It’s been only three years since This Chair Rocks, A Manifesto Against Ageism was originally published. For a writer who never dreamed of becoming the defacto spokesperson of the aging movement, Applewhite identified the defining moment for a generation in transition.
Exit Interview conducted by Devorah Medwin
DM: What brought you to the world of aging and end of life?
I was 55 and afraid of getting old. My eighty-something mother-in-law and her husband, Bill, were booksellers. They mentioned people were always asking them when they were going to retire. That inspired me to write about oldness from the point of view that it was safe and happy and contained. But something felt hollow, took a lot of time and struggle to figure it out.
DM: What is one practical lesson you learned about aging?
Don’t pretend it’s not happening. The fear of the unexamined is always worse than the thing itself. Look under the bed, look for the monster. Acknowledging what is scary can bring relief and power.
DM: What is one lesson you wish everyone could get in life and at the end of life?
Be less afraid. I don’t know what it’s like to be dying and don’t know what it’s going to feel like when I get there. But I’m very sure that the work I’m doing reconciling myself to the changes of aging, both welcome and unwelcome, are preparing me philosophically for it. In terms of aging and each other, we should compare notes and join forces.
DM: What is your idea of perfect happiness?
I think that I have moments of perfect happiness all the time. Like when my five-year-old grandson comes home from school and shouts out “Gran!” Or when I get really grubby in my garage, or when I’m visiting friends, seeing art, experiencing theater and listening to a gorgeous piece of music. Being present in any one minute that can transport you is my perfect happiness.
DM: What are you reading, what’s on your bedside table?
I've been reading Pleasure Activism by Adrienne Maree Brown, who wrote Emergent Strategies. She's one of these fabulous young queer women of color working as a social justice activist, who talks about the future. I've also got a Harper's magazine in my bag for my train ride tomorrow along with a Kindle, just in case the train stops forever.
DM: What is your current state of mind?
I am deeply optimistic and feel insanely lucky to be as caught up in something important in the way that I am. The movement against ageism is real in all sorts of tangible ways. When I think about the responsibility of starting a social movement, I get anxious. History is filled with examples of how good intention can go wrong.
DM: Who are your favorite writers?
When I first arrived in New York and worked in publishing, all my time was spent reading manuscripts. It’s interesting how things change over the course of time. Now, I read much more non-fiction as it informs my work, and that's a loss. Give me a fat juicy novel and I'm a happy girl! When I think about this question, The Overstory by Richard Powers comes to mind. He’s one of my favorites.
DM: What is one thing people would never imagine about you?
I was a clue on Jeopardy.
DM: What book would you like to be buried with?
If someone wrote “How to Dig Your Way Out of Anywhere,” I’d like to carry it with me.
DM: What is your exit plan? How would you like to die?
As a lifelong pothead and fan of psychedelics, I'm signing up for the psychedelic hospice. I really love the thought of being able to journey to the end in that way. It seems to me that if I'm 98 and have 500 things wrong with me, I should be able to do whatever I want— thank you very much. And just like everyone else, I’d like to die quietly in my sleep.
DM: If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be?
The ocean. It’s a little grandiose, but yeah, why not?
DM: If heaven exists, what would you like to hear when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?
Come on in and bring all your friends!