From its inception seven years ago, one of the main facets of my weekly WOW blog has been to interview older women role models. These are women seventy or more years old, who, in my view, have not stopped creating and contributing, women who have stubbornly refused to let the number designating their age — or the biases of a predominantly white, male, youth-centric culture — slow them to a halt.
Such remarkable women, I deeply believe, have the power to inspire the rest of us to stand tall, keep on keeping on, and continue creating and contributing. God knows the world needs confident, creative, funny, strong, and wise women of all ages, especially those of us over seventy, now more than ever.
This past year, though, due to the coronavirus pandemic and the necessary precautions we’ve all had to take, I wasn’t able to conduct in-person interviews with women here in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico (where there is no shortage of amazing older women), as much as I would have liked to. So I put out a call in a recent WOW post (www.bonnieleeblack.com/blog/amazing-women/), asking for suggestions, recommendations, and referrals for potential interviewees whom I might connect with online.
In response, along came an e-mail from an eighty-year-old writer and teacher in California (originally from Canada) named Lily Iona MacKenzie, telling me, “I consider myself a wise older woman, so I was delighted to discover your blog with that focus and have become a follower. … I’d love it if you’d consider interviewing me.”
How could I refuse?
Lily has a fascinating and inspiring story to tell, having gone from one extreme (high school dropout) to the other (college professor with two masters’ degrees). She taught English rhetoric for more than thirty years at the University of San Francisco, and she still teaches creative writing at USF’s Fromm Institute for Lifelong Learning. Her first novel was published only five years ago, when she was seventy-five, and two more of her novels have been published since. (For details, visit her website: https://lilyionamackenzie.com.)
“Now, at 80,” she told me, “I have a fourth novel coming out this October: Confessions of a Canadian Girl in Training. And I don’t plan to stop there! My nonfiction work, Dreaming Myself into Old Age: One Woman’s Search for Meaning, is seeking a publisher, as is my second poetry collection, California Dreaming.”
Clearly, Lily is a highly motivated and creative person who is not letting the aging process crimp her style. The thing that most motivates her, she told me, is her love of learning. “There aren’t enough hours in the day to satisfy my thirst for knowing more about everything!” she says.
She’s always learned from attending classes and reading extensively, of course. But she’s also grateful to have learned from her mistakes.
“I’ve made many mistakes over the years,” she says, “but I’ve also learned from them. They’ve given me a foundation that allows me to trust that I’ll find my way, no matter what.”
She still learns, too, from her students’ successes and failures, growing along with them as a teacher and a writer.
“One thing I discovered when I was teaching rhetoric to college students, and it still applies to the creative writing classes I currently teach for older adults,” she says, “is that my writing of poetry, fiction, or nonfiction is similar to teaching for me. Both give me an opportunity to investigate ideas, fears, interests, and obsessions—to ask and answer questions. The two roles complement each other.”
It’s no surprise, then, to learn that Lily believes deeply in the power of education and “its ability to awaken and release our best selves,” as she puts it.
As I always do in my WOW interviews, I asked Lily to pretend she were to give a commencement address to the graduating class of a women’s college. What would the thrust of your message be? I asked her. Her response:
“As women, we’ve succeeded in educating and empowering ourselves through the knowledge that intensive and expansive learning can offer. Now we must share our good fortune in whatever way is appropriate for us, to ensure that women, worldwide, can receive the same benefits.”
Personally, I’m grateful that Lily reached out to me and reminded me that although none of us can be forever young, we can indeed be, like her, forever learning.