Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Last Frontier

I remember when my father joined the Gray Panthers. It must have been the early or middle 1980s, and it seemed very cool to me--a riff on the Black Panthers, a riff (and not just a riff but a movement) growing out of rage and focused on activism in the face of negative attitudes toward one's group.

I liked the idea of my father as an activist, and I remember when he came to Chicago for a regional Gray Panthers convention. Gray Panthers was started by Maggie Kuhn, who said "We are the risk takers; we are the innovators; we are the developers of new models." Here's Maggie.

I am writing this because although I am old enough to be a Gray Panther (and in fact, my hair is gray--that is, I allow it to be gray and thus find myself in a minority), I am still subject to ageist thoughts and reactions. I will level with you. At one of my readings in Michigan, two women came from a nearby seniors housing community. The activity director brought them. One was in a wheelchair. The other used a walker. Their posture was bent. And although I greeted and introduced myself to most of the people who attended the reading,  I did not approach those two women. I realize now that it must have taken significant effort for them to come.
I can't say precisely why I ignored them, or I am too ashamed to say. I barely even glanced at them, though I was aware that they were there. After the reading, however, I noticed that my friend William was deep in conversation with them, which drew me over. William introduced me, explaining that one of the women had been a professor at Wayne State (can't remember now, what her field was; literature? anthropology?), had written extensively in her field, had donated her writings to the Walter Reuther archives at Wayne State and the Burton Collection of the Detroit Public Library. Only then did I begin to engage with her, to listen to her, and also to feel shame at my earlier ignore-ance of her.
     As my friend Pat pointed out when I told this story, one sad thing is that it focuses solely on what this woman used to be. What about the present?


Brooke Hollister said...

Such a great posting Susan! I am on the Gray Panthers board of directors and receive google alerts for "Gray Panthers." It was moving to hear of your memory of your father becoming a Gray Panther and your evolution of thought around ageism in your interactions with the two women. It's important for all of us to acknowledge how deep seeded prejudices around ageism are in our society! I would only say that the Gray Panthers are "age and youth in action," and that we welcome all ages to Growl with us and fight all issues of economic and social injustice! Best, Brooke Hollister

Susan Messer said...

Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Brooke. I get Google alerts, too (re: my name and my novel title), but I never thought of it working the other way--that someone else might be alerted by me. Yet another wake-up along the great path of life . . . said...

After living in the Detroit area for 41 years, we lived in LA for ten years. During the last fifteen years we have lived in AZ, we have realized this state is a hotbed of continuing discrimination.Whether it's ethnic, religious or any discrimination one can imagine, discrimination is alive and well here.

I handle discrimination by hopefully living with dignity and compassion. If there's a better way to go, I'm all ears - unless someone ignores me because I need hearing aids and wear rock shirts. Pretty wicked for someone 70, eh? These differences garner strange looks like there is an age limit to certain actions. Not my problem.

Your book, other writing and appearances do influence others. Be proud!

Jim Poznak said...

I am glad to hear the Gray Panthers are still on the prowl.

Susan Messer said...

Thanks to both of you. Rock shirts have no age limits.

And I too was glad to remember the Gray Panthers. And to know they're still out there. Not sure why I'd forgotten about them.

Margaret P. said...

Susan, I remember another time when someone asked, why do we ignore old people? It was my 92- or 93-year-old grandmother. We were gathered at my parents' house for a holiday, and she summoned us all into her room. For some reason she was bed-ridden, maybe another broken hip. She lectured us with all the vehemence she could muster in her frail body: "You talk around me and over me, as if I wasn't here. You think I can't remember things properly, but I do. I have a better memory than some of you." (I had memory problems then, as now, so what she said was true.)

My grandmother was desperately bored and lonely in her last years. Death could not come too soon in her view (and, shamefully, maybe ours too). I think if she had lived in the time of the internet, her frustration would not have been so severe. Have you read the "Margaret and Helen" blog? If not, you must google it. It is a wonderful example of a regular person, in her 80s, being able to publish her opinions, and, in so doing, make thousands of new friends.

Susan Messer said...

That is an amazing story about your grandmother. I can't (can) imagine the guilt/shame you must have felt being on the receiving end of her lecture (well maybe you didn't feel that way at all; I'll leave it to you to tell me). At any rate, I wouldn't be surprised to learn that a very high percentage of "seniors" have that same lecture stashed somewhere. Many might be too polite or too afraid of alienating those they depend on to deliver it. Wow.

And THANK YOU for the referral to Margaret and Helen.

That is absolutely a must read for everyone. I'm heading off to add it to my blog roll and forward the link to multiple friends. Those two are national treasures. And, you're right, the internet has made it possible for them to have a voice and us to know about them.

Margaret P. said...

You will enjoy learning that I heard about the Margaret and Helen blog at a women writers group that I just joined. I asked for blog recommendations because I am finding myself so frustrated with what passes for journalism these days. With America so spun up, I feel like I am walking around with an open wound, and I look for anything that serves as a salve.

Funny thing about my grandmother: I never felt equal to her power until she was old and frail. Ageism certainly shifts the balance of power, and in some cases, maybe that's not so bad?

Susan Messer said...

A writing group? Wonderful. I'll want to hear more about that. I'm editing a critical thinking book right now, and I have to say, it's doing for me some of what I think you might be looking for in this "spun-up" environment. Giving me a sharper eye for what's wrong in all that hollering.

I remember stories about your grandmother. Not your cuddly cookie-bake type. Not sure what I think about the power shift. Have to think on this. Power over the vulnerable is always a potentially damaging thing (to both parties, I think).

But I understand how all the frustrations and discomforts could lead to extreme unpleasantness in an "old" person. But then we all have frustrations and discomforts. Then there's the question of whether elders automatically deserve a certain level of respect, regardless of how ornery, or how much they terrorized us when we were vulnerable little ones.

And last I'll say (pretending that any of this really goes together), the wonder of the Margaret and Helen blog has much less (if anything) to do with their age (though it does give them a "handle") and much more to do with the great writing and the spirit and the sense that I have finally arrived at a place where I am hearing the truth.

Margaret P. said...

What you wrote about Margaret and Helen blog - you hit the nail on the head!

Susan Messer said...

Now that's a high compliment.