Women in Purple

The Power of Purple—and Spitting

When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.
And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves
And satin sandals, and say we’ve no money for butter.
I shall sit down on the pavement when I’m tired
And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells
And run my stick along the public railings
And make up for the sobriety of my youth.
I shall go out in my slippers in the rain
And pick flowers in other people’s gardens
And learn to spit.
~ Jenny Joseph

The above bit of loveliness is oft-quoted, especially the first two lines, and held up as an example of the blessings of aging: we can do whatever the heck we want.

The same could be said, I think, of very young children. We may be embarrassed when our child tells someone he doesn’t like them, or that he has a penis and he’s quite proud of it, or, as was the case with my own son at age two, hands dinner guests their coats and, though we have not eaten, says pointedly, “Aw done now. Night-night.” But secretly? We envy that freedom, that indulgence others give us to be our shocking, silly, epically candid selves. Wouldn’t you love to stand up from your desk, or a boring dinner party, or a tedious meeting, and say “Aw done now!” and just leave?

The part of Joseph’s poem that doesn’t get quoted so much, that isn’t as celebrated, are these lines:

But maybe I ought to practice a little now?
So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised
When suddenly I am old, and start to wear purple.

That’s what I want to talk about. Why we give up our “childish things,” and why we wait until we are deemed old enough to be excused for our eccentricities to resume them. We think of children as playing; we label free-spirited seniors as childlike. But we, the ones who are not children nor yet elderly are the ones who are playing, and not for fun. We’re playing for real, we’re playing for keeps.

We are playing a part, a picture of a stick figure with big block lettering sternly underneath it: “GROWN-UP.”

And so we do things we don’t actually want to do. We deny ourselves the things and people we really, really want. We eat when we’re not hungry, we don’t drink water when we’re thirsty, and we hardly ever let ourselves fall asleep, even when it’s clear to everyone around us that we’re over-tired and cranky.

We don’t have freedom. We don’t have fire. We don’t have fun.

Are you like I used to be? Frankly irritated by people who wore strange hats, or talked loudly about private things, or who danced by themselves in the street? I used to think, “Man, I hate people who try so hard to be CHARACTERS.”

The truth is, I was the one who was a character, a character in a hellish little book of my own devising. And I wasn’t even a character who was charming or having a good time. In fact, I had cast myself as She Who Must Be Feared and Obeyed, the ultimate Grown-Up, the one who was in charge of everything and everyone lest it all fly out of control.

She was a figment of my imagination. And the reason the genuine eccentrics used to irritate the hell out of me was because I couldn’t believe they were real–I couldn’t tell anymore what was real and what was from my playbook. And even if they were real, truly as free-spirited as they seemed, I didn’t believe they were actually having a good time at it.

I wasted a lot of years trying to be stern and in charge. Until circumstance conspired (see endless previous posts about chronic illness) to make me see that I wasn’t in charge of anything or anyone at all–except my own perception of things.

Losing just about everything you’ve got in the world is, I guess, a lot like being a very young child or a very old woman: there’s not much at risk anymore.

So I wear neither red nor purple—but only because they bring out my rosacea in an alarming way. But I wear short skirts, bright colors, weird scarves, hats of all shapes and sizes, and boots. Sometimes, in the winter, I am too lazy to get dressed right away when it’s time to walk the dog, so I go out naked under my parka, with just my Sorrels on my bare legs and feet. Shh. Don’t tell the stalkers.

I wear too much make-up when I feel like it, and none when I feel like that. I sing and dance when the spirit moves me, and I don’t mind a bit doing it in public, by myself, as long as I’m not, like, endangering anyone (and despite what my now-teenaged son may claim, my singing puts him at no physical risk).

I have sat down in the middle of the pavement when tired, and in the middle of grocery stores, too (see endless previous posts about chronic illness). People sometimes ask me if I’m all right, and I smile and tell them that I am fine, and it’s true. Sometimes, while I’m down there on the sidewalk, I’ll draw a picture or two with the chalk I sometimes have about my person. This makes my son want to hide in his room and never ever come out.

I decided to reclaim the spontaneous joy of childhood without waiting for the infirmity of old age.

What are you waiting for? To get really old? To feel really young? To lose everything before you realize that none of it really matters? When will you waken to the fact that this is it, this is your life, and today is and was the only January 27 of 2014 (or whatever date you’re reading this) that you will ever, ever get to see?

I’m a mischief-maker, and I love compatriots and companions, but if you really want to keep sitting there, being a Grown-Up and all, I do understand. I did that gig for a long, long time, and I had to come to leaving it behind in my own way.

But the rest of you? C’mon. Somebody needs to teach me how to spit.

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