I’ve only felt old two times in my life. The first was when I turned 26. As that fateful birthday approached, I was sure I’d never be considered young again. My childhood was over. My teens were long gone. And, as far as I could tell, my young adult days had ended. By the theory of rounding up, I was basically thirty. I was old, married, aging, and most likely finished as a fresh voice in the world.
By the time I did reach thirty, I’d already been there mentally for four years so it was merely a blip on my radar. I struggled with turning 26 more than any other age.
Turning forty was an apocalyptic experience for me. I was so distressed about it that I needed to leave the country to do it—not so much as a celebration, more as a consolation. I planned a trip to Mexico over my birthday so nothing about that day could relate to my actual life.
I’m not sure why forty was so upsetting. Maybe because I was the first of my closest friends to reach it? Maybe because it had previously been the oldest age I could imagine myself being? Or maybe (more likely) because my life didn’t resemble anything I’d expected at that age? I was a single divorced mom heading into unknown territory on my own. Whatever the reason, everything about forty just sounded so incredibly over and done. I do remember one friend assuring me that her forties had been her favorite decade, but I figured she’d just forgotten a few things in her old age (of 55).
Annnnd, now here we are. This is the year when I will wave my forties goodbye and enter my oldest decade yet. I seem unable to avoid it. But, in a delightful sort of plot twist, I somehow feel the least old I ever have.
Does this make sense? No it does not.
Which tells me that aging has less to do with actual age and more to do with… something else?
You know that thing where you become the same age as someone else used to be—someone that you previously thought of as old—and then you realize they weren’t actually old, they just had a few years’ head start on you? That’s where I’m at. During the royal wedding I learned that Meghan is the same age as Princess Diana was when she died, and my mind was blown because Diana seemed so much older and Meghan seems so much younger, and my brain cannot compute.
That’s how it feels to think about fifty. It’s so much older than I’ve been before, but so much younger than I eventually hope to be.
There’s a lot about age and aging that just doesn’t make sense. How old or young we feel is a moving target on a relative scale that continually changes based on our current perspective. If we don’t step back to look at it all once in a while, we can easily lose track of where we actually are.
Aging in America is a series of contradictions. Shall we put them in their place??
Younger is better—except when you’re young?
When we’re kids of course, time crawls slower than a slug on a sidewalk and we can’t wait to become each year older. Every birthday brings new privileges and rewards. Five is kindergarten. Eight is great. Ten is double digits. Sixteen is car keys. Eighteen is movies, tattoos, voting, and the right to be charged as an adult in a court of law. Twenty-one is any beverage in any establishment. And then there’s 25.
One could argue that 25 is the last age a person might legitimately look forward to (unless you’re waiting to run for President) because at 25, one can finally rent a car and, as far as I know, that’s the last milestone needed to operate as an unencumbered, fully legitimized adult.
After that, you pretty much never hear someone say, I can’t wait to turn 27! Or 44! At some point, our new age stops feeling like a badge of honor. Graduating to a new number loses its gleam. And before long, it becomes some level of insult.
But here’s the thing. Anyone who’s made it past 26 knows that getting through 365 days of life and showing up for another birthday is no small task. And that makes me seriously wonder why we aren’t wishing each other congratulations and not just happiness on our birthdays. We congratulate every other kind of annual milestone—and a birthday is the anniversary of our most tremendous accomplishment ever: being born, growing up, showing up, hanging in, getting through, rising above, pushing forward, and being ourselves for another whole entire year.
I say, CONGRATULATIONS, PEOPLE.
Congratulations for every time you’ve survived the hard work, responsibilities, unknowns, pain, boredom, anxiety, stress, annoyances, and overwhelming ongoingness of being an adult for another whole year. Congratulations for every hard-earned year your age reflects. Older is better because older is you.
Numbers don’t matter—until they do?
I wish I could believe the folklore that one’s actual age doesn’t actually matter; that it’s only how I feel about my age that counts. As fifty looms, that would be a more enjoyable belief. For the most part, that’s my experience. But I’m starting to notice that, in a few key places, the number apparently matters. Such as…
The longer you’re here, the more you’re behind?
At some point, aging became a reverse competition. Not like baseball, football, or Settlers of Catan, where you rack up points through skill, strategy, and good ol’ hard work. Not like the olden days (or wiser cultures) where the elders are the most revered. Nope. In our world, aging is the golf of life. The lower your number, the higher your score. The fewer years you’ve traveled, the further ahead you are.
Which is just a setup for failure. Not one of us has the slightest bit of control over the relentless passing of time, and no young person has done anything valiant to earn her youth. This approach makes all of us losers.
I propose we switch metaphors. How about: Aging is the canasta of life. Anyone can play but older people are usually better.
The harder you try, the younger you stay?
Yeah, no. This nonsense is not only off-base, it’s exhausting. And expensive. A few California friends were visiting recently and they commented on how refreshing it was to be around Minnesota women who haven’t completely reconstructed their faces in a vain attempt to “stay young”.
In my observation, staying youthful doesn’t mean staying in your youth. Often the people who seem “oldest” to me are the ones who are still trying to look (and live) like their high school selves. Somehow, by desperately hanging on to their youth, they’re losing it. Being Peter Pan outside of Neverland has an entirely different effect. The people I know who exude youth are the ones who’ve stayed open and authentic—but have never stopped evolving, becoming, growing, and being where they are right now.
So why is it that I feel younger turning fifty than I did turning 26? I’m not sure. I’ve been wondering if it has something to do with possibility. Major chapters of my life are coming to a close—my daughter just moved to Chicago, my son just left for college, my nest is suddenly empty—but I am somehow feeling a greater sense of possibility than perhaps any other time of my life. I’ve said many times recently that the last time I felt this much possibility was when I graduated from high school.
I’m no expert, but perhaps that’s related. Maybe a key to feeling young is being alive, and believing there are still more possibilities ahead.
What I know for sure is this: I’ll never be as young as I am right now, and neither will you. So maybe this really is our golden age, friends. xo
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Julie Rybarczyk is a freelance writer, fair-weather blogger, and empty-nester mama who’s living alone and liking it . She’s perpetually the chilliest person in Minneapolis—so most of the year you’ll find her under layers of wool, behind steaming cups of tea. Or on the socials at @shortsandlongs.
BY Julie Rybarczyk - September 10, 2018
Thank you for being here. For being open to enjoying life’s simple pleasures and looking inward to understand yourself, your neighbors, and your fellow humans! I’m looking forward to chatting with you.