The Empress’s Old Clothes: On Why Every Ageing Woman Needs Patti Smith

Patti SmithCall me reckless and foolhardy, but I thought de-cluttering the attic would be a constructive way to spend a drizzly London Sunday. Fast-forward three hours however, and I was sitting on my bed in emotional turmoil, weeping over ‘old stuff’.

It all started innocently enough. The initial few feet of clutter comprised a series of dusty suitcases, lined up like dutiful soldiers. The first couple I opened were harmless containing as they did ‘Our Summer Things’. Sandals bent out of shape by last year’s sweat; beach dresses stiffened by seawater; t-shirts smelling of sun lotion from our holiday in Spain. I jumped when a couple of unspent Euros dropped onto the floor and noisily spun themselves into stillness. The next suitcases were more emotional, ‘The Ones With The Baby Clothes’. However, my nostalgia for the newborn days of my daughters was held in check by equally potent memories of how bloody hard it was.  So I happily kept the most precious items, things the girls might like ‘for their own kids’, and let the rest go to Oxfam. And then, just when I thought I was safe, I spotted the mother of all suitcases tucked away at the back of the eaves. Pillar box red and large enough to contain a small horse, it beckoned like Pandora’s Samsonite box.  “Open me” it said.

And so I did.  In it were layers of my old clothes, things I would have been wearing around the time I got together with my husband eleven years ago. I pulled them out one-by-one stroking the fabrics like and old lady finding stray cats. I tried desperately to remember the ‘me’ who wore the clothes, and found that rather like recalling the face of a dearly departed one, you remember the general idea, but the detail is lost. You think you won’t forget, but oh, how you do.

The clothes were all in sizes six and eight (UK sizes) like they belonged to a child. There was the top I was wearing when my husband proposed to me, and a t-shirt I was given when I toured Japan in my singing days. I found one of my few concessions to designer labels, a mint green Malene Birger skirt I bought off a friend who was at my wedding but who I’ve since lost touch with. There was a collection of eclectic items bought on Haight Street during my San Francisco years. “These are my old skins”, I thought to myself, “shredded layer upon layer, and I hadn’t even noticed I was changing.”

I was totally shocked to find these clothes defining moments in my past more powerfully than old photographs. The contents of the suitcase were like some terrible haunting, a ghostly revisiting of my old selves. I found myself almost superstitious about throwing any of it away. Perhaps because these things were there with me in the past, tangible witnesses to who I was then. They held my body, they were next to my skin and now they cannot even begin to contain me.  I couldn’t possibly get one of those tops over my burgeoning bosom now; my old waistline is my new thigh. That I was ever that small and streamlined strikes me as ridiculous and yet there’s a part of me that wants to crawl right back inside these acrylic and cotton castes of my old self.  How ironic it is that at a time when there is physically so much more of me in the world, I am at my most invisible culturally. I look up from Pandora’s suitcase and catch a glimpse of myself in the bedroom mirror.  I notice that I am kind of boggy now, moon shaped bags under my eyes, crevices when I smile. The angularity of my face has gone and there is no definition in my body.  The clothes remind me that I was once a wiry little missile, completely airborne, with a vision and expectations of the world that were arrow sharp. (The fact that I was this way due to lots of cigarettes, habitually skipped meals and a nervous system on fire matters not in my hankering for youth). The body I have now reflects what is needed now; be vigilant it says, buttress yourself against disappointment; scare the off the enemy  with the sheer size of your arse. I am a mother, my family’s frontline of defence, fattening for the domestic pot into which I would happily jump and boil myself if it would save my brood.

My outer appearance reflects my inner state. My mind, like my jaw line is ill-defined, constructed of fuzzy edges. How I long to forge sharp new neurological pathways in my brain or travel across America in a camper van, but instead I stick to what I know is needed for the greater good.  My goals feel less defined because they are less about me and perhaps it doesn’t really matter, but I do seem to find myself in an uncertain sea. Interestingly, the directionlessness I feel is being played out in the very cells of my being as my hormones shift towards menopause. There’s just no routine anymore. Yes ladies, perimenopause starts around age thrity-five and ends around fifty-five; that’s twenty years of chemical ping pong we all have to play without a goddamn bat between us.

I remember my granny  saying that she never felt old, that she never noticed time passing, and I know what she means now. In the Tarot of midlife, I am shifting from the Empress card of  fertility and family to the High Priestess, the goddess within. Sitting with a group of friends recently, I noticed how inward my energy has become. I am no longer reeling things in towards me, but instead am an observer, offering a bit of advice if asked.  On good days, I am journeying from Mother to Wise Woman, on bad days from youthful pretty hot stuff to boggy earthbound sloth. I would be lying if I said I don’t I miss something of the ‘me’ in Pandora’s suitcase; all that delicious youthful power that turns heads and breaks hearts. Now, I’m thankful if I get though a social encounter without breaking wind. But there are compensations; I’ve got funnier as I’ve got older, I have far more permission to be ridiculous now than I did when I was young.  And I have a bosom of Shakespearean barmaid proportions. Proper, bawdy lady bazookas that came free with child-rearing.

For those of you who aren’t there yet, midlife feels like this: You are standing alone in the middle of a large, flat desert plain; the tallest thing for miles is you. In the not so distant distance, a heady black thunderstorm is gathering and starts rolling towards you. Before you see the storm, you can sense it; the air is static and filled with moisture, pockets of heat surge and fall and lightening starts splitting open the sky and skewering the earth.  Man, I really wish I could put a tree somewhere in this metaphor, but there is nowhere to hide and there is nothing to do but stand tall and hope it strikes quickly.

If it had a soundtrack, midlife would be accompanied by the juddering strings of a suspense thriller or perhaps the ghostly crackle and bleep of one of those creepy satellite dishes listening for life on Mars. “Is there life over 50?”  The message is sent out across the universe and if you listen hard enough you can hear the whispers of invisible older women answering, “Yes, don’t be scared.”  But that’s my point, I can’t bloody hear them so I don’t want to throw the old me into the Oxfam bags yet. Where have all my cultural icons gone? Where are the amazing sisters who will pull me through the next phase of my life? Where are the older women who have survived motherhood (yes, it is a question of survival) AND the menopausal storm without resorting to surgery and its demeaning ugly sisters Botox and Microdermabrasion?

As I reached the bottom of the Dreadful Suitcase of Hell, I realized that Patti Smith is the only woman I could think of who can guide me now. She found her voice again at 50 and released a violent warrior of an album in the wake of her midlife fury. And so, with Patti on the CD player I finally found myself able to bag up the past and send it to the charity shop. I did however keep the shirt I was wearing when my husband proposed. That was, when all is said and done, a bloody good day.

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15 thoughts on “The Empress’s Old Clothes: On Why Every Ageing Woman Needs Patti Smith

  1. I may not be a woman, in fact I’m pretty sure I’m not but …I have experienced the MANopause and so can relate to many of the things you so eloquently refer to in this wonderful piece. One thing for sure – even though that middle aged desert may well be a lonely, scary place – is that seeing you in the distance, going through much the same experience, and knowing that you are not a mirage but a truly precious, very wise and most lovely friend, means I am not alone after all and gives me strength in my own search for that elusive Oasis. Thank you for sharing, Sara.

  2. Beautifully written Sara, I look forward to reading that novel! Yes, we all need more Patti Smiths – I ran back from the park last year to listen to her read from her memoir on Radio 4, and believe me, running is not something this post-menopausal body has done willingly in a very long time – since it was just for the joy of life and litheness. Personally, I found the end of fertility to be a blessed relief, and a fulfilling middle-age is so much better than living fast,dying young and leaving a pretty corpse…
    Or indeed, joining the nipped,tucked,botoxed, restylaned, still just about walking-in-heels dead.

  3. So funny to read this post…just wrote an editorial about ‘attics’ and the things we horder and save. As ever, I love to read your writing. So insightful. ;-) Travelling the perimenopause journey with you, syster, with silver hair and no botox! love, v

  4. Hi – just found you via Veronika’s blog. Yes I am there in that desert too – except it is a Hebridean peat bog, and I think of myself more like the odd tree dotted around – blasted from the South West and leaning over towards NE. The storm has almost passed and I can look up now. In truth, it wasn’t much of a storm – embracing the crone is so much easier than fighting her. A hard thing to do in this youth obsessed culture of ours. Sending strength and love. x

  5. What a beautiful piece – it stopped me hard in my tracks. You should submit this to the Sunday Times review section. It’s the voice of every woman in her late thirties – mid forties.

  6. Thank you for such a positive and encouraging comment Siobhan. I was just thinking, “What am I going to do to earn a living from my writing?” and your idea is perfect. If only I knew how to pitch! Any pointers very welcome :)

  7. Another wonderful piece Sara – You seem so young to me – yet I am on this same journey. I see it so differently to you, but I don’t know how, so will give it some thought. Perhaps I’m in denial! Your writing is exquisite, heartfelt and so sincere. xxx

  8. 1. I must buy that Patti Smith album right now. 2. I empathised so much with every beautiful word you wrote, I couldn’t have put it better myself. 3. I don’t feel so alone now with all my emotional and hormonal struggles as I swim upstream – or stand in that desert – through my forties (still I do like being 42 though) 4. I so loved this description ‘I notice that I am kind of boggy now’ – oh yes, yes, yes – just how I am feeling about my body (can’t remember the last time I waxed my legs). Thank you so much for writing this post, it really struck a chord – I have tears in my eyes. Ps. In ancient earth worshipping societies The Crone (who would have been middle aged I guess) was revered. XXX (Oh and one final word and then I’ll be gone, I have noticed a real turning inwards as I have aged too – I am much more introverted now, but that’s good for the writing.)

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