The Delaware Water Gap is the first place where I ever went hiking. The woods are not my parents’ scene, so my first hike took place during autumn of my junior year of high school on a trip organized by my chemistry teacher.
When we arrived in the parking lot, Mr. Beebee told us to meet back at the bus before dusk. And let me pause and state that one reason I am glad I am 41 is that in those days you could do that on a class trip. On a class trip to Italy the previous year our chaperones turned us loose in Rome and looked the other way when we got drunk on White Russians in the hotel lobby. In these days of helicopter parenting, I doubt teachers would give students that kind of freedom for fear of a lawsuit.
The hike up was great. We crossed a stream! The air smelled so fresh! I felt like Maria in the Sound of Music!* The view at the top was gorgeous. But on the way back down, we found ourselves in Blair Witch Project territory.
“Wait, are we still on the trail?”
“I thought it was this way.”
“No, I think it’s that way.”
I don’t think I was the only kid on the trip whose parents were not into hiking. One of us had the brilliant idea that we didn’t really need the trail since we were on a mountain and as long as we went down we would eventually get to the right place.
We found the parking lot just as the sun was setting. We had to scoot on our butts since the mountain was so steep. We had to negotiate boulders. One boy didn’t like my scooting technique and accused me of starting an avalanche. We were covered in dirt, mud, scrapes, and bruises.
A few months ago, I went hiking on the very same mountain. I noticed how easy it was to stay on the trail. The trees were clearly marked with blazes. I wondered how we could have gotten so lost. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist. But then I thought of how many hikes I’d done since that first one. I thought about how experience turns daunting things into mundane things. That was the moment when I realized that I really have learned a few things in the past 41 years.
Like how to deal with disgruntled office workers, teenagers, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. How not to burn bridges. The difference between a Roth IRA and a traditional IRA. That you have to let the eggs, not just the butter, come to room temperature before you bake a cake. That you can grow tomatoes, green beans, cucumbers, kale, and lettuce in part-sun but not potatoes, beets, garlic, sweet potatoes, or butternut squash. That if you don’t have sex at least once a week your relationship will go to shit. That adjustable-rate mortgages are a very bad idea. That diets don’t work. That nagging doesn’t work. That you should never take anything personally. The importance of dehumidifiers. That a boyfriend, husband, children, straight-A’s, a 4-bedroom house in Haddonfield, granite countertops, being a size zero, admission to an Ivy-League school, winning a figure-skating competition, singing in a band, doing a handstand, and getting something published do not equal happiness.
That to truly experience love, you must let yourself be completely open and vulnerable. That protecting yourself will not lead to safety but to stagnation. That having the upper hand (and my God how I love to have the upper hand) means less connection. I figured this shit out, like, a month ago.
When I turned 30, I freaked the f$%& out. I was all:
“Oh my God I’m sooooo old!” and
“Look, there’s a line by my eye that wasn’t there last year.”
In other words, really annoying. It didn’t help that my husband put a tombstone-shaped candle on my birthday cake that said, “Here lies my youth.” Despite the fact that I had two children and a mortgage, I thought of myself as a cool young girl who was pretending to be an adult. But there was something about 30 that put an end to that fantasy. I was, like it or not, a grown-up.
In contrast, I barely noticed when I turned 40. I thought it was pretty cool that I was still alive. 50, 60, 70, 80, bring ‘em on. I don’t think I’m going to ever freak out about a birthday again.
Somewhere between 30 and 40, I stopped looking at aging as bad thing and realized it was something to celebrate. This shouldn’t be a big deal, but in this country, it is. In every way, American women are conditioned to prize youth and fear old age. Here’s some evidence, not that you really needed it:
Guess how much we spent on “anti-aging” skin care products in 2013?
Guess how much Americans spent on cosmetic plastic surgery in 2013?
12 billion, and 91% of recipients were women.
Just for a sense of perspective, the US government spent an estimated 8 billion in Iraq in 2013.
How often do you see a woman over 50 being used to hawk cars, jewelry, clothing, vacation spots, basically, anything other than health insurance plans and medications? Has there ever been an issue of a fashion magazine that did not include at least one article about how to look or feel younger? The wellness scene, which loves to preach about you should love yourself and your body exactly as it is, still uses images of youthful wrinkle-less beauties to sell yoga gear, herbal supplements, and paraben-free skin products.
One of the most annoying expressions of our culture’s fear of ageing is when younger people address senior citizens as “Miss.” I never saw this happen when I lived in the South, because “Ma’am” is used for all women there, regardless of age. But here in the Northeast, young people are sometimes hesitant to address an older woman as “Ma’am” for fear that it might acknowledge the dreadful fact that she has made it past menopause. What they are really saying is “I am embarrassed to admit that I see that you are not 21.” I swear to God, if some youngster calls me “Miss” when I am rocking white hair and a monogrammed velour tracksuit, I will whack them upside the head with my cane.
When I was 35, I thought I finally had it all figured out. I had been through a tumultuous marriage that ended in death, gave up my dream of being an academic scientist, and emerged from a time of stress and grief ready to reinvent myself as a fitness/wellness provider. I laugh now, because I plunged into an unhealthy mode of being around age 37 from which I am currently emerging. I am now old enough to know that I don’t have it all figured out and probably never will.
I’m old enough to be excited to grow older. When I look at how much I’ve learned over the past 41 years, I can’t imagine how much more I will learn in the years to come. I’m going to be so freaking wise when I’m 80 that the youngsters will put Depends in their shopping carts so they can be more like me. And I’m gonna be like, “Not so fast young lady, you haven’t earned that yet.” But in a nice way, because I’ll understand where they’re coming from.
Just as long as they don’t call me Miss.
*Meet me at the bike racks if you do not agree that this is the Greatest Movie Of All Time.