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    The Art of Women, Age, and Power

    Excerpted from
    The Mona Lisa Stratagem; The Art of Women, Age, and Power
    By Harriet Rubin

    Like Jackie, I found in all of this fecund history one singular source, a Godmother-the mother of all Godmothers. She has survived for over five hundred years looking not a day over thirty. She is ageless, timeless. She is French by citizenship (she resides in the Louvre Museum in Paris) but is Italian by birth-born in Florence in the sixteenth century, the time when Madonnas and the most beautiful women dazzled painters with the simplicity and full power of their presence. In this realm, one painting stands apart. The Mona Lisa is said to be Leonardo da Vinci's essay on immortality. People do not treat her as "only" a painting. Two million visitors travel great distances each year and arrive by the busloads to gaze at her for a few seconds. They have their picture taken with her before the crowd hurries them on. They go away feeling as if they have been blessed. People look at her and feel she looks at them too.

    Talk about making an impression. Talk about not becoming invisible in age. Talk about a simple face invested with humility and grandeur. No wonder this face has challenged Time. Of all the paintings in the world, this one dominates. If it is to be read as the great Leonardo's essay on immortality, and the lessons made plain to flesh-and-blood icons like you and me, then we may learn how the artist used this woman to triumph over Time and Space. The Mona Lisa is immortal. She has become a force even though she is but a tiny image on a piece of wood not much larger than a breadbox. She is not beautiful or even pretty. If she were a real live woman, you would not turn your head if you encountered her in the subway. Yet she commands attention. Mona Lisa is a new being, delicate and severe. Distant and minuscule, she has become imprinted on the culture.

    Who would not want this iconic power for herself-a force that resides in one's mystery, magic, and authority? What finer pedigree as sources go? What better mirror in which to reflect on one's own image? What more certain guide for how to sit quietly yet command attention, to draw others close for some connection they never lose, even when they turn away?

    Leonardo was a student of anatomy and a dreamer who was always experimenting with how to transform one thing into another: lead into gold, bellows into bird wings, and grapeseed oil into a live woman whose eves follow others around the room, whose flesh looks warm to the touch, and who survives commandingly for over five hundred years.

    It is our task to put ourselves into the spirit of this painted icon-she who is the persona of magic because of who she is, not what she does (she doesn't "do" anything). Her presence will become our tutor. We may limn the means by which a painter created a commanding presence that time burnishes.

    Leonardo did what no god has yet accomplished: created a woman who ages but remains beautiful-a woman who will not die.

    When You Are Old Enough to Believe in Santa

    Let us use this painting to tell a new story of age, which unfolds in ten prodigies of mature behavior. Together they form the Stratagem that limns the power of queens and kings, distinct from princes. "Prodigy" is an important word for the talents found in maturity, although it is a term associated with childhood to suggest the outsmarting of Time. A child prodigy may play Mozart at the age of five or beat chess masters with a skill that cannot possibly be the result of her chronological years. A young prodigy may have trouble tying her shoes and yet know the exhilaration of true artistry. So too there are prodigies of maturity-gifts attainable only with age. We mean talents much more exciting than dull "wisdom."

    To what ends are the prodigies of maturity useful? As one woman expressed,

    I want to live to the age of 102 as vital as I am today and upon my death, leave enough assets to pay the tuition of all my grandchildren and of my grieving young husband.

    To arrive at one's mature prodigies, one cannot afford to lose focus, as age sometimes threatens. Without focus, we have no energy. Without energy we attract the sodden and unenergetic: we attract what we put out in the world.

    A young woman may mesmerize suitors, soar in her career, become known and admired by strangers. But older women trump the achievements of youth. They reduce the glass ceiling to a dust-flecked mirage. They win major political elections. They are invited into the rarefied realms of institutional power as university presidencies, orchestra conductors, CEOs, and board members-and are welcomed as equals and superiors.

    So we may cast a cold eye on youth. We say we want to be young. But do we? A woman's twenties and thirties are not all that great. Our culture has a love-hate relationship with youth. We urge the young to grow up as fast as possible-and then suffer from our unquenchable nostalgia for it.

    Youth is a pathology, "Prematurity Syndrome." Youth demands success - but it ends up happy with nonfailure. The second-rate is lauded; mediocre films and technology and medical care. Artists welcome their maturity because their talent is finally matched by technique. The Renaissance's favorite symbol was the mulberry tree because it flowers late, once every few decades, and then bursts into full bloom. Make haste slowly was Leonardo's motto. He valued the long gestation-works, ideas, passions that burst into life as if fully born and alive.

    Masterpieces have this quality, whether Elizabeth I's England, or Abigail Adams's co-presidency with her husband John; or anthropologist Jane Goodall's rebirth from a clone of her mentor, the anthropologist Louis Leakey, to a creative force all her own in the study of animal behavior and preservation, or Katharine Graham's late-life re-creation from an emotionally abused housewife to an internationally celebrated newspaper publisher who made the press a force that politicians had to fear and respect. Or Leonardo's Mona. Such are the prodigies of maturity. Such women redefine Time to their own ends rather than allow it to defeat them. For example, to an aficionado of long gestations, "writer's block" would instead be seen as "thinker's flow." Marilynne Robinson's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Gilead was twenty-four years not in the making but in the thinking ... that is the kind of new timing that youth and development models do not value, but the efforts of maturity do. A long runway means a high takeoff.

    Onward the Laws of Backwards Time

    On the other hand, why should we make an effort to mature when all around us maturity is confused with the loss of beauty and power? Greta Garbo went into hiding before she was forty. Goldie I lawn, in her sixties, plays abandoned wives. Germaine Greer preaches that a real woman's sexual liberation is liberation from sex. These are fears of age. How different things look when you really study how Time changes as you cross the barrier of age forty-five.

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