Monday, August 17, 2009

In praise of the mid-life "crisis"

 
"Girl, what are you having some kind of mid-life crisis or something?"
 
Over dinner and adult beverages, I had just told a friend about my plans to participate in the Run for Congo Women Chicago 5K on Oct. 3. And she had responded by questioning my sanity. Why else would I, who prefers a nice leisurely downward facing dog yoga pose to busting a sweat doing cardio, undertake a 3.2 mile run...on purpose? Must be that my impending *cough* 40th *cough* birthday has sparked some desparate desire to hang on to my youth. Today a 5K, by December I'll be sporting Juicy baby tees and Apple Bottom jeans, texting on my pink, sparkle phone at a Lady Gaga concert.
 
Mid-life crisis...
 
Maybe it's reaching "a certain age" that has made me sensitive, but I loathe that term and the way it is derisively applied to folks older than 35 who refuse to go quietly into that good night. It seems that personal evolution is solely for the very young. By the back end of the 30s, one ought to have settled into whatever version of self your friends and family are comfortable with. Particularly in today's youth-obsessed society where only the young can be daring and adventurous and sexy and fulfilled and interesting, a 40-something pursuing these basic human desires is signaling some sort of distress.
 
If you're 45 and decide to chop off the long, flowing tresses you've worn for decades in favor of a short, funky blonde natural...mid-life crisis.
 
If you're 37 and drop out of your high-powered legal career and become a yoga teacher and Reiki practitioner...mid-life crisis.
 
If you're 42 and ditch a long troubled marriage, becoming a single, ex-pat in a South American country...mid-life crisis.
 
And, apparently, if you're 39 and after a life of relative inactivity decide to become a runner...mid-life crisis.
 
But where's the crisis in changing to honor your true self?
 
Contrary to popular belief, I suspect that really good personal change doesn't happen until middle age. Around 40 is when most people reach the "sweet spot" in their lives--at least I think that I have. After nearly four decades, I know myself in a way that was impossible at, say,19. I am less bound to (or concerned about) others' expectations than I was at 29. I have the disposable income to make more of the things I want happen. I am less fearful. I have more confidence in myself. Also, like a student entering the final two years of her high school career--I know the next years really, really count. In the words of Andy Dufrense, now is the time to "get busy living or get busy dying."
 
I have always admired athletic women. I have always wanted to be one of those women who could jog for miles or hike to the top of a mountain or go kayaking. My desire to be that woman has not changed in 20 years. But back in my early 20s, I would have told you that I was simply not that sort of woman. Hell, I couldn't even ever climb the rope and ring that stupid bell in elementary school gym class. I would have blanched at what other folks would say when they heard that I was running. "What? You?" Now, I will tell you that I can be any sort of woman I want to and screw what anyone thinks about it. This attitude is how I was able to cut off my permed hair and go natural four years ago--another decision I would have been terrified about in my younger years. This attitude is also why I can embrace my nerdy bookishness and my love of rock, pop and alt country. I don't care what black girls usually do. I don't care what women usually do. I don't care about what I usually do. For better or worse, this empowered thinking took me years to cultivate and I don't think I am a rarity among women (and, actually, men either). I think this is why women (and men) sometimes make drastic changes as they enter mid-life--because they finally have the confidence to do the things they have long wanted to do, but have not.
 
I've been listening to "Age is Just a Number" by Dara Torres, the swimmer who won an Olympic gold medal in Beijing last year at 41 years old. It is interesting to hear Torres' experiences coming back (twice) to the world of competitive swimming where an "old" athlete might well be in her 20s. I especially love the book's opening paragragh:
 
I've been old before. I was old when I was 27 and I got divorced. I was old when I was 35 and I couldn't get pregnant. I was really old when I was 39 and my father died. but when I was 41 and I woke up in a dorm in the Olympic Village in Beijing, I didn't feel old. I felt merely--and, yes, happily--middle-aged. "The water doesn't know how old you are..."
 
True. And when I'm running, the road doesn't know that I'm the kid who invariably came in last in gym class races. The road doesn't know that I am soon-to-be-40 either. Only I know these things and I don't care. There is nothing to keep me from doing this thing or most of the other things I have long wanted to do, but me--societal conventions be damned.
 
Career changes...tattoos...new athletic pursuits...You may call finally acknowleging and pursuing your deepest desires a "crisis." I call it an "awakening"--a decision to "get busy living" instead of the alternative, and a recognition that "old" is just a state of mind.
 

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