I was talking with friends the other day—two women in their 40s, a few years older than I. One has four children, the other six or seven (I forget; the youngest is still nursing, and the eldest is in the army, or beyond). The one with four has been feeling down lately, seeing and feeling the signs of aging in herself. As she sighed and admitted she’s finding it difficult to “put that foot in the grave” (her expression), I laughed.
But I don’t agree, and I don’t feel that at all. Yes, statistically speaking, I am probably at about the half-way point in my life. In other words, it may have taken me THIS LONG to figure out who I am and what I want (though in some ways I’m still finding out both of those things), but I have another 40-something years to enjoy the fruits of my labors. At 42, I’m having more fun than I’ve ever had (on a day-to-day basis). My stress level is blessedly low, I can stop wondering what sort of person I would marry (I know now), and I have the best kids I could ask for, and the number I want. I don’t let people step on me anymore, I don’t take offense as easily as I used to, I have a religion and way of living that I think has truth and holiness to it and enriches my life, I live in the only country in the world I want to live in, and while paying our bills every month is much harder on the Cap’n’s new Israeli salary, he and I are very much a team in finding ways to economize. My intelligence has slowly combined with experience to turn into wisdom, I recognize subtlety, irony, and nuance better than I did when I was young, and I’m not afraid to look foolish in front of others. I like myself much better as I am now than I ever did when I was younger. I feel more formed, more complete. Some insist that a youthful face and body are a lifelong ideal; I don’t agree. I think one gets those things when one is a harsher judge; later on, when the face wrinkles and the body goes soft, one doesn’t care as much (or at least, one shouldn’t). After having a baby, a friend of mine said she discovered for the first time that form should really follow function in importance. I agree; I’d rather drive a car with some dents and scratches that purrs like a kitten than a hot rod with no power steering, the muffler gone, and an engine that cuts out.
I’m still too young to be ornery. (I hope I never get to the stage where I’m as cranky and bitchy as Barbara Bush or Helen Thomas.) But I am through caring about things that don’t matter. In graduate school, in a seventeenth century English literature class, I read the most wonderful poem by Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea (1661-1720), one of a generation of largely forgotten women who in their own time enjoyed fame, fortune, and admiration for their poetry. A sufferer of depression (“spleen,” it was called in her day) and childless, Finch was nonetheless happily married. The following poem describes her lack of concern at the onset of aging. (Finch calls herself by another name in the poem—“Clarinda”—, a common seventeenth century poetic conceit.)
Clarinda’s Indifference at Parting with Her Beauty
Now, age came on, and all the dismal train
That fright the vicious and afflict the vain.
Departing beauty, now Clarinda spies
Pale in her cheeks, and dying in her eyes;
That youthful air that wanders o’er the face,
That undescribed, that unresisted grace,
Those morning beams, that strongly warm, and shine,
Which men that feel and see, can ne’er define,
Now, on the wings of restless time, were fled,
And evening shades began to rise, and spread,
When thus resolved and ready soon to part,
Slighting the short reprieves of proffered art
And what, vain beauty, didst thou e’er achieve
When at thy height, that I thy fall should grieve,
When did’st thou e’er successfully pursue?
When did’st thou e’er th’ appointed foe subdue?
’Tis vain of numbers or of strength to boast,
In an undisciplined, unguided host,
And love, that did thy mighty hopes deride,
Would pay no sacrifice, but to thy pride.
When did’st thou e’er a pleasing rule obtain,
A glorious empire’s but a glorious pain.
Thou art indeed but vanity’s chief source,
But foil to wit, to want of wit a curse,
For often, by the gaudy signs descried,
A fool, which unobserved, had been untried;
And when thou dost such empty things adorn,
’Tis but to make them more the public scorn,
I know thee well, but weak thy reign would be
Did none adore or prize thee more than me.
I see indeed, thy certain ruin near,
But can’t afford one parting sigh or tear,
Nor rail at time, nor quarrel with my glass,
But unconcerned, can let thy glories pass.
A friend in high school, after a particularly bad day, wailed, “But these are supposed to be the best days of our lives!” I said, quietly, “No, that’s college.” Her eyes widened. “Oh,” she said, her hope restored.
But I was wrong. Perhaps for some college days are the best of their lives. But what does that say about the rest of your life? All downhill? No, there has to be life after college. And after 30. And after 40. What’s the alternative?
One of the most inspiring things I’ve read is about prima ballerina Wendy Whelan, born in the same year as I was (1967). While nearly all other dancers her age are retired, or (if they’re lucky enough to be still in the dancing world) choreographing and teaching, Whelan is considered to be in her prime now. Her strength and stamina, for which she is renowned, are matched by maturity and artistry lacking in many younger dancers. In other words, she was good when she was younger; now she’s great.
And so, I say, with the rest of us. No, ladies, let us vow to bid the frippery and folly of youth adieu, without regret. Bring on the second (and, I hope, better) half of life!