Navigating Middle Age with Grace (Is There a Magic Pill for That?)

Kathryn Dillon

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Image by Ingela Skullman from Pixabay

“Aging is an extraordinary process where you become the person you always should have been.” — David Bowie

I’ve been thinking a lot about aging lately. It usually begins with staring at myself in the mirror, bemoaning the way I look, but there’s so much more to it than that.

I used to tell myself I wanted to age gracefully. That was easy to say, in my 20s. But now, staring down 49 and in the midst of what seems to be a painfully self-indulgent mid-life crisis of sorts, while a global pandemic rages in the background, I no longer understand exactly what “aging gracefully” means.

How many more years do I actually have?

Who do I want to be when I grow up?

I’m not done yet…there are so many things I still need to do. Time’s a-wasting.

As a middle-aged woman, have I become invisible?

I’ve mostly been pondering three specific aspects of aging: Attitude, Appearance, and Mortality.

Attitude

“We don’t stop playing because we grow old. We grow old because we stop playing.” — George Bernard Shaw

Attitude? I think I’ve got this one down, though I acknowledge room for improvement. I walk a pretty good tightrope between adulting and refusing to go quietly into the night.

I work my day job, I write on my lunch break. In more normal times, I go to baseball games and chamber music recitals, dive bars and death metal concerts, the symphony and the art museum. Hopefully, I’ll be able to do these things again soon.

I worry far less about who’s judging me and for what. I’m (thank goodness) less of a purist about the things I like — you’ll find Taylor Swift next to Dropkick Murphys next to Cradle of Filth next to Aimee Mann in my iTunes, and I’m not ashamed to admit it.

I may not know how to age gracefully, but I know how not to. As soon as we stop learning and growing, we might as well throw in the towel.

Being curious is a critical part of vivacity. I want to live in a state of wonder, both about my own story and the stories of the people around me.

I’m writing again, regularly, after giving it up more than 20 years ago for the stability of the corporate world. I read voraciously. I love to cook and menu plan and try new recipes.

I live in a ridiculously large house that’s almost 110 years old and needs an equally ridiculous amount of work. My husband and I may or may not be able to do all that work ourselves, and likely won’t be able to afford to pay someone else to do most of it. This house is a calculated risk, a life project.

After surviving an inexplicable period in my life when I feared just about everything, I decided enough was enough, and I’m finding my way again (with the help of a good therapist).

While the world as a whole may seem like it’s going to hell in a handbasket, my inner circle is positively radiant in so many ways.

And the moments of sheer contentment? I crave them in a manner I never thought possible, back when everything had to be constantly new and exhilarating.

I am grateful for my beautiful life, though I can’t help but feel my personal star is fading.

Appearance

“My face carries all my memories. Why would I erase them?” — Diane von Furstenberg

I get regularly and completely mired in the quicksand of my outer shell. I’m trying to heal, to recover. To lose weight for health reasons, but meanwhile to just stop with the self-loathing. I owe it to myself, and I owe it to the people who love me.

In addition to the harsh realities of my changing body, being diagnosed with an eating disorder in middle age gave a name to much of what I’d been feeling for decades.

When I was almost dangerously thin, I thought I was fat. I was positive I was fat. Now that I actually am fat, how am I supposed to feel about it, when I’m still seeing the world through that same poisonous lens?

I promised myself years ago that I wouldn’t succumb to the siren song of Botox or plastic surgery, but as I look in the mirror at my creped neck and double chin, I sometimes wish I were the type of woman who would do it in a heartbeat.

My eating disorder lives to tell me what a fiend I am, that I am hideous and unlovable, and that I can actually feel the fat molecules growing inside me, consuming the parts of me that are "good". I'm often terrified of seeing myself in the mirror.

It is truly toxic, and as I age, it gets worse in many respects. It has more material to work with now, more ways to berate me.

But aside from that, aside from all of that — why have so many of us come to the no-win conclusion that our outer self is what’s most important?

I feel as if I’m at a tipping point in my recovery, leaning over a welcome cliff where I can simply let go, stop worrying, focus more on what’s inside me than what’s immediately visible.

But something keeps me hanging on with clenched fingers because I know no other way to be.

Mortality

“To suspect your own mortality is to know the beginning of terror, to learn irrefutably that you are mortal is to know the end of terror.” — Frank Herbert

My husband and I have been slogging through the ominous task of estate planning. It’s slightly embarrassing to admit that we’ve managed to studiously procrastinate such an important task through almost 25 years together, 5 1/2 of them married.

We knew our long-time lack of a legal partnership could make things very difficult if one of us died or became ill, but we lived like ostriches, hiding from the risk.

We sat in our library the other night discussing funeral plans and what would happen to all our stuff when we died. This is not my idea of fun.

Talk about running smack into the wall of your own mortality.

It’s a bit different, I think, to contemplate the end of your life when you don’t have children — don’t have those mini versions of yourself running around.

There are many very important reasons I never wanted to have kids, but since that ship has pretty much sailed, it’s disconcerting to reflect on the finality of that decision.

No one to care for us when we’re old. No one to care about our precious possessions when we’re gone.

One reason we have that big old house is that my husband and I share a deep respect for history. We‘ve become the self-appointed archivists and historians of our families.

We’ve accumulated family heirlooms over the years (mostly items that are not particularly valuable to anyone but us) because we cared about them and felt they deserved better than the landfill, and the thought of them finally ending up there after all when we’re dead and gone is difficult to bear.

In fact, the thought of being gone in general is suddenly quite difficult to bear. I feel like I’m just starting to find myself again.

My husband has been saying for years that he has so much left to accomplish before his time is up, and I used to have trouble understanding what he meant by that. These days, I understand it with an intensity that takes my breath away.

My mother was in a minor car accident a couple of years ago, and something about how she described it really stuck with me.

She said a woman who was working in the car wash saw the accident and exclaimed that “she just flew forward”. My mother just flew forward.

That’s what it really feels like, doesn’t it? We just fly forward.

We blink, and 20 years have gone by.

The elephant in the room

“When it comes to aging, we’re held to a different standard than men. Some guy said to me: ‘Don’t you think you’re too old to sing rock n’ roll?’ I said: ‘You’d better check with Mick Jagger’.” — Cher

It always comes back to this: the old double-standard. Men become distinguished; women become invisible.

I know, it’s a generalization. Not all women feel invisible. Not all men cast their same-age wives aside for trophies. But it’s a generalization because, as the definition states, it is obtained by inference from specific cases. The grain of truth.

Women are constantly pummeled with imagery, expectations, and people trying to sell us something by making us feel like crap about ourselves. Men are consistently paired in TV shows and movies with much younger women, and rarely the reverse.

Is this the lot of middle-aged women? We watch our bodies age and sag and know that the men our age are fawning over women decades younger – “ideal women” who will never grow older.

This is certainly not to say that men don't have their own struggles with aging. I know they do. But it is unlikely that men “of a certain age” chat after business meetings about the best way to hold back the hands of time. I’ve been trapped in such conversations with female colleagues (some of whom outrank me) and even clients.

When women have those kinds of talks they usually involve some new diet craze or an expensive lotion or serum that is “guaranteed” to take years off our faces. The assumption is that we're all looking for that miracle fix.

Are we supposed to stop caring about this, at some point? To just accept that this is the way life is, the way women and men are? To decide, for ourselves, that other things are more important?

Yes, to some extent. But then I think about anorexic 8-year-olds, and 15-year-olds who want plastic surgery and 25-year-olds who are having Botox, and middle-aged women who are diagnosed with eating disorders.

And then I know that we have to somehow learn to be better than what society has become. The monetization of youth and beauty.

“After all those years as a woman hearing ‘not thin enough, not pretty enough, not smart enough, not this enough, not that enough,’ almost overnight I woke up one morning and thought ‘I’m enough.’” — Anna Quindlen

Navigating middle age with grace

So after all that, what does it actually mean, to navigate middle age with grace?

It’s different for each one of us, of course, particularly when it comes to the appearance side of things. Wear whatever makes you happy. Apply makeup, or don’t. Lose weight, or don’t. Dye your hair, or don’t. Have plastic surgery, or don’t.

But, I think there are some common threads as well: self-care, curiosity, learning, growing, doing things that scare us even as we bask in those moments of contentment, surrounding ourselves with people who love us but knowing that we ARE enough, and always looking for ways to keep that light shining in our eyes.

“Aging gracefully means being flexible, being open, allowing change, enjoying change, and loving yourself.” — Wendy Whelan

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I live and write in Northeast Ohio, about everything from food to mental health, pets to relationships, music, art, and sports. My articles usually have a personal slant because I believe we as a society and as individuals grow stronger through truth-telling and connection.

Cleveland Heights, OH
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