Walking up Michigan Avenue on a cold Chicago morning, I know what I look like: a middle-aged woman suited up for a brisk Sunday walk. Practical shoes, corduroy jeans, warm jacket. Exactly the kind of outfit my mother used to make me wear when I was four years old and I would’ve rather just thrown on a party dress. Exactly the kind of outfit I’ve worn all my life, setting out for long walks, in any weather, in the many cold northern cities I’ve called home: Seattle, Chicago, Boston, Norwich and Cambridge, England.
What’s so hard to explain to younger people is this: the older you get, the more ages you are. I mean all at once. In every moment of your life. I’m not just 55, I’m every age I ever was. I’m the four-year-old who wants to skip and sing. I’m the teenager, walking because I need to be alone. I’m the twenty-something, wishing I could look attractive and stay warm at the same time. I’m the mom, wishing all the children I see on this chilly day would please, please wear their hats.
I was in Chicago last weekend for the ridiculously gigantic writers’ conference known as AWP: the Association of Writers and Writing Programs. Picture nearly ten thousand writers of all ages, racing from bookfairs to seminars in some of Chicago’s most historic hotels—the flagship Hilton across from Grant Park, where President Obama celebrated on Election Night 2008. The Palmer House, favored by Ronald Reagan. When Reagan was president, I was a cub reporter in Chicago and grateful to be a girl, in those sexist times, because it meant I didn’t have to work what was known as the Reagan Death Watch, which consisted of hanging out all night at the Palmer House in case Reagan, robust though he was, but—let’s face it—well over 70, suddenly keeled over.
As I walked down Michigan, my brain shifted back and forth from the Reagan era to the Obama era. My life then. My life now.
My life then: twenty-something. Yearning. Learning my new trade, journalism. Wondering whether my boyfriend and I would marry. Torn on a daily basis between loving life with him and yearning to be… someone else. But I wasn’t sure who.
My life now: fifty-something. Married 24 years, but not to that boyfriend. Sharing a Chicago hotel room, this AWP weekend, with my 22-year-old daughter. Where did the decades go?
Walking south on Michigan, you can see a faded advertisement for Gossard Corsets still visible on the side of a brick building that now overlooks a Zip Car lot. This is what 55 means: you’re so old that when you were a very little girl, there were a very few ancient women who still wore some version of a corset. And now you’re living in the era of the Zip Car.
My daughter’s friend drove us to O’Hare Airport in a Zip Car. He’s in Chicago working for the campaign to re-elect our first black president. Could the women who wore Gossard Corsets ever have imagined such a time? Could I, thirty years ago, as I waited for the latest Reagan update in a smoky newsroom full of manual typewriters?
“Live in the moment,” people like to say. It’s good advice. But we don’t.
At one AWP panel, novelist Alice LaPlante suggested that one secret to the success of acclaimed short story writer Alice Munro is that she understands this truth: every present moment is freighted with every past moment of our lives.
Yes, I thought, as I walked up Michigan Avenue. I am every age I ever was. And that is what makes life meaningful, and poignant.
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Here’s nest artist Kim Groff-Harrington’s website.