I’m about to turn fifty. Like my twelve year old son, I’m experiencing changes in my body that are, at best, confusing, making me feel like an amateur at things like hair removal and feminine hygiene. My girly hormones are in retreat and can’t remember where I put my keys, ever. Or anything, ever. I have a mustache and orthodics in my Clark’s shoes.
Midlife is a game changer, but like the old cliche says, “it beats the alternative” and, although it has its pitfalls where the ego is concerned, I’m not bummed about turning fifty, not by a long shot. Turning fifty is exciting, a milestone and I’m lucky to have made it here. Not since I packed my car full of record albums and candles, heading off on my own for the first time have I felt such curiosity about what the future holds. Of course, this time I have a husband beside me and two kids in the back seat, but the feeling is similar.
People expect you to do something BIG on your fiftieth. It’s a thing. So important is this rite of passage that some people plan their fiftieth celebration for years. They take safaris and things like that.
“What do you want to do for your birthday?” Friends ask.
“Why do I have to know?” I answer. “It’s six months away.”
“Well, if you want to plan a trip or something—“
“I don’t want to plan a trip.”
“Well what do you want to do then?”
“I don’t know. I’ll figure it out.”
“But definitely plan something. Fifty is a big deal!” The conversation plays out over and over, in much the same way.
“Do you know what you’re doing for your fiftieth?” Asks another friend.
“No. I haven’t decided.”
“Let your husband throw a big party for you!”
“I don’t think I want a big party. That sounds just super stressful.”
“Why?“ She asks, utterly confused.
“Because you mix friends who don’t know each other, you piss people off who aren’t invited, or you have some huge thing that feels overwhelming.”
“Well, definitely plan something. You’ll regret it if you don’t.”
This last comment is sort of the friendship equivalent of your mother saying “Put a sweater on, I’m freezing.” Some friends have major regrets over not planning a big fiftieth thing, others are working through anxiety about what to do for their own, looming on the horizon.
It’s not like I haven’t thought about it. Originally, I figured the best plan would be to get started on something early so that, when November 30th arrived, I would ring in my second half century feeling great.
This is why, a few months back, I decided that I would lose weight. I have put on almost twenty pounds in the same number of years and decided fifteen of them had to go. I resolved to go to the gym and got that little point counter thingie on my iPhone just for, you know “fun.” A newly trim body would be my birthday gift to me!
Ok, fuck that. Moving on.
Then I decided I would start meditating again and take this herbal supplement that a very smart and healthy friend of mine told me about. During the last year I’d noticed an increase in anxiety of the snapping, steering-wheel-gripping kind, and I was looking for relief. Twenty minutes of mindfulness meditation, a pill, and within a month or two I would hit fifty feeling full of energy, in a good mood and that my elbows wouldn’t hurt. I shelled out the bucks and bought a few bottles. Lets just say the jury’s still out, but yesterday I cried on the phone with Time Warner, so draw your own conclusions.
Like many of us, since having kids, my personal productivity has gone down the drain. I do all kinds of things for my sons and husband, but have I’ve left my own creative aspirations dying on the vine. To me, turning fifty means reclaiming what I’ve let fall away. I decided that I would challenge myself to fifty days of writing a thousand words a day, but to do that I’d have had to start on October 10th, and I think I was busy that day swallowing herbs and calculating the calories in half a Pop Tart with the frosting scraped off, so I missed that window.
I knew that if I set a creative goal of any kind for my birthday month, I needed accountability, a plan, and NaNoWriMo seemed like just the thing. To win the month long writing challenge, you write fifty thousand words of fiction in thirty days, spurred on by the energy of thousands of other writers doing exactly the same thing at the same time. It’s like running a marathon but instead of running you type and eat muffins. I’ve always wanted to try it, but that’s a lot of words and November is a busy month. Still, if I managed to succeed, completing fifty thousand words of a novel ON my fiftieth birthday (the poetry of it all!) then that would really be something, wouldn’t it?
I don’t feel a lot of shame when I don’t finish a project, or when I’m not the best at it. For better or worse, I’m sort of used to being embarrassed, as that is practically my default setting, and fear of failure doesn’t tend to play into many of my decisions. But failing on the very day that I turn fifty might be too much, even for me. I want to feel like a winner that day, is that so wrong? Maybe NaNoWriMo should wait a year.
This whole thing has been a little stressful. My friends can see it. In the past month alone, people have suggested I try yoga, take a vacation, get regular massage, hypnosis, one texted me the name of a doctor who can check my hormone levels and “work wonders”, and I’ve received a pile of Xanax and a baggie of Valium, separately, as gifts. People know I’m in the weeds.
Then, I saw this poem by Mary Oliver. I had read it many times before, but this time, as I read the first few lines over and over, they resonated through my body, like a bell:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.
That reminder, gentle and perfectly crafted, unscrambled my weary mind. Like so many of my women friends, I have been walking on my knees and repenting for most of my life. The career flubs, family issues, weight gain, lack of education, lack of accomplishment, lack of patience or talent or goodness— correcting or covering all of these imagined shortcomings is the equivalent of walking a hundred miles through the desert, and the last thing I want to do is meet the end of my fiftieth year like that.
What if I celebrate this birthday by forgetting, for once, the tweaking and improving, the five year plan and the thirty day challenge, and simply let my body “love what it loves?” Right now I love the quiet hours I devote to writing in the early morning. I love drinking a glass of wine with friends. I love walking. I love the family that has grown up around me, like a miracle, and I love the frosting on my half a PopTart.