Book Review by Phoebe Lydia Bailey, Ph.D
Maya Angelou was once introduced and acknowledged for the role of the poet: “the one who calls attention to the things I have been paying attention to.”
When Mary Pipher’s book, "Women Rowing North: Navigating Life's Currents and Flourishing as We Age," was recommended to me, I saw that she was paying attention to the things I have been paying attention to as I journey through my 70s.
This is a rich guidebook, which she says is about “how to think.
Pipher’s view is now added to conversations about “growth mindset” popularized by Stanford University psychologist, Carol Dweck. Ultimately, the view is that adopting a “growth mindset” vs. “fixed mindset” wards off stagnation.
Pipher has interviewed women from all over the country and from varied educational, economic, and cultural backgrounds and range of coping with transition from middle age to old age.
The vantage point is that of “cultural therapist” specializing in women, trauma, and the effects of our cultures on mental health during this developmental stage.
In defining the cultural and developmental issues women face as they age in the context of the “growth mindset,” Pipher seems to be filling in the spaces missed by John Naisbitt 30+ years ago in “Megatrends: Ten New Directions Transforming Our Lives.”
I cite “Megatrends” not because of Naisbitt’s conclusions, but because of the tool “content analysis” he used as an indicator of shifts in the public’s expectations, values and preoccupations. Over the years, I have followed his idea with attention to articles with particular slants about black people, women, gadgets, environment, aging, etc.
For example, in my lifetime (I was born in 1945), features about people who live to be 100 years old are no longer front-page news. However, despite the vigor displayed by our growing population of centenarians, I have, like Pipher, noticed increased ageism.
See the Feb. 8, 2019, “New York Times” article on possible models of modern love “At What Age Is Love Enthralling - 82?” The summary: “A confession of attraction from a man 30 years younger causes an octogenarian to reflect on desires, sensuality and aging.”
Atlanta playwright, 70-year old Pearl Cleage’s play “Angry, Raucous, and Shamelesly Gorgeous” examines the spaces of female friendships across generations, specifically concern about being displaced by the younger generation in places where we formally took center stage.
Cleage’s play was likely inspired by an interviewer who asked her if she was jealous of awards won by her student, Tayari Jones, author of “An American Marriage.”
In an equally powerful and meaningful context, Mary Pipher invites us to use “Women Rowing North” as a “how to think book” rather than a “how to” book. “Rowing” in the title contrasts sailing or floating, neither of which take as much effort as rowing.
“This book focuses on the attitudes and skills we need in order to let go of the past, embrace the new, cope with loss and experience wisdom, authenticity and bliss,” she wrote.
The core lesson of Pipher’s book is simply “Everything is workable:”
“A developmental perspective in our sixties and seventies allows for a new openness in our hearts and minds. When we limit our belief in our own potential to grow, we also limit our incentive to grow.”
Pipher’s book is organized in four parts:
Part I “Challenges of the Journey” addresses ageism and lookism, caregiving and loneliness.
Part II “Travel Skills” outlines skills needed for understanding ourselves, making skillful choices, building community managing our narratives, the importance of being useful.
“Self-knowledge and self-protective skills” – for example, the power of saying “No;” “giving up the responsibility to fix everything” – provide new freedom and joy.
Part III “The People on the Boat” cites critical relationships for the trip: friendships, marriage, family, grandchildren.
“Whether or not we have a family, we need to live interdependently with others.”
Part IV “The Northern Lights” lists the reward: Authenticity, Enhanced Perspectives. Bliss.
“Bliss doesn’t happen because we are perfect or problem-free but rather because over the years we have become wise enough to occasionally be present for the moment. We have acquired the capacity to appreciate what simply is.”
Pipher is informative, inspiring, and entertaining as she reassures us of our resilience and capacity for reinvention as we navigate the transition from middle age to old age.
She leaves us with the caveat: “Remember the first rule of the wilderness “Don’t panic.”
This welcome addition to boomer media, "Women Rowing North," is available at Amazon and other major booksellers.
Phoebe Lydia Bailey, who received her doctorate in English from Purdue University in 1979, spent much of her professional career in public education, serving as an English teacher and assistant principal. She later became the National Director of Educational Foundations and Academic Innovations for the Boys & Girls Clubs of America.
A woman of many talents and a passion for community philanthropy, she has created an online service as a Performance Coach for Career Development and Resume Design.