Why are we so skeptical of the things right in front of us? “Turns Out It’s Pretty Good” is a series that examines the path from resisting the well-known to wholeheartedly endorsing it.
I grew up in an old house. Not the building, the inhabitants. I was raised on the top floor of a three-family apartment building in Brooklyn by my maternal grandparents; the lower units were occupied by my grandmother’s sisters and sister-in-law. My arrival brought the median tenant age down by a decade, and provided me an up-close — albeit, premature — glimpse at what aging looked like. From my vantage point it involved lots of doctors’ visits, complaints about hot flashes, reading of obituaries, filling of pill boxes. But more than anything, it felt invariable.
These early observations were underscored by the morbidly resigned narration of my grandmother, Bobbie. A colorful woman, Bobbie decided while still fairly young that she was “old.” Like many women of her generation, she’d married young — 17 — and became a mother shortly thereafter. At 40, a few months before becoming a grandmother, her youngest child died at the age of 12. Smothered by grief, like Rebeca in One Hundred Years of Solitude, she buried herself alive. A frustration that her physical self hadn’t caught up with her mind was almost always simmering beneath the surface. “Let me tell you,” she would say, nearly daily, “being old is for the birds.”
But in my experience — I’m in my 40s — aging has not only been dynamic, it’s turned out to be pretty damn good. Now, I’m not talking about aging in terms of night creams and micro-needling. I’m talking about the larger sense, about having more life to live and a joy about living it.
My grandmother, on the other hand, had rigid notions of how one should age, standards against which she held herself to and judged others against. Unsurprisingly, 40 was the age when most of her rules went into effect. Women over 40 should avoid exposing their necks, arms or legs. This was as much a favor to the world as to themselves — “No one wants to see that.” They should certainly stop wearing their hair long. If they were single, they should quietly accept their fate and not embarrass themselves by, say, dating. If they were unhappily married, well … “What are you going to do? Get a divorce? At this age?”
Needless to say, this was the worldview upon which I built the foundation for my own life. If I didn’t see 40 as the marker of old age, exactly, it certainly loomed as a deadline I was working against.
Like many chronic over-achievers of my generation, time was marked by racking up a set of pre-ordained, timed accomplishments. At 18 you should be off to a “good college,” by 21, advancing to professional school or a coveted, well-paid job. After that, well, that’s when you, as a woman, were meant to chase the amorphous goal of “having it all.” By most accounts, the first box to check in chasing that impossible endeavor was to find someone to marry, ideally before the unspoken deadline of 30. That would position you to have kids — an important next step — before it became biologically challenging. All while never missing a beat in your career. Though I didn’t know exactly what “Having it All” meant, I knew I didn’t want to get “old” and not have done it.
I began to fear aging in the same way the way that I feared failure. Birthdays were less celebrations than opportunities to scrutinize all the things I had not yet done that my peers had. My ambitions took on a laser focus. By 25 I started my own business. At 27, I got married. By 30 we were looking at two-bedroom condos where we could start our family. All was right in the world.
Until it wasn’t. One day I realized that everything looked marvelous on paper, but felt about as two-dimensional. Somehow, I was moving perpetually forward with no real meaningful goal in sight. I asked for a divorce. Shortly thereafter, my grandfather succumbed to ALS just as the economy and my business nearly collapsed in the Great Recession. Suddenly, with “Old Age” looming on the horizon, the ducks I’d taken such care to get into a row had all completely swum astray.
As 35 approached, I felt youth was slipping through my fingers. Time was quickly running out on me and I was unsure of a way forward. I decided that I had a choice. I could desperately scramble to re-create my old life in some new, hopefully better, iteration. Or, with the very pretense of success as I knew it now burned to the ground, I could start living in a completely new way. One not marked by time or arbitrary goals, but personal desire. One that walked forward wiser from all the steps already taken. This felt like the best choice. To celebrate, I had a party. With exactly 35guests. We danced till the early hours of the morning. Just like when I was younger.
That year took the dread out of aging for me, but it took a tragedy for me to embrace the power of it. A couple of years later one of the guests at that birthday party died, suddenly and unexpectedly. She was 38 and I loved her dearly. At her service and Shiva all everyone could say was “She was so young.” And she was. And, I realized, so was I. There was much she had wanted to do and now couldn’t. And much I wanted to do that — for reasons of courage or finance or fear of failure — I hadn’t allowed myself to try. But, I still could.
Time, going forward, has been marked less by what happened in my past than what might be possible in my future.
Bobbie passed away at the age of 87, having spent more than half her life being, in her assessment, old. More than anything else, the knowledge of that made me sad. But I feel that she’s a happy ghost, cheering on my embrace of aging from the sidelines. We lost her exactly one month before my 40th birthday. I woke up that morning feeling electrified by all the living still to come, continually armed with the wisdom of all that had already transpired.