Tag Archives: midlife

Right Where You Are Now

“When I grow up, I’m going to be a trillionaire, and you are going to be right where you are now!” said an angry Zach to his dad.

How easily a seven-year-old kid can chill a grown man’s soul.

Zach’s taunt goes straight to the heart of unspeakable fear of middle age: This is it. The best you are ever going to be is right where you are now. And right where you are right now,  quickly approaching fifty, is not where you ever dreamed you’d be. Not even close.

I spent my youth cultivating dreams. What kid didn’t fantasize that she would grow up to be a millionaire (back before the wealth gap made mere billionaires irrelevant) or a famous writer, or simply well-known and better-liked than she’d been in high school? As we got older, those dreams became more modest and concrete in their intentions.  After a few glasses of wine, one friend confesses a long-held secret plan to live in Paris, at least for a little while. A peripatetic artist tells me that he dreams of coming home to a house instead of an apartment, and seeing a light on at the window because someone inside is waiting for him.

Our forties mark the last, best, chance to make those dreams come true. They are latest reasonable years for white weddings and fat babies; the last chance for promotions that say we’re still somehow climbing the corporate ladder. Our late forties are the last time we’ll get to start over in a new place with the idea that someday, here, we will have old friends.

This is sobering news. It leaves me breathless to think that my life is now composed of middles and endings, not beginnings.Forty-nine is a map of reckoning, marked with a big, red arrow that says “You Are Here.” It’s not where I imagined I would be.

And I am terrified of a life in which I might remain here, fixed but still aspiring; trapped, in Zach’s words, right where I am now.

Advertisements

Overheard at Costco

“I sometimes feel bad about my saggy fifty-year old boobs.

But then I see saggy man-boobs, and it makes me  feel better!”

Un/Seen

It was sunless, grey and unexpectedly cold when I debarked the train in Philadelphia. As usual, I had over-packed and under-dressed; I stood at a bench in the 30th Street Station trying to retrieve a sweater from my half-open suitcase without spilling out my life for all to see. The only things I could wedge out were my raincoat and a dressy scarf, a big square of cloth in a satin weave. I was cold. It was raining.  So, I put it on. Not babushka babinka style, though: I wound it over my head and around my neck, knotting it stylishly in back like Hepburn or Jackie O.

And the world tilted.

Suddenly, a square of folded fabric transformed me into a woman deserving of respect. On the street, men saw me and greeted me with wishes for peace. The SEPTA booth attendant stopped gossiping long enough to give me directions, and wished me a blessed day. A person of indeterminate gender and prolific body art helped me struggle my suitcase onto the train.

Certainly some of these folks mistook me for a sister muslimah, and treated me with a deference reserved for their own. But there is a greater paradox here: covering somehow revealed me as a woman who must be reckoned with for more than her sex.

Hair is so closely tied to sex and identity in our culture. Christian and Buddhist women religious cover or shave the hair to announce the renunciation of secular life in favor of deeper values. Some Muslim women see the practice of hijab as liberation from being seen as a sexual object, forcing others to know them by their character rather than by their appearance. Were I a traditional black churchwoman, I have reached the age where I should cover my head with an elaborate “crown”, one that celebrates my spiritual wisdom and signifies the respect and status my community affords me.

I expected that simply aging would bestow these qualities upon me. After all, in contemporary American culture, aging women are considered to be “off the market” sexually (the vibrancy of our actual sex lives notwithstanding). I thought one day I’d simply arrive at a point where who I am would become more visible than what I look like.

So, I’m shocked to find that approaching fifty doesn’t simply push my sexuality to the background: it labels me as undesirable and undesired by others. And a woman in the shameful state of being undesired is expected to be unseen.

Yet, one rainy afternoon in Philly, I caught a glimpse of how being seen as a fully-grown woman could be different, and ever since that moment, I have been practicing. I’ve practiced carrying myself as a woman who has grown larger than my sex, who insists with my bearing that you see me as something more. I have cultivated the habit of looking you in the eye, and holding your gaze until you do so in return. I insist that you see my face, full of wisdom and power.

This isn’t enough to change a universe full of sexism and ageism. But it is one small way of taking a stand: I remove my consent to being made invisible or ridiculous.

You can tell, as I size you up with a glance.

Surrender

Learning to live in the fullnesss of midlife is a lot like learning to swim:  surrendering my self to what  wants to support me, if only I could relax.  I couldn’t put this into words until I saw this marvelous photo by  Kathleen Wilke : it took my breath away.

Relaxation is not my habit. I did not start out in life with a very good hand, so I had to work hard to build what I have.  My comfortable home and the career I love are the result of discipline and ceaseless effort.  I spent my twenties  and thirties  learning things the hard way: I made some bad financial choices, quit smoking several times, and shed some relationships that felt  good to me but weren’t good for me.

But by the time I reached my forties, I knew what to do. I worked hard to finish college, and  finally pushed myself through graduate school.  I unlearned what I thought I knew about love, and learned to be loyal to someone else’s desires.  Finally, I think I’ve learned how not to give myself away to those who don’t deserve me.  I’ve learned to make friends with my knees, and  wear sensible shoes (at least most of the time.)

My thirties felt like training for a marathon,  but my forties felt like a decade of power.  At forty, I thought I had the world on a string. So I’m a little disoriented that, at 48,  things seem so easy :  I accomplish with the slightest effort things  that used to take me hours of  planning and angst.  I wonder if I am becoming  lazy.  I worry that I am committing that unspeakable crime among middle-aged women : letting myself go.

Yet letting go of my habit of striving is simply surrendering to the masterful woman I have become.  Some days I am at ease with this mastery, as if it was the element for which  I was born.  Other days, I churn about, thrashing and searching for solid ground.  It’s hard to remember when I am afraid that all I need to do is relax and be myself. I need this image as a reminder of what it means to move into this age with purpose: the life I’ve made will fully support me whenever I stop struggling, and remember to breathe.

Beyond Coming Out: Living as a lesbian in midlife

Today is National Coming Out Day, and I’m thinking about what it means to be a lesbian in midlife.

My life is unusual. I live openly as a lesbian in a place where that’s not illegal, or immoral, or even cause for comment. The law in Massachusetts says I can’t be fired for it, or denied housing for it, or my marriage disregarded for it. No one questions whether I should be a public servant, or speak on behalf of my faith community. As have many of my friends, I could become the legal parent to my spouse’s children freely and without discrimination (though heaven forbid we should become parents this late in the game!). Every morning, in my headscarf and ratty robe, I kiss my wife goodbye on the doorstep as she leaves for work. Friends and neighbors admire our long-time happy home.

I live in Massachusetts because I grew up in Ohio.  That’s a place where “coming out” means quietly telling your mother or your boss that you and your roommate aren’t just “friends.”  I live in Massachusetts because I want to live in a place where there is more than one neighborhood where I can rent or buy properly without fearing violence from my neighbors. In Ohio, I never dreamed of marriage, or even of being on my partner’s dental insurance: at 49, the cost of a crown makes her dental insurance a really big deal. In Massachusetts, my spouse has survivorship rights to our home; in Ohio, the law says that you, dear reader, are as closely related to me—and as entitled to my estate – as is my partner of 22 years.

And yet being a lesbian in midlife brings a different set of worries, and makes me wish for other things. I live in Massachusetts in exile; like my southern ancestors who made it across the Ohio River to freedom, I still long for the people I’ve had to leave behind.  I yearn to be an aunt to my nieces and nephews who are now young adults, starting families of their own. I miss seeing friends I’ve known since high school, and I wonder who will want to hear my stories when I’m old. Living with the simplest of freedoms and dignities has banished me from the intimate web of family obligation and community built upon time and love.

Today is National Coming Out Day, but everyone already knows that I’m a lesbian. So today, I have a wish for midlife lesbians everywhere: I wish us all the simple dignity of blossoming in love wherever we are; and the joy of bearing fruit and ripening with age in places where our roots hold us fast and strong.

%d bloggers like this: