Mary Pipher is a clinical psychologist and cultural anthropologist. She is author of several reflective, insightful books and an activist for various causes, including the wellbeing, rights and health of women of all ages. In 1994, she wrote Reviving Ophilia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, drawing on case studies from her own practice, examining the pressure society places on young girls. Now, twenty-five years later, she writes Women Rowing North: Navigating Life’s Currents and Flourishing as We Age (2019) while entering the seventh decade of her own life.
Pipher’s goal in writing Women Rowing North was to encourage older women to look past the challenges, heartache, and fear of growing older and focus on the freedom and true bliss that can also accompany aging. This, she points out, requires a certain amount of work, prompting the choice of the title word rowing rather than drifting. She encourages women to take an active role in the aging process, not just physically and mentally, but socially and spiritually as well. Again, she uses several case studies from her practice along with other examples drawn from her own experiences and those of friends and family. The book is neatly organized into categories: I. Challenges of the Journey – acknowledging that societal stereotypes, declining health, caregiving, and other hurdles, giving women good reason to dread and/or fear old age; II. Travel Skills – providing a roadmap of sorts for getting through these hard times, including intentional living (good advice at any age), building and participating in a community, and living in gratitude; III. The People in the Boat – acknowledging life partners, children, grandchildren, and friends and the important roles they play as we age, even though these relationships can sometimes be complicated; and IV. The Northern Lights – focusing on the idea of bliss and how it doesn’t necessarily require great wealth or epic experiences. It exists in things as simple as spending time with loved-ones or in nature or in enjoying a day spent doing exactly what you want to do, exactly when you want to do it.
I found myself getting depressed as I read the first chapters. Having personally experienced the roll of Caregiver for both of my parents, I have some experience with the challenges about which Pipher writes and have spent a fair amount of time imagining my own future, making mental notes, planning, and bracing myself (years in advance – I hope) for what’s to come. This book didn’t really tell me anything new or provide “the secret” to struggle-free aging. What it did do, however, is give insight into aging more gracefully and a reminder about the importance of gratitude and living in the moment. As I tend to live a lot of life somewhere out in front of myself, I don’t always fully appreciate the bliss that’s waiting to be experienced right now. More importantly, Pipher points out that although we may not have the power to dictate the direction our futures will take, we all have the power to control how we react to it. Since that fact is no easy feat, I plan on keeping a copy of this book to pull off the shelf when I need a gentle reminder to appreciate the multitude of gifts I’ve already received and remain open to gifts yet to come, even as the path gets rough.