Saturday, September 08, 2007

Carolyn Heilbrun and A Pair of Party Shoes

This is going to sound really incongruous, but I wore high heels for the first time in years tonight, and it felt great and it was fun, and when I got home, thinking about it, my party in high heels led me back to the feminist scholar, mystery writer and author of the wonderful book "Writing a Woman's Life," Carolyn Heilbrun, who killed herself at age 77.

This is how it went: I was in the mood to get dolled up for DJ's annual cocktail party -- an affair that cross pollinates Flint's wealthy set with a band of artsy academics every September. The magic we secretly hope will happen is that the people with money will fall in love with the rest of us and give us some of it for our programs -- but it's not a heavy agenda and most of us on both sides tolerate it, especially after the booze and great food kick in. DJ and his partner Dave have a big house in the fanciest part of town and they cater the whole thing and we stand out on the terrace sipping martinis, gossiping and making bon mots while the moon rises. Some years I don't want to go. Some years for some reason, this bash makes me think about what I haven't done with my life and I feel old and I resent the part of the invite that says "formal" and I think morosely about the past and dreams that didn't come true, and I can't find the right clothes to wear and I fight whatever role I think I'm supposed to play.

But this year I'm in a happy, untroubled state of mind. So today I carted myself off to Merle Norman and got a pedicure and manicure (deep red polish) and then -- in a rare impulsive decision, tried on a pair of totally impractical open-toe black party shoes with three-inch heels.
And bought them. And wore them, clicking along, a sound I haven't heard my own body make in this millenium, adjusting my gait to the architecture of being three inches taller. I felt like a walking suspension bridge. I felt my calves tighten, working to balance my stride -- skills I proudly learned at 16 and abandoned decades later when the whole idea of getting uncomfortable for style -- something about sexuality tied into it, lengthening the leg for a man's gaze -- seemed silly.

I remember the moment I gave myself permission to give up high heels. It was in the 90s and I went to Ann Arbor to hear Carolyn Heilbrun speak. I'd avidly read "Writing a Woman's Life" and from my lucky front row seat, I noticed she was wearing exceptionally sensible black shoes -- thick soled and flat. And then she said something about it -- that she'd decided life was too short for sore feet. I felt liberated and relieved.

Most of us who admired her from afar were shocked when she committed suicide. Those who knew her, though, reported that she had talked about it openly over the years. As one Google site puts it, "Heilbrun had written about planning for years to kill herself by her 70th birthday. 'Quit while you're ahead, was, and is, my motto,'she stated in "The Last Gift of Time" (1997). 'Having supposed the sixties would be downhill all the way, I had long held a determination to commit suicide at seventy.' "

But then, according to the obits, she found life so rich and enjoyable in her sixties, and even at 70, that she decided against it. She was quoted as saying, "I entered upon a life unimagined previously, of happiness impossible to youth...I entered into a period of freedom, and only past 60 learned in what freedom consists: to live without a constant, unnoticed stream of anger and resentment, without the daily contemplation of power always in the hands of the least worthy, the least imaginative, the least generous."

What's weird about this is that when I donned heels tonight in a spirit of fun, I felt that my playful gesture was part of my own "entering upon a life unimagined previously, of happiness impossible to youth." It's easier now, in this time of my life, to claim my right to enjoy myself. I wasn't on the hunt, I didn't care if I was the belle of the ball. I was just dolled up on Saturday night, perched on my new black shoes, balancing my mature woman's curves and teetering playfully along, like walking on stilts, under an amiable September moon. I like to think Heilbrun would regard my fancy shoes, a whimsical extrapolation of her views, with amusement. I wish she hadn't stopped finding life amusing -- the world is diminished without her.

Anyway, walking out of the party alone, adjusting my eyes to the dark driveway, I almost bumped into a stylish old gentleman in a tuxedo enjoying a solitary cocktail. "It's a beautiful night," he said, and I said "Yes, it is," and as I clacked away he said, "Have a safe drive home" and I warmly said, "You, too." And then I liked how I thought I might have looked walking away from him, all woman, poised and purposeful, clicking down the street on my own terms under an orange cone of street light.

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