Wednesday, 16 November 2011

It can be fun, being invisible.

Sometimes the invisibility of ageing women can be a nuisance. I speak, the room whirls round me, then the same words come out of the mouth of a man and everyone drools. But there is little point in foot-stamping; that changes nothing.

(I recall talking with Paul, my mentor, about this - and he was appalled. He'd never noticed older women . . . I rest my case.)

It has evolutionary advantages. The only logical reason for women to live so long after the end of their child-bearing years is to raise children. So - say your village is attacked; if those caring for the children are invisible then a few dead men matter less.

And it has its advantages. For instance, earlier this year I drove down the west coast of America. I found myself in a little cafe in LaJolla, sipping a cappucino, while three women at the next table seemed totally unaware of my scribbling in a notebook, looking up every now and then to check who was speaking. And here, roughly, is a transcript of a corner of their conversation. I shall call them A, B, and C.

A. 'Well, I had this job, in Silicon Valley, and it was so paid, well you know what they pay there, thousands, hundreds of thousands. We had this wonderful house, in the mountains; it was just darling. But then they effectively asked me to choose between work and family (she shrugs), so here we are.'
B. 'Oh, that's such a wonderful story!'
C. 'Oh, and you are such a wonderful mother.'
(They talk about the wonderful things they are doing with their children.)
B. 'I've gone back to school, so I can help little B with his math.'
A. 'Oh, that's so cute.'
B. 'And I've given my daughter a diary, so she can record the way she feels.'
C. 'Oh it's so important that daughters feel good about themselves.'
A. 'Oh self-esteem is the most -'
B. 'I talk with my daughter about her feelings all the time.'
A. 'I want to go to meditation with my daughter.'
C. 'Meditation is wonderful. The pregnant mothers I work with, they do this meditation together, and go into this womb-like trance, and then they all stay connected to each other, sort of embraced by the process.'
B. 'Isn't that just beautiful?'

And so it went on. (In my notebook I commented that this was another reminder of the things that obsess us when we are removed from the necessity of foraging for our own food or keeping ourselves safe.) I have yet to weave this into a short story, but I can't help feeling that all this mutual adoration hid some serious envy. I'm not sure I believe A's tale of deciding to leave Silicon Valley for her family; and, if it's not true, why does she feel a need to make this up? What is B's daughter really writing in her diary? And what do the pregnant women in C's medication class think when in the throws of labour?

On a lighter note - a lad on a bus intended me to hear this: he clambered on with a large musical instrument, bumped into everyone on his way to the back seat, and the turned to his friend and shouted for us all to hear, 'Have you heard, like, Verdi's fucking requiem; it's fucking great!' (I think he wanted me to be shocked.)

So - what have you overheard recently? And does it find its way into stories, or simply simmer in the pages of your notebook?


  1. When will teenagers realise that we've heard everything they have in their 'shock' arsenal, and could teach them a thing or two as well?

    It's official. I've turned into my Mother :-)

  2. I know what you mean about being invisible. It happens gradually and it's a sad phenomenon but I haven't the courage that you have to make notes of overheard conversations quite so overtly. Consequently I forget a lot of them. Mr A always knows when I'm eaves-dropping if we're out together but he spoils it by saying, 'who are you listening to now?'

  3. Well put! I'm sure all this is true, but perhaps there's an alternative view. I recall years ago a (young) woman disguised herself as a man and with help from a male accomplice began mingling with groups of men. Her purpose was to write an article about how much attention one received as a man vs her experience as a woman. She said she felt invisible--tolerated at best but nobody cared what she had to say. Whereas as a woman she'd always had their attention.

  4. Steve - I'm so glad you didn't feel that this was a post for women-only. And that's really interesting. I wonder if young men are really only interested in young women, and not in each other? If all the posturing and talking about football and stuff that (as women) we think men do is actually not the point - they are simply looking for young women to chat up? (It would be interesting to hear from any gay or lesbian followers - is this the same for you?)

    Sarah - yes, we all eventually turn into our mothers. (But don't tell my daughters . . .)

    Ros - I live alone, and am often in cafes by myself - and drove down the west coast of America on my own. So it's for me to blend in the background - and I often write my journal in cafes when I'm travelling anyway. Eavesdropping must be really hard with someone next to you asking those sort of questions.

  5. The 'invisible' thing hasn't quite reached me yet, but I feel I'm at the 'fading' point. I remember my mum telling me when it started happening to her though, and I found it so hard to believe at the time. As for eavesdropping - I hear some corkers when I'm out and about, am convinced I'll remember them, but by the time I get home have forgotten... must be my age!

  6. Walking down London Streets, I often feel so invisible I have to dodge people who would otherwise knock me out of the way, but sitting still - in a cafe or on the bus or tube, I really enjoy people watching - and listening.

  7. Overhearing conversations is great because you are so far removed from the people, having no relationship with them, that you can analyze what is being said.
    There is a whole Facebook page dedicated to things overheard at the university where I went to school. It is hilarious.

  8. Thank you all. Invisibility isn't so bad once you are used to it, Abi.

    Mal - know exactly what you mean about invisibility in London. Tho it was challenged on the day when I got on the tube, laden with presents for an aunt, and a young man with dreadlocks stood up for me to sit. I told him his mother would be so proud of him - and he gave me a wonderful smile and said he would tell her. Such an unexpected moment of connection - I've never forgotten him!

    Shelly - overheard conversations in unis are often hilarious. Students can take themselves so ridiculously seriously! (And that, of course, once included me.)

  9. Perhaps this is why we choose to be heard.

  10. In my early 20s I was much affected by those Carlos Castaneda books that were all the rage at the time, including the old mystic's advice to--essentially--be invisible. That is completely counter to the traits needed to advance onself in our world. Putting that advice on top of someone who was already shy probably didn't help my career advancement.

    Anyway, being invisible is certainly not what we need in promoting our books!

  11. Reading your post made me realise I don't overhear much these days. Help maybe I'm going deaf! !!!

  12. How kind you all are. And yes, Steve, invisibility is a disadvantage when it comes to marketing!

    Jenni - do try a hearing aid! Overhearing conversations is one of life's joys.

  13. My blog has just been presented with a Liebster Blog Award and I’d like to award it to you too! If you go to my blog I’ve posted a bit about it there and you can collect it by dowloading a copy of the picture at the bottom of the sidebar.

  14. Ali - how very kind. I'll trip over there now and collect it; thank you.