Thoughts on Turning 60: February/Seattle
On the eve of her most recent birthday, author Marcia Aldrich took stock of what the milestone meant to her.
I never thought I’d make it this far. I thought I’d die like Marilyn Monroe at 36. That seemed a generous estimate. But then once I had children and dogs and responsibilities, my sense of an ominous fate crashed into feelings of loyalty and character.
It felt selfish to die young, born out of a suicidal sense of my own worthlessness. Born out of feeling I wasn’t attached to anything and nothing was attached to me, that I hadn’t made a mark and no one would care if I was gone. Abandoned by my birth family for so many years, all I knew to feel was abandoned. I couldn’t envision myself getting old. Wasn’t engaged with the questions of getting older—how do you do it, what does it feel like—that realm of writing and living was for someone else.
I couldn’t see myself getting old—I was perpetually frozen in youth and then after that I would die. I wouldn’t age gradually, go through all the stages of decline everyone talks about. I’d be young and then I’d be gone.
Not interested in King Lear nearly as much as I should have been. Oh I knew it was grand, the best of the best, but it didn’t speak to me. I was more interested in the novels of becoming than the works of age. I couldn’t see myself getting old—I was perpetually frozen in youth and then after that I would die. I wouldn’t age gradually, go through all the stages of decline everyone talks about. I’d be young and then I’d be gone. Everything about my thinking was dramatic and immature. I never stayed anywhere long or in any relationship—I was always moving to the next thing, bailing, exiting.
When I married at 28, it felt as if I were going against my sense of myself, my fatalistic self. And then at 29 I got pregnant, by choice, and then I had the most miraculous baby who completely changed my life. Now I was living for her. Now I wanted to stick around, couldn’t imagine hurting her. After all, I chose to bring her into this world, I had an obligation to do whatever I could for as long as I could to make her life as good as I could. Then, at 32 I had a son, and the same thing happened again. And there were dogs and cats, and I needed to take care of them all. I had built a life, a satisfying, demanding life, one I never imagined possible, or fitting for the likes of me. And my sense of myself changed. There are moments in the night when I feel like I am going to die, like something is calling my name. But I’m still here.
Death is no longer a romantic calling; it’s a real knock at the door.
There are now things I can say with certainty that I will never do again: I will never have another baby. I will never ride another a horse. (I rode horses seriously when I was young. But in 2010, while riding, I fractured the bones in my back because I had osteoporosis and didn't know it. The bouncing in the saddle was now a potentially lethal thing to do. It was the death of a certain kind of joy and pleasure.) I will never be considered young. I will never feel I am at the beginning of my life or my career. I will never feel the sense of possibility before me and not know where it will lead. I may never fall in love again. I can’t be certain—but it feels likely. I may never have sex again in a way that changes everything.
There were fantasies, dreams, perhaps they were delusions, but they hadn’t yet been proven as such. Maybe like most, they were unrealistic, never going to happen. But until you reach a certain age, they still reside as possibilities, growing fainter every day, and some of them shifting over to the side of the ledger that says never going to happen, but they haven’t been CROSSED out. When you reach my age, lots of dreams and hopes get crossed out.
There’s a sense of endings. That I’ve come to the end of some things, emotionally, physically. And that I can’t go back and reclaim or redo or revitalize.
What is possible? That’s my optimistic question. Given that my days are finite, that old age is sooner rather than later, that postponing plans for another day doesn’t seem like a good idea, that illness and decline may alter my personal landscape, how should I think and live?
Given that my days are finite, that old age is sooner rather than later, that postponing plans for another day doesn’t seem like a good idea, that illness and decline may alter my personal landscape, how should I think and live?
What is there left for me to accomplish and why do I want to accomplish it?
What can I extend in satisfying ways?
I chose writing when I was young, even though my family laughed and thought the idea of my being a writer was ridiculous. I chose writing over and over again all through my life, chose it in the face of difficulty, chose it when it would have made life simpler to put the writing away. I've always chosen it, and that has been defining. I need to see this choice through, see where it goes, all the way down the line, see what devoting myself to it means. I need to accept with grace my minor status, inhabit it, see what it offers me and what I can use. I need to follow out my commitments; make sure I don’t die with regrets about how I loved.
What is over—applying for crap. Competing. Doing things I don’t want to do. Taking crap. Wasting my time on silliness.
Some things remain.
I still am called highly sensitive, like it was some kind of disease.
I still hear what isn’t being said.
I still feel the hills in the back of my legs.
I still dream of living on the water in a Japanese tea house where all the walls slide open.
I still get a jolt out of seeing something new. Today I saw a boy on a skateboard with a black and white cat curled on his shoulder.
I still love the sweet scent of daffodils, something of the earth clinging.
This morning I woke up and realized I am a softer person than I’ve understood myself to be. Softer in the flesh, softer in the heart, more flexible, more accommodating, less invested in things being a certain way. Maybe I should just try to go with that, now that I am in my last day before turning 60.
Marcia Aldrich is the author of the memoir Girl Rearing, published by W.W. Norton. She has been the editor of Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction. Companion to an Untold Story won the AWP Award in Creative Nonfiction. She is the editor of Waveform: Twenty-First-Century Essays by Women published by The University of Georgia Press. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org