The chilled November air holds everything still, and the leaves are brushed with gold. I kick a stone and listen to it click along the paved walking path. It disappears in a ditch filled with more gold, more leaves.
This is what I was born into, the plain old honest beauty of autumn in the Midwest. But on this day, as I’m about to turn 50, romanticizing the weather or contemplating some overused “four seasons” metaphor for the stages of life is plain old uninteresting.
I’ve never been one for straight-up sentimentality. In fact, when my mother is trying to point out how defiant and incorrigible I can be, she reminds me that I was born in the middle of the Detroit Uprisings of 1967. She still uses the word “riots.” I find her somewhat formidable characterization of me much more flattering and interesting than being compared to a falling leaf.
We lived on the east side back then, and she still remembers seeing a tank in the street. Her stories always make me stop and think about the many important historical events that have occurred in my lifetime, and I feel like I’ve been everywhere and seen so much. Especially now that I live out in some rural town that has its own farm supply store and a fleet of Ford F-150s cruising its dirt roads.
In my mind, I map my whole journey thus far, from the Detroit house that’s now just a memory. The empty frame stands in line with other former homes that are nothing but charred skeletons. I wonder where those neighbors are now? Maybe they’re out on trails in the middle of nowhere kicking stones and watching the remaining leaves on the trees as they burn orange and fiery against the sky.
My journey of five decades twists and turns across oceans and continents. It winds and spirals through school, jobs, military service, adventures, rock ‘n’ roll, motherhood, marriage, divorce, addiction, poetry, journalism, redemption,healing, and all the other crazy beautiful stuff of life. Now the journey has brought me here to the sticks, where I walk alone, eyes down, hands crammed in pockets trying to conjure up five reasons why I want to tell everyone in the whole world that I’m turning 50 and what that means to my slightly road-worn heart and mind.
So here’s my Happy 50th Birthday letter to the world.
Five Reasons Why I’m Telling Everyone I’m 50
1. Because in our culture, and probably in many other cultures, I’m supposed to want to hide my age, the same way I hide my gray roots with hair dye.Yes, I’m guilty of covering my locks of wisdom with Ion Color Brilliance 2N Darkest Brown. But even with my roots camouflaged, I’m still considered too old for lots of things. I’m long past the maximum age to be in the US Army again. I’m beyond the thirty-something age limit that many of my friends and acquaintances have set for the women they will date. And, according to the elementary school students I teach poetry to, I’m way too old to go around telling people how long this body’s been in commission. Well, I’m a hair-dyeing, age-defying rule breaker, because here I am announcing my landmark birthday to the world. I’m also in my second graduate degree program at Michigan State University, and I have braces on my teeth. Age isn’t that scary when you don’t allow it to dictate or limit your life. Potential is forever.
2. Because I’m proud to join the ranks of the iconic women I admire most. Some of them are still with us, and some of them are gone. But I became enamored of each of them after they reached their 50s. How I long to be that much closer to the irrepressible, inextinguishable creative blaze of Louise Bourgeois; the timeless, statuesque grace of Carmen Dell’Orefice; the supernatural-genius ferocity of Diamanda Galas; the poetic courage of Nikki Giovanni; and the untamed diva-ship of Annie Lennox. Too much to ask for? Maybe. But I can dream of it, and I do so all the time. Because the spirits of these women defy time and redefine what it means to live big, to live well, to live beyond limits. I’d like to paint a giant banner in their honor and hang it over my life. It would bear the words of Charles Bukowksi: “We are here to laugh at the odds and live our lives so well that Death will tremble to take us.” I think I can feel death trembling right now.
3. Because aging is beautiful, not an illness. I grew up in the presence of women who were terrified by the idea of getting older. They only discussed it in terms of menopausal symptoms, orthopedic shoes, and the inevitable loss of sex appeal. They seemed completely unaware of the wisdom, dignity, strength, beauty, sexuality, and power that I see in “older” women. All cougar cliches aside, I’ve met plenty of gorgeous people who are madly in love with women who are well ahead in years. Just look at a photo of French President Emmanuel Macron clasping the hand of his radiant life partener First Lady Brigitte Macron, who is 25 years his senior. L’amour est éternel!
4. Because I earned it. I’m a mother, a veteran, a writer, a sister, a daughter, a lover, a friend. I’ve studied meditation at a Buddhist vihara. I’ve tested my limits on the mats training in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. I’ve served as an advocate for the arts. And in my late 40s, I earned a masters degree in social work. According to Jungian analyst Jean Shinoda Bolen MD, I’m all geared up to embrace this new stage of life. In her book Goddesses in Older Women: Archetypes in Women Over Fifty, Bolen fleshes out the virtue, value, and sacred experience of being the “juicy crone.” I’m not a huge fan of the word “juicy” unless I’m talking about tangerines, but Bolen’s archetypal wisdom is undeniable. She describes the post-50 years as a time of self-actualization, discovery, and liberation from the confines of convention. Through her exploration of goddesses and mythology, she extends to us an invitation to live with more energy and authenticity. Here I am with all my dents, bruises, achievements, and failures. I bear the marks of my experiences in body, mind, and soul. And I am the keeper of all the stories behind them.
5. Because when you can see the end of the trail, every step counts. Yes, turning 50 raises my awareness of my own mortality. Denying death is more difficult now, but denying life–failing to be fully and expansively alive–is out of the question. Every step, every day holds more promise, more love, more wonder, and more gratitude that the journey isn’t over yet. No, not yet.