On Still Caring After 40

Like most kids, when I was small, say nine or ten, if I thought about myself after age 30 or so, it was as an ancient and wise old lady who’d figured everything out and spent her time writing brilliant novels and dispensing advice to heads of state about matters of philosophy and children’s rights. I thought I’d have six or seven kids who adored me and did my bidding, and a darkly handsome husband who played piano and wore combat fatigues. I thought I’d be rich and know how to garden. My hair would be grey and I wouldn’t care, and I’d command fear and respect. So alright, this may not be every nine year old’s idea of middle-aged accomplishment, but it was, briefly, mine. Oh, and I pictured myself using a typewriter. In the garden. Who could have known I’d be banging out blog posts at six in the morning on a ten-inch tablet while stirring the porridge?

Somehow, and maybe paradoxically, I imagined that life as an adult was lived on a flat plane, that there’d be nothing left for me to learn, or worry about, or get excited about. That I’d speak in the modulated tones of the unruffled grownup who just doesn’t give a shit anymore, unless it’s about enforcing the rules. Adults were doomed to flab and poor muscle tone, they ate food that didn’t taste very good and made really boring conversation about taxes. It turns out the latter is uniformly true, but in no way reflects on anyone’s character; we all have to think about taxes but, except when we’re being audited, they don’t define our lives.

When I turned forty, all hell briefly broke loose in my psyche. I got whiplash from the double take I did in the mirror, recalling my mother’s forced march into middle age, her horror at having to cross the Rubicon. To her, entering middle age was the beginning of the end, a terrible loss of dignity, but more importantly, of hope. A product of what even back in the 50s would still have been a somewhat retrograde view of feminine destiny, a strong sense of maternal duty toward her five children, and a husband whose career benefitted to an unusual degree from a spouse who channelled her own talents towards him, she found herself at the cusp of middle age without a sense of accomplishment, or money and accolades of her own. I don’t think she’d ever read The Feminine Mystique, which is a pity because it came out while she was still young enough to change the course of her future. She was a complex woman and wedded also to notions of duty and self-sacrifice that may have come from her Methodist father (unlikely, actually, as he’d been a circus performer before the crash of ’29, and thus presumably acquainted with the notion of following one’s bliss), or perhaps just from other books that lay to hand, or maybe it was just innate.

She was a fabulous mother, lapsing only when tensions between her and my father became unbearable, a state of affairs that really settled in with the years. At one point her therapist advised her to break crockery when she felt the rage brewing (better then breaking a certain someone’s skull, we supposed). Fortunately she only broke the lunch plates, so we still had the dinner plates to eat on. She always regained mastery over herself, and excelled in the stylish maternal art of epistolary advice. She also returned to university around this time, to her children’s pride and relief, mixed with the selfish chagrin of kids who’ve grown up with a mother who’s always been there, waiting for the school bus with a snack and all sorts of questions and comments and bustling love and purpose.

Anyway, back to my own experience of turning 40. Or should I skip ahead to the good part? This story is beginning to drag a bit, isn’t it. You’re not fooled by the jolly tone; my mother’s pain is still all too fresh for me. Got it. You’ll be glad to know that all the above was context and by way of comparison, because what I have discovered of late, the big secret my father knew and my mother actually began to grasp toward the end, was that life… doesn’t end at 40. You might think it will, you might have been preparing yourself mentally for the slow decline, or the abrupt loss of fun, of sex, of muscle tone, freedom, idealism, juice or what have you, but that’s just not what happens. You wake up one morning, on the other side of forty, and you’ve got something exciting on your agenda that day. It might be a blog post you want to write, or a job interview, or a concert in the park, or the return of your children from camp, a yoga class or even a date. A date. A new lover.

Oh, maybe I should have led with this. Desire, the great motivator. Sex, nature’s simplest tool for jumpstarting a life. Love, the element that binds us to others, and in connecting us to another soul, gives form to life and infuses work with joy and purpose. My father once told me, life is all about the work you do. He meant that a life without purposeful work was no life at all. Not being of a philosophical bent he was less interested in Socrates’s admonishment regarding the unexamined life. And as I discovered shortly after I turned 40, I am my father’s daughter too. My father’s death around that time left a giant vacuum in my life. Nature abhors a vacuum, (and life, even under the saddest of circumstances, usually wants to be lived) and quickly supplied a new source of energy. My father began his second act at my age – one that lasted over thirty years and was bursting right up to his last painful months with purpose, ambition and yes, love.

I found love. I created more of it. I am filled to overflowing with love for my children, for my lover, for all the projects I plan to do. How and when it will end I can’t say. But I do know that life most certainly does not end at 40.

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