Inevitably when I talk about how I'm baffled to find myself over 50 and middle-aged, someone comes up with that old saw about "we're middle-aged if people live to be 110," which might be true but isn't what I mean.
They mean we're already over the hill and almost under it.
I mean I can't believe I'm over 50 but still feel like I have my life ahead of me even though I've already had a lot of it. My curiosity grows with each year and I feel like the more I learn, the more I realize how little I know.
I mean we're in the middle section of our years, however long that middle lasts. Like that bud that's already blossomed but looks fresh and smells sweeter than ever. Like a roast that's not raw, not rare; nicely done on the outside, but has a lot of time on the clock before it's truly overcooked.
We're in the tasty bit where the juices are flowing and flavors start to get interesting.
Both my husband and I have grandmothers who lived to be over 100. Almost 105 in his grandmother Elizabeth's case, a life lived through the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. She used to say if she'd known at age 75 that she was less than three-quarters of the way through, she would have made more of an effort to keep herself mobile. Still, she threw wild afternoon parties until she was into her mid-90s.
My grandmother Helen passed a couple weeks shy of her 101st birthday. Unlike my husband's grandmother, she took her doctor's advice and began regular exercise in her 60s to avoid what her doctor said was in her immediate future: A heart attack. So she started walking, every day, first a mile, then two, and once she stopped working, she worked her way up to four and then lived another 40 years. She spent the next decades traveling, including a visit to our home in France when she was 89.
I asked my grandmother once which decade she thought was the best. She was 96 at the time. According to her, life got really good in her 50s. The best it had ever been. "You finally grasp all you can do in life." Then the 60s came along, and she thought things couldn't get any better. "You know yourself, and don't care what other people think." Then came the 70s, and that decade put the others to shame. "You really start to understand what it's all about."
Later? "After my early 80s the physical stuff started to slow me down, but they were pretty good, too."
This from a woman who lived through two world wars, the Depression when she didn't have two nickels to rub together, and who lost two husbands and a daughter, my mother.
What I'm saying is, how we define middle age has less to do with the chronology of how much longer we have to go then it does with how we decide to spend it.
The big scares have been, mostly, faced at least a couple of times, but we're still standing.
Failure isn't as daunting because we've experienced it and gotten through it. Loss is that thing you don't get over but learn to live with, like an mewling kitten that needs attention before it can go back to sleep.
Joy and laughter and friendship are what we embrace and celebrate because we know they don't necessarily last forever. We know not to take them for granted.
I'm always surprised when I hear friends my age sound world-weary or fed up, like they've seen and done it all. That's an attitude for the kids, who don't yet know just how fast this ride goes and that there's no replay button.
I was more cynical in my 20s than I am now, and I don't miss how the anticipation of the new was always tinged with the anxiety of getting something wrong. The only things I really miss about youth are skin elasticity, my natural hair color, and a higher metabolism.
Losing curiosity in middle-age is such a waste. It's like having a one-time-only, all-day ticket to the park of your dreams, starting the day wanting to see every sight and do every activity, only to decide shortly after lunch that you've seen enough and want to sit in the café to wait for closing time. Even if you spent the first part of the day only visiting a small corner of the park.
So a couple of the rides didn't live up to their reputation, and you could see the paint peeling on that one display? But what about the thrill of that acrobatics show, the one without any nets? And how about that waterfall with the rainbow?
I don't know about you, but I want to visit the parts of the park I haven't seen yet, the ones that might not even be on my existing map.