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This is 60: Author Dani Shapiro Responds to The Oldster Magazine Questionnaire
"I’ve begun to become aware of myself as an elder and am slowly embracing all that goes with that: mentorship, responsibility, life experience I can pass on and share."
From the time I was 10, I’ve been obsessed with what it means to grow older. I’m curious about what it means to others, of all ages, and so I invite them to take “The Oldster Magazine Questionnaire.”
Here, Dani Shapiro, author of eleven books, responds. -Sari Botton
Dani Shapiro is the author of eleven books, and the host and creator of the hit podcast Family Secrets. Her most recent novel, Signal Fires, was named a best book of 2022 by Time Magazine, Washington Post, Amazon, and others, and is a national bestseller. Her most recent memoir, Inheritance, was an instant New York Times Bestseller, and named a best book of 2019 by Elle, Vanity Fair, Wired, and Real Simple. Both Signal Fires and Inheritance were winners of the National Jewish Book Award. Dani’s work has been published in fourteen languages and she’s currently developing Signal Fires for its television adaptation. Dani’s book on the process and craft of writing, Still Writing, has just been reissued on the occasion of its tenth anniversary. She occasionally teaches workshops and retreats, and is the co-founder of the Sirenland Writers Conference in Positano, Italy.
How old are you?
Is there another age you associate with yourself in your mind? If so, what is it? And why, do you think?
These days I often think of myself at 23, partly because I was such a hot mess at that age, partly because that’s the year my parents were in a horrific car crash that killed my father and badly injured my mother, and partly because that is the age my son is today. I look at him and think, my god, 23 is so young. And I was so alone, so without family support, so lost in the world. And I’m filled with wonder and gratitude that I made it out of that time in one piece, and even more so that I’ve been able to raise a young man who feels at home in the world and knows just how loved he is by his parents and a whole community of family and friends.
60 did a number on me. I’ve come to realize that this is probably because I’ve entered the decade in which my dad died and my mother was widowed.
Do you feel old for your age? Young for your age? Just right? Are you in step with your peers?
When I turned 60, it was the first time that a “big birthday” really felt like a big birthday. I remember, when I turned 30, writing an essay about it. I actually wrote the sentence: “I’m about to turn an age I don’t want to look.” I was also a baby college professor, and my students all signed a jokey card about my second 29th birthday. I thought it was old, and that is hilarious and a little heartbreaking to me now.
When I turned 40, I had a big party and went through a mini-existential fashion crisis about what to wear. I felt I had to dress differently, at 40. I bought a black silk knee-length skirt and a black cashmere camisole. I still wear them today. But the idea that there was a proper way to dress at 40 also strikes me now as hilarious and a little heartbreaking. 50 didn’t feel like a big deal at all. I just felt lucky to be healthy, happily married, with a wonderful kid, good friends, and a life as a writer.
But 60? That birthday did a number on me. I’ve come to realize that this is probably because I’ve entered the decade in which my dad died and my mother was widowed. I feel in step with some peers and not others. When people talk about retirement, I’m a bit baffled. I can’t imagine such a thing. I hope to continue to write until my life ends, and hope that each book is a bigger leap than the last.
These days I often think of myself at 23, partly because I was such a hot mess at that age, partly because that’s the year my parents were in a horrific car crash that killed my father and badly injured my mother, and partly because that is the age my son is today. I look at him and think, my god, 23 is so young.
What do you like about being your age?
I don’t care as much about everyone liking me. I’m more comfortable in my own skin. And I think perhaps I’ve grown more patient and accepting—softening over time.
What is difficult about being your age?
Considering the whole idea of continuing to be relevant. And being surprised at just how important that is to me. That, and the awareness that I have less road ahead of me than behind me. I think a lot these days about time, and not squandering it.
What is surprising about being your age, or different from what you expected, based on what you were told?
How young I feel.
How has getting older affected your sense of yourself, or your identity?
I’ve begun to become aware of myself as an elder and am slowly embracing all that goes with that: mentorship, responsibility, life experience I can pass on and share.
What has been your favorite age so far, and why? Would you go back to this age if you could?
I’m truly at my most content right now, though if I could be in my early 40’s but knowing everything I know now, that would be cool. Impossible, obviously. But cool. There were some big things about myself that I didn’t learn until well into my 50’s, and which really impacted my life. Discovering the truth of my paternity being the biggest thing—that my dad who raised me had not been my biological father. (See my book Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love for more on that one!) So much of that not-knowing, and having a massive secret kept from me, were lacunae, blank spots in my field of vision. I wonder what it would have been like to know earlier. Though I am very much at peace with when I found out, and where I was in my life when I learned that shocking fact about myself.
Is there someone who is older than you, who makes growing older inspiring to you? Who is your aging idol and why?
I have two: my Aunt Shirley, my dad’s younger sister, who is 98 now. And my dear friend, the great Buddhist mindfulness teacher Sylvia Boorstein, who is 86. They’re both my aging idols for similar reasons: each has tremendous curiosity about the world. They’ve never stopped growing, learning, being interested. I think that’s a real feat. Oh, and I’ll add Helen Mirren, just because I want whatever she’s having.
There were some big things about myself that I didn’t learn until well into my 50’s, and which really impacted my life. Discovering the truth of my paternity being the biggest thing—that my dad who raised me had not been my biological father.
What aging-related adjustments have you recently made, style-wise, beauty-wise, health-wise?
I’ve grown very disciplined about my yoga practice, and have added strength training as well. These practices anchor my week, and are less about vanity than they used to be, and more about balance, groundedness, strength. I travel a great deal, and I’m aware that I have to counteract what I put my body through. Style-wise, I eschew grownup clothes (unlike I did at 40) and enjoy wearing ripped jeans, boots, leather jackets. I still wear heels but I’m more careful when I walk in them, and I have embraced sneakers and a couple of beautiful flat slides from a shop called Savas in Nashville. Beauty-wise I’m religious about skincare. And I do see a cosmetic dermatologist a few times a year, and freely admit it. I think women owe it to the sisterhood to tell the truth about this stuff. At 60, there’s a reason I don’t have a lot of lines on my face, and it isn’t just genetic.
What’s an aging-related adjustment you refuse to make, and why?
I don’t know if I refuse, exactly, but I do still tend to eat and drink whatever I want—red meat, red wine, rich pasta, and so forth. I haven’t had any health-related reason to change this, and I guess I’ve become a bit of a sensualist, combined with the awareness that life is short, and pleasure is part of what we’re here for, if we’re fortunate enough to experience it.
What’s your philosophy on celebrating birthdays as an adult? How do you celebrate yours?
I’m not interested in parties anymore. I do enjoy celebrating, though quietly. A good dinner with my husband, and with my son if he’s around.
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