I’ve said elsewhere that, when I was a kid, hearing that someone was in their 50s made them instantly the most boring people on the face of the earth. I always liked the elderly. I loved my grandparents and I especially loved one great uncle, Jimmy Fox (no, not that Jimmy Foxx). People in their 20s and even 30s were still young, and people in their 40s were the authority. My mom was 29 when I was born, so for my entire adolescence she was in her 40s.
People in their 50s were this uninteresting middle ground, where their bodies were starting to fail and they had lost anything that connected them to their youth. I worked in a neighborhood drug store throughout high school. You learn a lot about people–who had hemorrhoids or bad skin, who was taking antidepressants or birth control, what product women used for their periods, which men bought rubbers. This one older guy bought a three-pack of rubbers every Friday–I could only guess he was in his 50s because his kids were grown and out of the house. I couldn’t even conceive of him having sex, and I didn’t want to picture it. Then one time, after he left, the pharmacist Max called me back to his counter. He tossed a prescription bag at me. It was for the guy’s wife, and she was on birth control.
I didn’t like turning 50, but I have liked being in my 50s. I have written elsewhere that my climb through my 50s has been emotional but incredibly rewarding. My boys are now young adults and launching. When I turned 55, I had outlived my father. Now, turning 57, I have worked longer than my mother, who had to retire at 56 because of her multiple sclerosis. I have my work, which I love, and I finally started writing in earnest last year and now can point to a completed novel and 13 short stories, with more forthcoming. I have another creative project that I am incubating, and have given up teaching freshman writing, at least for now, and have my second gig this summer teaching creative writing.
In 1999 and 2000, I had two difficult years. My good friend, Mike Harding, was murdered, and my mom’s health collapsed. My faith had always been fragile but that brought it to a crisis. What God, I asked myself, would visit such horror on two wonderful people? I still haven’t answered that question, but I did use my faith to understand a few things about what happened.
About a year after Mike was killed, I led Sunday service and delivered the sermon in my church. This is a great tradition in the Unitarian-Universalist faith–lay people taking the pulpit. I was there to talk about what had finally helped me and why I felt I had something to say.
My minister, Phyllis O’Connell, guided me through the process–writing the sermon, choosing the hymns, and choosing the readings. I struggled with the last part. At least in our congregation, we don’t do biblical readings, so you have to find something secular that matches the theme of the sermon.
I landed on a favorite poem by C. D. Wright called “Handfasting.” It describes an elderly couple on a winter’s day where first the wife, and then the husband, step out onto an icy walk, slip and fall, and die. It’s not tragic for Wright, though; instead, it’s a kind of release. As the title suggests, it’s also a kind of sacrament of love. She ends it with:
But it struck me, a stranger, as one of love’s merciful ends.
Desirous even. I want us to live for that assignation.
I want us to rise with the first crib of light
like a milky new mother and husband; step out
as if for mail, and freeze our flabby asses off together.
Phyllis rarely landed hard on anything, but she told me to not read that poem. I forget her exact words, but in essence she said, “There are many people that old sitting in those pews. They don’t want to hear this on a Sunday morning.”
I could–maybe–still make an argument for that poem, but I didn’t read it, and I realized even more importantly that I carried an unconscious bias with me, which was that old age could be, if not trivialized, kept at an ironic distance that I needed. Just as I thought so little of people in their 50s, there I was in my early 40s thinking so little of people in their 70s and 80s. It would have been a little cruel.
So I move through my 50s, and will reach the crest of my 60s before I even know it. As I imagined in my youth, I have taken on some of the maladies of late middle age. I am sure there are some people who consider me among the most boring people on earth, but I don’t think they represent the majority. I imagined people in their 50s had no vitality, no new thoughts or ideas, and were little more than the pills and ointments they bought. They’re not. We’re not. I’m not.