High on my list of literary heroes is Judith Viorst. Her children’s books kept our kids entertained for years, especially when they were having terrible, horrible, no good very bad days. Her best-selling poetry spanned the decades—her first being It’s Hard to Be Hip Over Thirty—and managed to take the edge off those dreaded numbers ending in zero. She stepped away from writing from 1975 to 1981 to attend the Washington Psychoanalytic Institute, where she got a research degree. That led to her hugely popular non-fiction bestseller Necessary Losses: The Loves, Illusions, Dependencies and Impossible Expectations That All of Us Have to Give Up in Order to Grow.
All this, and she has managed to remain happily married for 60 years to writer Milton Viorst, an expert on the Middle East. They raised three sons, who had no problem with often being the title characters in their mom’s books.
Now, Simon and Schuster is publishing Viorst’s latest … but I bet not last: Nearing Ninety and Other Comedies of Late Life. Her spirit endures:
It’ s time I got rid of the treadmill I’m not treading.
It’s time he got over believing that he still skis.
And given the current condition of his lower back and my knees
It’s time we quit doing the Lindy Hop at weddings.
I asked this role model a few questions, and her answers say a lot about her—and us.
Q: How does it feel to reach this age and any helpful remedies?
Though I spend more time than I used to trying to figure out where my eyeglasses and car keys are, I keep my mind alert by memorizing poetry.
A: Unbelievable. Because 90 is seriously old. And I don’t feel seriously old. Even though my bare upper arms are no longer suitable for public viewing, I’m still very energetic. If I feel droopy, it is such an unfamiliar feeling that I fear I must have contracted a fatal illness. And though I spend more time than I used to trying to figure out where my eyeglasses and car keys are, I keep my mind alert by memorizing poetry.
Q: I sometimes spend hours late at night depressed about the end being so much closer than the beginning. You too?
A: I’m at an age when a lot of beloved people die, and I know that in the not too distant future, I will too. This is the reality, something I am always aware of. I work hard at not letting it cast a cloud over the sweet and precious days that remain.
Q: Have you had health issues? You look so amazing.
A: Whenever some health issue comes up, and a doctor wants to do something for me, I always ask the same question: Aren’t I going to die before this particular health issue’s going to get me, and if so, let’s just leave it alone. As for exercise, I have my very own treadmill on the third floor, and I get a lot of exercise running up the stairs and dusting it off.
Q: What was the most difficult decade to wax poetic about?
I knew intellectually that there were plenty of limits—external limits, internal limits—but I didn’t really believe it, feel it, know it until I got into my 40s.
A: Without a doubt, the 40s decade was my most difficult—both to live and to write about. Life pre-40s still felt reasonably open-ended: If I really WANTED TO, I could go to medical school and become a brain surgeon, run off with Leonard Cohen, learn to speak fluent French and play the piano. I knew intellectually that there were plenty of limits—external limits, internal limits—but I didn’t really believe it, feel it, know it until I got into my 40s. When I realized deep in my bones that some doors were closed, were closing, were locked against me forever—that I’d never be a ballerina or tennis star, or an astronaut. And that, no matter how careful I was, I would die. The 40s were for me a time of facing up to my limits, big and small, and to my mortality. Hard! And quite a challenge to write funny poems about.
Q: Has this been a difficult one to swallow, let alone publicly announce?
A: Ninety was not been hard to acknowledge publicly, because I’ve been building up to it for years. When you start writing decade books of poems and you begin with 30 and you keep on writing, there’s no way to get around it. Besides, the book is called NEARING Ninety. I’m actually just a girl of 88!
Q: If you could change anything physically, what would it be?
A: If I could change anything about my body, I would arrange to be able to eat and drink as much as I wanted of anything, without its being bad for my health and without my gaining any weight. I love to eat. I love to cook. I love wine. I would love for the scale to permanently register 118 no matter what! As for what I would change about my life, oh my! I would like in every way possible to be—and to have been—a better person. Wouldn’t everyone?
Q: How important has humor been in your life?
A: The importance of humor in my life? Impossible to imagine my life without it. It puts things in perspective, it heals, it heads off disaster, it makes friendship, marriage, parenting, and every other possible relationship easier, it infuses the ordinary with joy, it keeps us from taking ourselves too seriously, it keeps us from killing each other.
Q: What is your writing process?
I count much more on hard work than on creative juices, which I consider a gift from the gods—and, unlike the hard work, out of my control.
A: When I am working on a book, I have writing goals I try to meet every day. Many years ago, when I wrote Necessary Losses, a long and heavily researched book, I gave myself a three-year deadline, and divided up my goals by year, month, week, and day—and stuck to it. I am comfortable with quotas to fill, and I count much more on hard work than on creative juices, which I consider a gift from the gods—and, unlike the hard work, out of my control.
Q: Speaking of that book, what was that experience like, going back to an academic setting many years later … and a Freudian one at that?
A: It was one of the most intellectually thrilling experiences of my life. I loved what I had learned and wanted to tell everyone about it. Hence the book. By the way, I was the only woman in the program and the only non-MD.
Q: I always feel we need things to look forward to, which for obvious reasons, can get more difficult. How do you handle that?
A: I am looking FORWARD to the small sweet pleasures of everyday life: reading the newspapers with my husband, hanging out with our children and grandchildren, visiting with friends, enjoying a book or a movie, or watching the sun rise. Ordinary daily life feels very precious to me.
I don’t plan on fearlessly riding a camel across the desert sands.
I don’t plan on running a marathon up in Boston.
I don’t plan on reading M. Proust in French, nor do I have any plans
To be playing acoustic guitar in a bar down in Austin.
Michele Willens is a journalist and published playwright, and is currently a theatre commentator for NPR-owned Robinhoodradio. She writes frequently about culture for Huffington Post, The Atlantic, The Daily Beast, The New York Times, and The Los Angeles Times. She is co-author of FACE T: What Women Really Feel As Their Looks Change. She lives in New York with her husband, NBC News VP David Corvo, and their two children.