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This is 72: Donna Spruijt-Metz Responds to The Oldster Magazine Questionnaire
"It is memory that pins us in time, our various selves, like butterflies on a board."
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, Donna Spruijt-Metz—a psychology/public health professor and poet who’ll launch her debut poetry collection in January, at 72—responds. - Sari Botton
Donna Spruijt-Metz is a professor of Psychology and of Population and Public Health at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. She is a recent MacDowell Fellow. Her poetry appears in Copper Nickel, the Tahoma Literary Review, Los Angeles Review, RHINO, The Cortland Review, Poetry Northwest, and elsewhere. Her chapbooks are “Slippery Surfaces” (Finishing Line Press) and “And Haunt the World” (with Flower Conroy, Ghost City Press). Her full length “General Release from the Beginning of the World” is forthcoming (Free Verse Editions, January 2023).
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?
I’m so many ages that make cameo appearances in my imagination. I’m the fatherless child in first grade writing my first anguished poem on primary school lined paper. I’m the girl in the commune, braless and sitting in at moratoriums against the Viet Nam war, I am the girl writing poetry and then abandoning it for music, the woman-child playing bass guitar in the rock and roll band, the dazed immigrant studying flute at the conservatory in Den Haag, I’m the idiot smoking during flute lessons, I am a bride more than once, I am the flutist with cold fingers playing in churches and concert halls across Western Europe, I am the woman in short skirts and fishnet stockings that my husband fell in love with all those years ago at University, I am the woman sitting alone on a bench in the Vondelpark reading Dutch poetry, translating it, trying to find my way into the Dutch culture, I am a new mother who suddenly sees the world as a parade of possible threats to my newborn daughter, I am a professor of psychology and public health wondering how that ever happened, I am a 72-year-old poet who finally turned and faced poetry about a decade ago. It is memory that pins us in time, our various selves, like butterflies on a board.
I am a 72-year-old poet who finally turned and faced poetry about a decade ago.
Do you feel old for your age? Young for your age? Just right? Are you in step with your peers?
What a strange question. But I suppose I often feel young for my age—or perhaps I don’t experience what I think you are referring to (age as a number) as a defining characteristic of “my peers.” My “peers” in science are different than my “peers” in poetry and different again from my “peers” in synagogue. So I am fluid. If we are talking of age as a number—I am about the same as my synagogue peers, a bit older than my university peers, and much older than my poetry peers, for the most part. I don’t fit in anywhere, really. And yet I feel rich to be considered welcome in all these circles. I feel young—or perhaps the right word here is “immature”—in that it took me so long to finally give in to poetry. And now that I finally have, or try to every day, I find that it is indeed hard and wonderful. I feel so new to it, there is so much I have to learn.
What do you like about being your age?
There is some peace that comes with it. I mean, seriously, would you want to be 21 again, dominated by hormones? Joking aside, I feel a bit more robust to the life of scrutiny that poetry demands. I will not say that I have conquered my demons. But I have found ways to exist in conversation with them, to thrive on the difficult, enriching business of observing, of taking note, of training myself to flinch less often. And I love that, at this age, it is fine to be religious/spiritual in any way I chose, that I can meet with what I consider holy on my own terms, unhindered by other people’s opinions. That is partially a product of age but also of the current Zeitgeist. The two are tricky to disentangle.
What is difficult about being your age?
The most difficult thing about being my age for me is the threat of losing my health—certainly in the age of COVID, people keep telling me that I am “vulnerable”—which makes me feel vulnerable. And it is if I suddenly looked up and saw that time might exist, even though the physicists tend to claim that it doesn’t. Time is most certainly a human construct—look at all the calendars that we have made and adhered to religiously, then amended or discarded down through the ages. My husband, Gershom, teaches a class called “Designing a Time Machine” at ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena. The nature of time is often a centerpiece of our dinner discussions. Not that I understand it, but time seems to flow differently these days. I was used to having seas of it, or at least used to feeling like I had seas of it. Now I hope I have time to make at least one more book of poetry before my time runs out.
I feel young—or perhaps the right word here is “immature”—in that it took me so long to finally give in to poetry. And now that I finally have, or try to every day, I find that it is indeed hard and wonderful. I feel so new to it, there is so much I have to learn.
What is surprising about being your age, or different from what you expected, based on what you were told?
I’m not sure I had expectations. People don’t tend to talk about aging, which is a very counterproductive consequence of the ageist society that we live in. Also I have never been particularly interested, so I didn’t do much research into the subject. I think more than not “being interested” I had an aversion to the whole thing—I was resistant—another by-product of this particular society. My mother’s main adage was “getting old isn’t for sissies.” And she was right. Pain—dull, sharp, lingering, returning, unpredictable—I’ve had to learn to stand up to it. Getting old in this society certainly isn’t for women. Being an “old lady” is a very low, disrespected position in this society. In general, we have a lack of respect for our elders, particularly female elders, but then we have a lack of respect for females in this society altogether. I thought perhaps we would get over that in my lifetime. But no. People who identify as female are still underpaid and overworked. People are still trying to legislate our bodies. I have clung to my academic position, to being “Dr. Metz”—as an antidote—but it is time to let go of that. My attention is on poetry now. And the race is on. Between me and the “clock.”
What has aging given you? Taken away from you?
Age has given me time—time for a few achievements in various professions—time to change professions more than once! Age has given me a bit of peace in some things, but really, I am just as volatile as I have always been. I would not say that wisdom is mine yet. But age has given me all the time I have had with loved ones, with poetry, with music, with Judaism—time to know and learn—it all takes time—aging has given me enough life experience to know that poetry isn’t going to quit me, and to think that I might be able to survive life within it. In fact, it has been a slow bend towards poetry. I am a stubborn and fearful woman, and only time has been able to bend me. I fled from the particular rigors of poetry as a girl, first into music, then into academia, and for a time I thought my next career would be the rabbinate, so I went to rabbinical school for a bit. But I realized that I needed to write about the holy. Poetry was patient, a nagging and faithful consort. And now, blessedly, I am here, in the thick of it. I have been given the time.
The main thing that age has taken away from me is the same thing it gave me. Time. Time, that precious commodity (if we decide that it exists in some form—after all something is passing, is it not?). I don’t, like many poets (and most of my “peers”), get to wait 10 years for the next book. And I can’t touch my toes anymore. I am less sure of myself on the one hand but surer of myself on the other. I am certainly more fearful in some things, mostly physical, because I have to admit to being less physically sturdy than I once was—this seems to be a product of the passage of many years.
Age has given me time—time for a few achievements in various professions—time to change professions more than once!
How has getting older affected your sense of yourself, or your identity?
Oh, I would definitely say that my sense of self, my “identity” as it were, has shifted, swerved, ducked and soared—but is this solely a feature of age? I would say it is certainly a feature of age interacting with therapy, with music and literature, with the cultures I frequent, the relationships I am in, the roles I fulfill. When I am standing in front of an academic conference, as I was last week, giving a talk on dynamic models of individual behavior, my sense of self was completely different from when I was giving a poetry reading a few days before. I even have different wardrobes for the different presentations of self (both wardrobes are mostly black, but they are entirely different styles). I no longer see myself as a flutist—but that identity stayed with me for years after I stopped playing professionally. So did the wardrobe choices. Black clothes were handy, they could be worn in orchestra or on stage. So when I transitioned slowly into academia, all my clothes remained black. Nothing much has changed. Black is a habit of an older identity, yet it clings.
What are some age-related milestones you are looking forward to? Or ones you “missed,” and might try to reach later, off-schedule, according to our culture and its expectations?
It would be an age-related milestone to live to a mobile, clear-minded, and healthy 100 years of age. I would like that, but I find it hard to imagine that I could reach that milestone. Which doesn’t mean I won’t strive for it! What I want is more—more of life and more of love, and more time with my loves (and my dogs), more travel and at the same time more quiet at home in my studio. I want more astonishment, more poetry, more music. Tell me more stories! Every bit more is a milestone.
I guess getting another book of poetry into the world would be considered an age-related milestone by now. In fact, the “for your age” modifier pops up these days when I least expect it. Many things that I don’t consider age-related seem to fall into the ever-widening maw of that category.
Have I missed a milestone? None that I can think of—I mean, I suppose I would love to win a big contest and garner more recognition as a poet—those would be milestones, yes? But the fact that you, Sari Botton, asked me to write this and you, reader, are still reading—this is honor and recognition, is it not? Yes. You honor me. (Editor’s note: 🙌🏼)
I will not say that I have conquered my demons. But I have found ways to exist in conversation with them, to thrive on the difficult, enriching business of observing, of taking note, of training myself to flinch less often.
What has been your favorite age so far, and why? Would you go back to this age if you could?
Different ages had different joys and terrors—the little girl in her quiet room, the teenager discovering Rome, and sex, and alcohol, and some other things—the young woman in love with love—the restless movement from place to place—I am grateful for the abundance—and grateful that I made it out alive. I wouldn’t go back. Nope. I wouldn’t.
Is there someone who is older than you, who makes growing older inspiring to you? Who is your aging idol and why?
Currently Sharon Olds. She remains prolific, a RENEGADE, an innovator. She bucked the poetry system until she was accepted and eventually revered because her poetry matters.
What aging-related adjustments have you recently made, style-wise, beauty-wise, health-wise?
I have gotten more delicate in the diet area—so I have to be careful, in particular while traveling, but it turns out all these adjustments can be made. I can no longer tolerate sitting at my desk in deep concentration for a whole day without moving. I have slowly revamped my studio to allow for standing, reclining, and sitting at my desk—so I can rotate positions. And we religiously walk the dogs. I just can’t get away with murder like I used to.
As far as appearance, I really should give up wanting a flat stomach, but I haven’t been able to yet, even though my daughter was born 32 years ago, and I haven’t had one since 😀. But by the same token, the arguments that I used to have with my wild curly hair and the shape of my body have melted into gratefulness. I have become grateful for the hair, the larger than average bust, the impish smile that I can’t help.
Time is most certainly a human construct—look at all the calendars that we have made and adhered to religiously, then amended or discarded down through the ages. My husband, Gershom, teaches a class called “Designing a Time Machine” at ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena. The nature of time is often a centerpiece of our dinner discussions.
What’s an aging-related adjustment you refuse to make, and why?
I still wear tight jeans. Because they look better (I think. We never do know what we look like to others, do we? Even though sometimes we think we catch a glimpse).
What’s your philosophy on celebrating birthdays as an adult? How do you celebrate yours?
My philosophy is that celebrations can be great, when done right, when there is joy and meaning. In The Netherlands, people drop by for your birthday and expect to be fed—you basically throw your own party. All day and into the night. Some years I would escape in the train to Paris just to avoid the fuss, even though I was grateful for the friends. Here in the US, people tend to throw parties for you or with you, which always seemed to me less stressful. But in truth, sometimes I celebrate and sometimes I don’t—it really depends on what’s going on in my life at the time, or in the life of my family and friends. I have become more and more of a recluse—I have the perfect studio now, and I love to spend quiet hours in it. I do celebrate the Jewish holidays religiously (as it were). All other celebrations have to make room for solitude, poetry, and the vagaries of life.
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