Not too long ago in American society, once women reached menopause they became invisible. No longer were viewed by society as beautiful, they were often expected to simply fade quietly into the background. Depending on what circles one travels in, this may still be the case. Recent years, however, have seen those old ideals radically altered. Women in their 40s and above are out running marathons, running for office, running after their small children, and proving themselves stronger than ever before. In their 50s, they are writing novels, traveling the world, and donning red hats with pride. And in their 60s they are still wearing fashionable clothes and fully participating in all walks of society, quite a switch from the stereotypical forgotten granny of the past.
In a way that is both inspiring and heartrending, Kiss Tomorrow Hello: Notes from the Midlife Underground by 25 Women over 40 presents with admiral authenticity the experience of the transition into middle adulthood and beyond. It paints a picture of aging, which can be at once graceful and awkward, that is refreshingly honest. The authors of these essays at times bemoan their aging process and all of the life tasks that come with it. At other times, they revel in it.
The book begins with a lovely and very human introduction that sets the stage for the variety of narratives to be shared. The editors, Kim Barnes and Claire Davis, write:
Your body. Our body. Our various selves. We are in this together, joined by circumstance, and by choice. We share our stories over coffee, over wine, over the phone, in letters, on-line. In the past our time was a time to whisper, but things have changed, haven’t they? These are our stories. Our secrets written out loud.
Barnes and Davis then divide the 25 essays into four subject sections: “She Who Once Was” includes essays relating to changes in outward appearance; “The Person to Call” covers essays on relationships with men and friends; “I have Crush on Ted Geisel” addresses children; and “What We Keep,” focuses on mothers and the generations that have come before. These areas again point to the timelessness of the collection, as the four themes can be found not only in midlife, but throughout our lives entirely. We can all relate to at least one section. There is simultaneous longing for and fear of freedom present in “An Apartment of Her Own” by Kim Barnes, the pain of an unstable childhood in “The So What Days of Moo and Big” by Beverly Lowery, and the terror brought about by cancer and chemotherapy in “I have a crush on Ted Geisel” by Julia Glass. There are essays, too, more specific to women, such as the challenges of pregnancy later in life described in “Warning: Do Not Insert Your Head into the Towel Loop” by Lolly Winston, sexual maturation in “Tearing Up the Sheets” by Ellen Sussman, and the ever present issue of what to wear described humorously in “The Suit” by Lauren Slater.
Unlike novels, anthologies such as this face the unique challenge of drawing in the reader anew with every chapter. If a collection is not well organized, readers may come to feel jarred, enjoying one story and subject only to have it close making way for something altogether different. Barnes and Davis, with the mastery that is apparent from their successful writing and teaching careers, overcome this potential issue with seamlessly weaved essays. And yet, almost in spite of this, the personas and uniqueness of each of their writers is not lost. Ultimately, the collection reveals itself as a balanced mixture of delight and hazard.
Not only do Barnes and Davis structure their book especially well, they have also selected essays to perfectly represent their thesis that womanhood is joyful, regardless of vintage. We find as many features on adaptation to physical and emotional change as we do on finding new loves and new interests as old ones are lost. In all cases, gender specific themes are present, and each voice contains a self-awareness and self-knowledge that spans almost women and ages. And, as a kicker, the book might appear a treatise on aging by the mid-to-late aged, but it works equally well as a manual for the younger set. As Bharti Kirchner points out in “Lipstick and Bindi: The Middle Way,” there is so much to be gained when women listen to one another. This collection must not just be relegated to the shelves of 40-plus ladies. It’s a valuable edition for younger women—what could be more valuable for a young woman than the learning experiences of those who have gone before?