No one eats the first half of an Oreo, looks down and sees the creamy middle, and thinks, Screw this—it’s old. I’m gonna throw it out and go watch me some MacGyver. No one reads the first half of a book and abandons it, not for lack of time or interest in the plot or characters, but simply because the middle is already old news. No one, anywhere, decides that the middle is an inch or two shy of the end. Unless they’re discussing age.
If you read in a book or a story that a character is middle-aged, don’t you just see the slump in his shoulders, the frown on her face? The baggy clothes and general air of despair at the middleness of it all? No one wants to admit to being middle-aged, and I don’t blame us—the way our culture sees it, you might as well be saying you’re old. And the way we see “old” in our culture? Don’t even get me started. Because I’m not gonna want to be old when I’m old. Oh, I’m not planning to wear short shorts at eighty. But I refuse to have slumpy shoulders and baggy clothes and an air of despair, even when I’m old. I’m sure as hell not going to have those things today.
Today, you see, this subject matters to me quite a bit. Because today I am turning forty. Not twenty-nine for the eleventh year in a row, but really and truly, right in the thick of the plot, staring at the middle of the Oreo forty.
For the past couple of years and in a variety of situations, I’ve made the following statement flirtatiously, earnestly, comfortingly, defensively. Now I’ll make it plainly: forty is not old.
In an effort to revamp the concept of middle age, someone came up with the sporty slogan that forty is the new twenty. Meaning, I suppose, that forty has energy and verve. Forty has get up and go and then get it done. Forty might have bunions and back pain, but she’s got it goin on—she can shake it ’till the break of dawn.
Is that what he or she meant, this inventor of the sporty slogan?
I doubt it. He or she was probably trying to sell something—the idea of eternal youth, of constant reinvention, of never needing to admit that the middle is not the beginning. I’m not buying (or selling) that idea, not for a minute. I’ve worked too hard for my bunions and back pain to pretend they don’t exist.
When I was twenty, or twenty-five, or thirty, and I’d reach a limit with something—my frustrations with my own limitations or the brokenness of the world or the ways in which people can hurt and disappoint one another (meaning, of course, the ways in which I had been hurt and disappointed)—my mother would say, “Wait ‘till you turn forty.” I didn’t know what she meant by that, exactly, but she seemed to be implying that my frustration would reach a breaking point, or that I would somehow be freer, or that I would understand things better.
Now that I am forty, I think she meant all of that, and more.
Forty is the age at which, if you haven’t already done so, you get over the b.s. of it all—your own and everyone else’s. In fact, you get over the idea that everyone and everything is supposed to be free of b.s. You begin to accept the imperfections in yourself, others, and the world at large.
What a beautiful thing.
It is only by accepting imperfection that we can begin to improve upon it, however imperfectly.
I’m not saying that you get perfect at this—the acceptance of imperfection. Far from it. But you do find a way to be okay with the fact that you are not perfect at anything at all—in fact, no one you know or have ever known is. And you know what? Sometimes that fact is downright endearing, whether you’re dealing with yourself or a loved one or the state of the nation. At forty, the vulnerable flesh of the world’s mistakes seems less incomprehensible and more palpable.
This, I believe, is because by the age of forty, a person has had enough experience to be able to define both joy and pain through physical and emotional memory. Sometimes there are scars—physical ones—that you can point to and say, “This is from that time in my twenties…” and then you either tell the story or you don’t, depending on your audience.
Sometimes the scars are deeper, and invisible. By forty, there have been things that you don’t know how to accept, and you’ve accepted them anyway. There have been things that you don’t know how to overcome, and you’ve overcome them anyway. That is the nature of life, and of the human spirit. Stick around long enough—get to the middle—and you’ll find that you know more than you thought you did. Also, you know far less than you thought you did. You live in the middle of the contradictions, every day as you go about the tasks of living, and you carry this awareness with you in your bones, your muscles, your tear ducts, your lungs. Things are not perfect—things will try to break you. So far, they haven’t. That’s more than a good thing—that’s a reason to celebrate. That’s joy right there—being here, today.
By forty, you can measure things in hunks of years—it will take me five years to come to terms with this, you can think. Or you might think of your children and realize that you only have a decade before they’re grown. It is impossible to say only a decade when you are twenty.
These measurements—the increments of joy and pain, played out upon our skin and our hearts—these are the marks of age and experience. They will claim you sometimes, and you will claim them sometimes.
I’ll admit, there are things about forty—about aging—that aren’t my favorite. The bunions and the backaches are no day at the park. And it will be quite some time before I’m ready for my hair to be all silver gray and dignified, no matter what my hair has to say on the matter. (Though I will keep my wrinkles, every one of them, as they appear.) There are days—sometimes many of them in a row, so many they add up to weeks—when the palpable quality of the world’s mistakes, and my own, becomes too familiar, too constant. There are days when I wish for the just-washed, baby blue faith of a morning in my twenties.
I might say it plainly or with resignation or ten other ways on ten different days, but I’m bound to say it now and then: forty isn’t young.
So today, I want to give myself—and anyone else who’s turning forty, about to turn forty, recently turned forty, will someday turn forty, or turned forty a while ago and is now contemplating a new milestone—the gift of redefining the middle as not the beginning, not almost the end, but the bona fide, honest to goodness, smack in the middle middle. In fact, I’d be happy if we could redefine chronological age as a number and not a state of being.
Sometime between today and the day I let my hair go silver gray, I plan to master yoga. This is because the yogis say that the secret to youth is a flexible spine. They believe that a well-cared for body and soul holds chronological age more fluidly than a body that is not stretched, exercised, rested, and connected to peace. And I think they’re right.
As I journey toward an age that is no longer in the middle, I intend to seek a state of being that not only accepts age, but celebrates it. As long as age doesn’t have to include slumpy shoulders, an air of despair, and throwing out half a perfectly good cookie, I’m on board.
Who’s with me?