“The more sand that has escaped from the hourglass of our life,
the clearer we should see through it.”
― Jean-Paul Sartre
Imagine climbing a long, towering hill. At the beginning of your journey, the summit is hidden in the faraway haze, but your immediate pathway is sunlit and clear, and so you ramble forward with joy and abandon. As you progress, though, the path sometimes disappears into the twisting darkness, and you tremble in anxiety at all the obstacles waiting to tumble you into the tangled unknown. You pause to rest and reassess, but there is no turning back, and there is no staying put–for no matter your uncertainties and apprehensions, Time marches forever on, and your footsteps must follow its lead.
Someday, ready or not, you burst through the haze at the top of that towering hill–and when you do, what do you see on the other side?
Since the 1940’s, people (usually young people) have referred to anyone past a certain age as being “over the hill” or “past one’s peak”–which, I guess, is supposed to be a more considerate way of saying “old.” Some have been accused of topping the hill at age 40, while others haven’t peaked until 50, but the intended message is still the same: Once you’ve reached the top of that hill, there’s nowhere to go but down–plummeting at break-neck speed into an abyss of despair and worthlessness, a bottomless pit of rocking chairs, hearing aids, senior discounts and industrial-strength undergarments.
The week before my own birthday I awoke to the news that First Lady Michelle Obama was turning 50 that day, and it dawned on me that, for the first time in my life, I was older than the First Lady of the United States (and–horrors!–the President, too). It was a sobering thought–and one that sent me scampering to the mirror in search of new wrinkles crinkling around my eyes and new gray hairs sprouting on my head. (I might have found one of each, but since I hadn’t inserted my contacts yet–and I can’t see all the way to the mirror without them–I’m not quite sure.)
Am I really that old?
Yes, yes I am.
But am I over the hill?
Oh, hell no.
After turning 40 (or 50), almost all of us have passed the mid-way point of our lives and are closer to the end than the beginning. We start to realize we have only a finite amount of time left to accomplish everything we had hoped to accomplish, and we get a little panicky. But panicking might be a good thing–liberating, even–if it gets us off the couch, spurs us into action, and helps us to finally push aside all the non-essential nonsense that we let clutter our lives. There’s still so much we want to see and do–so many more tasks we want to master, beaches we want to walk, desserts we want to sample, flowers we want to smell, kisses we want to give and receive–and, I promise you, the clutter can wait. Life is knocking at the door, and it’s up to us to throw down the dish towel, throw that door wide open, and venture forward.
There is no age limit on exploring.
There is no age limit on seeking.
There is no age limit on embracing, marveling, dreaming, doing.
Don’t forget that Diana Nyad became the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida without a protective cage when she was 64 years old. And did you know that
- Julia Child collaborated on her first French cookbook just months before she turned 50,
- Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote her first book (Little House in the Big Woods) when she was 64,
- Benjamin Franklin signed the Declaration of Independence when he was 70,
- Nelson Mandela was elected president of South Africa when he was 75,
- Ray Kroc set out to build the McDonald’s brand when he was 52,
- Grandma Moses began painting when she was 76,
- Prince Hubertus von Hohenlohe of Mexico will compete in alpine skiing in the 2014 Winter Olympics, at 55 becoming the second-oldest Winter Olympian in history (the oldest was Carl August Kronlund, a Swedish curler who was 58 when he competed in 1924),
- or that Ellen DeGeneres became a spokesperson for CoverGirl cosmetics at 50–and that earlier this week former CoverGirl model Christie Brinkley turned 60? Apparently there’s no age limit on beauty, either.
I don’t think of myself as “over the hill,” and even though I may be old by some standards (and my mirror frequently agrees), I prefer the term “well seasoned”–especially since author Gail Sheehy says a seasoned woman is “spicy.” Yeah, I like that. Sheehy, who most recently wrote Sex and the Seasoned Woman: Pursuing the Passionate Life, states that a seasoned woman “has been marinated in life experience. She is at the peak of her influence and power. She is committed to living fully and passionately in the second half of life, despite failures and false starts.”
And as a well seasoned woman in her 50’s, these are a few things I’ve learned from those failures and false starts:
- I know what I like and what I don’t like–and I know it’s okay if my likes are different from everyone else’s.
- I know that the overwhelming majority of things I’ve worried about in the past still have not happened–and I know there’s a lesson to be learned there.
- I know that a flat belly is not a given–that cheesecake for breakfast and banana splits for lunch will eventually take their toll.
- I know that money previously allocated for adding to my collection of shoes and purses is now better spent on keeping the medicine cabinet stocked with pain relievers and wrinkle disguisers.
- I also know that it’s much more enjoyable to spend money on experiences rather than things.
- I know that while high heels might make my legs look longer and leaner, they’re going to hurt my feet–and at the end of the day I’m going to care a lot more about how my feet feel than whether anyone noticed my legs.
- I know that just because I’m sure I’ll remember all my passwords doesn’t mean I will (i.e., I need to write them down–and remember where I hid the list).
- I know that the present moment is the most important one.
- I know the value of showing appreciation, acceptance, compassion and patience.
- I know how to cook a decent meal and feed a hungry crowd (although I still haven’t quite mastered cooking for only two).
- I know how to enjoy a quiet weekend night at home without feeling like I’m missing out.
- I know how to be comfortable with silence.
- I know how to laugh at myself.
- I know that wearing sunscreen instead of iodine-laced baby oil is the way to go.
- I know that everyone else has insecurities, too–and the persons who seem the most confident often aren’t.
- I know that I’m so much stronger than I think am, and I can keep going long after I think I can’t.
- I know that my gut instincts are almost always right.
- I know that taking risks and violating my comfort zone will provide not only tremendous growth but also unimaginable joy.
- I know that I’ll never completely understand the opposite sex or that I’ll successfully change a single one of them.
- I know that most of what my children learned from me was from my example, not my words (no matter how loudly those words were shouted or how often they were repeated).
- I know that exercise makes me feel better physically and mentally (it’s a shame it took so long to realize that).
- And I know that the only thing holding me back is me.
When First Lady Michelle Obama turned 50, newscasters claimed that she exemplified the idea that “Fifty is the New Fifty”–that women in their 50’s are coming “into their own,” that they are proud and accepting of where they are with no desire to go back to their earlier lives. And the First Lady seemed to agree, claiming that she has never felt more confidence in herself or more clarity on who she is as a woman.
I feel the same way. I may never reach the First Lady’s level of confidence, but I’m trying my best to push the boundaries (and before this year is over, I will find the courage to dance in public–there, I said it and there’s no going back). I also know my younger self would be quite proud of the strong woman I’m becoming, even though she might not recognize me at first. Do I wish I still had her flat belly, her smooth skin and her thick hair? Absolutely. No woman enjoys looking in the mirror and admitting that whatever little sizzle she once had has long since fizzled–but those fleeting physical attributes have been replaced with a lasting, hard-fought wisdom gleaned from decades of making mistakes and learning from them, and those life experiences are priceless.
So what if I’ve reached the top of that towering hill? Standing at the crest allows me to feel the sun on my face and the breeze in my hair–and standing at the crest lets me gaze in wonder and anticipation at the distant horizon and all the hills I have yet to climb.
Photography is a passion that developed after I turned 50 . . .
The “spring” of my life may be long past . . .
. . . but my “sunset” years are still–I hope–a long way off.
And there are still some things–like this 1938 Chevrolet–that are older than I am.