This is 56: I Respond to My Own Questionnaire

"I feel as if I’ve lived life out of order, maturity-wise."

From the time I was 10, I’ve been obsessed with what it means to grow older. I’m curious about what it means to others, of all ages, and so I’ve started “The Oldster Questionnaire.”
Here, I respond to my own questions. - Sari Botton

It’s me, at 56. I took this selfie lying down because that’s the position I’ve found myself in most often lately, as I slowly recover from mono. I turned my head to the side to a) avoid glare on my glasses, and b) keep you from seeing two zits that have taken up residency on the right side of my face. (At my age! Wrinkles *and* pimples! Imagine that.)

How old are you? 

56

Is there another age you associate with yourself in your mind? If so, what is it? And why, do you think?  

In my mind’s eye I’m 10 or 11, except for when I’m 16, or 35. I suppose those are all ages at which key events took place in my life, shaping me irreversibly, rooting me in those times. When I flash to an image of myself, though, it’s usually me at 10 or 11. 

Obviously that’s an age at which a shift in maturity occurs for a lot of kids. In a profile-writing class I’m teaching, I recently had students read Susan Orlean’s masterful 1992 Esquire piece, “The American Man at Age 10,” in which she cites research indicating that 10 is a turning point for boys. But even as a girl, I remember feeling a big shift in awareness between fourth and fifth grades, and then a bigger one between fifth and sixth grades. It was a mixed bag—I knew and understood more, but I also started learning to censor myself, to hold myself in, as girls are conditioned to in our culture. It’s something I’m trying to unlearn. More significantly, though, that was the year my parents split up, converting me into a sort of Lilliputian adult.

I was 16 when I got my first “serious” boyfriend. I was 35 when I finally said goodbye to my worst boyfriend, learned how to stop being drawn to bad boyfriends altogether, and opened up to nice guys. (Reader, at 39 I married one.)

I care less now what people, especially jerks, think of me. (I can’t wait to be old enough to care not one stinking whit.)

Do you feel old for your age? Young for your age? Just right? Are you in step with your peers?

I feel as if I’ve lived life out of order, maturity-wise. From the ages of 10 to 27, when I left my first marriage, I played the role of Precocious, Prematurely Grown Up Lady, and then completely lost my shit and went into some kind of much-delayed, protracted adolescence. Since then, I’ve lived waaaaay out of step with my peers. 

I’ve done nothing at the “right” time. I got married late the second time (a few months shy of 40), and I didn’t have kids, which now means I don’t have grandkids, like the people I grew up with. I’m happily childless, but living off-script in this way has contributed to my strange relationship to time. I’ve not yet objectively achieved “success” in most of the ways I’d wished to by now, nor become financially secure. I fear financial security will always elude me. 

It’s taken me forever to write my debut book, which will come out next summer. I remember back in 1988 talking with a colleague at WWD. He was turning 23 that day, and said he was jealous of Bret Easton Ellis, who’d published Less Than Zero a few years before, at only 21. My colleague lamented growing too old (at 23!) to be the kind of wunderkind who would have published a novel by a ridiculously young age. Sadly, my colleague passed away thirteen years later, at 36, without ever publishing a book. I’ve thought about him often throughout my writing endeavors, any time I’d get hung up on the idea that there was an acceptable time by which I “should” have published my first book. Better late than never, I suppose.

I’ve wandered a bit aimlessly through big stretches of my career, in part because I intermittently pursued goals in two different competitive fields without coming from an affluent family: journalism and creative nonfiction, but also in part because of sexism I encountered in some jobs. In one instance at a key point in my career, it led me to quit, completely shut down, and take up ghostwriting. (Is there any better metaphor for hiding yourself as a writer?) 

I’m becoming progressively less self-conscious about being out of step with my peers, though. I might even like that about myself. I mean, who decided what you should do by when, anyway?

What do you like about being your age?

I care less now what people, especially jerks, think of me. (I can’t wait to be old enough to care not one stinking whit.) I’ve largely accepted myself in all my weirdness, inside and out. After years of being weight-obsessed and having a warped body image, being older has somehow led me to say fuck it and turn my back on toxic diet culture. 

I’ve learned to trust my instincts, personally and professionally. They’ve borne out enough times by now that I can mostly (mostly) let go of self-doubt and stop second-guessing myself.

I loooooove not having my period anymore, because my period was always catastrophic. I suffered horribly for 25 years before learning I had a serious condition called adenomyosis (in addition to endometriosis, which I still struggle with), and was fortunate, at 43, to undergo a hysterectomy. One of the best things to ever happen to me, honestly.

What is difficult about being your age?

What’s the term I’m looking for? Damn it, it was right on the tip of my tongue a minute ago. Oh, that’s it: word-retrieval. 😂 That’s become a huge challenge—particularly vexing for a writer.

Ageism suuuuuucks. The media and publishing worlds did not get the message that I’m kind of young (er, immature?) for my age, or if they did, they do not care.

Arthritis didn’t get that message either, and each year is having its way with an increasing number of my joints. My inner 10-year-old is utterly perplexed by this.

I’ve always approached passing through time in a human body with great wonder. Age and aging—and all the beliefs and customs around them—are confusing and mystifying to me, and therefore fascinating.

What is surprising about being your age, or different from what you expected, based on what you were told?

That it’s possible to feel really young in ways, even six years into AARP eligibility.

That Mean Girls dynamics and clique-ish social-pecking-order bullshit still crop up in places. Friends, I regret to inform you that high school never truly ends. 

I’ve always approached passing through time in a human body with great wonder. Age and aging—and all the beliefs and customs around them—are confusing and mystifying to me, and therefore fascinating. But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit they also scare me. I mean, that way lies death.

What has aging given you? Taken away from you?

It’s given me self-confidence. It’s taken away a lot of self-doubt, but also all kinds of agility, and opportunities. It’s also recently given me Meloxicam, an arthritis med I wish I didn’t need, but for which am grateful.

It’s made it harder to recover from injury and illness. Right now I’m trying to recover my energy after contracting mononucleosis in late June, and it’s slow-going.

This photo of me posing earnestly at 6 or 7 cracks me up, but I also envy this version of me for her self-confidence, something I’ve strived to recover.

How has getting older affected your sense of yourself, or your identity?

The older I get, the more me I become. I feel more and more grounded in what I believe in, and confident in standing up for it. 

What are some age-related milestones you are looking forward to? Or ones you “missed,” and might try to reach later, off-schedule, according to our culture and its expectations? 

I look forward to qualifying for Medicare, because my “affordable” health care through the NY State Marketplace—$450 a month with a $4700 deductible!—is in fact rather unaffordable for me. I think my eligibility for Medicare is maybe another nine years off? Crap.

I regret not figuring out how to manageably pursue a graduate degree. I had no idea how to do that while working full time, which I’ve always needed to, without going into a harrowing amount of debt. So I’m constantly debating whether it’s too late for that. With each passing year, it feels like less of a realistic possibility, and I worry more about seeming like Jerri Blank if I were to return to the classroom as a student.

I’ve started taking collagen gummies, because I like pretending candy is good for me. 

What has been your favorite age so far, and why? Would you go back to this age if you could?

Fifth grade ruled. It was the last year in my life before a lot of things got complicated. Otherwise, I like being my current age. Each year, I feel more like myself, and generally as if I am where I should be.

Is there someone who is older than you, who makes growing older inspiring to you? Who is your aging idol and why?

Diane Keaton comes to mind.

From the first time I saw Harold & Maude as a kid, I’ve been inspired by Ruth Gordon’s character in it.

For years I’ve wished for hair like Emmylou Harris’s, and while I love my gray, I’ll be even happier when my hair is whiter, like hers. 

There are some older women writers I know, who are imbued with a kind of pixie-ish agelessness that I admire—Bev Donofrio and Joan Juliet Buck come to mind.

What aging-related adjustments have you recently made, style-wise, beauty-wise, health-wise?

I’ve started taking collagen gummies, because I like pretending candy is good for me. 

I didn’t start moisturizing my face and neck until after my hysterectomy at 43, when my skin became markedly dryer. (Although that didn’t stop me from still occasionally getting zits.) Last year I found the moisturizer for me—Glow Juice, a wonderful natural face serum made by the writer Rebecca Wolff, which makes my skin look and feel glowy and supple. (Please consider ordering some. I need her to remain in business for the rest of my days.)

What’s an aging-related adjustment you refuse to make, and why?

Never is a long time, but I do not anticipate ever undergoing plastic surgery to counteract the effects of aging, nor getting botox injections or fillers. It’s right for some people, but it doesn’t seem right for me. I’m not saying I love my wrinkles or the places where my skin is beginning to sag. I’ve already confessed to maintaining bangs even though I’m bored with them to hide my forehead’s deepest crease, and aging-related hair loss. But to me, my “flaws” are preferable to the unnatural effects of nips and tucks, and injections and fillers.

What’s your philosophy on celebrating birthdays as an adult? How do you celebrate yours?

Each year as my birthday approaches, I experience a fair amount of anxiety. It’s the same way I’ve felt about every milestone—worried I’m not doing it right, and that I’m not on course with everyone else. 

I also feel self-conscious about enjoying celebrating my birthday. It strikes me as immature and self-centered and “thirsty.” So, most years I first vow to be stoic and not throw myself a party. Then, a week or so before the big day, I freak out, and at the last minute plan an average of three of them. One of these years I’ll stop trying to pretend I’m a real grownup about it, and just go straight toward party-planning.


Writer and Oldster Magazine found/editor Sari Botton lives in Kingston, NY. She’s a contributing editor at Catapult, and the former Essays Editor for Longreads. Her anthology Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving & Leaving NY was recently re-issued with seven new essays. She teaches creative nonfiction at Wilkes UniversityCatapult and Bay Path University. Her memoir-in-essays, And You May Find Yourself... will be published by Heliotrope in June, 2022.

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