When approaching her 60th birthday, poet and playwright Wilderness Sarchild says she found herself anxious and “full of dread. My mother got dementia when she was in her 70s, and that was the biggest reason, I think, for my own fear of aging.”
That fear served as the catalyst for a personal journey of writing and introspection.
“In our culture, old age often indicates invisibility,” Sarchild says. “We don’t have long to live, we often suffer physically and emotionally, we get lonely as our loved ones pass on. [But] simultaneously, we have honed wisdom over the years, developed resilience, learned to accept what is and are not worried about what others think of us.”
Now 70, Sarchild explores such themes as aging and mortality in her first full-length poetry collection, “Old Women Talking” (Passager Books). On Nov. 3, she will read from the book at the Village Learning Place, 2521 St. Paul St.
The following day, Sarchild, who lives in Cape Cod, Mass., will lead a workshop at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation sponsored by Baltimore’s Wise Aging consortium. The interdenominational Jewish group helps participants “develop additional tools and strategies for moving into and through this later stage of life with love and wisdom, joy and kindness, resilience and spirit,” says Wise Aging facilitator Phyllis Kolman.
Born Peggy Hyman, Sarchild grew up in Charleston, W.Va. While in her 20s, she changed her surname to Sarchild, combining her mother’s first name Sara with the word child.
“Most people have their fathers’ names,” she says. “I really wanted to honor my mother.”
Around the same time, Sarchild says she had a “profound experience that involved the word or name wilderness. When that experience was complete, I couldn’t go back to Peggy. I felt like I’d be shutting the door on a gift that was given to me.”
Sarchild has lived most of her adult life on Cape Cod. Thirty-seven years ago, she married her second husband, Chuck Madansky, a 1968 graduate of Pikesville High School.
An expressive arts therapist and conflict resolution mediator, Sarchild didn’t begin writing until reaching her mid-50s.
“Until I was about 55, my creative expression came through my psychotherapy [practice],” she says. “I had my clients doing movement and singing and writing poetry and painting, but I wasn’t doing it myself. Then, I started my own creative endeavors.”
When preparing for the 60th birthday, Sarchild attended a silent retreat where she wrote a poem about aging called “Hags and Crones.” She gave the poem to her friend Naomi Turner, who was also turning 60.
The poem was the impetus for a nine-year-long project about women and aging in which Sarchild and Turner conducted interviews with 100 women between the ages of 60 and 95. The interviews became the basis for their musical created titled “Wrinkles.” So far, “Wrinkles” has been produced twice on Cape Cod, with the possibility of future productions elsewhere.
Sarchild’s reflections also led to the writing of “Old Women Talking,” which came out in late 2017. In addition to the theme of women and aging, the book includes poetry about Sarchild’s experiences growing up Jewish in West Virginia, recollections of family members and her desire “to speak for voices in our society that don’t get heard or who have been treated badly.”
Kendra Kopelke, an editor for the Baltimore-based Passager Books, says that what stood out about “Old Women Talking” was “the incantatory power with which Sarchild speaks on behalf of so many women who stumble blindly into their older bodies. Her writing reaches beyond the words themselves.”
Acclaimed poet and novelist Marge Piercy praises Sarchild for confronting “the specter of aging that terrifies so many of us head on. She wrestles honestly with wrinkles, fear of dementia, the loss of friends and loved ones, and demands of herself that she say yes to aging and yes to the fact of her own eventual death.”
When she began working on “Old Women Talking,” Sarchild says she “did not want to be old. But here I was – old — so I started looking at old women on the street, post office, church, Stop & Shop, and I began to see how interesting they are, and I wanted to know their stories, and they became my teachers in growing old, and I’m doing pretty well.”
For information about Wise Aging, visit firstname.lastname@example.org.
To register for Sarchild’s free workshop, visit baltimorehebrew.org/thinkingaboutaging.
Jonathan Shorr is a Baltimore-based freelance writer. He is also a facilitator for the Wise Aging program.