On Women, Bravery, and Being Old Gray Mares


Do you have a mentor? Someone you respect who’s just a few strides ahead of you, and when they go through the door, they give it a shove so there’s a gap left for you? Or are you on your own personal road less traveled? Are you just where you thought you’d be at this age, or has life taken a few unplanned turns. It isn’t good or bad, so much as bewildering. Because as you look ahead, you can’t really see anyone loitering around, dispensing wisdom and encouragement. It might even look like the road never traveled at all.

This topic was a request, (yes, I take requests,) for something on strong women. The suggested title, One Tough Mother, has a double meaning: The literal one is somebody who loves hard and does the work required to bring others up in this world. And one is slang that’s used to describe challenging work or even life itself. I can’t tell if it’s an insult or a back-handed compliment.

Courage and strength, or the lack of it, has come up in a few conversations lately, usually related to a huge change in life or the process of recovering from an illness or injury. For my part, I’m still limping about in a post-surgery boot, teetering on that thin line between acting optimistic, but still being time-frustrated and feeling a bit sorry for myself, so I was all ears.

They all had different details, but in each story things hadn’t been quite right and looking back there were signs. Eventually things came apart, the truth was uncovered, and lives got threatened because it takes something that big to get our attention. The stories are painful and awkward but there was some dark humor, too; one friend who survived serious surgery lamented that the drug that would lessen the chance of recurrence, also seemed to have the side effect of making her husband seem really annoying. Should they have a warning label for that?

And most of us judge ourselves harshly on a good day, but we add a special dollop of sad guilt when we aren’t at our best. Even as we recite all the proper, mundane platitudes and hunker down to wait for the worst. It’s all we can do and it never feels like enough.

And as I listen to my friends, I am always aware of how much courage is revealed in conversations about weakness. It isn’t false modesty, it’s because ideals like bravery get lost in the fog of proceeding. We’re too busy doing what it will take for the next step–how to survive, what to adapt, how to resolve it. We’re like work horses; we keep our heads low, lean into the harness and pull. When that doesn’t work, we may shed some tears or rant some creative profanities or give in for that day. But then we slide back into the harness and pull some more. Progress is slow and the finish line isn’t always visible.

That might be because the view is behind us. Bravery and perseverance is best seen in hindsight. If you ask most of us, we say we’ve never done anything special. We just took things one day at a time, even when we hated it. We just did the thing that needed doing that day, even if it wasn’t pretty. When we hear a story of someone else overcoming an obstacle, we see their courage and cheer them on, but are blind to our own. We’re even strong in our humility. (Okay, not every minute, but still…)

If I could change one thing about women of a certain age, I wish we’d stop apologizing for our age.

I wish we’d brag more about our scars and our scares–and take credit for surviving. How did we ever get so impressed with youth? In our capitalistic culture, we’ve stop being a demographic; retailers ignore us because we don’t buy cheap, shiny things, instead preferring a sunset with the company of an old dog. We’re comfortable in boots that are as well broken in as we are. Do you realize the power we hold?

We are like elder horses. They’re prey and they know it, but they still maintain a place of strength, while being sensitive and vulnerable. Sure, elder horses get more respect from their herd than we do, but then we could do a better job of claiming our victories with their confidence and grace.

I’m 61–it’s an awkward age. Life is changing and I don’t know what’s coming. I’d love to have a mentor up ahead, but I might do better to look behind me and then shake a fist and howl at the path. Because maybe the reason we can’t see a mentor up ahead is that we have become that sage entity. It might have happened when we were busy not taking any credit for all that we’ve become since we were silly girls.

There is an old song that has run on a loop forever; it’s the first horse song I learned as a kid. “The old gray mare, she ain’t what she used to be, Many long years ago.” I thought it was a sad song with a chirpy beat but I finally looked it up (here). One version says it’s about Lady Suffolk, the first horse recorded as trotting a mile in less than two and a half minutes, back in 1843. Here’s the catch–she was more than ten years old.

Nope. The old gray mare ain’t what she used to be. She’s better–faster and stronger where it matters. Let’s sprint the rest of the way. Even with a limp, it’s beautiful to see our kind of innate courage and strength of experience; the kind that has moved mountains in the past and isn’t afraid to do it again.

I don’t generally take much pride in being a human, but this week I’ve had pause to stand taller and be grateful. I just love us. We should take a moment to thank our-ripe-selves for becoming who we are. And if I see you on the street and call you an old gray mare, it’s because it’s the kindest compliment I know.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

PS. Is anyone going to the Midwest Horse Fair in Madison, WI, in April?

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