“Seasons don’t fear the reaper
Nor do the wind, the sun or the rain
We can be like they are”
~ Blue Oyster Cult
I’m turning 42 in exactly 20 days.
Which makes me ancient or youthful, depending on who you ask and which side of the hill they sit on.
My close friends range from 20 to 70, but the bulk of them are in the 40 to mid-50s age group.
We are “middle-aged” for all intents and purposes, and we’ve been doing this crazy, little thing called life for a while now. If you’ve been doing anything for four or five decades you’d be considered knowledgeable in that area—an expert, even. Maybe you’d be invited to teach a master class. You’ve been playing piano for 45 years? You could probably play it in your sleep at this point. You’ve been married for 50 years? What’s your secret? You’ve been gardening for half of a century? Gather the youth round the sunflower patch and show them how it’s done you Boss level O.G.
Logic says nobody could be considered an amateur with that much experience, so adulting according to the laws of physics must be pretty much second nature at this point, right? Au contraire. Let me tell you, I’m surrounded by people who are struggling with a capital S and not just due to the oppression of being at the mercy of a capitalistic social paradigm, which creates unnecessary obstacles for the majority of us. I mean on a personal level, struggling against nature.
Perhaps tis the essence of life; nobody masters it; we are eternal students of its mysteries, fine. I can appreciate the humility of that sentiment; however, the thing people tend to grapple with at midlife, I’m learning, is not the undulating learning curve that accompanies showing up for life from a new perspective but the threats to the ego it ushers in.
In this era, more and more women are openly embracing the aging process, and when I say embracing aging I don’t mean “she’s 50 but she looks the same as she did at 20!” I mean embracing aging. Not being terrified of going makeup-free or ashamed of the mark of gravity upon the flesh.
Hence, not “combating” the aging process but actually welcoming it. Speaking more about the need for visibility of older women, talking about menopause and the apparent courage it takes to not try and duck, dodge or deny the reality of change in our society.
I knew I would get old because, well, I’m a living thing and that’s part of the assignment. There are many things nobody can really prepare you for—your first streaks of grey being the tip of the iceberg. The way you look and feel will change. I’m not saying that with any negative connotation at all. I’ve always been a big fan of personal transformation; I find it exciting at best and interesting at worst.
My skin really is succumbing to the irresistible force that is gravity you guys! It’s not the same skin I had at 25! I’m the same person but my default settings have shifted.
The exact same height and weight looked entirely different when I had more elasticity or something that stuck my skin suit closer to my internal organs. Who knew?
My parts are sagging.
The artist in me enjoys the surreality of it. Getting to know myself again as if meeting a stranger. Different breasts! Interesting combination of more pronounced cheekbones giving way to droopy cheeks. Delicate eyelid skin. I push and prod it all lovingly, this evolving clay vessel that I am, and quite frankly I feel sexier than ever. When I was young and taut I carried my weight in emotional baggage around with me everywhere.
I was insecure, starved for approval, and lacking in the self-awareness you gain with time.
Now I have a solid idea of who I am and what I want and I know it’s not a phase I will grow out of in a year.
The other day I was speaking with a doctor friend in his mid-50s who asked me my age before sheepishly apologizing. I brushed off his embarrassment with the matter-of-fact reply:
I’m not afraid of aging.
“You are blessed!” He instantly blurted out.
By whom? I asked, knowing full well we are both people of science.
He stumbled through making sense his confusing remark, but it gave me pause.
Why is it so unusual for something so natural and inevitable to not trigger a fight-or-flight response?
When people tell me “you look so young!” I don’t know how to receive it anymore than when people exclaim “you look so thin!” Those are only “compliments” if you adhere to patriarchal beauty standards and otherwise they are unsolicited evaluations of my appearance. Thank you, mom. A proud hippie and first wave feminist in the 60s and 70s, growing up she countered every remark made about my appearance (a popular practice in the 80s and 90s) with “and she’s so smart!”
Indeed beauty is only skin-deep, and honey, that skin will start collapsing sooner or later, so it’s wise to cultivate other parts of yourself to fall back on.
What I wasn’t in any way prepared for is the way my demographic and upwards would respond to these “ch-ch-ch changes.” And many will not heed Bowie’s advice to “turn and face the strange” and instead will take off running like hell in the opposite direction meaning…toward the past. Clinging to it with a cold, dead hand the likes of something you would see on a serialized horror show.
Not only will your favorite actors and musicians—the same ones who helped you accept your acne riddled, conspicuously developing, baby fat plagued adolescent self and encouraged you to find your unique voice—become unrecognizable as they are pumped full of anti-aging products and subject themselves to obvious surgeries they will publicly deny, so too will many of your peers try and find a way to turn back time, and without a celebrity budget it will frequently come out in other bizarre ways as aging affects people on not just superficially physical but on a deeply psychological level, which is something I feel we need to talk about more.
A “midlife crisis” is just shorthand for fear of change.
It also is deceptive in that crises are typically brief and they blow over like storms.
What I’m witnessing is people moving into a perpetual state of fear as they age, constantly teetering on the brink of crisis and staving it off with denial and rationalizations as well as doubling down on their most toxic traits as the things that kept them glued together become unhinged over time because that’s what happens.
If you use something for that long, you’ll invariably have to restore it or replace it because it’s worn out; you’ve outgrown your favorite pants from your hard partying days, either physically or psychologically because your taste buds have changed. The processed food I used to eat and the skanky clothes I used to wear just don’t suit anymore, not because society says a woman of a certain age shouldn’t like those things but because I’ve changed. My needs have changed. I can’t stomach hard alcohol, late nights, or gobs of sugar. I have less expendable energy. The things I used to consider fun I now consider wasteful of the precious resources that are my time and energy, and I’m no longer at the mercy of peer and social pressure to look or act any particular way, and I can fully step into doing what I want when I want, and what I want is health, peace and quiet, stability, and comfort in my own skin no matter how loose—not your approval anymore, honey.
That’s one of the things I love about aging: it’s liberating us from social expectations and constraints, if we let it.
Yes it’s painful to watch the birds eagerly flap away from the nest to see family dynamics you spent years cultivating break down like collagen, children get stronger, parents get weaker; it’s the circle of life, and here you are, in the middle of it, watching helplessly.
So what are you going to do? Chase your tail trying to find the place where you were hopeful and youthful and experienced validation through the identity you had created or try and beat back the tide and become embittered at your own emotional and oft physical impotence?
We are on the downhill part of the hill, headed swiftly back to the earth. Are you going to waste time and money clambering to swim upstream against the flow? Or succumb to a world of fantasy, nostalgia, and escapism, padding yourself with addictions that do not change reality but temporarily trick you into thinking that they can?
We outgrow some relationships like we outgrow our stone-washed jeans or juicy couture track suit or whatever it was we were rocking when we were rocking because you’ve changed and I’ve changed and the things we had in common no longer apply.
Some relationships end and some grow, but none are inert because all people are evolving or they are degenerating. As one of my beloved friends said when our relationship ended and her relationship with someone else began:
“It’s not better or worse than our relationship, it’s just different.”
I’ve heard the same sentiment applied to children growing up. “Is it harder to have toddlers? Infants? Teenagers?”
It’s not better or worse my friend; just, different.
That is the nature of nature.
My body, my relationships with my adult sons, my relationship with my mother who’s in an adult family home, my hobbies and interests, desires and needs…none of it better or worse than when I was younger.
Does savoring this part of the journey, the part where I no longer feel compelled to pump the pedals so hard or paddle my arms so frantically to prove I can make it to the top of the hill, make me “blessed” by the forces of the universe or according to scientific data? I don’t think so. I think it just means that I understand that resistance is futile and I’m tired. It’s been a long road already. I’m looking forward to gliding.