Grace Bonney’s latest book inspired her to rethink age, wisdom, and self-evolution.
– KEYS SOULCARE
Grace Bonney is no stranger to having deep, collective conversations. The 40-year-old founder of Design*Sponge and Good Company has always been grounded in creative and human-centered storytelling, and her new book — spotlighting the power and beauty of women ages 50 and up — doesn’t disappoint. We sat down with the writer, author, and connector to get the scoop on the myths (and truths) that come with time.
How do you define wisdom?
I think of wisdom as a life lesson unique to someone’s experience of the world. Not all wisdom applies to all people. A lot of wisdom can be rooted in privilege or tied to systems that are inherently inaccessible to some people. So I think it’s important to continue to gather, respect, and listen to the wisdom and lessons of a broad range of people, so those reading can hopefully find something that speaks to who they are right now.
What’s this project teaching you about who you are?
That’s honestly still something I’m figuring out. One of my biggest struggles at this stage in life has been defining or understanding myself outside of the context of work or productivity. But in general, I think of myself as someone who is incredibly curious about other people and likes to ask questions about how they see and experience the world. That used to be expressed in the form of editorial work.
Working on Collective Wisdom was actually what showed me I was ready to move on and try something else, so I am now a graduate student studying to be a marriage and family therapist at Syracuse University. I felt self-conscious going back to school at the age of 40, but it’s been an incredible experience. Seeing how much value and wisdom is contained in just living everyday life and what that can bring to a field that is about listening to and understanding other people is powerful.
How did you choose your subjects?
This was the easiest and most fun part of the book. I have always been someone who keeps running lists of people I’d like to talk to or connect with in some way. So, I started from that list and tried to focus on not just a diversity of identities (my concern is always to focus on people whose stories have been marginalized), but also the diversity of viewpoints and experiences. There is so much nuance and difference within even the most specific of identities and community groups, so I wanted to make sure that this book included stories that touched on multiple experiences of race, class, immigration, religion, geographic location, disability, and sexuality/gender identity.
It was a greater challenge to connect with this book’s subjects because not everyone was online or open to connecting with someone they don’t know on the internet, so I’m incredibly grateful to the network of friends, children, and grandchildren who took the time to connect me with their family and community members.
Did you have any epiphanies while researching and writing this book about your take on aging?
I had a personal epiphany and a more general epiphany. The latter would be that as a society, we often tend to overlook, under-appreciate, and belittle the lives of older women. Ageism and media narratives focus on older women essentially being done with living. The implication is that there is not still a vitality and desire to learn and experience more. Older women are shown as sedentary and benevolent fronts of wisdom for young people to take from, but not give anything back to. But, that could not be further from the truth.
Women with more life experience have passion, desire, curiosity, and goals to achieve, regardless of their age. And intergenerational relationships go both ways — they benefit all parties and continue the learning process for everyone involved.
Personally, I realized how many of these interviews — partially because they were happening during a global pandemic when we were all feeling especially vulnerable — started to feel more like therapeutic conversations, and how much I enjoyed that. It was two conversations in particular, and our discussion of how therapy had changed their lives and inspired them to reimagine their lives after their children moved out, that made me feel brave enough to close my blog and pursue graduate school for therapy.
Did any quotes, in particular, resonate with your vision of yourself and your work?
Absolutely. This quote from Mahboubeh Abbasgholizadeh stayed with me:
“I feel like there is a table, and there are five different Mahboubehs around that table. One of them is a young revolutionary woman, one of them is an immigrant woman, one of them is a feminist, one of them is a mother, and one of them is spiritual and just wants to relax and enjoy nature. I think, What do I do with all of you? They sometimes start arguing with one another. I feel that as I age, I make peace between all these Mahboubehs around the table. They live together, and they have peace.”
It’s a concept [fellow book interviewee] Betty Reid Soskin mentioned as well, and it really hit me in my core. It made me feel free to let go of who I was at certain ages and the decisions I made that were the best I could do at the time. We are all trying to understand and make peace with ourselves as a whole, complicated person.
How do you take care of yourself when you most need it?
It varies depending on the day and time. Therapy has been the biggest investment of my adult life and I can say that it is the reason I am still here today. It’s gotten me through incredibly dark and lost times of my life and continues to be one of the ways I feel connected to myself and to others. I have really learned to slow the hell down since the pandemic. While I’ve increased the time I spend on my phone talking to friends, I’ve learned to put less time into Instagram and Twitter and more time into friendships. Part of my unplugging these past two years has been getting deep into birding and that has remained a powerful way to stay present and tap into my love of discovery.
You’ve been a blogger, podcaster, and an author who’s covered the topics of transformation and also the art of paring back. How do they interplay in your own life?
That’s a great question. The intersection of stepping back, saying no, speaking less, and embracing limitlessness is a complicated one. A lot of my self-work over the past five years has been learning how much of my success and the opportunities I’ve had access to are rooted in privilege (white privilege, economic privilege, etc.). While I think it’s important for people to embrace all of the things they want to do and experience in life, I think it’s also important to stop and think about the space we take up when we do these things and how that intersects with systemic oppression.
I’ve found anti-racist, anti-ableist, and anti-colonialist work to be freeing in a way that feels limitless and makes me feel better connected to a wide range of communities I’m a part of or would like to be. I’m trying to navigate how to pursue things I’m interested in without upholding systems that allow me to access others that I don’t have.
An undercurrent throughout the book is also the release of self-expectation and perfection. Did you notice any patterns for how this happened in your interviewees’ lives?
It’s funny — I was actually really struck by how many people hadn’t let go of those expectations and it was a powerful reminder that those oppressive systems [that] dominant society creates can have their claws in us until the day we die, literally. But when I saw women letting those things go, or at least loosening the grasp they have on us, it often came with the support of other women.
Has it connected to your own life?
Absolutely. It’s reminded me to continue to make the effort it takes to seek out and maintain connections with people of all ages. That perspective on life is so valuable and helps me stay rooted in values that feel more sustainable and timeless in a way.
If you could give your younger self a piece of advice, what would it be?
Find a therapist. Don’t be afraid to kiss the girl you’re in love with. You do in fact need friends, so seek out the other kids who seem quiet and different, because needing people is not a weakness.
What truth has come to you with age? Drop some wisdom in the comments!