There are advantages to aging, my friends tell me. Think of all the stupid little things you no longer worry about. I nod and laugh, but I wonder if this is true. It doesn’t seem to me as though I have let anything go.
I meet my friend at the bar I haven’t been to in some time. The menu has changed. The bartender. I ask this new one about his predecessor. “Gone,” he says. “I’m the only guy here.” I explain to him that the old bartender – we’ll call him Ken – would see me through the glass door on my way in and start mixing my cocktail. He nods slowly. “But what if you wanted something else, you know, for a change?” I have no way to answer this so I just laugh out loud instead.
It’s not really true, what I say about Ken. He’d always ask as I sat down. Why would I lie?
It’s still a few minutes before E. arrives. When she gets there, we hug. We talk about writing projects. Things we are reading. We talk about aging. I tell her of my resistance. My childish insistence on denying its realities.
“I don’t know why I am fighting this,” I tell her. “I think I should embrace it.”
“You are supposed to learn to love it,” she says. “Love your pain, love your struggle.” She spreads her arms out wide to demonstrate.
“I feel like I am just angry all the time,” I say.
“Maybe you can learn to love that, too?”
My mother was forty-two when she married. Forty-five by the time I arrived, a pre-packaged, fully-formed toddler. Had she given birth to me, it would have been at forty-two, the age I will turn this fall. It is difficult to imagine having a child now. Not only the physical demands pregnancy and childbirth would make on the body, but that sense of starting again. Of such intense attention and care. Of being completely consumed by the endless tasks of early parenting, the constant vigilance, the sleeplessness. Those early months of being beholden to the needs of this small creature with whom there is no reasoning, for whom there are no real boundaries of time or between bodies. I am very aware of infants when I see them – out walking or traveling. In restaurants and parks. I am drawn to their smallness, the stab of nostalgia for a particular kind of fantasy of motherhood, but I also feel such relief. Not me, I think. Not me.
And yet the fact of it – that I might no longer be able to choose not to have a child, that my body will in fact render such questions irrelevant – is a bit of a blow. Like the early waking, like the constant irritation, like the heaviness I feel in myself, it is an undeniable reminder that my body is changing, has in fact always been changing. That from the moment of my birth has been marching me toward its inevitable conclusion. I am not yet ready to love this.
The year I turned forty, I found myself pulsing white hot. I was alive to my body, attuned to its desires in ways that were startling, unsettling. I was a raw animal, an exposed nerve. Fierce hungers. I explained this to a friend of mine who laughed and said, “Oh that is just your body’s last gasp before menopause.” I was unable to speak to her for days.
I tell my friend that I am going to try to embrace the struggle. Love it, as E. suggests. “Why would you do that,” she asks. “I have always known you to be a fighter. Why give up now?”
I suppose it might be a fair question, but also not an uncomplicated one. “Maybe I’m tired?”
“No. You are the most tireless woman I know,” she says. This strikes me as the kindest thing she could have said. Something I did not know I needed to hear.
The year before I turned forty, I met a writer – an older man who had recently retired from decades of high school teaching – and we maintained a sporadic correspondence for a few months after the seminar we had been in together ended. I expressed to him some of my earliest anxieties about turning forty. Some weeks later, a book arrived from him. It was called Forty: The Age and the Symbol, written by an anthropologist about the cultural invention of the so-called midlife crisis. It traced the traditional and mythological meanings of the number forty, and scanned literary and historical texts for the appearance of the number, the symbol. Assembled the references and evidence to conclude that our understanding of it – the number, the age – has changed over time and will continue to. Intended, I think, to provide some relief to the middle-aged. To suggest that maybe these years of mid life are not so limiting as we might think.
I thanked this friend for sending it, pointed out all that I found interesting and notable in it. I did not tell him that the book did nothing to explain the madness I felt living in my own skin.
In Anne Carson’s “The Glass Essay,” the speaker is struggling through the end of a love affair. She visits her mother and her ailing father and reads Emily Bronte. She describes a series of visions that come to her while she attempts to make meaning of this time. There are thirteen visions in all. The piece concludes with the last of these. I read it as a kind of passing from the fierce clutch of a thing to perhaps what might be an embrace:
I saw a high hill and on it a form shaped against hard air.
It could have been just a pole with some old cloth attached,
But as I came closer
I saw it was a human body
trying to stand against winds so terrible that the flesh was blowing off
And there was no pain.
was cleansing the bones.
They stood forth silver and necessary.
It was not my body, not a woman’s body, it was the body of us all.
It walked out of the light.