I have a number of wonderful student assistants at work. One of them was wishing the other day that we could do everything perfectly the first time—write bug-free code or a literary masterpiece in one pass—because life would be better that way.
I replied that it would be better if better meant getting more things done. He was surprised that I might think it meant something else. I said I used to agree with him but had recently begun to change my mind. He asked why, and I told him I thought getting older had done it.
He said, “Wow, age does that to people?”
It appears to have done it to me, but I wish it had done more complete job. I don’t believe accomplishment is the be all and end all, but I still measure my life and myself as if it were.
My unit of measurement is almost always tasks accomplished. I did a good job of the day if I got a lot done.
This produces a problem with benchmarking: what is a lot? What is enough? I know people who are far more efficient task completers than I am, so who do I reasonably include in the group to whom I compare myself?
Or maybe getting things done isn’t really my strong point; maybe I should measure myself on how loving or patient I was. So what is the rubric for loving? How do I score five out of five on that test?
Measurement is good for making cookies, but it’s not so great for making spiritual health—at least not at this time in my life. I end up in exactly the same state of mind whether I’m judging myself on the getting-stuff-done criteria or the loving criteria.
And I don’t want to be in a state of mind; I want to be in a state of heart. I’m not sure what that means yet, but it must include some fundamentally more spacious approach to self and others than judgment. It probably means no longer asking myself, “How do I do that?” because it probably has nothing to do with doing.
Turning forty was the Big Event of my week (though Brazil’s poor performance in the World Cup semifinal gave it a run for the title of B.E.–what happened?!). Our forties might be the adolescence for our second half of life—we’re not yet considered old but certainly can no longer claim to be young.
I’m fascinated by how simply aging gives us a new perspective without our having to work at it, a concept that didn’t occur to me in my twenties and early thirties. I’ve noticed a few contributing factors.
There is, of course, the physical side. I had the good fortune to spend some time with a friend’s two-year-old recently. I still enjoy climbing on jungle gyms and blowing bubbles, but the pulled calf muscle that’s been hanging on for months was easily be tweaked by a race across the playground—a race with a two-year-old, remember.
As I’ve aged, my relationship to time has changed. Ten or fifteen years in the future is now imaginable. As recently as a few years ago, I knew I would probably exist in ten years, but I couldn’t hold onto any idea of myself or my life that far away. Now, my friends and I wonder whether we will still own our houses when our fifteen year mortgages are paid off. The prospect is terrifying but comprehensible.
I am also occasionally more at ease within my life. I feel as if I am just beginning to see that much of what I worry about isn’t worth worrying about but am not yet old enough to actually stop worrying about it. I suspect this comes from failing and realizing that the world didn’t cease to exist, though I am still too often convinced that it will after my next horrific mistake.
All this makes it easy for me to understand why people go out and buy sportscars in their middle age. Because what we use to define ourselves—the goals, the accomplishments, the roles we play—and their meanings get a bit slippery. Sports cars are solid.
I get the sense, though, that if I can stick with the slipperiness, something interesting is waiting around the bend. I’ll keep you posted.
Seen on a book flap this week: “Hailed as the most prominent lyrical poet of his time, [Dylan Thomas] made four trips to the United States and died in New York in 1953 at the age of 39.”
New Yorker cartoon recounted to me by a friend: An obituary page with captions under the pictures that said, “A little older than you,” “A little younger than you,” and then in the middle “Your age exactly.” Thirty-nine is my age exactly.
I generally hate hypothetical questions because they pit things against each other needlessly, but this book flap made me wonder whether I’d rather be a really successful writer, as Thomas was a poet, or likely to be alive at 40. I would rather, of course, be both, but unlike choosing between your parents being run over by a mac truck or your sister being eaten by sharks, this decision was easy—I’d rather be alive. Because there’s a lot more to life than writing.
Which I’m not sure I could have said without feeling guilty ten years ago. Not that I didn’t value the other parts of my life, but in my head, I earned my existence through my accomplishments.
I’m more and more certain that existence isn’t available to be earned—it’s a gift. People don’t bring you more gifts on your seventh birthday than your sixth because you learned multiplication in second grade and that’s a bigger accomplishment than addition and subtraction. We can receive or reject gifts but can’t do anything about the giving of them. (OK, you can invite more people to your birthday party, but you can’t control whether they give you the stupid brush and comb set or the cool Batman action figure.)
Entering mid-life reduced the urgency of accomplishment for me. I still sometimes think that just means I’ve failed—a possible explanation but not a good one. A better one may be that aging allows us to recognize the wonder of existence, pay attention to it, and enjoy it.
When you are chronically single, it is good to have at least one other chronically single friend. This increases the odds that, at any given time, one of you will be sane.
I was speaking with one such friend recently, and it was her turn to be sane. Both of us would like to have kids, and both of us are ever more rapidly approaching the age of ain’t gonna happen. The subject came up and my friend said in a hushed, semi-awed voice, “I think I’m OK with that.”
The “OK with it” option had occurred to me but was a little too scary to contemplate closely, like the ingredients list of a Twinkie. I have this idea that thinking will make it so, but here’s the thing: it is already so—I neither have kids nor do I currently find myself in a situation that leads to the rapid production of children.
When do we continue to believe in the possibility of something that isn’t yet and when do we accept life in its current state? On the never ending list of things I don’t understand, the balance between those two is near the top.
My friend’s sanity lay in shifting the emphasis: while she may not have this one thing she wants, she recognizes that her life is incredible. The question is not so much am I giving up on something as am I remembering that right now, my life is incalculably rich. Right now, I have an enjoyable job; I live in a beautiful place; all the parts of my body work well; I have wonderful friends and family; I no longer need to worry about the ingredients list of a Twinkie.
Louis CK does a great comedy routine called “Everything’s Amazing and Nobody’s Happy.” (On being impatient with smartphones: “Give it a second, it’s going to space.”) There’s always something available with which to play the if only game—marriage, kids, publication, four-foot-high chocolate fountain. It’s just so much more fun to play the everything’s amazing game.
Seventy is far closer to the end of life than I want to contemplate, but my mom plans to enjoy the entire decade.
Mom is one of the only people I know who has rejoiced at getting older. At some point in her mid-sixties she said to me with great delight, “I’m a crone!” By which she didn’t mean the shriveled up old woman who lives in the scary house, but a wisdom figure, an elder who may choose to live in a scary house for fun if she so desires.
When we say, “She looks good for her age” we mean “She looks younger than she is.” I’m as attached as the next person to being mistaken for a student, but I can also already tell where the spots on the back of my hands will be—at least the first round. Without Mom’s example of aging gracefully, that might freak me out more than it already does. She has given me a priceless alternative to clinging to the appearance of youth or mourning its loss.
I have a friend who is ninety, and the last year has been difficult for her. I understand—as much as anyone still in the first half of her life can—that aging is not easy. But in our culture we so rarely celebrate the joys of getting older: learning that so few situations are do or die, worrying less about what people think, gaining wisdom from having seen your successes and your failures fade, finding depths in yourself when those you love die. Not everyone learns these with age, but I’m not sure anyone can learn them without it.
When I was organizing Mom’s birthday party recently, many invitees said to me, “I thought she was younger than that.” I don’t think a drop of moisturizer has ever touched my mom’s face, so either she has really good skin or something else accounts for true youthfulness.
It might have something to do with elasticity of spirit and willingness to hope. And it may be what we need to enjoy life regardless of the number of years we’ve accumulated. Whatever it is, you’ll find it in my favorite seventy-year-old. Happy birthday, Mom.