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We’re so ready for this conversation

Yesterday the Washington Post published a wonderful profile of me titled, “It’s no longer okay to be sexist or racist. She asks why it’s still okay to be ageist.” I’m getting a lot of mileage out of it, and learning a lot in the process.

One lesson is that the title of the piece led some readers to assume that I think we’ve put racism and sexism behind us. Far from it; we have a very long way to go on both those fronts. But because of the civil rights and women’s movements, those forms of discrimination are no longer socially sanctioned—which is why we need to mobilize against discrimination on the basis of age. I need to be clearer when I make these comparisons.

I also learned a lot from a fascinating thread on Metafilter, an online community where someone posted this excerpt from the Washington Post article: “’Our society is so ageist that younger people don’t want to sit next to older people because they think they’re boring, and older people might think they have nothing to say to younger people.’ So says Ashton Applewhite, a blogger that has just published a book about ageism.” What follows is an absorbing, troll-free, multi-generational exchange.

This one stung but made me laugh out loud: “Just last week I was told that laughing bitterly about being old was a micro-aggression against the young people I was sitting with. I told them to suck it up because getting old is a macro-aggression.”

I’d never thought about how “church life” can foster age segregation: “You go to kids’ Sunday School with people of your age, then step-by-step graduate to youth group, college group, the singles’ group, the young marrieds’ group, up through whatever the popular euphemism is for the elderly members’ group–PrimeTimers or Senior Saints or whatever. You can go to church for 80 years and be stuck with the same people that whole time. I’m convinced the results have been dreadful.”

I liked this story: “So we have this little Three Billy Goats Gruff book from nineteen-dippity-three that my two-year-old is currently obsessed with. The bridge troll is introduced as ‘an ugly old troll.’ And I read it that way the first few times, and then decided that I ought to elide the ‘ugly,’ because why should it matter if the troll is ugly? And then I started to elide the ‘old,’ because why should it matter if he’s old? So now I just call him the ‘mean’ troll, although I’d happily take other suggestions (such as the suggestion to conveniently lose this book).”

There are tons more interesting comments, especially about ageism in the workplace (tech in particular) and its disproportionate effect on women’s lives, and I strongly recommend checking them out. I can’t resist closing with this one: “I bought the book and have been reading it this afternoon. Your comments about the Meetup are just what the author is talking about. Her thinking is that allowing jerks who dismiss you, or ambient noise levels that keep you from hearing easily, dissuade you from going out is allowing ageism to win.” Push back!

Oh, wait, I’m closing with this one: “I spent a long time thinking I didn’t like old people, until I realised that actually some of my good friends and most admired colleagues are in the age bracket I didn’t think I liked. Like so many forms of discrimination, it’s easy to think of the people you do like as ‘not really X’ because they don’t fit your stereotypes, when actually it’s your stereotypes that need to change . . . The key is to reevaluate your beliefs and feelings and actively seek to know more older people in spheres where you are likely to have some things in common.”

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A Q&A about the book

Curious about why I find aging so damn interesting? Why I dislike the term “successful aging” so heartily? Why I’ve become an Old Person In Training? What’s my slogan for a radical age movement? Answers to these and a few other good questions below.

You want to reframe the way American culture sees age and aging. What got you started on this path?

About eight years ago I began interviewing people over 80 for a project called “So when are you going to retire?” and reading about longevity. It didn’t take long to realize that almost everything I thought I knew about aging was wrong. I had no idea that people are happiest at the beginnings and the ends of their lives, for example. That the vast majority of Americans over 65 live independently. The older people get, the less afraid they are of dying. Why don’t more people know this stuff? Because we live in a culture that drowns out all but the negative about growing old, or even just aging past youth. Why is that? Because social and economic forces frame aging as a problem, so they can sell us remedies to “fix” or “stop” or “cure” it. Aging is a natural, lifelong, profoundly enriching process—experience tells us so. Aging means living, which is why it’s so damn interesting. And to paraphrase British journalist Anne Karpf, it makes no more sense to be anti-aging than anti-breathing.

How did you arrive at the arresting cover design?


We gave brilliant designer and friend Rebeca Mendez a tough commission: come up with a cover that feels warm and human but also sharply political. And will jump out at readers from a crowded bookstore window. She was scratching her head until my partner suggested that the epigraph of the book might serve as inspiration. It’s a quote by the wonderful writer Anne Lamott: “We contain all the ages we have ever been.” Rebeca’s painting beautifully captures that idea.

An ageist society aspires to “agelessness,” an artificial and unattainable goal that strips us of our years. I love the way the cover represents the opposite, which I call “agefulness”— a rich accretion of all the things we’ve done and been, stored within our bones and brains, that makes us who we are.

If you could banish one stereotype about aging, what would it be?

The notion that older people are alike! It’s why people think everyone in a retirement home is the same age—“old”—even though residents can span four decades. (Can you imagine thinking that way about a group of 20- to 60-year-olds?) It’s why the last box on those marketing checklists – you know, 18-26, 27-39, etc., end at 65+—as though everyone over 65 buys the same stuff and does the same things.
Stereotyping—the assumption that all members of a group are the same— underlies all the “isms.” It’s always a mistake, but especially when it comes to age, because as the years pass, of course we grow more different from one another. It’s why geriatricians say: “If you’ve seen one 80-year-old, you’ve seen one 80-year-old.” We all age at different rates —mentally, physically, and socially—which is why there’s no such thing as “acting your age.” Chronological age tells you almost nothing about an individual—not what they’re listening to or who they’re voting for or where they’re headed—and the older the person, the less reliable an indicator it becomes.

You make a case for an anti-ageism campaign as a public health initiative. Tell us about that.

A growing body of evidence shows that attitudes towards aging have an actual, measurable, physical effect on how we age. There’s no inherent reason for the effect to be negative. But an ageist culture tells us that wrinkles are ugly. Old people are incompetent. It’s sad to be old. When we assimilate these stereotypes, they become part of our identity, and this influences how our brains and bodies function.

In one experiment, social scientists primed a group of college students with negative age stereotypes—words like “forgetful,” “Florida,” and “bingo”—that they flashed on a screen too briefly for the subjects to become aware of them. The students then walked to the elevator measurably more slowly than a control group! Imagine the effect on older people for whom the terms are more relevant, and thus more likely to become self-fulfilling prophecies.

People with more positive feelings about aging behave differently from those convinced that growing old means becoming irrelevant or pathetic. They do better on memory tests and have better handwriting. They can walk faster and are more likely to recover fully from severe disability. And they actually live longer—an average of seven and a half years. Everyone agrees that health has the biggest effect on how we age—and how much it costs. So think what a national anti-ageism campaign would do to extend not just the lifespan but the “healthspan” of all Americans.

Why do so many of us have such a hard time actually admitting our age…saying it out loud?

You’d have to live in a cave to miss the messages all around us that old=bad, and that aging is to be feared and avoided by any means necessary. No wonder so many of us are reluctant to part with the equivalent of a cultural “sell-by” date! It’s an understandable strategy. Attempting to “pass” for younger, the way people of color have passed for white and gay people for straight, is a way to avoid being discriminated against. But “passing” takes a psychological toll, because it’s rooted in denial and distaste, even disgust. We’re reluctant to divulge our age because we’ve internalized the profoundly ageist notion that our older self is inferior to our younger one.

Do you honestly think that the person you are now has less to offer than the twenty- or thirty-something you once did? That you’re less interesting now? Less valuable? How about less attractive? If that gets a nod, consider the industries that make billions by commodifying our dissatisfaction with our bodies—especially women’s. Who gets to decide that wrinkles are ugly? It’s time to look more generously at ourselves, the way the body-acceptance movement urges, and to stop colluding in devaluing ourselves as older women.

When we claim our age, the number loses its power over us. It’s a little like a spell breaking. We can’t stop aging, even if we wanted to, but we can change the way we feel about it—the first step in any revolution. Then we can start to see where those ageist messages come from, and work together to challenge the structures that benefit from them.

Why do you dislike the term “successful aging?”

Terms like “successful aging” and “productive aging” and “active aging” are popular, and provide an upbeat counterpoint to the standard narrative of aging-as-decline. They’re seductive, because we really, really want to think we can keep doing the things we love for as long as we live. We often can—versions of them, that is—especially if we have access to healthcare, and exercise, and eat well. But the goalposts shift. In addition to taking care of ourselves, we’d do well to decouple self-worth from longstanding measures of earning power or physical prowess. Much is not under our control, and making the necessary supports available to all older Americans will require implementation at the policy level.

It’s important to keep in mind that many of the resources that help us “age well” are predominantly available to the lucky and reasonably well off. Sanitized or romanticized exemplars of “successful aging”—those silver-maned couples waltzing on the foredeck of a cruise ship—set an unreasonable standard and suggest that less “successful” agers are responsible for their circumstances. Everyone can make sensible choices, but barriers like heavy caregiving responsibilities, inadequate health care, and neighborhoods with few resources make it more difficult. Blaming the poor for “bad choices” makes aging another arena in which we succeed or fail based on terms that are far from neutral. There’s a lot of harsh judgment of olders who aren’t physically mobile or conventionally economically productive, and that’s not OK. All aging is successful—not just the sporty version—otherwise you’re dead.

Are olders really as much of an economic drag on society as the media portrays?

Absolutely not! People 50 and up fuel the significant, fast-growing, and often-overlooked “longevity economy,” which according to AARP accounted for 46 percent of US gross domestic product ($7.1 trillion) in 2012. By 2021 the 50-plus age group is projected to drive more than half of US economic activity, as their spending fuels industries that include apparel, health care, education and entertainment. These statistics capture only part of the economic contribution of older Americans, whose unpaid volunteer work in 2013 was valued at $67 billion. And while “entrepreneur” might conjure up an image of a kid in that proverbial garage, twice as many successful American entrepreneurs are over age 20 as in their early 20s.. More resources have always flowed from older generations to younger ones than the reverse.

This is despite widespread age discrimination in employment, which prevents older workers from finding challenging work of which they’re eminently capable, and relegates them to jobs that don’t take advantage of their skills and experience—Wal-Mart greeters, say. It also makes it harder for them to find part-time and volunteer positions. Discouraged and diminished, many become economically dependent, contributing to the misperception that olders are a net burden to society, but it’s not by choice.

Society has grown far less tolerant of sexism and racism. Why do ageist attitudes and behaviors still get a pass?

That’s what I’d like to know! Can you imagine anyone (not counting Donald Trump) complacently identifying himself as sexist or racist? Yet no one even blinks when older people are described as incompetent, or boring, or even repulsive. (And most people are unaware that younger people also face age bias.) Older people can be the most prejudiced of all, having had a lifetime to internalize negative myths and stereotypes that have gone unquestioned—until now. Diversity became a buzzword because society grew less tolerant of racism and sexism and homophobia. We want different faces around the table because we don’t think access to opportunity should depend on what someone looks like. Graying hair and wrinkles count. It is high time to make the last socially sanctioned prejudice as unacceptable as any other kind.

If that seems like a tall order, look at how much has shifted in how we look at gender, and how rapidly. It used to be viewed as a rigid binary, male or female, but we now understand that it’s far more fluid. If gender can be conceived of this way, why on earth not age, which is inherently, obviously, a continuum? Why not shake off our fear of being on the “wrong” side of some imaginary old/young divide and embrace a more flexible, friendly, and far more rational view of age?

You call yourself an Old Person in Training. Why?

I’m 63. I know I’m not young, I don’t see myself as old, and I know a lot of people feel the same way. We spend a lot of energy pretending that the old are somehow not us—not even future us—and that we’ll somehow never get old. Even though it’s irrational. Even though we’re doomed to fail. Even though it fills us with needless dread. Even though that denial is where ageism takes root. That’s why I’ve become an old person in training, a phrase I appropriated from geriatrician Joanne Lynn.

Becoming an Old Person in Training bridges that divide between our younger and older selves, and connects them empathically. It acknowledges the inevitability of growing old while relegating it to the future, albeit at an ever-smaller remove. It swaps purpose and intent for dread and denial. It’s a relief. It feels right and it makes sense.

What’s does becoming an Old Person in Training involve? It means looking at older people instead of past them, remembering they were once our age, seeing resilience alongside infirmity, allowing for sensuality, enlarging our notion of beauty, and acknowledging that an apartment, or a room or even just a bed can be home to an internal world as rich as ours—and very possibly richer. It means thoughtful peeks through the periscope of an open mind at the terrain we’ll inhabit when we are finally old. I see the ninety-year-old me as withered and teetery, but also curious and content. Envisioning her won’t make it happen, but the aspiration will surely help. The consensus from people over eighty, who should know, is that young people worry way too much about getting old. So the earlier we make this imaginative leap, the better—and the better equipped we’ll be to benefit from the journey.

You’d like your book, This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, to help catalyze a mass movement against ageism, the way Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring catalyzed the environmental movement. What kind of actions would you like to see?

My book lays out a blueprint in every domain. Change starts between our ears, with the difficult task of unlearning beliefs we’ve held all our lives. Some places to start:

  • Look for ways in which you’re ageist instead of looking for evidence that you aren’t. You can’t challenge bias unless you’re aware of it, and everyone’s biased some of the time.
  • Talk to people significantly older and younger than you, and listen carefully. If you don’t know many of them, seek them out.
  • The next time you wonder whether an outing or an outfit or an attitude is age-appropriate, reconsider the question. There’s no such thing.

Change ripples outward when we point out ageist behaviors and beliefs in the world around us. Some places to start:

  • Train yourself to notice when everyone in a group is the same age, and unless there’s some legitimate reason, speak up about it.
  • Assume capacity, not incapacity. Don’t assume someone is too old—or too young—to weigh in on a topic or take on a responsibility.
  • If you’re on the receiving end of an ageist comment, ask gently, “Why would you say [or think] that?” Then just be quiet.
  • If you’re feeling ambitious, start a consciousness-raising group around age bias. This powerful tool catalyzed the women’s movement in the 1960s and 70s. You can download my guide, Who Me, Ageist?, here.

Changing the culture is a tall order, but look at how women’s roles have changed in a single generation, and at the amazing progress we’ve made in this century alone against homophobia and transphobia.

If this new radical age movement had a slogan, what would you like it to be?

Age pride! Age pride is for dissed teenagers and dismissed olders and everyone in between. Age pride is for Maggie Kuhn, founder of the Gray Panthers, who said, “We must be proud of our age” and who, if she’d lived long enough, would have beaten me to “Occupy age!”—my other favorite slogan. If marriage equality is here to stay, why not age equality? If gay pride has gone mainstream, and millions of Americans now take pride in identifying as disabled, why not age pride? The only reason that idea sounds outlandish is because this is the first time you’ve encountered it. It won’t be the last. Longevity is here to stay. Everyone is aging. Dismantling ageism benefits us all.

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Self-publish together to change the world

We did it! And by “we,” I mean every one of us, self-publishing together. Our very ambitious pub-date goal on March 15 was to break 1000 on the Amazon bestseller list. We made it to #690, which is frankly phenomenal:

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Huge thanks to to everyone who ordered, shared, and recommended This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism. Each copy, and each of you, is playing a part in getting an anti-ageism movement underway. There will be more asks, because it’s going to be a long haul and it’s going to take all of us, so it’s great to see the book off to such a great start. If you haven’t ordered your copy yet, please do. Check out the company I’m keeping (below). Thank you, everyone—let’s keep it going.

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“a manifesto that is often brilliant and always provocative”

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I’m lucky that the first person to review my book is Matt Perry, Aging Reporter for the California Health Report. He was one of the first journalists to interview me, very early on in this project, and his review, titled From Feminism to Ageism: Ashton Applewhite Takes on The Last Prejudice is quite the gift on the eve of publication day.

“In nine chapters that explore everything from health to economics and sex, she destroys nearly every misconception we hold about the aging process,” Perry wrote. “Applewhite loves nothing more than slaying sacred cows.” True dat. Noting that the book is dedicated to Robert Butler, who in 1969 coined the term “ageism,” he quotes my observation that “Almost half a century later, it’s barely made inroads into public consciousness, not to mention provoke outcry.” This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, the review concludes, “should do both.”

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“A magnificent mix of personal reflection, cultural criticism, and cold hard facts”

That’s advance praise for my anti-ageism manifesto—sneak peek here—from eminent Cornell gerontologist Karl Pillemer, author of 30 Lessons for Living.  The full blurb reads, “The problem of ageism has long been in the shadows, overwhelmed by the cultural barrage of ageist “humor,” media stereotypes, and age segregation. Not any more – now that we have This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism. A magnificent mix of personal reflection, cultural criticism, and cold hard facts, this remarkable book should spearhead an “anti-ageist” revolution – which can’t come a moment too soon.” If you agree, please order a copy now. The pub date is March 15. 

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What We Believe Shapes How We Age: Ten critical questions

This guest post is by Ron Pevny, Director of the Center for Conscious Eldering, author of Conscious Living, Conscious Aging (Beyond Words/Atria Books), host of the Shift Network’s “Transforming Aging Tele-Summits,”  and a kindred spirit. 

In recent years, a host of psychological and biological research has been adding its voice to the age-old wisdom of the world’s spiritual traditions in emphasizing the importance of belief and attitude in determining how our lives unfold. Let’s look at two very different beliefs about aging.

Since the “modern” era began, aging has largely been seen as a time of decline, loss, and withdrawal from active contribution. Look up the word “retire” in the dictionary; most of the definitions include the word “withdraw.” Accompanying this view is the belief, held in both overt and subtle ways, that once we retire, “it’s all downhill from here.” Our best years are over, with us by and large having made our significant contribution to society. Loss of a sense of purpose and meaning, and a flagging of our passions for life, is to be expected. The best we can do is hold on to who we have been for as long as possible, doing our best to stay healthy, enjoying life to the extent our health and finances will allow, perhaps finding some volunteer activities to keep us occupied, and hoping things turn out okay.

 Contrast this with another set of beliefs that sees aging as a process of development of character analogous to the development of fine wine over time. Aging is understood as a necessary prerequisite for developing the wisdom that comes only from experience and reflection. This stage of our life provides time and opportunity for focusing on our deepest values, our personal development, our spiritual life, and our relationships with our loved ones and communities. These decades are not just the final chapter after we have passed our prime, but rather a time full of possibility for fulfillment, meaning, passion and active community engagement—if we consciously work to make them so.

 If we resonate in some way with this second perspective, a critical first step for us is exploring, with as much honesty as we can muster, the beliefs and attitudes we hold about aging. Living in a society where the first set of beliefs are strongly dominant, for most of us these are strongly engrained and hold great power. One way to know how much they influence us is to honestly look at the fears, hopes and beliefs we carry about our aging process. Only by becoming conscious of those inner dynamics that shape our lives can we do the necessary work of transforming disempowering inner images with images that can support our growth and fulfillment in our later chapters.

 Here are ten important questions to ask yourself:

  • Do I do everything possible to convince myself and others that I am not getting older? If so, why?
  • Do I believe that once I reach retirement age, it’s basically all downhill from here?  If so, why?
  • Do I believe my worth is primarily tied to what I can do, or is it a reflection of  the kind of person I can be?  Which of these beliefs will best serve me as I age?
  • Have I developed a vision of my ideal elderhood?  If so, what will such an elderhood encompass?  If not, why not?
  • What can I learn from those people I know or know of who seem to be models for aging well?
  • What can I learn from those who seem to age without joy and purpose?
  • Do I see my life as an unfolding process of growth, or is growth not something important to me?
  • Am I willing to stretch beyond my comfort zone in order to find fulfillment?
  • Have I developed the resilience to move forward gracefully in the face of loss?  If not, how might I work on this?
  • Do I believe that my beliefs make a difference in how my life turns out?

We have choice in how we age.  The more we engage in denial, the more we surrender to disempowering beliefs and attitudes, the greater our risk of being painfully unprepared for the inevitable losses as well as the unique opportunities that accompany us on our journey through life’s later chapters.  We have the power to choose the beliefs that shape our lives.  We have the power to become the kind of people others look to as models for aging well.  Whatever circumstances life presents, we can treasure each day of our one precious life.

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wrinkle jewelry!

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Noa Zilberman “celebrates ageing with an expression of delicate gold,” says the label at the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum. Her pieces settle lightly on the lines around eyes, mouth, brow and cleavage that the Israeli artist noticed after the birth of her son. How artfully they disrupt the ageist and beauty-industry-driven notion that wrinkles are ugly.



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age, polio, medicine, a compelling personal history, and my book

 This weekend I received a remarkable letter from my friend Eva Rubin, who is herself remarkable. It illuminates the way ageism and ableism interact, which goes largely undiscussed, and it does so with uncommon clarity and grace. Here it is:


What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. This less awkward iteration of Nietzsche’s aphorism ran through my mind as I was thinking about your extraordinary book, Ashton. As a woman crippled by polio at the age of 3, it was remarkable how much of what you described in the book applied to my own adaptations to disability and, at the same time, how complex and confused those adaptations were.

Fight, adapt, accept, resist, get on with it, relax, find a partner(s), learn to live happily alone, … The options are endless but what is clear is that whatever options we choose–and being able and permitted to is all important–we all need help at some point.  That American society often conspires against us in getting the help we need is something you also make abundantly clear.

As a child, I was more afraid of old people than vampires.  Only my immediate family had survived the Holocaust and my exposure to the truly old was very limited.  I managed to get through my teens and early twenties without really knowing any olders.  It was only on the wards during medical school and internship that I encountered olders and became fascinated by them. When they weren’t thinking I was their nurse (sexism, partly, but mostly the belief that a disabled person couldn’t possibly be a doctor. In reality, it would have been much more difficult for me to be a nurse) or complaining that I was too young to be their doctor (a different form of ageism), I was treated to wonderful stories of joys, hardships and often remarkable resilience. It might seem paradoxical to have developed an appreciation for olders from people who were ill or injured. And, of course, I had to deal with some who were depressed, disgruntled, and not compos mentis or even sentient.  But, over and over, what I came to realise is that what most of them wanted from me was to get them back to their lives in as good a condition as possible and that those lives were considered worth living.

Geriatrics was not a specialty I was aware of in medical school nor was there much attention paid to disability or rehabilitation.  I do remember one lecture from an orthopaedic surgeon where he stated that the reason most people with lower limb problems did not walk on crutches even when they could was the energy expenditure involved. He said that the only sport with exertion greater than that of walking on crutches was cross country skiing.  I figured that didn’t bode very well for my future and that I was still right to be fearful of age. But at 69 I’m still walking, albeit more slowly and with more difficulty.

One of the things I truly love about the book, Ashton, is how much of you comes through in it–your questions about your own fallibility, your doubts, your humour,  your kindness, your boldness, your empathy, and your search for answers. I admire your ability to synthesise a large body of research so that it is easily understood. I could go on forever about what I learned and what more I wanted to understand, personally and globally. Thanks.

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Behold, a Revolution is Afoot

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That’s the title of a galvanizing post on Midcentury Modern, a site where “The formerly young get their say in this this smart conversation about age, identity and generational politics in America.” I’m delighted to be part of it, and even more so to see comrades growing in number all the time. The phrase spraypainted on that wall is attributed to Maggie Kuhn, founder of the Gray Panthers.


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Anne Lamott about my book: “Wow.”

The epigraph to my book, which willl be published on March 15th, is a quote from the wonderful writer Anne Lamott: “We contain all the ages we have ever been.” It’s an elegant counterpoint to the conventional narrative of aging as loss—aging as a rich process of accretion—and it also connects the generations. The quote inspired the cover drawing by brilliant designer Rebeca Mendez,

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and of course I was itching to somehow get a copy to Lamott. By pure coincidence, the team that will be producing the audiobook version has worked with her and offered to pass the book along. A week later, this arrived in my in-box:

“Wow. This book totally rocks. It arrived on a day when I was in deep confusion and sadness about my age—62. Everything about it, from my invisibility to my neck. Within four or five wise, passionate pages, I had found insight, illumination and inspiration. I never use the word empower, but this book has empowered me.” Anne Lamott

Needless to say, it made my day and then some. 

The audiobook recording starts tomorrow, eight hours straight. I’m gargling. And I’m excited.