Book Review - I Feel Great About My Hands

Text Size: Normal / Medium / Large
Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version
Publication Date: 
Wed, 2012-08-15

BOOK REVIEW

I Feel Great About My Hands: And Other Unexpected Joys of Aging 
Shari Graydon, Douglas & McIntyre Press, 2011

I Feel Great About My HandsBy Anne Rochon Ford
Intended as a response to Nora Ephron's book I Feel Bad About My Neck, I Feel Good About My Hands is a welcome balm for those of us over 50 who don't need any more reminders that, well, aging kinda sucks. In this anthology, Shari Graydon has collected the wit and wisdom of 40 women from a variety of backgrounds, including politician and environmental activist Elizabeth May, poet Susan Musgrave, broadcaster Alison Smith, legal scholar Constance Backhouse, storyteller Sheree Fitch,  and former Senator Sharon Carstairs.

We needn’t look far for evidence that we live in a culture steeped in adoration of youth and all things youthful. Nor can we escape exposure to the relentless efforts by the pharmaceutical and beauty product industries to find "cures" and elixirs to fight "the ravages" of aging. As Mary Walsh puts it in her essay in the collection, “… it’s not a great time to be an old dame living here in the West, in the centre of our youth-obsessed culture where it is considered a moral failing to look old.”

Ottawa-based law professor Diana Majury elaborates on this: “The image of the old woman in our culture is not one of beauty. And there’s an undercurrent of censure—even among feminists—of women who fail to take care of themselves as they age, who ‘let themselves go.’ As older women, we’re complimented when told we don’t look our age; [and] encouraged to ... deny our aging with hair dye, skin creams and surgery.”

It was a brave step on Graydon's part to challenge the apparent horrors of aging by inviting this group of women from across Canada to offer their alternative perspectives. As she states it in the Introduction, through the experience of the authors, the book offers “a few bons mots that [celebrate] the benefits of maturity.” As with her other challenges to mainstream thinking related to images of women in the media and conventional notions of beauty, Graydon tackles this one with the same wit and doggedness.

The collection includes some noteworthy and memorable pieces of writing, some characterized by a touching honesty, like filmmaker and disability activist Bonnie Sherr Klein’s essay, “A Work in Progress.” Klein notes, “Disability does confer a certain kind of wisdom. It is the knowledge of the fragility and randomness of life ... It’s appreciating the love of family and friends, the joy of the present moment,” and later, ”I’ve learned that independence is deceptive and illusory. We are interdependent. We are community. I need you and you need me.” Klein writes of the wisdom she gained from her experience of suffering a catastrophic stroke at the age of 46, that gave “confidence in my own strength and ability to cope and at the same time eliminated the fear of death.”

But as with many such anthologies, the writing varies. For example, Judy Rebick’s essay, “Struggling to Become an Elder,” while interesting in its content, reads like an email to a friend, with chatty lines like, “Sixty is the new 40. What a load of crap that is.” Chatty writing has its place; it just doesn’t have much staying power.

On the other hand, Susan McMaster’s poetry about her mother living with Alzheimer’s disease is funny, poignant and worth re-visiting. Other contributions of note include “Face It,” Linda Spalding’s artfully crafted musings on “the parliament of the beauty parlour” in the town where she grew up, and on coming to terms with the losses and the gains that come with getting older. “My Last Erotic Poem” by Lorna Crozier is brave, bittersweet and very, very funny: “Who wants to hear about two old farts getting it on in the back seat of a Buick, in the garden shed among vermiculite, in the kitchen where we should be drinking Ovaltine and saying no?”

Given the variety of backgrounds, and the fact that not all contributors make their living by their pen (or keyboard), the range of quality in the writing is understandable and does not seriously detract from the book’s overall worth. By the time I reached the end, though, I did feel somewhat disappointed that there wasn’t more diversity among the writers. The collection would have been richer, for example, if Graydon had included a few more essays by women who grew up in countries where aging women are valued differently than they are here in North America, and more from women who write about the interactions of race and culture with their experiences of aging.

In soliciting contributions to the book, Graydon refers to one “highly placed civil servant” who declined to write an essay because “as much as she’d like to contribute to the book, she made it a practice to avoid ever publicly celebrating her good fortune.” I commend her humility, but if we are lucky enough to have made it past our fifth or sixth decade in relatively good health, have achieved a certain success in what we do, and have survived life’s traumas, we probably have something to give back, some life lessons to share, as many of the women in this book do. If we are lucky.

 

Anne Rochon Ford is the Executive Director at the Canadian Women's Health Network. She lives in Toronto and she definitely feels great about her hands.