Wednesday, April 04, 2012

When I Am Old...

Photo by Daniel German.
I bought a new book yesterday, a new old book, actually. For all of $1, I picked up Ain't I A Woman; Classic Poetry by Women from Around the World, edited by Illona Linthwaite. I got it because of the title taken from a speech given by Sojourner Truth at the Women's Convention in Akron, Ohio, 1851. Sojourner Truth was a force of nature, as natural as they come and as forthright, so how could I pass this up?

I am delighted to discover this book is full of poetry from all eras written by many forces of nature, and I intend to read from it every day—or at least regularly, because you know how these things go. You set out to do something every day, and then things come up and you skip a day and then two and then a week; but I've got more than 200 pages of poetry here, and I'll read it all eventually.

Today's poem is "Warning," by Jenny Joseph. If you aren't familiar with it based on the title, you know it by its first two lines:

"When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn't go, and doesn't suit me."

I wasn't inclined to read further this morning because I've heard this before, but I did keep reading, and I was fascinated by what this woman warns her friends and family of. She will not only wear unusual and unsuitable things, but she'll also spend her pension on brandy. She'll sit on the pavement when she's tired, make noise in the street, pick the flowers in someone else's garden and learn to spit. In general, she will "make up for the sobriety of my youth." Be warned.

What struck me as I read is the nature of the Red Hat Society, which was born of this poem and of the commercialization of it. You've seen these women, mostly elderly or approaching, wearing purple with wild red hats. They fill up a restaurant every fourth Tuesday or sit in the front row at the local theater en masse. They're your mother and grandmother and Aunt Pearl (I actually have an Aunt Pearl, or did have), and the wildest thing these ladies do is dress flambouyantly and laugh all at once with dessert.

The Red Hat Society holds no appeal for me, but I wonder. If these women were to spend all their money on "satin sandals" and then say "we've no money for butter," I might find them more intriguing. And if they were to do more of the unexpected and socially "unacceptable," like learning to spit and eating all the samples in the shops, as the poem warns, I'd want to be more like them when I am old.

But they don't. They wear red and purple in public and call it enough, or at least that's how it appears on the surface. And they do it in a group. For me, the joy of this poem is in the individual declaration. The woman thinking ahead to her old age when all bets are off isn't fantasizing about forming a club of like-minded women who will no doubt hold her accountable for her actions. She's dreaming of the day when she can shed the shackles that restrain her and reveal her true character. Show me those women who don't travel in a pack because they've been in a pack for too long. Show me the women who are done with it, the ones ready to make their own rules and be judged only by their own expectations. Then maybe someday I'll consider calling myself one of them—

"But now we must have clothes that keep us dry
And pay our rent and not swear in the street
And set a good example for the children.
We must have friends to dinner and read the papers."


savannah said...

YES! you've nailed it exactly! that whole "group/pack" thing really grates on me. we're on the same side on this one, sugar! (i just wear my hair long now!) ;~) xooxoxoxo

Speedway said...

It'sa living oxymoron, Scout. The poem is about indivuality but the Red Hat Ladies only do it in packs. I once thought about joining, until I realized 1) I'd have to find someone to sponsor me to join a group, 2) it is all about the partying, and nothing about personal, unique expression, and 3) I can wear purple and red any damn time I want, sometimes even together.