The Middle Distance 2.21.14: On Your Marks…

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5min 30sec
Mary's Birthday by Stanley L. Payne, November 4, 1959. Courtesy of PPLD. Image Number: 004-10632.
Mary's Birthday by Stanley L. Payne, November 4, 1959. Courtesy of PPLD. Image Number: 004-10632.

 I will be 60 years old in just a little over a month. I have lied about my age for decades, pretending always to be a year older than I really am, to soften the blow of aging, to get used to the idea. But this year I am claiming 60 because it feels important, an urgent starting line.

On your mark: You have limited time left to get your life’s work done.

Get set: Be clear about what that work is. Don’t kid yourself and don’t let anyone talk you out of it.


Coinciding with turning 60 — what feels like the dead center of the middle distance — is the fact that my life can now be evenly divided into 20-year increments: the first 20 when I was a kid growing up; the second 20 when I was married, a young woman raising a family; the third 20 when I was divorced, still raising kids, establishing a career; and now. The beginning of the fourth 20.

The thing I’ve learned is that I spent much of my life thinking I had all the time in the world to pursue my dreams, big and small, and now that time is limited.

The other thing I’ve learned is that my deeply held compulsions, my attitudes, the passions that drive me haven’t really changed at all. Deep down, at nearly 60, I am the same person in the yoga studio now as the 10-year old doing backbends in the soft Kentucky grass. The same person planning the next road trip now as the 28-year old driving endless loops around the island of Oahu in a yellow convertible with her golden-haired daughter, roads winding along cliffs plunging straight to the sea. The same woman at 60, comforted by Colorado sunsets, as the 35-year old looking for beauty in the late afternoon Tennessee sky across the blue hills. At 60, the same woman ingesting books like a beggar’s last meal as the 45-year old finding her thrills in a world of words and ideas; At 60, I am that 55-year woman, stunned and stripped bare by a violent hurricane of death and loss, feet settled back on dry land, heart ripped wide open and beginning to grow new vegetation.

In her essay on what independence means to her at age 65, Vivian Gornick says: “You work hard to acquire self-knowledge so that you may look directly at the cards that life has dealt you, and learn to play them rather than regret them, thereby giving yourself the greatest single strength a human being can possess: Knowing what you can live with and what you can’t live with.”

The clues are all there, in accumulated experience. In the first 20 years, freedom on a bicycle, in a spotless classroom, in the smell of a cold creek flowing over silvery gray rocks, in the heart of a girl who wants to be a spy, who conjures fictions and obsesses over irreconcilable human cruelty. In the second 20 years, a young woman who marries not the boy who professes his love most eloquently, but the one who sits at the kitchen table laying out a plan; proud mother of the world’s four most gorgeous, hilarious and brilliant children, seeking freedom in silence and exile to the rails of Europe, riding solo, afraid and exhilarated. In the third 20 years, freedom in work, in dirt, in writing volumes about other people’s lives, in the arms of a lover who makes her see the grandeur of wide, empty landscapes and endless skies, in knowing a lie when it comes out of her own mouth. Near the beginning of the last 20, freedom in seeing beyond her own pain to the constant parade of loss and sorrow that permeates humanity. Freedom in believing and admitting, God is in the out breath. In the in breath.

In that same essay, Vivian Gornick raises a flag to the time she has lived in, to “women living out the conflict rather than the fantasies.” Amen to that, sister. In the last month, spent with my 86-year old mother, we celebrated the fact that my second 20 years weren’t in the same decades as hers, that my daughter’s second 20 have been now, not then. For the first time in our lives, sipping tea and eating peanut butter sandwiches, we shared our horror at our own self-ignorance. For the first time, we could laugh about it and not blame one another.

On your mark.Eyes wide open. Get set. Look back, look forward. Go.

Ref: “What Independence Has Come to Mean To Me” by Vivian Gornick, collected in The Bitch in the House: Women Tell the Truth About Sex, Solitude, Work, Motherhood, and Marriage (HarperCollins, 2002).