The antithesis of Polly Quackenbush is Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown. Brown, of the multiple face lifts, the Barbie-doll thin figure and the endless sex tips, refuses to age.
Quackenbush, a counselor with the community colleges’ Life Skills/ Women’s Programs, believes 73-year-old Brown is missing out.
“I think, ‘Why don’t you sit down to a bowl of mashed potatoes and gravy and enjoy yourself once before you die?”’ she says, chuckling.
Quackenbush, on the other hand, embraces the wisdom and humor that accompanies aging for women. She will preside over “The Crone Panel,” a group of “chronologically challenged” older women, at a community college workshop Thursday celebrating the second half of women’s lives.
At 64, Quackenbush finds life as a crone hilarious.
“We have a great deal of fun,” says Quackenbush. “We don’t care what other people think of us. We don’t care if our hair is gray and our stomach sticks out. We don’t care if we don’t have on the right little black dress and the right string of pearls.”
Her crone panel will be one event in a day packed with local speakers, among them Gail and John Goeller, authors of “Spokane’s Guide to Healthy Aging,” and Jan Polek, the gender equity program manager for Life Skills/Women’s Programs. The keynote speaker will be Cathleen Rountree of Aptos, Calif., author of “Coming Into Our Fullness: On Women Turning Forty” (Crossing) and “On Women Turning 50” (HarperCollins).
“One of the profound things that happens around 40 is we gain a sense of our own mortality. And that’s pretty shocking,” says Rountree. “There becomes an urgency to living well, living fully and living truthfully.”
Rountree interviewed and photographed 36 women in their 40s and 50s for her books. Some were well-known - Gloria Steinem, Ellen Burstyn and Barbara Boxer - and others were not. All of them spoke eloquently about the changes in their lives.
In “On Women Turning 50,” Rountree writes, “They begin new careers, say goodbye to passionless marriages, open themselves (perhaps for the first time) to a spiritual life, and begin new activities - whatever it is they want to do, be it painting or belly dancing or sky-diving.”
Hollywood and the fashion industry conspire to airbrush away the first signs of aging which appear on the faces of women in these decades. Many women complain that they begin to feel invisible.
Yet, Rountree says, “I rarely meet women who say, ‘Oh my God, I’m in my 40s or 50s and I wish I were in my 20s or 30s again. That just doesn’t happen.”
The culture may not be enamored of women at midlife, but there are fine trade-offs. It is in their 40s and 50s, Rountree says, that women discover finally that their lives are their own.
“Up until midlife we care more about what others think about us rather than what we feel,” says Rountree. “After 40 we care more about how we feel.”
Don’t tell Quackenbush you’re planning to celebrate your 40th birthday with black crepe paper. She’s certain that life only “begins to begin” at 40.
She tells younger women, “As the years go by, you’ll get more confident, more comfortable with yourself, more absolutely convinced that whatever you decide fits for yourself is just fine.”
It wasn’t until Quackenbush was 48, her children were grown, and her marriage was ending that she underwent a life-restoring transformation.
“I was a product of the generation that conformed to all of the standard cliches,” she says. “You go to the right school. You marry the right man. I was the perfect housewife. It took a long time for me to become aware that somehow I got lost in all of this.”
Quackenbush pursued a master’s degree, launched a career in women’s programs, and is firmly convinced it was one of the best decisions she ever made.
She relishes counseling younger women through the colleges’ Changepoint and Project SelfSufficiency programs.
“The gift of getting older is that you know that the most important thing you can give to younger women is not your knowledge, but the knowledge that they have everything they need inside,” says Quackenbush. “What you do is open up their personal power.”
She also has the gift of perspective. “Everything’s life and death when you’re young,” says Quackenbush. “It really isn’t.
“Basically the world is an incredible mess. But it’s been an incredible mess over and over and over again. Once you realize that, you begin to look at what in this moment is wonderful and beautiful and makes me feel good.
“That’s what’s important.”
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