A few weeks ago, my teenage daughter was going through some old boxes stored in the garage and came upon a journal I wrote in 1989. That was the year, when I was 39, that I took a break from life as I knew it: Ended a toxic relationship, rented out the house, left the dog with friends and volunteered in the Israel Army. I went off on a journey to lose myself and instead wound up finding a new path for my life.
But the part of the journal my daughter focused on was the last page. After about a year out of the country, I spent the long plane ride home carefully crafting a list of things I wanted to do with the rest of my life. It wasn't so much a bucket list as a promise to myself to get over some fears, stop making excuses, and prioritize not just my time but my values. Here are five things from that list that I did after I turned 50.
1) Became a mom.
You didn't see that one coming, did you? You were expecting that I'd say sky-diving or something stupid and crazy like that. No, I don't do stupid or crazy.
We brought that journal-snooping now-teenage daughter home from China on my 53rd birthday; she was 5.5 years old and we bonded in the six seconds it took her to break free of her nanny's grip and run into my waiting arms. She was my first child; her brother was adopted from China two years later when he was 4.5 years old and I was 55. If I may kvell, they are both A students, star athletes, well-adjusted kids who we love to pieces. And we are deeply involved parents. I believe the connection between those two sentences is not a coincidence.
I also believe that you are never too old to love a child. Others may say you become too old to parent and I certainly don't encourage anyone of any age who is too infirm to raise a child to attempt it. But age and infirmity aren't synonymous. To anyone considering adoption -- especially if you are considering older and special needs kids -- don't let anyone make your family decisions for you, least of all Internet strangers.
2) Married a good man.
Let's face it, marrying a bad man -- or woman -- is much easier. We date inappropriate or emotionally inaccessible people with the hope that we can change them once they recognize our wonderfulness and how much they love us. Yeah, right. Love doesn't turn someone into a nicer person who doesn't lie and cheat even though they've lied and cheated in every relationship up until now.
I believe that nice guys should finish first, not last. But I didn't always live by my words; I spent decades chasing bad boys. Today I cringe when the first question a friend asks about a potential date is his height. Another friend wants to know whether he's bald; she "hates" balding men. It baffles me why people don't pick mates for the real stuff they bring to the table: how they treat you and others, whether they "get" you, what are their values and personal ethics.
I am technically fudging a little in adding this one to the list because I married my good man on the eve of my 50th birthday. I knew that my far-flung friends would only make one trip to California that year and I wanted them to witness my wedding more than celebrate what was just another birthday with me. In fact, I spent my birthday honeymooning in Kauai. I was in my favorite place with my favorite guy.
3) Learned Transcendental Meditation.
I came of age in the 1960s and even spent time in Berkeley, yet somehow TM never came on my radar screen. Sometimes, you just have to be ready to accept enlightenment. Me? I'm still not convinced that inner peace is within my grasp and mostly just hope to handle stress better. Learning to meditate was on that list my daughter found and it reminded me that I was -- and am -- willing to try it. I just had my first class today.
The older I get, the more open I am to things that have been around a long time. TM has its roots in ancient India. For me, the hard part comes in putting aside my cynicism and opening my head to something outside the box I draw for myself. Once my head opens, the heart follows.
I didn't get my mantra yet and when I do, I won't be able to share it with you. That's the tradition, I learned today. But I do promise to share the fact that I alleviated some stress from my brain.
4) Learned to swim.
I grew up in Newark, N.J. without convenient access to a community pool or the ocean. I never learned to swim. Fast forward to the community swimming classes that I enrolled both my kids in. I was sitting on the pool's edge watching them one day and asked the college-age instructor if she thought I was a hopeless case. "Let's find out," she said.
So yes, I learned to swim when I was post 50. I can swim the length of the pool and if I were in a boat that capsized, I believe I could tread water until someone rescued me. Swimming, even in my limited fashion, has opened up doors for me. I love to snorkel, surf and have gone on a few shallow dives -- all with the newfound confidence that I won't drown. But what I didn't learn was how to swim strictly for pleasure, not just survival. I get pangs of envy whenever I see a lap swimmer pull herself out of the pool with a look of having just done her body and mind a wonderful service.
5) Stopped being afraid of haircuts
When I was about six, my mother cut my hair in a scalp-hugging pixie style. It may have looked adorable to her, but it kind of scarred me for life, at least when it came to getting haircuts. That was the last time I let anyone near my hair with a scissors for decades. I wore my hair long and parted down the middle and that was that. At the time of my journal-writing, it sat below my waist.
At age 52, I got a significant hair cut. They put it up in a ponytail and in one snip, I made a donation to a make-a-wig charity. I've made my peace with shorter hair now and even do layers and flirt with bangs every once in a while. When the hairdresser asks "what are we doing today?" I always answer "whatever you want." I can do this because it no longer matters, and that's been pretty liberating.
I am more than my hair, the length of my hair, the color of my hair. Not being afraid to change my appearance comes from a place of confidence that I probably lacked for most of my 30s. Can letting it go gray be far behind? Actually, it could be.