I’ve been fifty-five for a little over a week now. Rounding this corner, finding myself squarely in the long-shadowed afternoon of my own life, has given me pause.
I’ve spent a lot of time lately gazing out the window in my kitchen, watching the sunlit leaves float from tree to ground. The days, the hours, even the moments, feel ripe and full — time to be cherished rather than rushed through.
And so, on this autumn afternoon I shut my laptop. For the first time in years, I pick up a pad of paper and a pen instead. I grab a sweater and head outside to write. Perhaps what I’m yearning for is a different kind of knowing – words that come from the still, silent place in my soul, a glimpse of my own depths, some intimation of my rightful place in the world now that I’ve crested the arc of life and begun my descent down the other side.
55. How strange it feels to write that pair of fives, to associate them with me. Have I really been alive that long, half a century plus five? And what exactly am I, now that I’m no longer technically middle-aged but not exactly old yet, either?
I turn to a fresh page, brush a stray leaf from my hair.
This is 55. . .
Fifty-five is being aware there are fewer years left ahead of me than I’ve lived already. It is understanding, in a way I couldn’t have at twenty-five or even forty-five, the bittersweet truth of impermanence. It is knowing that tomorrow isn’t a guarantee, that every plan is provisional, that life isn’t a promise. Fifty-five is dreaming less of the future, dwelling less in the past, and learning (yes, still learning) to be here, in the now.
Fifty-five is realizing that being present is my choice to make, again and again and again – not always the easiest choice for me, but always the best.
Fifty-five is asking the same “What next?” question I was struggling with when I graduated from college. It is knowing there are an infinite number of answers. And that none of them are wrong.
Fifty-five is two sons in their twenties. It is still-fresh memories of motherhood as it used to be: intensely physical, all consuming, endlessly challenging, viscerally satisfying. And it is finding my way, day by day, into this new, arm’s-length role of mother to young adults. Fifty-five is holding on to faith in their best selves and letting go of fears for their well-being. It is holding on to all I love in each of them and letting go of my need to have them under my roof. It is holding on to a vision of their destinies and letting go of my ideas about how they should get there.
Fifty-five is not knowing where my children are, who they’re with, what they’re doing, what they ate for dinner, or what’s on their minds. It is resisting most of my impulses to text or call. Fifty-five is learning to worry less and to trust more.
Fifty-five is pride and delight in the two young men who come home to visit us. It is laughter around the dinner table and help with the dishes and crowding together on the couch to watch The Daily Show. It is honest, heartfelt conversations and easier partings. It is growing used to empty bedrooms. It is being in the home stretch of paying for college.
Fifty-five is being a couple again. It is having the central task of our marriage – raising a family – completed. It is re-invention, re-negotiation, and renewal. It is a different kind of commitment. Fifty-five is looking at my husband’s nearly sixty-five-year-old face and seeing, even now, the same face I fell in love with all those years ago as a girl of twenty-three.
Fifty-five is twenty-six years of marriage. It is routines and rituals, family traditions and jokes told a thousand times. Fifty-five is knowing my husband so well that his story has become my story. It is a mountain of photographs, none of which are organized. It is realizing I’ve lived more of my life alongside this man than I lived before I knew him.
Fifty-five is not sweating the small stuff (the ice cream scoop left on the counter, the toilet seat left up, his tendency to talk too loud) and being grateful for the big stuff (loyalty, forgiveness, humor, love).
Fifty-five is feeling the ten-year age difference between us in the slowing pace of our morning walks and not feeling it at all when his arms are around me. It is less about trying to change the man I married and more about loving him as he is for as long as I can. It is knowing the words “till death do us part” will one day come true.
Fifty-five is passion transformed into tenderness. It is the end of “the quickie.” It is love that’s long and slow and unguarded. Fifty-five is less often but with more feeling. Fifty-five is less self-conscious and more trusting. It is less awkward but more exposed. Fifty-five is still good. Fifty-five, my husband says, is better than ever.
Fifty-five is discovering that my heart has no notion of time or propriety. It is admitting that love can still surprise me. Fifty-five is my pulse quickening at the touch of a hand; the blood rushing to my cheeks at the sight of a smile; a funny flip-flop in the pit of my stomach at a sentence in a novel that puts into words everything I never dared say out loud. Fifty-five is invisible when I’m walking down the street. Inside, fifty-five is as chaotic and as confusing as fifteen.
Fifty-five is tears and laughter every day; sometimes, it’s both at once. It is joy and sorrow intertwined. It is shadow and light. It is admitting I’ve learned as much from my losses and failures as from the gifts that have been laid at my feet.
Fifty-five is going to bed in pajamas and fleece and socks. It is being stark naked at 3 a.m. It is my husband knowing better than to mistake this for an invitation. Fifty-five is hot flashes and night sweats and Swiss cheese for a brain. It is bedclothes off and on and off again. It is sleepless nights and staring at the ceiling and Tylenol PM and earplugs. Fifty-five is getting by on fewer hours of sleep than I ever thought possible. Fifty-five is standing outside in the wet grass, watching the sun come up. Fifty-five is being astonished, still, by the resurrection of morning.
Fifty-five is jeans that stretch, bras that lift, shirts that cover, and shoes that don’t pinch. It is knowing I’m too old for the Gap and not rich enough for Eileen Fisher. It is throwing the Victoria’s Secret catalog in the trash on my way back from the mailbox. It is one pair of good black boots.
Fifty-five is making peace with my habits: a cup of dark roast coffee every morning laced with half and half, a glass of wine with dinner. It is saying yes to champagne and no to mixed drinks. It is cooking meat for my family without ever being tempted to eat it myself. It is drinking extra glasses of water, taking “Wiser Woman” vitamins, skipping dessert more often than not.
Fifty-five is standing in front of the mirror and drawing the sagging skin of my neck up and back. It is glimpsing the possibility of looking a decade younger. It is considering getting a little “work” done. It is turning away from the face that looks too old to be mine and getting on with the day.
Fifty-five is accepting there are some things I used to do that I may never do again: downhill skiing, rollerblading, galloping across a beach on a horse, hot yoga. It is realizing how much I long to do some other things before it’s too late: sleep outside under the stars, swim naked in the dark, sit by a campfire, hike the White Mountains, visit my best friend from college in Santa Fe, wear a cocktail dress and heels, take a trip with my mom.
Fifty-five is knowing that some of my secret, youthful fantasies aren’t ever going to come true: living in a cabin by a lake, spending a month in Paris, learning French, writing a best-seller. Fifty-five is realizing I’ve outgrown those fantasies anyway.
Fifty-five is talking less and listening more. It is choosing less screen time and more real time. It is saying “no” to things I don’t want to do. It is craving solitude. At the same time, it is a willingness to be more open, more intimate, more vulnerable with the small handful of people to whom I’ve entrusted my soul . Fifty-five is knowing what makes me happy: time alone, time in nature, time with dear friends, time with my family, time with a book.
Fifty-five is reading glasses and wrinkle creams and concealer for the dark circles under my eyes. It is a root canal. It is a basal cell removed and a new, worrisome place on my forehead. It is a groin pull. It is a stomach growing softer and shoulders growing rounder. It is a pair of tweezers kept in the glove compartment for plucking the stray black hair that sprouts from my chin, which I discover (always) while sitting at an intersection waiting for the light to change.
Fifty-five is also twenty-six miles walked with friends to raise money for cancer research. It is a three-minute plank pose. It is breathing deeply in headstand. It is running just for the fun of it. It is two strong legs and a strong will and an undiminished sense of adventure. Fifty-five is still going strong.
Fifty-five is knowing what it is to lose a friend. It is being there right till the end. It is death growing more familiar and hitting closer to home. It is grieving with a mother who’s just lost her son, a boy I’ve known since the day he was born. It is an email bearing news of a diagnosis. It is a loved one calling from the hospital. It is a new understanding of the word “random.” It is learning that finding meaning where there appears to be no meaning is part of our spiritual work.
Fifty-five is two parents just shy of eighty. It is the joy of still allowing them to parent me. It is knowing that one day I will be there to care for them. It is a whispered “thank you” for every family gathering, for my dad’s grilled turkey on Thanksgiving, for my mom’s handmade cards, for their voices on the other end of the phone. For all that was and all that still is and all that someday will be no more.
Fifty-five is finding my sense of purpose in unexpected places. It is teaching yoga after years of thinking I could never be a yoga teacher. It is writing for the joy of writing rather than to be recognized as a writer. It is sitting on the floor, feeding our old dog by hand. It is helping my son hang a shower curtain in his new apartment. It is proofreading another’s son’s job application and not changing a word.
Fifty-five is sitting quietly with someone in pain and it is celebrating another’s joy as if it were my own. It is driving a neighbor to the doctor, making dinner for the millionth time, answering a letter from a reader, cutting sunflowers and putting them in a vase. It is holding hands with my dearest friend, heart brimming.
Fifty-five is ordinary. It is the relief of not being exceptional. It is recognizing what is precious and beautiful in someone else. It is choosing not to live in drama but in harmony. It is less ambition and more appreciation. It is gratitude for things as they are rather than grasping for something just out of reach. It is seeing the futility of comparing and judging and craving. It is a deepening sense of compassion. It is gratitude. It is plain and simple. It is less clutter. Fewer words. More love.
Fifty-five is learning to approach each day as a blessing, each word as a benediction, daily life as my practice. It is being open to what comes, offering prayers of hope and healing for the universe, trusting there are forces at work here that are larger than I am.
Fifty-five is the joy of waking up each day and taking part in this great, ongoing human conversation. It is mystery.
How old are you, and what does your age mean to you? I’d love to know!