A TGB READER STORY: When Faith Is What I Need Most

Elder Bodies (Again)

Thanks to the advance of my two diseases – cancer and COPD – I am a great deal slower these days than I was just a few months ago.

Recently, after I wake in the morning, I have found myself sitting on the edge of my bed for quite awhile – three or four or five minutes or so. It is not that I am worn out from getting into an upright position or that I am thinking about anything, it is – well, I can't tell you why. I don't know.

But one day last week, as I sat there, it occurred to me that had anyone been watching, I would appear much like Auguste Rodin's sculpture of The Old Courtesan (La Belle qui fut heaulmière):


So, on that morning, I took a good look at myself in the full length mirror and saw that I wasn't far off in my comparison. In fact, she is even in nearly the same position as I had been sitting on the side of the bed looking down - at nothing really.

The image of the courtesan and my reflection in the mirror stuck with me that morning. Surely many, maybe most people would find the courtesan – and, therefore, me – to be ugly. But I don't.

Part of what was rolling around in my head is how interesting the old courtesan is and how many times I had sought her out when I visited The Metropolitan Museum of Art during the years I lived in New York City.

I was younger in those days and recall wondering if she presaged my eventual appearance. Now I know: our bodies are nearly twins and for some reason I'm rather pleased with that.

Here is the text from the page for The Old Courtesan on the Metropolitan Museum's website:

”Incorporated into the left pilaster on The Gates of Hell, the withered old woman evoked a moral connection between sin and the ravages of time. The harrowing veracity of the independent sculpture accords with a statement of Rodin’s: 'Character is the intense truth of any natural [sight], beautiful or ugly.'”

Yes. I'll take intense truth any time.

I was going to have some more to say in this post about our culture's insistence on youth as the ideal of beauty. Then I recalled that I had written about this back in 2013, and it holds up rather well. So I will just link and you can follow if you wish. Here are How to Accept Our Aging Bodies Part 1 and Part 2.


Thank you, Ronni, for your own " harrowing veracity ". I feel such empathy for you this morning , but prefer the phrase "clarifying veracity" instead of the Museum's review..
 I too must sit at the edge of the bed for a while (it varies) just as you do in the mornings.

Today, at least, I can still find a bit of a smile from this for us.  Losing some 20 pounds since coming to Portland to be near my son....has given new meaning to the term "Skin and bones."

Some days I feel like I'm stitching and stapling myself together before getting out of bed or even answering a simple question.  It seems to help to run plans for the next step slowly through my mind so I can move safely or answer sensibly. 
I've become like a "kit" of a person labeled "Some Assembly Required". It's not a lot of "assembly" ...but some parts seem to be missing. "Contact 'customer service'-week days, business hours only"! And we all know how frustrating any 'customer service' can be.

So we wing it, and simply do the best we can...it is enough.

I find the Rodin sculpture beautiful.


I have the same ongoing relationship with Alice Neel.

Self-Portrait, 1980, Alice Neel. Oil on canvas, 53 1/4 × 39 3/4 in. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, NPG.85.19. © The Estate of Alice Neel. Courtesy the Estate of Alice Neel and David Zwirner

That was an interesting little trip down memory lane. I had been following your blog for about two years when you posted that two-parter back in 2013. But it refers back to a 2007 post, which was a few years before I found you, so that involved further reading, followed by pulling up some additional material on Rodin's work that inspired the variants of this old female figure. I rarely find a good rabbit hole that I don't manage to fall into.

It's interesting that the figure referred to as a 'courtesan' in your post is also used in "She Who Was the Helmet Maker's Once-Beautiful Wife", and a couple of other pieces as well. The museum's narrative is offensive to me; so much subjective and judgemental language -- 'sin', 'withered,' 'moral connection,' 'beautiful', 'ugly,' 'harrowing,' -- who writes this stuff? Does it not occur to them that framing aging and the female body in this way serves to form or reinforce stereotyping and narrow thinking? There are so many more uplifting things that could be said.

Thank you, Ronni, for your continued reflection and honesty in sharing your own observations, experiences and emotions about deeply meaningful topics like this one. The word that you've chosen to apply to this -- "interesting," helps to lead viewers and readers down a healthier path.

I think the sculpture is beautiful too. It represents so much more depth than the shallowness of youth's quest for beauty and immortality.
I laugh at old people obsessed with makeup, plastic surgery, trying to look and act so much younger than they are.
At 73, I have never felt so free to be me, so finally not caring what other people think, so content with who I am. Yes I’m lonely sometimes, as I’m a widow with no children. But being out from under a somewhat controlling husband and having a whole new life Is priceless.
The time for reflection and introspection brings true peace and freedom, regardless of health issues, because no one can take that away, even as health deteriorates.

I should sit before getting up but mother nature sends me staggering down the hall touching wall to get balance. (brain never healed from the stroke I guess)

Had to look up Alice Neel.

I like the idea of "ravages of time." I'm glad I've had a life full of ravages. And, Bonnie, I stagger to the bathroom too. Six concussions and peripheral neuropathy. Walking slowly is just fine.

I remember saying to an acquaintance that "every age has its beauty." She was 40 and mournful of no longer being irresistible. I was 33. But nearly 40 years on, I've maintained that position and see it around me all the time. (I'm not referring to surgery, injections etc... just natural faces and bodies at every point of life.)

Well as a wrinkled old guy myself, I have to admit that it's the young who are beautiful. But you are absolutely right, it's the old who are more interesting.

Very good and important reading. In the Far East, the elders are respected and loved. In the West, they are often set apart, and often an afterthought in peoples' minds.. I keep in touch with several people by phone age 90 to 100, to make sure that they are not totally forgotten by others, not their immediate family.

Mary said it for me. My old friend Agnes said "old age is when the pieces of the puzzle fall into place - the how and the why of our lives". So true but for me the most wonderful thing about old age is TIME. I worked very hard for most of my life - raising children, owning a business, being a workaholic. Now I have TIME to see the whole picture or at least as much of it as I can bear to see.
Hang on Ronnie - hang on!

"In a time of deceit, truth telling is a revolutionary act."--- Unknown
Ronni such a provocative way your mind does twist...your wrinkled friend ErnestO

Such interesting thoughts today. And so well said.

At 72 I was horrified when a younger friend (in her 50s) said I was elderly. That's something I've defined as 10 years older than I am, no matter my age.
For many years, I've see the beauty – inside and outside – in all ages. It's nothing like the portrayal I see of older folks in the media and society at large.
I love a 2013 comment: "I ... would also like to point out that all these images and ideas are of Western cultures. I think you would find that representations of seniors on the other side of the world present them as wise, happy, and fulfilled."
That describes me and most of my friends.

Ahhh, yes. I now have to sit there, kick my feet and swing my legs before I stand, then wobble to the bathroom, or wherever I’m going next.

I, too, was relieved to give up the fashionable clothes, makeup, and 50.00 haircuts.

I think this statue is real life. And it’s beautiful.

It’s hard work to grow old and prepare to leave the body. I feel privileged to have learned enough to do this work somewhat consciously.

This blog has been part of that education, and I so appreciate it...

I love that sculpture, too. I don't know if I think she's "beautiful" -- unless it's in the truth = beauty definition vs. I-want-to-have-sex-with-her = beauty... But anyway, what I think I like best about it is that it seems to me to have been crafted with so much love. She is what she is, it seems to me Rodin says with this. It probably matters that I saw her first at the Rodin museum in Philadelphia, and so the context I saw her in was what I perceived, anyway, as Rodin's profound humanism. I find her moving, a figure for whom I feel compassion and affection and sorrow, not for her age but for the strange centrality of both grief and joy in our lives.

I think she's beautiful, period.

Not in any context whatsoever. Just beautiful.

I love the layers of complexity and depth that old age has added to her original frame, it makes her fascinating and compelling in all sorts of ways.

And I don't feel sad for her at all.

I feel...

I think it's respect.

That sculpture could be any of us......maybe not today but in due time. I'm finding my own resemblance to it pretty remarkable. I honestly think I have aged 10 years since the Pandemic. Oh well....I'm just delighted to have made it this far and enjoyed a full life knowing others have not been so fortunate.

I do love your humor, Ronni.

Thanks, Judy
I sit like that at other times, too.

What a lovely post. I too find the old courtesan beautiful. Reminds me of a painting by Alice Neel, a nude self portrait she did at age 80. Our aging bodies carry all our experiences,

Can I just say I Love You...❤️❗️

About the Met comment: why equate an aged body with sin? Memento mori perhaps seems more fitting. Sin and virtue don’t map to age or to body types or feature. I much prefer the statement on the website of the Musee Rodin - ‘ Legend has it that Rodin designed She Who Was the Helmet Maker’s Once-Beautiful Wife as a pendant and in response to Desbois’ Misery. With Clotho, Camille Claudel also accepted the challenge of depicting this wizened flesh, this cadaverous thinness, where what is ugly in reality becomes beautiful in the eyes of the artist, because of its expressiveness and strength of character.’

You beauty. Xxx

Love the Rodin!
If you and your readers get a chance, the documentary “Nothing Like a Dame” also entitled “Tea With the Dames” featuring Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Eileen Atkins and Joan Plowright is great entertainment. For some reason British women don’t seem to feel the need to hang onto their youthful selves as we in North America do.
And, is it just me, or do many older men become more attractive as they mature? If we believe everything we read, older men do not gravitate toward older women, or is that just an urban Mitch.

I'm still stuck on the French-English translation, which insists the name means: "The beauty who was a helmet." ????

(And, yes, I know "belle" can mean beauty but also courtesan.) But still, "The courtesan who was a helmet"??

I love the intimacy of your words and the worldly workings of your mind. Thank you for allowing us to be with you.

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