August 19, 2011
Getting over getting older
By the time you read this, I will have survived a big birthday. I am not going to tell you how many birth anniversaries have passed, because I hope you picture me as I picture myself: just out of college, with so much life ahead of me that I don’t mind wasting a little bit here and there. (For those of you who don’t picture me that way, let’s just say that the day after this milestone birthday, I will be closer to 70 than to 30.)
Having this ridiculously large number slapped on me by Time feels as unnatural as attending church on Yom Kippur. Letty Cottin Pogrebin, a founding editor of Ms. Magazine and author of “Getting Over Getting Older,” summed up my feelings well when she described her own 50th birthday angst as ranging “from astonishment to anger, from confusion to curiosity, from denial to disgust.”
So what is an astonished, angry, confused, curious, disgusted woman with serious denial issues supposed to do to soften the inevitable blow? Indulge in traditional midlife-crisis activities, of course. A few months ago, I attempted to subtract a few years off my aging eyes by having eyelash extensions attached to my thin, stumpy ones. At my last hair color appointment, I forbade my hairdresser to trim my now high school-length hair. Last week, I dropped a large sum of money on a membership to a Pilates studio. And just yesterday, I tried to camouflage my spider veins — spider veins are to aging what neon signs are to Las Vegas — by getting a head-to-toe spray tan.
But, instead of easing the birthday tension, all of these clinging-to-youth maneuvers just exacerbated it. Yes, they made me look younger (I am going to continue with the eyelash extensions until I am dead or run out of money, whichever comes first), but they also made me feel like a fraud. Unfortunately, with age comes wisdom, and now I’m smart enough to know that no amount of spray tan or Pilates will erase the scariest part about middle age: that you have more years behind you than in front of you. Since I’m pretty fond of life, that reality is extremely distressing.
Then something happened last week that made me reassess my Joan Rivers strategy. I remembered that my best friend from junior high school, with whom I became reacquainted a couple of years ago, was also facing her fifth decade. And I had a suspicion that Lisa (whose name has been changed for privacy) did not mark the big five-oh with a spray tan.
Lisa came into my life at one of those times when you desperately need someone good to come into your life. I had spent the first six weeks of junior high aching for a friend to whom I could relate. I wasn’t that girl eating lunch alone, but it felt that way because I had nothing in common with the kids at my lunch table.
Thanks to my now-worn-out brain, I can’t remember much of anything anymore. But I clearly remember the moment Lisa and I met, the way people remember where they were on Sept. 11. Lisa was sitting in front of me in our seventh-grade English class and we started to talk about our respective families, which turned out to be EXACTLY alike. We were both being raised in homes that can only be described as Enthusiastically Reform.
We remained best friends until I went away to graduate school and we grew apart. It was only after my mother ran into her mother that I learned that Lisa had become Orthodox. Every few years my mother would update me on Lisa’s growing brood: Lisa now had three kids, then five, and then I lost count. We reunited a couple of years ago, and it was clear that her life suited her: Her eyes glowed and she seemed absolutely content.
So, when I e-mailed her to wish her a happy BIG birthday, she wrote that she would be celebrating on her Hebrew date with her Torah study group. She invited me to join.
If you’re thinking that a woman with exceptionally long eyelashes, dyed long hair, a spray tan and visibly toned Pilates arms would stand out in a room full of fully covered, wig-wearing Orthodox women, you would be right. But I didn’t notice because I was mesmerized by the speaker: a mature, Orthodox woman who discussed Lisa’s birthday parasha in a way that made it relevant to someone crossing over into a new decade.
She explained that a birthday is an opportunity to develop anew. It is a time to look back at what was meaningful, continue to do those things, and then look back at what was not done properly so that you can correct those things in the future. “ ‘How can I live better’ is always the question,” she said. “A birthday is a chance to transform failures into success.” I loved the notion of looking at my new decade as an opportunity for growth rather than an occasion to mourn the loss of youth.
By the time you read this, I will be closer to 100 than to 1. But thanks to a Monday morning Torah study group, I will also be looking forward rather than looking back.