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What are the secrets to a meaningful life? Women over 50 share their insights.

Reading Ellen Warner’s ‘The Second Half’ is like having intimate conversations with 40 women from around the world

Odette Walling, born in 1920 and interviewed at age 86. (Ellen Warner Photography)
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I revel in opportunities to question older people about what they have learned. My family used to beg me not to talk to random strangers, but my endless curiosity yielded fodder in my professional life and guidance in my personal endeavors. Reading Ellen Warner’s “The Second Half: Forty Women Reveal Life After Fifty is like having one of those intimate conversations with each of 40 women from around the world as they share their formative experiences and advice for younger generations. Their insights are particularly valuable in a country where intergenerational learning is often lost, where finding assisted-living housing for our senior family members is more common than moving them into our homes.

“The Second Half” profiles a curated group of interesting women who have hit their stride and used earlier experiences as “compost for what’s growing in the second half,” as one of the book’s subjects, Luisah Teish, a shaman and spiritual anthropologist, aptly describes it. Many of the women have been scarred by wars, coups, poverty, racism and other forms of oppression. While some experienced lives of privilege, all had their share of difficulty. How the women dealt with their challenges is instructive. All look to the future with a sense of equanimity.

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Warner, whose career as a photojournalist spans more than 50 years, took 15 years to complete the book. She captures arresting portraits of her subjects, while eliciting from them descriptions of what it feels like to be in the latter half of life. A couple of the women are more than 100 years old. How does one deal with, as Teish puts it, “the diminished cooperation from [the] body”? How is pleasure gleaned as the end of life approaches? The answers are personal but not complicated, simple yet not easy.

Concentration camp survivor Odette Walling advises the younger among us to accept the march of time. “Nothing is more annoying than women who want to play twenty years old when they are aging,” she says. Marilynn Preston, an Emmy Award-winning TV producer and journalist, echoes that sentiment of acceptance: “True freedom is the internal acquiescence to the unfolding of life.” Jean Angell, a Harvard-educated lawyer with a debilitating illness, explains that she can no longer eat or speak but refuses to give up on life and believes that the struggle brings its own rewards. (Angell is among a number of women who died after Warner interviewed her.) Ada Gates, the first woman in North America licensed to shoe thoroughbred horses, declares that, after a lifetime of significant loss, she no longer feels fear. Paring away the less essential, being generous, practicing gratitude, staying in the present moment and finding purpose are ways of living urged repeatedly in the book.

Warner’s inclusion of women from other cultures offers perspectives not often expressed in the Western world. One woman from a highly paternalistic society finds a way to deal with the removal of her children by her husband. Others learn to cope with second wives. A Saudi nephrologist (kidney doctor), Fathia Al Sulimani, recalls fighting for her right to be educated in science. She also advises younger women to take care of their husbands. Saharan nomad Fatma Doufen urges readers to give neighbors anything they ask for if the reader possesses it and the neighbor does not. While the narratives share themes of love and faith, the expression differs according to the cultural lens though which a woman sees her life’s circumstances.

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What is underscored by “The Second Half” is that aging and becoming old do not have to be synonymous. Erica Jong wonders in the book’s foreword if, perhaps, we can return to a time when naturally aging faces are embraced. Can we appreciate our laugh lines? Maybe they can be welcomed as a map of one’s life.

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My only criticism of “The Second Half” is that Warner chose only 40 of the many interviews she conducted. I craved more of these women’s raw stories and sage advice. As the late American activist and magazine publisher Frances Lear once said, “I believe the second half of one’s life is meant to be better than the first half. The first half is finding out how you do it. And the second half is enjoying it.” The women profiled in “The Second Half” powerfully illustrate the truth of that observation.

Maria Leonard Olsen, who is in her fifth decade, is a lawyer, TEDx speaker, podcaster and radio show host on WPFW in D.C. Her latest book is “50 After 50: Reframing the Next Chapter of Your Life.”

The Second Half

Forty Women Reveal Life After Fifty

By Ellen Warner

Brandeis University Press. 257 pp. $35

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