimately, and it is one of the treasures of existence.
An example: a few days before writing this, I found in my iTunes a song I didn’t know I had, ‘Apparently nothing’, by Young Disciples, a tune I’m quite sure I haven’t danced to since 1991, but which, I now remembered, I’d once played day in and day out with as much delight as I have it in me to experience. So, I was curious: I pressed play, closed my eyes, started to dance. And for three and a half minutes, it really was 1991, both inside me — in my limbs, and in my mind—and for all I knew, outside me, too, for with my eyes closed, it felt entirely possible that all the rest was a dream, that I had no adult life, no partner or children, no job or responsibilities, and that the 16-year-old soul who had once loved this tune was still alive within me and could be awakened at any moment, could perhaps even take over the rest of the organism, and erase all the back-pain and saddlebags and wrinkles and weary experiences that have constituted some of the intervening 26 years since this song first came out.
Then I opened my eyes: I was 42 again.
But the lyrics lingered: “I ain’t trying to rule your mind/A conscious observer trying to find/A place on earth where they heed the signs…”
It is commonly thought that time is the particular enemy of women. Because we supposedly have so much to lose: our ‘looks’, our fertility, our cultural capital. There have been feminist modifications to this story over the years, but it remains powerful: a tale long told by men and subsequently retold and internalised by women.
But there are other ways of looking at it. That women have timepieces built into their bodies — primarily ‘biological clocks’ and the menopause — signs that must eventually be heeded, signs that are, finally, impossible to ignore, seems to me at least as much gift as curse. That our bodies should bring us such concrete signs of time passing — that they should have the miraculous ability to bring us news of what is actually the case — surely means that every woman is offered the opportunity to be, as Young Disciples have it, a “conscious observer” of her own life.
It strikes me that one consequence of this bodily awareness of time is that adulthood — with all its complex responsibilities and demands — often seems to come as less of a surprise to women than it does to many men (there’s a reason our folk tales are full of ‘wise old women’). Our hyper-awareness may well be a kind of opportunity, one that might allow even death itself to be well-imagined and prepared for. And yet, this unique feminine opportunity to be wise — to know time as it is, rather than as we would wish it to be — is almost always diminished or ridiculed. When we were teens, for example, and still testing out ideas of what lay ahead for all of us, I can remember male friends gleefully bringing up the matter of Charlie Chaplin, who, during my youth, was a famous octogenarian father, and often cited as a case of male good fortune versus female bad luck: “You’ll all be finished at 40. But we carry on — we can have babies into our eighties!” And we will stay attractive, the boys meant by this, and we will stay vital, and potent, while you and your lot will wither and fade.
Even at 16, I could hear the fear and anxiety hidden deep within this supposed display of male pride. Was Charlie Chaplin admirable or ridiculous? You could see these boys weren’t exactly sure: the whole point of teasing us about him was to get our assurance one way or another on this point. And who can blame them for being unsure? Without that dreaded ‘biological clock’, without the menopause, and with few honest mirrors in the culture in which to reflect themselves, what or who will tell a man that he is old? That he is no longer 27? That the things that pertain to that beloved 27-year-old self may now need adaptation or change?
I grew up in a culture suspiciously eager to convince me that an 80-year-old woman with a 20-year-old man was at the best comically grotesque, at the worst, some form of perversity, while Chaplin and his youthful loves, by contrast, were an example of the ‘agelessness’ of men. But the truth is — as I think those teenage boys suspected — age exists for us all. It comes to you whether you believe in it or not. And I am now very grateful to be in a body that reminds me every day of this simple human truth. Which is not to say age does not bring me sadness, that I don’t sometimes mourn for my 27-year-old self, nor miss a certain version of my face, breasts, legs or teeth. I feel all of that natural, human sadness. And I do all the usual things — exercise, eat decently, dress optimistically — in the hope of slowing the inevitable process. But there are limits to that hope: limits like the menopause, limits like the end of my fertility. And thank God for them, because hope without limit is another word for delusion.
And I think on the whole, I’d rather be sad than deluded.
There is a beautiful couplet in ‘Apparently nothing’: “This little light of mine/I’m gonna let it shine.” It gets repeated over and over. When I think of the sort of light that is a woman — when I think of each woman’s particular contours and colour and way of burning — the idea of trying to make that light burn persistently at exactly the same wattage and intensity over decades seems to me a terrifying task to set oneself, not unlike lighting a candle and expecting no wax to ever melt. We melt, we melt, and finally we’re extinguished.
But what interesting shadows we throw on the wall, depending on the hour, and how various are the ways that wax can melt, how many different forms and shapes it can take! Some pretty, some not so pretty…oh, it’s not easy, ageing, but it is consistently interesting. At 10, you couldn’t imagine 20, nor at 20, 30, nor at 30, 40, and on and on it goes (I’m guessing. I can’t imagine 50.) I see groups of women in their sixties on holiday whooping with delight and I wonder: why are they so happy? I guess I’ll find out. And I see lone 80-year-olds pushed by their carers down Broadway, mouths open, looking devastated, and I’m sure I’ll find out about that, too.
It’s all life. It’s all unavoidable. It’s all better than its opposite. Enjoy it while you can.
Photo: R. Burman
Styling: Malini Banerji
Make-up: Campbell Ritchie/Art department
Manicure: Angel Williams/Atelier Management
Production: Ryan Fahey/Alexey Galetskiy Productions
Assisted by: Divya Gursahani, Iva Dixit and Jahaan Singh (styling) and Alex Golshani (photography)