My recent birthday brought so much love, a number of gifts and absolutely no epiphanies. Shouldn’t turning 50 fill one with sudden insight or at least confirm one has gathered sufficient wisdom over the years? People kept referring to this birthday as “a big one!” but I did not feel big in the days leading up. Yes, I have accomplished some things, but all I could think of were the failures and goals so far unmet:
- I haven’t learned to speak Spanish;
- I’ve still never canned anything or gone mushroom hunting;
- I didn’t provide my kids with everything I meant to give them;
- I spent too much money on momentary good times instead of investing in items that would provide long-term joy: more surfboards, camping gear, quality furniture, dental care.
If I were to write honestly, as I try to do, I’d say that part of my brain – a significant part, let’s be real – cringed at turning 50. I’ve always believed in owning my age, in not playing into the pressure to hide it, to override the voices in our culture that say a woman’s value is measured, largely and inversely, by her years. But this was easier to do at 40, especially since I’d just taken a huge step forward in my career at the time. I do not have a similar obvious triumph this time, only steady advancement, which is no small thing and not what I think about when I look in the mirror.
My face, my neck, the back of my hands – my skin has abandoned pretense of youth and marches toward old age. On the one (wrinkled, age-spotted) hand, so what? Beauty standards are fucked anyways. Still, I’m annoyed that a woman’s desirability is a commodity we don’t always get to manage – I never thought I’d be afraid of becoming invisible. (“Invisible woman syndrome” is not just an ego issue; public policy data-gathering efforts rarely include women over 49.)
And if I were to be even more honest, I’d dig deeper and admit that this exercise in vanity hides the real fears: That the mistakes I have made are irrevocable; that things I haven’t done by now, I will never do.
Reality supersedes my wallowing, however. I’m surrounded by women my age and older who have used their mistakes to grow, whose beauty comes from confidence – the only perpetual source – who throw themselves into second chapters with abandon, seek out new adventures on the daily. Sure, certain aspects of aging make for valid complaints – the knees don’t bend like they used to and if I had to find a new job, my age would work against me – but my insecurity serves no one.
I think I’ll be done with it.
I did not have epiphanies. I did have a steady parade of celebratory birthday moments over the course of two weeks and several hundred miles. San Francisco, Sacramento, Half Moon Bay, back home in Humboldt – friends and family gifted me with time and affection (and books and earrings and food and drinks and candles and a gift certificate to a Russian bathhouse from where I emerged delirious and glowing) – I am afloat in a sea of love.
I’m typing this at 7:09 a.m., three hours after waking up to repeated notifications that Nick’s blood sugar was dangerously low. At 4:30 a.m., I rebuilt the fire in the wood stove, then dashed into the frozen night to take care of him. Meanwhile, smoke from the bushfires in Australia shrouds Sydney, where my younger daughter lives and I worry about my older daughter’s circumstances for different reasons but no less. It is hard to have your heart outside your body all the time.
Now I’m sitting on the couch surrounded by pillows, awash in heat from the stove, laptop perched on my lap. A few moments ago, I felt as if something were flooding my brain – exhaustion, maybe, or the coffee kicking in. The sun rises, as it does, in a clear sky today. The buoy numbers have almost dropped to inviting, even if the temperature remains foreboding. It is a day to be made the best of.