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The Stone House Diary: On Turning 51

By River Stillwood

This week, with a pair of bifocals, a plum colored broken toe, a thick set of cumbersome compression garments, enough scars to prove I’ve earned my gains, and a host of developing wrinkles, I turned 51. Fifty-one-years old. Something inside of me must be in revolt because I’m having trouble settling into that age, failing in my attempts to match it to how I see myself or how I feel. It’s too old for me. Far too old. 41 would be about right. Pushing it a bit, 45.  But 51? I think not.

Last year, when I turned 50, I was elated. Delighted. Thrilled. Relieved. While battling cancer, I had feared I wouldn’t reach that blessed milestone. That I would be listed among Those who Tragically Died Too Young. So, when January 17,2011 rolled around, it was a cause for unbridled celebration!

There was no space in my head or heart to consider that also on that date I was officially stepping through the threshold of my fifth decade. That the march of time was pressing me quickly onward through middle age and toward eventual permanent residency in the snowy white community of “Seniordom.” That it was all going by too fast. That ages were being layered on, smothering my youth under thick, wooly numbers that didn’t belong to me. No, at 50, all I knew was that I’d beaten the odds! I was alive and well! I’d made it! Wahoo!

But now, at 51, mingled with the unquenchable joy of being alive is an unexpected soberness. No longer am I at the threshold of my fifties. I’ve got two feet firmly planted in it. Suddenly, this aging thing is getting serious! And it’s not just the number of years that’s caught me up short. It’s that my connection with others and our culture has suddenly shifted again and this time I’m not sure I like the changes.

During my teens and twenties, I could name just about any movie star, television icon, and Top 40 singer. I knew all the popular dances, could disco and line dance and strut my stuff from sunup to sunup. I played as hard as I worked, followed national politics and marched for causes I believed in. Life was grand, a red carpet unfurling beyond the horizon. I lived with my arms wide open, fully embracing life.

In my thirties, I was a “Thirty-Something” woman, old enough to make my way confidently in the world, young enough to still be hip. I’d just as soon meet at a coffee shop as go dancing, but Starbucks had come onto the scene, and kicking back with a friend and a Half-Caf Non-Fat Grande Latte or Vente Caramel Macchiato was the “in” thing to do. I still enjoyed following Hollywood stars and pop music and such, but I’d become politically attune to world events. I cared about ending Apartheid in South Africa and the massacre in China’s Tiananmen Square. The future still unfurled before me, but the path I’d already trodden was longer. I could look back and see where I had come from. I lived life with my arms wide open, but my hands were full of store coupons and bills and lists of Things That Must Be Done.

In my forties, I not only retained the confidence of my thirties, but I no longer felt constrained to the unvoiced expectations of others. Wherever space opened up to Be Myself, I was. My skin grew more comfortable, my muscles relaxed. I smiled and laughed more. I was still connected enough with my youngest peers to discuss the latest new band or rising star, but I jogged more than I danced and I stopped drinking coffee after noon because it kept me up at night. Still, I was very active, up to date, and in the know.  I seemed to stand dead center of that long red carpet with neither the beginning nor end visible — which didn’t bother me a whit. My arms were still wide, but comfortably, as much in offering as in embrace.

Until a brick wall appeared just ahead of me and I was diagnosed with cancer.

But now, solidly in my fifties, I am well, but no longer hip. I no longer peruse pop magazines in the grocery store checkout line or watch televised award shows. I have no idea who most of the stars are, much less what they’re known for. I don’t much like todays pop music. So much of it sounds soulless or shamefully commercial or runs counter to my values. Even country music, which for so long seemed as trustworthy as a cold rain, farm truck, or old dog, now camouflages music beneath the pounding noise and indistinguishable lyrics of rock and roll.

The funny thing is that it’s not just that I’m not up to date on today’s Hollywood happenings or the latest bands to make it on the radio. I’m no longer even interested in them. The unabashed hoopla of their celebrity and scandals now seems woefully overblown, trite, or just plain boring. More so, the continued constant coverage of them mystifies me. Why does anyone care what a reality TV show personality or has-been rock star thinks about politics? Or soap? Or anything else?

After fifty years, the luster of celebrity has completely lost its allure.

If it were only my connection to the outside world that had shifted so much over time, turning 51 wouldn’t feel quite so sobering. But the relationship I have with myself is also undergoing a startling change. Until recently, it felt like I could still be anything I wanted to be, that all of the golden doors open in youth remained open. Lately, however, I’ve been haunted by a strange slamming sound — Wham! Wham! Wham! – as I recognize that I am no longer able to grasp the transformational mantle of youth and become whatever I want to be. Age is the Great Gatekeeper. With every birthday, more doors are closing.

What I haven’t figured out yet is what it means to me to have those doors close. Is it a disappointment or relief that I won’t likely become a doctor now? Or run a full marathon in record time? Or run a full marathon at all? Or have the waist and thighs of a twenty-one year old? Or be able to stay up all night? Or want to stay up all night? Is it disheartening or pleasing that I don’t know how to “twitter” or understand the many abbreviated text phrases used by youngsters today? That so much of today’s technology seems a paltry replacement for good old face to face conversations and business dealings?

What I do know it this: You are not “only as old as you feel.” If that were true, I’d still be 41.

And this: There are gifts to being in one’s 50’s. At least in one’s early 50’s. It’s a comfortable time. While the years may be racing forward, day to day things slow down a notch, move at a more satisfying pace. Priorities change. The things that matter deepen in importance. Relationships, especially. People take precedence over business. The things that don’t matter as much, matter less. Washing dishes after supper, for example. Or remaking the bed after the dogs have ruffled the blankets.

I have no idea where I’ll be in nine years when, if I am lucky, time delivers me unceremoniously into my 60’s, but other than some stiffness in the joints, an aching toe, and waistline thicker than I’d like, I’m mostly pleased. As startling as turning 51 is, it sure beats the alternative.