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Facing Down 50

How to boldly enter a new decade, even if you don't want to

T-minus seven days from my 50th birthday and I can feel the gravitation of the milestone pulling me ever closer to irrelevance. As I enter the orbit of this new decade, one I never really considered because it always felt so distant, I can’t help but feel unsettled.

On the one hand, I am pretty sure by the age of 50 you are supposed to have it all together. Retirement on the horizon, relationships in check, confidence, financial stability, wisdom.

I pause for a minute to consider how that is going. Pretty sure there is more work to be done.

On the other hand, I am also relatively certain that hitting 50 means it all falls apart. For good and in a profound and public way. I also believe there is no amount of Botox, kale, portrait mode, or friends lying about how good you look that will change that.

Which is it? All together or completely apart?

I can hear my mother’s words from several years ago warning me: “You know Lea, you never look in the mirror and see your older self. You always see a younger version of yourself. You never think YOU are old”. I remember my grandmother who, having lived on the beach most of her adult life, was as tanned and shriveled as a roasted almond yet she would frequently ask my mother, “Do you think I look wrinkled”? She did have a diagnosed mental illness, so as I child I naively attributed her sight disability to that I suppose, but maybe this phenomenon is just a built-in coping mechanism for not having to face the inevitable.

Maybe that explains my confusion when a young, sweet college student walked up to our group tailgating at the CU v CSU game – a long standing tradition – and shyly spoke directly to me: “Do you have a Band-Aid?” She showed our group a terrible blister on her left heel. The girl’s concerned boyfriend watched from the perimeter, and before I could answer she continued, “I just talked to my mom and she said to find someone who looks like her and they would help me. You look like my mom”.  I will add that I am not a mom. Nothing against moms but I’m not one. And I don’t really think of myself as “motherly” especially to someone who is old enough to be living independently, albeit unable to assemble reasonable footwear. Couldn’t she see that I was young and fun too?

Early last year I was golfing with my husband and one of the men we were playing with asked me, “Did you play when you were young?”

When. You. Were. Young.

He meant it as a compliment, thinking that somehow my golf swing must be the product of formal training. Granted we were two holes in and he hadn’t been exposed to the wide range of outcomes that my golf swing could deliver. A compliment nonetheless. But all I heard was “you are old”. I recoiled but recovered just soon enough to deliver a witty, self-deprecating response making sure to not let on how injured I was.

When I look in the mirror, I often mistakenly see the same girl I saw 15 years ago. When the boys were paying attention, when I didn’t worry so much about my midsection (although let’s be honest, I’ve been on a diet since 1985), when I still believed that I was smart enough to rule the world.

So now what? Are my looming feelings of irrelevance valid? Am I just the last one to figure out that 50 is not, in fact, the new 30?

Last year around this time when it became evident that I would be entering the world of AARP discounts sooner than I was comfortable with, I sat myself down and really tried to contemplate what exactly I wanted to do with my second half. In typical Type-A fashion, I began crafting lists and jotting down ideas. I started with an “I am” statement which sort of reflected what I thought were my talents, strengths, that sort of thing. Then I crafted my “I am not” statement. It had just one item:

Done.

I am not done.

So maybe that is what matters. The evolution of it all. Not the flip of the switch which turns you from young to old, but the belief that no matter what your age, there is more to be learned, more to be accomplished, more to be experienced.

They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but I am not so sure. I think it might be essential to the soul to continue learning new tricks and to fight against the urge to define yourself by an insulated comfort zone of familiarity subconsciously designed to keep you safe.

I’ve been as guilty of it as anyone. For decades I proclaimed that hot yoga sounded exactly like hell’s manifestation on earth. I wasn’t sure about too many things in my 30’s, but I was dead certain I would never attend a hot yoga class. But somehow my dad convinced me to try it to overcome extreme inflexibility brought on by years of exercise paired with approximately seven minutes (total) of stretching.

I despised Bikram yoga when I first started. It was so hot. It was so hard. I remember crying in some of the initial classes and feeling grateful that I was sweating so much that the tears blended so no one knew. Now I go nearly every day when I can.

I also remember crying the first night on the boat at sailing school. I felt like a fish out of water. I worried that I would fail. I felt like I didn’t belong there. I longed for my comfort zone which I’d foolishly left behind in Denver. But surprisingly, I did belong there. I did learn to sail. I did learn to dive. I did work through my own fears and gave myself a gift that I can’t imagine not having today.

I learned a new trick.

How funny that the new things I’ve embraced these past few years are the things I was sure I would hate. What if I hadn’t tried something new? What if I had allowed myself to opt-out of sailing school because I was scared to fail?

Trying something new won’t make you younger and it won’t turn back time. That is a losing battle. But opening your mind to new experiences is fundamental to the fabric of a rich, evolving life with many chapters. Don’t wait for a milestone birthday to realize the value of learning a new trick. Whether it is learning to sail, or running a marathon, or traveling alone. Consider your own endless list of possibilities then move forward.

As I reach what I hope is the half-way point of my book, turning another page, I am hopeful that the plot really ramps up and that the second half is the most compelling yet.

I started writing this a while ago because approaching the half century mark has been on my mind for, well, awhile. I am finishing it in Thailand while volunteering with rescued elephants, which has been impactful in layers and waves I hadn’t expected. Beyond the indescribable experience of connecting with these magnificent animals, I found the team of other volunteers to be wholly inspiring. They are mostly young women in their early 20’s traveling alone from all over the world: Singapore, Northern Ireland, Australia, Denmark, the United States, Colombia, all over Europe. Smart, compassionate, brave girls with endless opportunities to carve out individually fulfilling and globally influential futures.  If all of our tomorrows rested on their shoulders, we could rest easy.  It is hard not to be a little envious. They have big, exciting lives in front of them. They can pursue any path they choose.

I have to remind myself:  I do too. I can too. Same goes for all of us.

So, here we go.

Chapter 50.

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