Mary Lou Dickinson, a Toronto writer, grew up in northern Quebec. Her first book, One Day It Happens, was published at 70. Four more books since include short stories, two novels, and a mystery. She has also completed a memoir and a self-help book on retirement issues. Click here for more information.
It is at least my third appearance at Brockton. Why am I here? An old white woman. Perhaps because I have valued and supported the diversity of this series from its inception. Perhaps because of my work in the field of violence against women. It was there that I first encountered anti- oppression and anti-racism training in the 1990s. Something that was powerful and questioned the assumptions that pervaded my life from childhood that I had resisted and fought without really understanding why. It was difficult, but a profound relief to find I could understand and continue to fight, knowing that what I had observed so long ago with the wisdom of children was a profoundly unfair society run primarily by white, privileged men.
Or maybe because I am old?
My life has spanned beginnings in a frontier mining town where people of many backgrounds arrived to mine for gold or support that infrastructure to my present reality in urban Toronto. There were no old people in the mining camp area since it was brand new. I was always fascinated by old people since other than my grandparents in then faraway Toronto, I rarely saw anyone who had reached that stage. In an early home in Toronto, a main floor apartment of a house, the owners who lived above us were in their eighties (the age I am now). I reflect on this these days because I am encountering a prevalent ‘ism’ of which I had no previous in depth understanding. My descriptions of older people in stories were from the outside. Whereas now I am on the inside and wonder how to convey what it is like to be old as well as the ‘isms’ around that.
The strands that have joined the various segments of my life, as well as family, have found convergence in writing, Although that writing did not come to full public fruition until my first book, a collection of short stories, “One Day It Happens,” was published the year I turned seventy. It was not hailed as the first published work of someone of that age. One reads about writers publishing their first novel at forty, fifty or sixty with great praise and some expression of surprise. Even when my first novel, “Ile d’Or,” was published three years later and favourably reviewed, this did not happen. Three books beyond that, I wonder, is my obscurity a result of being female and now, old? When I decided to self- publish my most recent book, my fifth by then, my publisher had already accepted another manuscript of mine and I felt my timeline shortening. So, this fifth book, another collection of short stories called “Dance Season” was done through Amazon. And you can purchase copies or ebooks on Amazon.
The characters in “Dance Season” are in their sixties, old to many readers. I like to think of them as at a mature age, but some of their behaviour in the stories suggests they nonetheless remain juvenile in many ways. But the characters I contemplate now when I want to try to capture this age that reflects my reality are much older than that.
One very recent story is called “Watch Out For The Old Lady.” When you hear a bunch of teenage boys circling you and calling out this phrase, it is overwhelming. If I coloured my bangs again either the fuchsia or teal colour I favoured before the pandemic, would it merely cause humour now? Or would I suddenly appear to have individual characteristics and humanity? Or would I still be the subject of their humour and disdain? I know when I used those colours before, leaving the rest white, it elicited conversation everywhere I went, as if ageist observations had no relevance in the light of this youthful gesture.
Such questions are often what I ponder these days. How did the time pass so quickly? How did I reach such an advanced age? It is often said that one is as old as one feels. And I have maintained the reputation of being young by continuing to face life with a youthful spirit. But I know the truth of aging and physical decline that I never understood even as I cared long ago for aging parents. I won’t go into the symptoms or the conditions I have started to confront that began in the last couple of years. Details vary from one individual to another. Just know that if you have the good fortune to live a long life even with its surprises, you will be very lucky. And that the best way to deal with that now might be to treat your older friends and relatives with kindness and respect. Enjoy them. Help them to go on achieving their dreams! Help them to deal with their new realities and challenges!
I go to a dance class where I sit and watch most of the time because I can no longer maintain my balance and the turns and spins make me dizzy. Everyone is masked and double vaccinated. The teacher dances a few steps with me in each class I attend. And I am happy not to have to give up entirely something that has been a passion for many years. I am happy that the younger people there (not altogether young, more middle aged) are glad to see me. We talk about dance, politics, climate change, diversity, etc. This is my reality. It is different than it was even before the pandemic in ways I had not foreseen, but not because of the pandemic. Because so many changes happened to me during it. But it is enlightening to find out what another ‘ism’ feels like and try to take steps to define it from the inside rather than only from observing and describing it and wondering what comes next!
Please don’t treat me like someone who is not here. Sometimes people ask me what I used to do. I tell them what I do now is what I will tell them about. So I do! I also recall when my mother was in hospital years ago and the doctors talked over her to me. It was as if she weren’t even in the room. I had to let them know that they needed to talk to her directly. People have to continue to deal with me now, too! Yes, I am old, but I am still here. I am still in the room. And I am still writing and publishing and seeking a fair and just society.
Mary Lou Dickinson visits Brockton Writers Series via ephemera series on Wednesday, November 10, 2021 starting at 6:30pm alongside Kelly Robson, Lisa Richter, and Jael Richardson. Our guest speaker Deborah Dundas will take us through, “Inside the Pages: A Book Editor Demystifies the News and Reviews Process.”
Special note: As we adapt to current social distancing regulations, we’re happy to announce our event will be hosted by the wonderful ephemera series! They have already done their show online multiple times, so we are thrilled to benefit from their technical expertise, while also increasing collaboration within the literary community and growing connections between organizers, authors, and audience. You can attend the event by watching on the ephemera series YouTube channel. Please log in at 6:30.