So today is my birthday —a yearly event that used to make me feel anxious and sad with almost dependability. I remember turning nineteen was difficult because I hadn’t set the world on fire yet and I felt I was falling behind. Behind what? I struggled with my fortieth birthday for similar reasons, only that felt even worse as I tried to understand all the time that had passed and began to do the hard work of negotiating with the expectations of my youth.
As we age I think we reassess our priorities and set more realistic goals. Several years ago, I read an interview with Annie Lennox where she described a kind of grieving process in middle age, as we realize that the sense of time being endless road laying before us, with so much time to explore our every interest and all our imagined potential, is actually finite. The mourning comes as we struggle with the concept that we won’t visit every place in the world that we’d hoped, won’t read every book, learn every language and become every version of ourselves that we dreamed we might. We realize that the life is, in a sense, like looking at last Sunday’s New York Times on Friday as all the unread sections just sit there, a grim reminder of last week’s aspirations. We tried, but we just ain’t gonna get through the whole thing.
Lennox actually wrote a very poignant album about this kind of loss called Bare that was, not surprisingly, very sad and consequently, not her biggest success. Perhaps we don’t always want the catharsis of hearing an artist express ideas that are more easily dealt with by not dealing. She sings in the album’s opening track, Pavement Cracks:
“The city streets are wet again with rain
But I’m walkin’ just the same
Skies turn to the usual grey
When you turn to face the day
And love don’t show up in the pavement cracks
All my water colours fade to black
I’m goin’ nowhere and I’m ten steps back
All my dreams have fallen flat”
Grim stuff. A few years ago, I went to actress Lorraine Bracco’s fiftieth birthday party. She seemed so sincerely happy and I remember feeling incredulous. I was only forty and just beginning the process of understanding the grieving and growing associated with middle age. I asked her about this and she said something really simple that, though I didn’t understand at the time, stayed with me. “Are you healthy?” she asked. When I told her I felt fine, she lovingly barked “then you’re happy!” It took me several years of hard work around this issue to understand what she meant. Maybe it’s the tenderizing that comes as we move through our forties and begin to lose things that are precious, such as hair, loved ones, and time. The more I lose, the more I feel grateful for what is, the more I accept what isn’t, and even— perish the thought—what might never be. Today’s my birthday. And I’m healthy, so I’m happy.