“My heart is not any age. It is a baby, an elder, a dog, a cat, divine.”
— Anne Lamott, ‘This is the last Saturday of my fifties’
Two years ago, thanks to a friend, I stumbled on the fact that writer Anne Lamott and I were born on the same day. We were both about to turn sixty. Since I like her writing, and her attitude, and since I share a lot of the same attitude, I’ve found it quite helpful to share my birthday with her. If I’m stuck for thoughts about life, I can look up some of hers, and find that we’ve often reached the same conclusions.
When I was trying to come up with a title for this post that summed up how I feel about being sixty-two, I remembered the above quote. People sometimes say that the key to growing older is to be young at heart, but I find that notion inadequate. Sometimes I feel young at heart, like when I’m laughing with friends, or singing to my cat, or drawing for hours on end, or marveling at the wonders of the universe. But sometimes, I need to be old at heart, old in wisdom, old in lessons learned, old in kindness and compassion, old in perspective. I distinctly remember feeling old at heart when I was seven, and facing another example of my mother’s mental illness. Feeling old enough not to take her craziness personally kept me sane.
I was sixteen around the time the above photo was taken. It was not a sweet sixteen. I was struggling, like every teenager, with that roiling stew of hormones, self-consciousness, and insecurity. But I also realized I was drowning in depression, and my friends were worried about me. With good reason. My parents were fighting nearly all the time, hurling threats about leaving each other as soon as I was out of high school. If I’d had anywhere to go, I might have left home there and then, just to call their bluff. I’d also fallen deeply in love in that mind/body/soul way for the first time, and then been abandoned after several months without explanation. I was shattered. But I was still resourceful. I found out about a health clinic in Harvard Square in Cambridge, at the other end of the train line from where I lived, that offered free counseling services. I decided to get some.
Among the mostly young, mostly nervous souls in the waiting room was a friendly, suspiciously cheerful young man who struck up a conversation. He was tall, blond, long-haired and buff, kind of rock-star hunky, but he didn’t act like he thought he was god’s gift. He was just a sweet dude who, I’m pretty sure, was high on weed, but was nonetheless engaging and unassuming. I think his name was Kevin. We shot the shit about music and life and what-all until he was called in for his appointment. A few minutes later, I was called in for mine. When the counselor sat me down and asked me what was wrong, I cried wordlessly for about ten minutes straight. That was my baptism in the arduous, cathartic ways of psychotherapy. When my fifty-minute visit was done, and we’d made another appointment, I felt wrung out but lighter. And a little less alone.
As I left the clinic and walked toward the subway station, Kevin was coming toward me from the opposite direction. “Hey!” he said, raising his arms in greeting like I was an old friend. “Hey, yourself!” I said, smiling. Before we could, presumably, resume our previous conversation, he caught me up in his arms, bent me over backwards, and laid a long, passionate, enthusiastic kiss on me. A serious lip-locker. A literal traffic-stopper. Even my toes tingled. Drivers honked their horns. Pedestrians applauded. My life became a scene from a movie. When Kevin was finished, he righted me, told me to have a fantastic day, and strolled away. I stood there, breathless, not sure whether I should run as fast as I could to the subway or turn around and go after him. I like to think wisdom prevailed, and I decided instead to get myself a chocolate-chip ice cream cone at a nearby Brigham’s. I sat in the sun while I ate it, smiling at life’s mysteries. I never saw Kevin again, but that was okay. I didn’t need to.
“You wandered down the lane and far away
Leaving me a song that will not die.”
from “Stardust,” lyrics by Mitchell Parish, song by Hoagy Carmichael
A lot of my life has been like that day, rife with heartache and struggle, but punctuated by some moment of astounding balm and unexpected clarity. Recently, I was treating a young woman who was recovering from a complicated orthopedic surgery. We had a lot in common. We both worked in science-based professions, but liked to write and make art. One day, she was talking about the pressure she felt since turning thirty to figure out what to do next in her life. She loved her job, for which she got paid to write, and her employers were kind and accommodating. But she felt unsatisfied. Like me, she had an undergrad degree in the humanities, but wondered if she should she go back to school and get a science degree. But in what? She loved art, too, but would it make sense to get an art degree and not be able to get a job in it? She had a boyfriend she loved, but didn’t know how she felt about the whole marriage/kids thing. She also suspected that recovering from surgery left her with too much time to think and that perhaps she was driving herself crazy, something she was only too good at doing. Still, she worried that she had wasted too much time just falling into things without a clear game plan.
I told her how I’d felt the same way at her age, how I think that our thirties are like that, a decade when we feel pressure to figure out this adulthood thing once and for all, and get a move on. Then I told her how I felt like I’d always been a late bloomer, but that it turned out to be a good thing in the long run. I told her how I’d spent my twenties, trying on and discarding several identities and potential career options, from rock star to painter to poet to magazine editor to would-be academic. I told her how I’d ended up deciding to go to grad school to become a physical therapist, and didn’t finish my degree until I was forty. I told her how, at fifty, I finally spent some serious time making art, got into a lot of juried art shows, and won awards for my photography. I told her about starting a blog, teaching myself to write code, breaking into Photoshop’s mysterious depths and using it to create a few infamous memes, and finally landing a side gig getting paid to write now and then for a healthcare website.
“Holy crap!” she said. “How old are you?”
“I’m going to be sixty-two in a few weeks.”
“Shut UP!!” she said. “First of all, you so don’t look it. Or act like it. Wow. You don’t know how much better this makes me feel. I’ve got all kinds of time, don’t I?”
Today, on our birthday, Anne Lamott re-posted something she’d shared on Facebook on last year’s birthday:
“Everyone is screwed up, broken, clingy, and scared, even the people who seem to have it more or less together. They are much more like you than you would believe. So try not to compare your insides to their outsides.”
Amen to that. My insides and outsides still bear the marks that cancer has indelibly left behind. Last year, right before my annual physical, I decided to try yet another strategy to see if I could kick more of this beast I’ve been living with ever since treatment, the beast known as fatigue, a little closer to the curb. Trust me — I’ve tried everything in the last seven-and-a-half years. This time, I decided to try to eliminate most of the sugar I was consuming. Not that I consumed a lot, but I’d been relying a bit too much on a mid-morning muffin to give me enough of a rush to get through the rest of my patient visits, and a post-work cookie or three to get me through my patient notes. I wondered if I’d feel better if I stopped spiking my energy level with sugar, only to have it plummet later on. So, I stopped eating desserts — muffins, ice cream, cake, pie, Dare Chocolate Crème cookies. I still ate a little dark chocolate every day, but none of that other stuff, except as a rare treat. Long story short, since last June, I’ve lost that last ten pounds of post-cancer-treatment weight-gain I never thought I’d get rid of. And yes, my energy has evened out. I still need naps, and I still need my days off to recuperate from my job, but I feel much more like my old self.
I also decided to start letting my silver hair grow out. I took a long, hard look at my roots, which now appear to be about half silver, enough finally to make a statement. So, at last week’s appointment, my splendid hairdresser stripped the color from a massive pile of strands, toned them silver, and left my roots to do what they will. Part of me wishes I could have Emmy Lou Harris’s hair right away, and be all silver. But I realize this is a long-term project. A lot like life.
There’s a lesson in all this about growing into myself — reclaiming some of my old self, embracing my present self, preparing for my future self. One of my best friends called me last night to talk to me “while you’re still sixty-one.” I told her I was looking forward to being sixty-two. She asked me why. I told her I didn’t know really, but I just wanted to be myself, whoever that is. I told her how wonderful and symbolic it was to be able to fit into some of my old, favorite clothes again. I told her about that thirtyish young woman I’d visited, and how I’d described to her that my being a late bloomer had allowed me to do all kinds of amazing things long after being thirty. I told her how she’d said I’d helped her feel better about herself, and how I realized that telling her my own story made me feel better about myself, too.
“Who knows what I’ll do next?” I said to my friend. “But for now, I just want to be fabulous at being sixty-two.”
That’s enough. That’s plenty.