woman of a certain age 2 (thoughts on being 50)

I made a promise to myself around this time last year that I would not allow negative stereotypes about being a middle-aged mama frame my future revolutions around the sun. I can say that promise felt 100% doable on the day that I turned 50. And not so easy in the year I spent actually being 50.

I’ve had to work harder than I’d thought I would at keeping this promise to myself in the past year. Societal ageism has snaked around the corner in unexpected ways despite my determination to smite that nasty little sucker. My own biology waged war on me for months. My natural Pisces sensitivity morphed into rapid-fire crankiness at the strangest times. My usual ‘live and let live’ demeanour was stealth-shadowed by a ‘come at me, bro’ attitude, followed by a chaser of regret/fear that I wasn’t ‘nice’ anymore. I was also surprised to experience with some intensity the growing perception that I was quickly moving into past-my-prime time.

All of this in a year? Yup. It’s been an interesting journey. It was a struggle at times to keep my head above it, to find the silver linings. Now – at 51 – I can look back and recognize a few lessons I’ve (re)(re)(re)learned during my year of being 50.

1. Don’t go there.
I believe that we teach people how to treat us. So when I make fun of my various wrinkles, achy joints, flabby this and greying that, I am telling people that it’s okay to laugh at my vulnerability. So I’m really trying not to go there because it just sets me up to feel shame. Instead, I’ve been working on the self-affirming practice of taking a like in the mirror. When it works, it’s a beautiful thing.

2. Go ahead and wear purple. Add some pig tails while you’re at it.
Jenny Joseph wrote a poem a while back called Warning that included a great line about wearing purple and rocking red hats. What has this meant for me in the past year of ‘being 50’?  To stop wasting time on what I think other people might be thinking. ’Cause they’re probably not thinking anything at all. If they are, I try to practice #4 below.

3. Protect this house.
This is what happens at middle age’. More than one health-care practitioner said this to me with great sympathy in the past year. The implication is that I need to accept that there will be a train of ailments chugging by, doling out arthritis, osteoporosis, frozen shoulders, failing vision, hotter flashes, mood swings, weight gain, etc. Gah. Get OUT of here. You won’t see me waving the white flag. Geez, I’m only 50! I can live vibrantly. I will exercise, eat well, hydrate and push myself out of my comfort zone. Not while I can, but because I can.

4. Let.It.Go.
I simply do not want to ruminate on things that I can’t control or that truly have nothing to do with me. So I’m working on practicing loving detachment every day and in every part of my life. Let it Be (thank you, Beatles) and Let it Go (thank you, Frozen) are mini-mantras that remind me to focus on what matters and, more importantly, to be a better version of myself.

5. Shoulda-coulda-woulda can take a hike.
There’s very likely more road behind me than what lies ahead. This caused me to feel THE PANIC rise around all of the things I could/should/would have done with all of that lovely road. Gentle self-reflection has (re)assured me that regret of this kind is pointless. Who knows what’s ahead? In the absence of a crystal ball, I might as well believe that it’s going to be sweet.

The most important truth that has come to me is that happiness is an active choice. It isn’t waiting for me to arrive at a certain age. It’s something I get to choose every day. It’s something I want to choose every day. It’s what I’m for, always.

Take a like in the mirror: selfie-reflections on beauty

IMG_3797 IMG_3795

I took these photos this summer, trying to capture an especially heartfull moment with my daughter. We were in Wateron Lakes National Park, truly my favourite place on this earth and possibly one of the windiest places on the planet. It was so windy that my nine-pound pup was in a continual state of lift-off. We were walking head-first into gusts that were easily 100+ km an hour. Even the trees were groaning. We could hardly breathe. It was ridiculous to be outside in that weather but we couldn’t stop the laughter. It was THE awesome.

My heart was bursting with it all. I hadn’t had a lot of those kinds of moments with her in the past year or two. I wanted to hold onto its sweetness, put it in a bottle and cherish it. In the absence of a bottle, however, I used my phone. I took these selfies. Joy captured on a  4-inch screen. Hilarious, wild, perfectly happy, savour-it-forever joy.

In the weeks that followed, I would occasionally look at the photos and smile at the memory. From my phone screen, they were the loveliness to me. I loved our smiles, our squinty expressions bringing back the memory of the wind that burned our eyes and took our breath away. I was moved by our mother-daughter similarities. I loved everything about it.

A few weeks after that, as fall settled in and I felt myself longing for the easy days of summer, I decided to make one of the Waterton photos my Facebook profile pic. But on a 15-inch screen, the image evoked a different feeling. Instead of joy, I felt shock. And these thoughts:

Ack! Look at the wrinkles! And the bags under my eyes. The chins!
What’s happened to my face? I don’t want anyone to see this.
Think! Quick! Delete! Delete! Delete!

I quickly swapped in a different photo as my profile pic, but before I could delete the McWrinkled version of me, people had ‘liked’ it. They were commenting on it, offering really lovely words. How could I delete this monstrosity now? Oh, balls. 

How could this photo, which moments before had made me smile now fill me with such utter embarrassment? Instead of seeing our similarities and remembering our joy, I saw only evidence of my daughter’s obvious beauty and confirmation of middle-aged, wrinkled me. Now instead of wishing I could hold onto that moment forever, I was cursing myself for sharing it.

Sounds incredibly vain, I know. Forgive me. I was a little disappointed in myself, too.

What was all this self-inflicted shame about? I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’m 50. I’m good with it. Right? It’s just a number. Blah-dee-blah-blah. Based on my vain reaction, I obviously am not as good with it as I’d thought. Crap.

As I reflected on all of this, I was reminded of a program I’d listened to years before on CBC Radio. The interviewer had spoken with women at various decades in their lives, from their 20’s to their 70’s. All of them, without exception, admitted that when they looked back on photos of themselves taken in the previous decade, they saw their unmistakable beauty. Whereas when they’d looked at the same photo when it had been taken, they’d wanted to burn it or bury it at the bottom of a trunk somewhere. 

The pearl of wisdom for me at that time was how important it is to appreciate your beauty as a woman today, right now at whatever age you are. This is clearly easier said than done. But the truth is, I do look back at photos of myself that had filled me with confidence-busting doubt at the time and think, ‘Wow. You were really pretty back then.’ Back then. Isn’t that sad?

So I have decided to turn this whole photo she-bangness into something I’m for rather than something I want to delete from the annals of my digital footprint forever. I also want to model something much healthier for my daughters, who are already looking at themselves in the mirror and telling themselves that they are either too much or not enough. 

We may live in a looks-obsessed and ageist society, but I don’t have to embrace it. This starts with telling myself a different story about myself. I want to go beyond looking in the mirror. I want to go beyond acknowledging my superficial appearance. I want to look in the mirror (or at a photograph) and recognize in myself what is easy for me to see in others: beauty. And I want to like it.

I want to make it a daily practice to say ‘Hello beautiful’ when I see myself rather than ‘Ugh. What’s happened to you, you wrinkly old broad?’

I think I’ll call it liking in the mirror. It’s going to take work, but I’m totally for it.

woman of a certain age (thoughts on turning 50)

So I am 3 weeks shy of wrapping up my fourth decade.  Yup. I am turning the big five-oh. Big deal. I’m not bothered by the idea of ‘getting older’. I don’t look back and wish I was younger or that I’d made more of my youth. As far as I’m concerned I’m still youthful. So is my mom. And she’s 78.

There is something about approaching this milestone that does bother me, though: other women who are also approaching this milestone who aren’t happy about it. This sounds aggressive, so please let me explain.

There seem to be two primary schools of thought on ‘getting older’ among my female compadres: the school that finds incredulous hilarity in chin-hairs, bifocals and hot flashes and the school that shrouds the whole experience in shame.

I am mostly closely aligned with the former group. In fact, at my ‘book club’ we are far more likely to share side-splitting stories about our various girly-journeys than we are to talk about the book we’ve chosen. Even the gals in their 20’s and 30’s pee their pants a little at how funny life can be when you’re approaching 50.  Which tells me that a leaky bladder is more about a good laugh than it is about aging. Turning 50 is the farthest thing from tragic and planets away from shame.

But more and more frequently, I find myself being sent not-so-subtle invitations to adopt a more fatalistic view on ‘getting older’. While I might (maybe) expect that of someone much younger who has yet to hone his/her sensitivity chip, I find it mind-blowing when other ‘women my age’ include me in their passive-aggressive, ageist insults. Here are some recent examples.

I was making a purchase but couldn’t find my debit card. Flustered, I pulled out a different card, muttering something about being disorganized. The gal processing my order smiled sweetly and said, ‘It’s hard getting older, isn’t it? We’re just losing our marbles.’ We? Getting older? Marbles? No. I just left my debit card in my car.

I was doing a little shopping in a clothing store. I happened to look up and caught the eye of a woman on the other side of the rack. I smiled. She smiled back. It was all perfectly pleasant until she said, ‘Look at us. Shopping for old-lady clothes.’  WHAT? First of all, what are old lady clothes? And second of all … well, there are no words, really. What a ridiculous thing to say.

I went to a  birthday gathering for a friend. She might be mid-50s. I don’t know. Who cares? She was talking about how hard it is to be getting older. I was listening sympathetically as she listed her aches, pains and general ailments. The sympathy came to a screeching halt when she told me to prepare myself for the worst of it: ‘After you turn 50, you pretty much disappear as a woman. It’s like you become irrelevant.’ She punctuated her story with a laugh. While I am deeply sorry that this has been her experience, I don’t really believe that as of March 11th, 2014 I will cease to be interesting or visible to the entire world.

I was having lunch with my beautiful pre-teen daughters. A woman at a near-by table mentioned how lovely they were. I smiled in agreement and then froze as she added: ‘You’d better enjoy them now before all of your various hormones kick in.’ All of our various hormones kick in? Nice. I looked back at her with my most emotionless ‘passport face’. But inside I seethed with hurt and humiliation. Why was it necessary for her to say that to me?

I’ve left my favourite to the last. Hold on to your hats because you’re going to love this one.

At the close of a recent public event that I happened to be leading, a member of the audience waited around to talk with me. She was complimentary about the event and thanked me, etc. Then just before walking away, almost as an afterthought, she lobbed this my way: “Hey, you look really pretty in that dress. Quite sexy, actually. I thought you might like to know that. Because women of our age don’t get complimented on our looks very often any more.’ Ummmmm. Seriously? Wow. She hit her target because I swam around in self-doubt for days after that conversation.

In spite of these beseeching invitations to approach ‘middle age’ with fear and shame-cloaked stereotypes, I’m not gonna do it. Because it is NOT what I’m for.  Allowing other women’s negative experiences to frame my journey into ‘middle age’ makes me feel small and fearful of the future. It makes me uncertain of my role as a woman, a professional, a wife and a mother. I reject the stereotypes completetely. In fact, I heartily fling them into the abyss. Good riddance.

I am going to approach fifty with joy and aplomb – with glee, even. Yes, I know  I’ll have a growing number of chin hairs to pluck but time isn’t my enemy as a woman. It may give my body the patina of age, but all of the experiences that will carry me into my fifth decade have made my mind richer, my heart warmer and my view of my fellow humans much gentler.

Way (way) back in the day when I was a mere 39 years old  (a pup really) I read this quote by Carol Matthau in an ‘O Magazine’: ‘There is no old age. There is, as there always was, just you.’

Yup. I am just me. I am exactly what I need to be – chin hair, bifocals, hot flashes and all. And that is what I’m for in every decade. Well maybe not the chin hair, etc. But being ‘me’ isn’t such a bad deal, whatever age I happen to be.