When you're 50 you start thinking about things you haven't thought about before. I used to think getting old was about vanity -- but actually it's about losing people you love. Getting wrinkles is trivial.
Fifty is not "just another birthday." It is a reluctant milepost on the way to wherever it is we are meant to wind up. It can be approached in only two ways. First, it can be a ball of snakes that conjures up immediate thoughts of mortality and accountability. ("What have I done with my life?") Or, it can be a great excuse to reward yourself for just getting there. ("He who dies with the most toys wins.") I instinctively choose door number two.
If someone could guarantee that I'll live to be a healthy, vigorous ninety, I'm not sure I'd have been so upset about turning fifty, but without that assurance I felt vulnerable and pressed for time. Suddenly, death seemed imminent and eminently possible.
"Fifty is halftime," said Joe Namath when his big birthday rolled around. I appreciate sports metaphors as much as the next guy, but this one won't make the cut. Few fifty-year-olds can expect to play two more full quarters of the game of life.
Irreparable physical damage aside, being fifty or sixty is surely no more of a "problem" than being ten, twenty, thirty or forty. However old you are, you're mortal. Isn't that exactly what makes life as interesting, precious, cruel, unjust and altogether extraordinary as it is?
An attractive woman friend confided that when she turned 50, she felt like one of those park statues that turn green, weather-streaked, and crumbly, the kind that no one, not even the people on the benches right in front of it, notices anymore.
The age of 50 seems to represent a sort of tollgate, beyond which, having chosen the route and the traveling companions, one expects to be on the same road for a long, long time. Thus people who find themselves approaching 50, unattached--either divorced or never married--are particularly prone to playing out a perpetual middlescence.
Fifty was the end of this long familiar plateau that you enter at 13--you know, the country of the female stereotype. And when I got to 50, which is the edge of this territory--indeed the edge used to be 35, 40, we've pushed it to 50--then it was like falling off a cliff. There was no map. Now it's true that I had been fighting with the map. But you're enmeshed in it either way, whether you're obeying it or fighting with it.
This turning point of fifty, I had become convinced, ought to form as vital a milestone in a woman's life as graduation, promotion, marriage or the birth of a child. At fifty, I had concluded, a woman might celebrate a rite of passage, a ritual as regularly marched as a confirmation.
All normal children (however much we discourage them) look forward to growing up. "Except ye become as little children," except you can wake on your fiftieth birthday with the same forward-looking excitement and interest in life that you enjoyed when you were five, "ye cannot see the Kingdom of God." One must not only die daily, but every day one must be born again.
When she looked in the glass and saw her hair grey, her cheek sunk, at fifty, she thought, possibly she might have managed things better--her husband; money; his books. But for her own part she would never for a single second regret her decision, evade difficulties, or slur over duties.
Said Nestor, to his pretty wife, quite sorrowful one day, "Why, dearest, will you shed in pearls those lovely eyes away? You ought to be more fortified;" "Ah, brute, be quiet, do, I know I'm not so fortyfied, nor fiftyfied, as you!"
What changed her was what changes all women at fifty: the transfer from the active service of life--with a pension or the honors of war, as the case may be--to the mere passive state of a looker-on. A weight fell away from her; she flew up to a higher perch and cackled a little. Her fortune helped her only in so far as it provided the puff of air under her wings that enabled her to fly a little higher and cackle a little louder, although it also did away with all criticism from her surroundings. In her laughter of liberation there certainly was a little madness.