Judith Viorst, the woman with the bumper-sticker wit, once looked at the prospect of growing old and wrote: "I'd rather grow azaleas."
Now Viorst, who gave us "It's Hard to Be Hip Over Thirty and Other Tragedies of Married Life" and "How Did I Get to Be Forty . . . and Other Atrocities," is, according to Who's Who, 55 -- or, as she puts it, "in" her fifties.
"I moved into midlife with some struggle and feel very pleased with where I am," she says. "I sort of went through in my mind -- 'What you lost: Okay. Muscle tone, open-ended opportunities, being able to sleep through the night, your sense of invulnerability.'
"I thought about myself and most of the women I know and decided that we are not as self-centered as we used to be; we are not as self-pitying as we used to be; we are not as just plain dumb as we used to be. We know ourselves, including the dark side and the down side. We have a sense of humor about ourselves that isn't all 'Oh God, tragedy!'
"I think there is a lot that we have gained and, of course, I wouldn't have known that 20 years ago."
Twenty years ago Viorst would have thought, "Oh, God, imagine what I am going to look like in a bathing suit!"
Why, since I've never had any intention
Of going out on the streets and selling my body,
Is it hard to be reaching an age where
I won't find a buyer?
-- From "Twenty Questions," a poem by Judith Viorst
Twenty, or even 10 years ago, perhaps, Viorst would have transformed her middle-of-the-night anxieties about the loss of youth -- or any other loss -- into a four-stanza poem. But "being a middle-aged woman greatly focuses the mind," she says, and now, having studied as a layman for six years at the Washington Psychoanalytic Institute and having undergone analysis for 4 1/2 years, the Cleveland Park writer has put the loss of youth in an intellectual, psychoanalytic framework.
Her new 447-page study (including 83 pages of "Notes and Elaborations," a 17-page bibliography and an index) has a title twice as long as the slim, unpaginated "Alexander & the Terrible, Horrible,No Good, Very Bad Day," her most popular children's book.
*It's called "Necessary Losses: The Loves, Illusions, Dependencies and Impossible Expectations That All of Us Have to Give Up in Order to Grow," and it has been on the best-seller list for six weeks.
It is, in her words, "an examination of human development, of growth and gain and hope and change," filtered through "a concept of what we give up, what we leave behind, what we lose." From Judy Blume to Martin Buber, from personal anecdote to universal experience and from films ("Entre Nous" and "Zelig") to interviews (with Art Buchwald and Liv Ullmann), Viorst casts a wide Freudian net in her examination of loss. And at every turn she finds that loss accompanies human development. To separate, for example, from one's mother and forge one's own identity, or to trade in dreams of perfect connections for the realities of imperfect relationships, is to lose.
"I am not standing on some mountain, issuing information," she says. "I've been all these places. I'm struggling down this road and I would like to think of myself as sort of walking with the reader." Her three sons have grown up, her younger sister Lois recently died of cancer, her mother is gone, and, as she tells her readers, "I'm living on Lean Cuisine in a last ditch effort to defeat my middle-aged spread."
It is not, Viorst says, a book she could have written 20 years ago. "I knew what I knew," she explains, "out of my own experience, looking into myself, my children, talking with my friends, eavesdropping -- I'm a world-class eavesdropper. But the part that was missing was the knowledge of the psychological underpinnings and processes of psychological development."
Viorst applied to study at the Psychoanalytic Institute as a writer, not as a psychiatrist aspiring to be a psychoanalyst. She had Freud on her side. He had said, Viorst argued, that the layman should go into the psychoanalytic world, absorb and learn it, and take it back to his work and world. "I thought I was that kind of person. Even though I wasn't writing learned psychoanalytic papers, all of the work I had done in my writing life involved the hopes, fears, conflicts, dreams of people . . . what went on inside them, what went on between them . . . I thought I could bring something to the institute -- a fresh, other perspective -- and that they could give me something back."
She settles into a soft, low chair in her living room and pulls her knees up to her chest, then lets them down and crosses her legs, curling her body into one comfortable position after another. In her conversation and her writings -- eight children's books, eight volumes of poetry and humor, nine Redbook columns a year, "Necessary Losses" -- the details of her life, from calcium deficiencies to varicose veins, from marriage to motherhood, are freely and wittily given.
But her revelations -- written and spoken -- seem to have gone through a cerebral filter. No sooner do you collect information about Viorst as woman, daughter, wife, mother and sister than you find yourself holding universal truths. She deals in anxiety and ambivalence, love and loss, and when the foibles of her life are loosed upon the page, there is so much for the reader to identify with, so much to learn, that there is more, finally, about himself or, as the case more often may be, herself, than about Viorst.
She says the most common response readers have to her books is "the feeling that they know me and that I know them. I have gotten it with ['Necessary Losses']. In and out of that book there is something about me in every chapter. There is a sense of 'we know each other, don't we?'
"The answer is 'yes and no,' " she admits. "Probably above all other things, I am interested as a writer in making a connection, interested in the parts of all of us that connect."
The questions Viorst tackles are Everywoman's questions: "How do we grow? What's going on with our relationships? How are our children doing? What is it like to get older? What is the nature of our work, friendship, family balance? A whole host of questions that are her questions, my questions, Jackie Kennedy's questions, your questions."
"One of my favorite letters was from a woman [a reader] who said, 'I am a short, plump, blonde, Presbyterian farm woman in Iowa. I think you are a tall, skinny, dark-haired, Jewish person from the East Coast, in the city. We live the same lives.'
"I loved that response . . . In a sense I am trying to write to the part of us that says we live the same life."
Viorst always wanted to write -- even as a young child wanted to get published "so badly," she says. "I not only wanted to write when I was 7 and 8, but I sent stuff out when I was 7 and 8. I sent it out . . . and I couldn't believe that they would turn down my poems about faithful dogs."
Ten years old, perched on the stairs in her parent's Maplewood, N.J., home, Viorst dreamt, she says gently, "that some day I was going to be a writer. That I would have a book of poems with my name on the front and a picture of me looking nice on the back."
Eventually, in Washington and in the early '60s, her job as an editor at Science Service provided Viorst with her first writing assignment. She came home from work one day and said to her husband Milton, who is a political writer, "They want me to write a book on space. I don't know where space is. Milton said, 'You say yes. We'll figure out where space is.' "
Writing about the NASA space program for a teen-age audience was not what Viorst had in mind when she longed to be published. But, now, she sees a poetic irony in it: "My first published writings were trying to take scientific concepts and make them clear for a general audience. And in an odd way, I've come back to that" -- distilling her own wisdom, anecdotes told to her by her friends, family and others, Freud and theories of human development into the accessible "Necessary Losses."
Long after she wrote an ode to her dead parents (who were both alive and disconcerted), and sometime in between explaining NASA and necessary losses, Viorst was getting published. 'The Village Square,' 1965
With all that I know about Mr. D.H. Lawrence,
I visualized something literary,
Something full of pipe smoke and good English tweeds.
Where editors were stunned by my perception,
And grateful novelists put me in their books,
And Nobel prize winners, over double martinis,
Confided their deepest Nobel prize-winning thoughts
To tender, reflective, wise-beyond-my-years me. From 1952 to 1960, Viorst had a try at reality and rebellion. She arrived in Greenwich Village still wanting to be published and thinking, she says, "that I was going to be this great prize package. That everybody would snap me up." But what Viorst found was the "entire waiting room of Time-Life filled with people like me who looked twice as smart. It was quite clear that I was nothing special once I got out of New Jersey."
Instead of which
I am sharpening number 2 pencils,
And buying the coffee and danish
And taking my boss's dictation,
And my boss's wife's blouse back to Henri Bendel,
Hoping that someday someone will be impressed
With all that I know.
Viorst laughs, a ripple that falls somewhere between affection and irreverence for her former self. "A rebel. That was me when I was younger," she says. "What was a rebel from New Jersey? A rebel was moving to the Village, not sleeping with top sheets, not eating a hot breakfast in the morning, not having 20 rolls of toilet paper and 10 boxes of Kleenex." 'It's Hard to Be Hip Over Thirty and Other Tragedies of Married Life,' 1968 It's true love because
When he went to San Francisco on business while I had to stay home with the painters and the exterminator and the baby who was getting the chicken pox,
He understood why I hated him,
When I said that playing the stock market was juvenile and irresponsible and then the stock I wouldn't let him buy went up twenty-six points,
I understood why he hated me.
Sometimes, true love boils down to a healthy dose of hate. Viorst, promoting her book on call-in talk-shows, often hears the human litany -- "Oh, sometimes, my husband gets me so angry, I really hate him . . . This marriage must be doomed. I mean, how can you be married and feel this way?" It's a matter of understanding, Viorst says, "that we are all ambivalent creatures -- that there is love and hate, and good stuff and bad stuff in us. I think that is such a comfort -- such a relief."
Appreciation for ambivalence was one of the benefits of psychoanalysis, Viorst says. When a question is asked, and the answers are A, B, C or D, often the answer is all of the above, Viorst says. "There is a tendency and a preference for us to say A or B. But to understand that life is more complicated than that . . . has been a great benefit to me of psychoanalytic studies." 'Yes, Married: A Saga of Love and Complaint,' 1972 Ask Viorst about romance and marriage -- the ones with, respectively, a capital R and capital M, the ones born of naivete' -- and she's likely to bring up things like "sheltered backgrounds" and "Madame Bovary." But after 12 years of marriage and three children, Viorst put the differences between marital reality and romantic illusion this way:
The marriage that I write of in this book has nothing much to do with the lush, romantic visions of my youth. There are squirt guns, not fresh flowers, on my table. There are screams of "I'll tell Mom!" not strains of Bach. There is Diet Rite, not Beaujolais, at dinner. And the answer to "What's new?" is "The toilet seat broke." 'Alexander & the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day,' 1972
Fourteen years ago Viorst read the manuscript of "Alexander & the Terrible, Horrible . . . " to her son of the same name, her youngest one. The child's famous day began grimly:
I went to sleep with gum in my mouth and now there's gum in my hair and when I got out of bed this morning I tripped on the skateboard and by mistake I dropped my sweater in the sink while the water was running and I could tell it was going to be a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.
The real-life Alexander, who's also Alexander of "Alexander Who Used to Be Rich Last Sunday," complained: "How come Tony and Nick his brothers don't have bad days? Why do I always have these awful things happen?" Viorst remembers saying, "Look, sweetheart, I'll change it to 'Stanley and the Terrible, Horrible . . . ' Of course, you won't have your name in great big letters on the front."
"Call it 'Alexander,' " he replied. 'How Did I Get to Be Forty . . . & Other Atrocities,' 1973 Thirty plus 10 is 40 -- that's how the decade-counting Viorst got to be 40. And with the extra decade came a breezy bit of reconciliation:
I am facing the fact that
I'll never compose Bach cantatas,
Design Saint Laurents,
Advise presidents, head U.S. Steel,
Resolve the Mideast,
Be the hostess of some major talk show,
Or cure the cold.
But the worst atrocity of midlife, as Viorst concluded in her poem, is that -- for all the great things left to be and do -- no one will say, "And she did it so young." 'Love & Guilt & the Meaning of Life, Etc.,' 1979 Then, from "Love & Guilt" and the late-'70s, came a humorous assemblage of commentary and adage and a neurotic relationship with Happiness:
Who needs it? Show me a happy person and I'll show you a very worried human being, a human being who is always asking, What did I ever do to deserve such happiness? And, What and how much am I going to have to pay for it? And, When will it be discovered that this happiness was not intended for me but for the lady next door?
Now, from the living room of her clapboard, porch-wrapped home with its Victorian floor lamps and its shelves of books, with plexiglass-framed family photos adorning the stairwell, comes a mid-'80s, slightly psychoanalyzed definition of Happiness, a definition born, perhaps, of necessary losses:
"I think happiness is a highly nuanced and complicated concept," Viorst says, laughing. "Part of happiness may indeed be being loved for all of you -- the good and the bad, the dark and the light, being known in all of your aspects. That's a kind of happiness that a lot of us value very much. It's a kind of loving that feels very good -- taking in the whole person, not just a piece of a person, the idealized person, the fantasy person . . . but this flesh and blood human being whom you know."