It’s kind of touching, isn’t it, the way we fifty-somethings insist on calling ourselves “middle-aged.” As if. People: I read in the paper this morning: the average life span in America is still 78. Half of 78 is still 39, no matter how you slice and dice it.
I remember being 39. I do, really. I remember thinking people in their fifties who couldn’t say the word “old” were kind of sad.
At 39, I had a seven-year-old, a four-year-old, a novel I so hoped would find a publisher and a freelance career I had allowed to dwindle. My 65-year-old mother’s disturbing memory lapses were soon to be given the dreaded label that would define her final descent: Alzheimer’s disease. At 39, the statistical middle of an American life, I did not feel young, middle-aged or old; I felt seasick. I had jettisoned the ballast of a secure job. I believed motherhood, marriage, writing and my mom’s desire to be a hands-on grandma would be my anchors for the next decade or so.
Looking back, I see my younger self as touchingly naïve. Surely not at any sort of mid-point, any sort of stable axis.
But are we ever? And isn’t that what’s so ridiculous, really, about the whole notion of a “middle age”? Because of course we don’t know whether we’re going to get 78 years, or 98, or maybe only 28 or 58. So when exactly should we call ourselves “middle-aged?”
What we do learn, as we churn through the decades, is that whatever middle age is, it is not the same as wisdom. Which, we also grudgingly learn, is not some inner lightbulb that suddenly clicks on.
Wisdom is more sedimentary. Layered. It’s more like that fusty old poem called “The Chambered Nautilus,” in which the poet imagines us adding years, like rooms, to the spiraling shell of our lives.
“Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul, as the swift seasons roll!” poet Oliver Wendell Holmes Senior intoned, already well past the mid-point—though of course he didn’t know it—of his impressive 85 years.
Our generation doesn’t warm to the word “stately” the way Holmes’ did. We don’t want to be stately snails; we want to hold on to shiny, speedy youthfulness.
And yet: there’s an appreciation of slowness that creeps up on you, maybe somewhere between, oh, 39 and 54, during those years when life often feels way too much like a white-water rafting trip, rapids all around, your little boat barely under control. You find that the stuff you really care about doing—writing, for me, or good conversations over dinner, or reading or growing a garden—mostly gets done slowly.
There was a story in the New York Times last week about an 85-year-old jazz piano player named Boyd Lee Dunlop. He released his debut CD this weekend. That is one stately pace.
I know one reason I sometimes, still, want to speed around and Get a Lot Done is because I watched time and memory run out for my mother and I fear her fate. I dread it. It’s what often wakes me up at five in the morning.
But rushing around doesn’t make it better, it makes it worse. Boyd Dunlop didn’t just decide it was time for a CD at 85 and poof! There it was. It took him four years of pounding away on an out-of-tune piano at the nursing home where he lives.
Boyd’s a good model for us wannabe middle-agers. I bet he doesn’t spend much time at all dwelling on age. He’s way too busy making music.