Later, Ash Mae would look at her belly and see a scrawl of stretch marks there, a coded script that she did not want to read. She would learn to hide her body. To hide from it.
I ached with Ash Mae when I read this. I was on that roof with her, the knowledge of age and bodies shame bulking like a thunderhead in the sky. But it was what she wrote about being older that most interested me:
This passage walloped me in the stomach. This passage wrote my book. Because I, too, had a time where I felt hollow-boned with potential, ready for flight. This period lasted from eighth grade, when I turned from a shy girl who won spelling bees to a loud kid who wore plastic pants and snakeskin Airwalks, to 28, when my life fell apart neatly along the seams. All those years, I had placed a premium on being a shiny thing, a flashing filament of resistance to what I saw as the only alternative: a dull life stuffed with dull plans and led along by a worn-out ethic. Other people grew up and gave up on their old friends, their big dreams and their political ideals. But not me. It wasn’t that I thought I wouldn’t grow up; I knew I would. I just thought I wouldn’t grow old. And it wasn’t that I didn’t know that other people had told themselves the same thing, back when they were young. I thought I was wily, in other words, and, like the coyote, I missed the anvil hanging over my head.
It all fell at once. It started with depression, and then anxiety: It got bad at BYU, where I felt like I had a cultural migraine all the time, then worse as I put in 60-hour weeks as a broke activist. By the time I left Mormonism and moved to a collective house in godless Northern California, I felt like a person falling slowly off a standing bike. All I could think was I’m falling, I’m falling, but I couldn’t stop it. I had no money, so I visited an astrologer who took the community currency they printed at the house where I lived. He studied my chart and said words like retrograde. Finally, he looked up, satisfied. “Your Saturn is in return,” he said. “For three years you will feel like the rug has been pulled out from under you.”
And he was right. Over many months, everything I used to love turned into a static buzz, and everything I used to do well became a chore. For my job, I was expected to tour the country, speaking to crowds of people and organizing them. In reality, even the idea of going outside was terrifying. I had no idea what I believed. I had no idea who I was. And I had no idea whether I mattered if I wasn’t all the things I used to be. I was terrified that, underneath all the effort, I was just scared and ordinary. As Ash Mae wrote, what I once thought made me unique turned, with age, into the same old story. And so the days turned into a performance of myself, and attempt to convince everyone that I was the person I had always wanted to be. This took nuclear amounts of energy, and each day I had less to start with than the day before.
At the time, I kept thinking of a thought experiment I learned about in a philosophy class. There’s a man on a deserted island who never meets another person. He lives his life as best he can, but there is no one there to see, no one there to benefit. The thought experiment asks: Is this man good?
That was how I felt. I had thought I was fiery, smart and brave, but now all those parts of me were tucked away on some island in my innards, accessible--or so I thought--to no one. Was I still me then? Was I still worthwhile? Good?
I stayed in that place for a long time. It got worse before it got better. I got pregnant, had a baby, gave her away. My best friend died. In my sadness and self-loathing, I lost a lot of people. My family fell--not so much apart, but into each other, each person’s individual depression leaning on the others in perfect tension. And through it all, I kept on doing more than I could do, determined to prove that I was still me, this mythic thing I had attached to my name.
And then I met someone. I fell in love. I was terrified I was boring, though, and so I was terrified of being seen. “I’m not usually like this,” I said to her. “Like what?” she said. “So introverted. So tired. So boring.” She looked at me, confused. “I like boring,” she said. And she meant it.
It took me three years and lots of arguments to believe that. I only loved myself if I was special, and so I couldn’t imagine she was any different. But my exhaustion, ironically, was my teacher. As I had to give up more and more of who I thought I was just to get through the day, I began to ask myself what I was without those things, and if that was enough. For a long time it wasn’t, and my attempts to convince myself otherwise felt like throwing words into a volcano. Like Ash Mae, I was stung daily with my own averageness, limboing deeper and deeper under a lower and lower bar.
So I stopped throwing words into the volcano. Instead, I climbed into it and sat in the dark. I wanted to know what I was down there, in the hot belly of my own humiliation. So I sat, and sat, and sat, and I drank my cup of shame. I stopped saying should and I started saying is: as in, this is what it is like in the dark. I learned that I didn’t fear I was normal so much as I feared I was abnormal: that I felt too much, needed too much, doubted myself too hard. All my life I had tried to be special to keep myself from these facts. It hadn’t worked, so now I was simply describing them.
I’m still at it. I’ll probably always still be at it. But somewhere along the way, I started to feel what Ash Mae described in the confession she sent me--that there was a kindness in the ordinariness, a sort of freedom. I no longer believed that I could save the world, for instance, but believing that no one person could freed me up to be more useful, of a more ordinary kind of help. I didn’t have boundless energy, but I started to realize what I did like--and what I did like was sometimes boring. I stopped trying to do all the impressive stuff and started to do what I actually liked: the introverted, often unsung task of writing. I no longer believed I was fearless, but I knew that I was brave.
I once read an article about a woman who said her favorite age was 50. It was the age, she said, when she stopped caring so much--about what she was supposed to be, about who she was supposed to impress. I balked at that at the time. I didn’t want to be 50! But now I’m kinda excited for it.
I take heart from people like my mom, who wrote that getting older has made her feel less interested in proving herself, or comparing herself. Instead, she spends time feeling what she calls “the holiness.” Or Missy, who is 35 and tells me she can’t wait to be double that, because each year she finds she has fewer shits to give. Or Dan, who misses the impulsiveness of his younger self--always down to climb bridges or sneak into hotels or go on a last-minute road trip--but who nevertheless can’t wait to be 80. Or Elie, who no longer needs anyone’s permission to do what needs to be done. Or, as my friend George says about age: that “there are days, maybe increasingly rare but all the more precious, when it feels the fire burns as brightly as ever.”
And some of us are still in the volcano. One friend isn’t sure she believes in the feminism of her youth--a very depressed child has forced her to rearrange her ideas of everything from gender roles to how much time she gives to herself. So now she lives as the woman she never wanted to be: a mom doing mostly domestic labor, trying to help her kid stay alive and grow up. Matty’s turning forty and feels angst about lost time and opportunity. Lauren is punched in the gut sometimes by the fact that her parents will die. Talmage thinks the hardest thing about getting older is the anticipation of the unknown and the fear of making the wrong choices. Doni went back to a retreat that had changed her life years ago, only to find herself unimpressed by the experience as an adult. It made her feel brittle and old. A friend has endured three miscarriages in one year, and feels angry and bitter at friends who have babies easily. Just recently she peed on a stick and found out she was pregnant again, but instead of feeling excited, she felt angry and scared. She didn’t want to hope anymore. She didn’t want to be disappointed.
And so, a toast from the dark: That we, stranded on islands, are already good. That extraordinary pain, extraordinary desire, and extraordinary want is what makes us ordinary, and that being ordinary might just be the heavy path to making us free, to turn us into a hollow-boned bird traveling light.
P.S. Here are some excerpts from people’s confessions...
At age 53, I have been surprised at how young I still feel.
I enjoy the feeling that I am carrying a fire of physical energy within me, that it will eventually die out, but for the time being my job is to nurture and feed that fire so as to propel me through life. And there are days, maybe increasingly rare but all the more precious, when it feels the fire burns as brightly as ever.
Also, I think one of the hardest things, for me, has been learning how to set & keep boundaries with people that I love but do not have the ability or option to have a healthy relationship with.
The hardest thing about getting older has been ruthless prioritization of time
As I quickly approach my 40th birthday I've been thinking a lot about my life - what I've accomplished and what I haven't. Unfortunately, there has been more than a little existential angst about squandered opportunities and lost time. I am making attempts to accept what is and move forward. That's all any of us can do.
I think it is true that most of us still think of ourselves as staying at a certain age, or time in our lives. I continue to feel that way, for the most part.
I also feel so joyous that as we grow older, we usually also grow a little more humble. More compassionate. More patient with others, and their process. Experience has hopefully tutored us well. And we feel less inclined to need to prove ourselves, or compare ourselves. I think we realize more and more what a precious commodity time is, and that it is sacred. So, hopefully we hold those loved ones, the golden moments, experiences, and insights gained very near and dear to our hearts. And the trials. And decide that just like when we were children, that it's better to slow down, and to savor things. And to feel the holiness.
I try not to lie about my age, but I rarely share it unless directly asked. It's somehow become my most shameful secret. I'm embarrassed by this thing that I have no control over. And in reality, is something that people envy about me. Once people find out how old I am, their reaction is inevitably -- really!? And they're simultaneously stunned and impressed. But I just feel my face get hot. And this sinking feeling that next year, maybe, hopefully, I won't feel this way anymore.
I love what I do, working with older adults has turned into the best thing I have ever done in my life. As I look at aging though I get nervous, what kind of older adult will I be? Will I even make it? But then I think about this last month, caring for a gentleman we call "Cowboy". He gets the name from wearing cowboy boots, cut-off jean shorts, and a cowboy hat everyday. Without fail. The other day we watched the security camera as he hopped over the fence and made his way to Smith’s to get some "smokes".
Youthful self characteristic most nostalgic for: Impulsiveness. "Hey Dan, wanna take a road trip?" "YES!" "Hey Dan, wanna jump out of a plane together?” “YES!" "Hey Dan, wanna climb up the scaffolding in the LES, break into this abandoned building and take photos?” “YES!" "Hey Dan, wanna break into the Waldorf Astoria and see if we can get away with smoking a joint in the penthouse?" “YES!” etc. etc. etc. I don't want to do those things now necessarily, but having a "world-is-our-oyster" attitude certainly was an enjoyable framework to live by for some years.
Age most excited for: I cannot wait to be 80. I already am sorta retired (I have vowed to never write another cover letter or resume if possible) but being fully retired is something I can't wait for. Sitting around, chatting with the neighbors, telling stories, having grandkids (not really into the kid thing, but the grandkid thing...CAN’T WAIT!) I have been looking forward to being 80 since I was 15.
Age least excited for: 44. Doesn't sound fun.
Worst ages so far: 9, 11, 22. Boy those were zingers.
How unfair, to think that I mocked my mother’s lessons, and now: here I am.
What was I thinking? That in one generation or so we could truly achieve gender equality; that it would be possible to be in a heterosexual marriage and to equally coparent, share household responsibilities, and both have careers? Without our children exploding? WHAT A JOKE.
The hardest thing about getting older is asking yourself what it means to be a good person: how much of yourself to sacrifice for others, and for whom you should be sacrificing. How selfless should one really be? For a while there, I believed a message that I should prioritize myself; I didn’t want to turn into my mother and all our foremothers who fed the children and the men before themselves. In the meantime, my children fell apart.
One day, my 6 year old, formerly serious but generally my easy kid, became explosive, tearing apart his room, hitting his parents, and screaming that he wanted to kill himself - perhaps with a chainsaw. It was terrifying, because it wasn’t an isolated incident, and it wasn’t a brief cry for help, it was a prolonged cry for help. It was a scream that we had been parenting him all wrong fro a long time. I had to go back to the drawing board. How had I missed so many warning signs? I had a toddler and a baby; I was barely managing to keep everyone alive; I punted the oldest to his dad. I hadn’t felt guilty about taking every spare moment to myself, about continuing to work as many hours as I could; about not volunteering at school. It told myself EVERYTHING IS FINE until it wasn’t.
Lots of kids are fine at daycare; kids are resilient, so they say. But you don’t get the kids you want, necessarily; you get the kids you get. Over the last year it has been so much work and so many consultations with so many different people, professionals and non-professionals, before I really wrapped my mind around what we are dealing with and what is going to be required to raise my eldest into a productive member of society - or even just to get him to school every day. For the first time in my life, really, here is a hard challenge that I didn’t choose, I don’t like, and that requires sacrifices I really don’t want to make - like focusing on parenting and domesticity for a while so that my kids don’t end up as criminals, or worse.
Watching my parents age is so incredibly hard; I don't want to face the fact that someday I will likely lose my best friends. Sometimes I see the gray hair and find it charming; at times my mother's subtle confusion or longer pauses will strike me as humorous; but sometimes it fills me with pain and unthinkable things that float above the kitchen table, unspoken but terrifying: we will all die.
The first time I went to Patch Adams’ farm retreat, I was processing so much that I was in nearly constant emotional upheaval. We worked with theatre pivots, Oliver taught me how to play Weakerthans on the guitar, we cleaned pond scum at Patch's behest, dressed up as clowns to entertain the townsfolk, had a dinner served by nude waiters, slept in yurts full of late night cuddling and exhaustion. Everything felt new, fresh, and hopeful.
I returned. It was not the same. The ideas felt staid. I had encountered them already. Theatre of the oppressed was a done deal. Was our avant garde art really helping anyone? Who cared if you made the same gestures with both hands?
I did not experience this so much as a critique of the experience, but rather a critique of myself. I felt old. I was no longer supple enough to ingest the ideas with the same enthusiasm that I had six years ago.
So what did I learn from my experiences? I suppose that the glow of the past can remain the glow of the past, that it isn't as glowy if you try to relive it. To focus on the time and place that is now and not to try to crawl into any former friend's beds.
What is hard to know with increasing clarity, what feels difficult to me about getting older is realizing that the map I thought made my body so unique, so different and special, even when I hated it, is just ordinary. It always was. The older I get, the more ordinary I am. My own impervious ordinariness continues to sting me in the most unexpected moments. I am not immune to the pain of it. My own quotidian triumphs and failures, are mostly just that, commonplace, and much more so than I had once imagined they would be. But also, there is a kindness. Maybe if I go back to those white lines crisscrossing my stomach and hips, there is a hidden message. It can only be read in conjunction with other women, with the marks that made them so special and so ordinary this whole time too.
Aging parents and knee pain.
I’ve had three epiphanies in growing up that have served me well: 1) respect is earned and I do not have to respect authority, be it a person or an institution, 2) I do not need anyone's permission to do what I know needs to be done, 3) I unfailingly must trust my intuition and act accordingly.
I've lost three babies in the past year.
I finally found someone I want to have children with, and my body is broken. Blood draws, sperm counts, genetic testing, invasive procedures. Inconclusive. Recurrent miscarriages.
It took a long time and mindful effort for me to balance my life. To convince myself that it was okay that the fertility treatments weren't working. That we'd never have a child together. That the age gap was getting pretty big, anyhow. That my incontinence was getting worse, and this could be the perfect time for a hysterectomy and bladder sling. That if I wasn't pregnant this time around, I'd call it quits.
So I peed on a stick. (Because who cares if it was early, if this was the last time I was trying, I needed to get rid of all those damned tests.) The second line was visible almost instantly. I burst into tears. I threw the test in my husband's face and sat down, fuming. I'm scared, and sad, and mad that I feel anything but joy. But that's the one thing I can't let myself feel.
I'm terrified. Scared of losing another baby. Scared of my mental state if I do. Scared of the precariousness of my life and my ability to handle it if I don't.
Getting older is the best. I love it. Every year I find myself with fewer shits to give. I am only 35 and I can't wait to see what I'm like when my years are doubled.
The hardest thing about getting old is the anticipation of what’s in store. The fear of the unknown has been a very big thing for me. I’ve worried what I’m going to become, who my friends will be, what I will lose. I worry about making the right choices.