The first time I heard someone refer to me as a “Goddess,” I was at a new-age workshop in California. I must confess the appellation created a pleasant feeling in me. I had grown up in India, so perhaps deep in my subconscious was a desire to be one of the many goddesses people worshipped back home, like Kali the warrior goddess, or Laxmi, the goddess of wealth. But the western goddesses, I soon discovered, were derived from the pre-Christian, pre-patriarchal icons of the so-called pagan civilizations of ancient Europe, where women were not treated as the weaker sex.
Looking back on my life, I wonder if I have ever felt like a goddess. Sure, men who were in love with me sometimes seemed to worship me, trying to fulfill my every wish. After I fell in love, my partner made me a cup of tea on a camping stove by the roadside while traveling making me feel like a goddess. But when it came to day-to-day decision-making, I did not rule the roost. In my generation men came with their own baggage. They had perhaps been favored over their sisters by their Indian mothers, or raised by their 1950s suburban American moms who were supposed to worry about the gloss on their appliances rather than the shine on their curriculum vitae.
So I admired the new-age goddess worshippers, until I realized that the word “goddess” conjured up for many ex-hippies the vision, not of Saraswati, the goddess of learning, cradling her veena, but tantric goddesses from the sculptures of Khajuraho, adapting posture out of the Kamasutra. Their goddesses, I noticed, often had young bodies, blonde hair, long legs, and navel rings.
Still, I was not troubled. I had never relied on physical attributes for validation anyway.
But when I was called a “crone” recently, I felt insulted. The label came, not from a man, but a female friend. When I objected, she explained that older women often preferred to be addressed as wise women, or crones.
In what universe would a woman describe herself in such a demeaning way, I asked.
In Berkeley, was the reply.
I should have known. What else could I expect from that bastion of feminism?
But then I began to wonder, is it preferable to be a crone than to be invisible?
When one gets to middle age, one encounters a certain patronizing attitude from the young people one meets. At the Apple store, for example, the young techie assumes I am a Luddite, and talks down to me, explaining basic concepts like an operating system. “I get it, I have a graduate degree in physics,” I want to say.
Women, I suppose, are the worst victims of this kind of subconscious ageism. I feel so hip and cool inside that it is hard for me to imagine that the young person I am facing does not pick up on the vibe. When I show up at social gatherings like Spanish Meetup, I have the eerie feeling sometimes that not only do I not belong, but that I don’t even exist.
In the Bay Area, whenever one goes to study painting, or yoga, or meditation chances are the class will be full of older women. What the men are doing I don’t know. Perhaps they are still bringing home the bacon. I did not notice this when I had a full-time professional job because I naturally came across people of all genders, ages, and ethnicities. But recently, I asked a woman who had moved into the retirement community of Rossmoor, “How can you stand to see only old people?” When I decided to study video production and discovered that it was one field in which young men dominated, I was glad. It is not that I am romantically interested in them, I just enjoy their company. When my sons help me with the street slang in a TV show like The Wire, I feel grateful that I am still in touch with the younger generation.
When my mother was dying, I took one last picture of her. When she saw it, she was shocked at how her once ethereal face had withered. Never had I felt so moved by her.
I never thought of myself as a beauty, still, I am not sure that one day I will not be equally shocked by my picture.
It is the natural order of things for the baton to pass to the younger generation. Old age is something one always imagines will happen to someone else.
The poet laureate Donald Hall recently published a book of essays about aging. In it, he recounts visiting an art museum in a wheel chair and being asked by a guard, “Did we enjoy our din-din?” The poet was tempted to point out that he had not lost his mind, only the use of his legs.
The story moved me, and yet, a part of me was relieved. Perhaps in old age, I thought, men and women became equal. Or better yet, in old age, women became goddesses, living longer and healthier than men, and enjoying all the physical and mental activities men have long given up.
I began to look forward to getting older.
Sarita Sarvate (www.saritasarvate.com) has published commentaries for New America Media, KQED FM, San Jose Mercury News, the Oakland Tribune, and many nationwide publications.