By Amanda Cleary Eastep
The young girl was standing in the snow, wearing only pajamas and snow boots.
My car had just rounded the curve in the road that separates our condos from the apartments. The girl, about 8 years old, stood in the strip of yard beside the apartment building, her hands cupped and full of snow, her narrow jaw moving around the mouthful of fresh white, and her brown eyes so wide and happy they rolled up into her head.
The pajamas and dark frazzle of hair signaled 7 a.m., not the actual 2 o’clock afternoon hour. But what use to dress or comb on this snow-stormy Sunday? I wondered who had let her run out without a coat. Maybe a father focused on the Eagles-Redskins game or an in-charge sibling who protested with commands that failed to bar her escape.
I hoped, instead, it was someone who simply appreciated her earnestness so much that he only laughed at her excitement over that falling snow and exclaimed, “Whoosh!” as he waved her out the door.
The sight made my grown daughter and I laugh as we passed by her and made the familiar left turn into the condo complex.
50 came upon me with a sense of urgency.
Like 50 armed guards…
50 frantic helicopter moms…
50 children needing to use the bathroom…
Last year, my life seemed to shift with an audible and jarring kerchunk, like a great gear falling into the next slot. Our children’s lives suddenly looked like ours did when we felt like we were grown up and didn’t need our parents anymore. And our parents looked and moved and talked like our grandparents did when their driving started to scare us.
For weeks near the end of 2016, I was waking up every morning as if I had slept through my alarm on the day of an international flight, heart palpitating, mind whirring. Where am I…what time is it…what needs to be done first? What are my writing deadlines…what do clients need from me…what does God want from me today?
Often, at 3:30 a.m., my mind poured out words with no place to land–no keyboard beneath my fingers, the journal useless in the dark. I wondered if my creativity was peaking, or if I had early onset dementia…if someone would find value in my writing or if they’d have to remind me to swallow my mashed peas.
Much of that urgency has been self-inflicted. I set goals for 2017 (particularly for my writing) that 18 days into January left me hyperventilating. The truth is that the closer you get to death, the more determined you are to finally publish a book.
Why do we relegate the dreams we had in our 20s to a “bucket list”? i.e. 10 things to do before I drop dead from all the McDonald’s I ate as a teenager. I have a bucket in my laundry room full of scrub brushes and disinfectant sprays. Buckets are for children with the flu who may vomit in the middle of the night. They are not for dreams.
I look at my writing hand with the C-shaped wrinkles like parentheses around each knuckle. Read: (Stand back. She means business.) When I smile, age and joy play tug of war with my face. When I wave at my neighbor, I am keenly aware of my tricep flapping like a wet American flag. I’m looser. Just ask my knees, they’re frowning. My outside isn’t fitting the inside like it used to. I would be easy to peel.
Turning 50 isn’t only about physical changes you become more aware of or other people notice, because in some ways, you are less visible anyway. The only person checking you out is the grocery clerk. But you don’t yet garner the attention the elderly “enjoy” of being cute, wise, or at least entertaining in their surliness. Your children, the ones who 20 years ago couldn’t give you five minutes to shave your legs past the knee or pee with the door closed, can’t give you five minutes.
Midlife can seem a bit beige. Like a backdrop for other people’s lives. And sometimes that’s ok. Like for the colorful dreams and achievements of your grown children and the multi-patterned concerns of your parents.
By this point, society says you’ve passed the summit–you’ve dreamed, struggled, ventured, achieved. Now you’re only working your way back down the other side of the hill and trying not to dislocate a hip in the process. You might as well just slide down on your butt.
I’m discovering, however, that isn’t it at all. Unless you’ve resigned yourself to that stereotype–to only preparing for empty-nest syndrome, a midlife crisis, or retirement. After all, stereotypes and clichés are comforting. They conveniently take the place of risk and uncertainty and adventure.
That’s exactly what the second half of life should be about, though. In his book Falling Upward, Father Richard Rohr defines the first half of life as building the vessel and the second half as filling that vessel, discovering the script and then writing and owning it.
“There is a deeper voice of God, which you must learn to hear and obey in the second half of life. It will sound an awful lot like the voices of risk, of trust, of surrender, of soul, of ‘common sense,’ of destiny, of love of an intimate stranger, of your deepest self…”
To add another metaphor to the mix…the second half of life is the FURTHER JOURNEY.
Just as I am never sure what I’ll find along a new hiking trail, I have no idea what my further journey will look like. All I can be sure of is that the second half of my life will be filled with trials and treasures.
For anyone who has hiked hilly terrain, you know descending uses a whole different set of muscles and skills. Maybe I’ll finally sense the only-dogs-can-hear high frequencies of God’s voice, and I’ll answer with a never-before-exercised level of obedience.
My youngest is 20. She asks me what I’m writing.
I’m writing about turning 50.
Ooo, so how does it feel?
Odd. I don’t feel old, but this is the oldest I’ve ever felt. Does that make sense?
Do you feel like you have more responsibility or what?
No, more freedom. Maybe that’s scary.
Oh, that makes me look forward to being 50…
I’m going to tell you a secret if you’re in your 20s and 30s. You never get older, you just grow more amazed at how you still feel 20 or 30 at 50. That gray hair (the stuff under my black dye and fire-engine red highlights)? That’s just tinsel, celebratory sparkle to catch and bounce back the light.
Recently, I experienced a revelation about this age thing when I read these words in Walking On Water by Madeleine L’Engle:
“As of this writing, I am sixty-one years old in chronology. But I am not an isolated, chronological numerical statistic.
[OK, I’m imagining myself marching through the streets with these words painted on a poster board sign taped to a cane.]
I am sixty-one, and I am also four, and twelve, and fifteen, and twenty-three, and thirty-one, and forty-five, and…and…and…”
I am 50. But I am also…
The 10-something nerd who believes in Narnia and Jesus.
The 20-something student typing stories with a boombox on her lap so her unborn baby will develop an appreciation of Vivaldi.
The 30-something mother of three whose greatest joy is raising her children in a quiet neighborhood and chaotic marriage.
The 40-something woman, broken and bound up with prayers like stitches who eventually finds words again and writes a new story.
The 50-year-old vessel containing all those selves.
I imagine the two halves of life divided into the four Midwest seasons. The first half contains spring and summer, the second half holds fall and winter. I’ve lived spring and summer and am well into fall. That’s why the transition last year felt so huge.
In the Midwest, fall can come upon us in a day, in the plummet of a silver line of mercury.
What will my winter be? I’m not sure, but I can envision myself.
I am that young girl, dark against the cold white.
I scoop snow up into my hands until they ache and turn numb.
I taste the sky, changing winter to spring in my mouth.
I relish the joy of snow eaters until my eyes roll back in my head over all that God has laid at my feet.