This weekend I am doing one of the most cliche things I’ve ever done: I am going to a midlife crisis workshop. Let me pull back and say it even bigger: I am a white divorced 42-year-old mom, and I am going to a midlife crisis workshop. I built a literal empire on offbeatness, but the current reality is pretty fucking stereotypical: just a confused midlife white lady going through a midlife crisis, here! NICE TO MEET YOU.
Some of you likely relate, but most of you probably don’t — one of the joys of the internet is that I know a lot about who’s reading, thanks to all my various analytics. The vast majority of you are younger than me, most of you by about a decade. Let me be clear here: I have no fucking clue what I’m doing (which I’m learning is pretty age-appropriate) but figured I’d send out a dispatch from the trenches of midlife, for those of you who can feel it lurking on the horizon.
Nothing is fair
“I thought I did everything right,” a friend told me recently. “I went to a good school, married a good partner, worked on a good career. So why do I suddenly feel like I’m failing at everything?”
…because it turns out that all milestones we strive for in the first half of our lives don’t guarantee anything, least of all happiness. Because it turns out that being human is uncomfortable sometimes. Because life is unfair.
Some of us grow up knowing this, of course. But those of us who were sheltered by privilege or good luck or hard work or some combination of the three have the rough wake-up call at a certain point that doing things “right” (even by offbeat standards!) doesn’t mean you’re suddenly happy.
A note about the offbeat connection here: some of us (and by “US” I mean me) like to tell ourselves that part of how we do things MOST right is by doing them differently. The unspoken assumption here is that when you do things differently, thoughtfully, carefully, you will be able to avoid the failures of life — because you are smart, and you are unique, and therefore you are able to cheat the mundane bullshit that happens to all the muggles.
HA HA. Joke is on you. Whatever your standards of “right” are (whether you’re climbing an academic ladder, corporate ladder, mainstream suburban family life ladder, or offbeat alternative ladder), the only thing that’s guaranteed is that life’s not fair, and fucked up shit happens to everyone. The end.
Nothing is permanent, least of all being alive
Oh sure, we know this sort of theoretically, but somehow we shield ourselves from the depth of it. It’s easy to tattoo “Carpe diem” on your ankle in college, but way rougher to have a life-threatening illness or accident and realize — oh no, you seize the day not because you could sorta like be dead tomorrow, but because you could ACTUALLY BE A CORPSE TOMORROW. Like, literally dead.
So on the one hand, you realize it’s all falling apart and all you have is right now. On the other hand, you realize the good side of that — if all you have is right now, you probably should enjoy it since you could actually be dead tomorrow?
It’s also not all bad — nothing is permanent also means that shitty things pass. That’s comforting. We’re all going to die, and that stupid construction outside your window is going to be done at some point. I’ve had moments of sobbing, “It’ll never be like this again…” and then being like THANK FUCKING GOD! Wait no, FUCKING TRAGIC! Happy things are fleeting! Awful things are fleeting!
Good shit and bad shit are all tangled up
At 42, my torso is criss-crossed with scars. My boobs have pancaked. I have secretary ass from decades of sitting at a computer. The backs of my hands are weathered and veined. And yet, I’m also in the best physical condition of my life, stronger and leaner and more fit than I’ve ever been, by magnitudes. Every day I’m closer to dying, and yet every day that I’m not dead, I get to use my body to do cool stuff! Huh!
I wouldn’t have been motivated to get in shape if I hadn’t have had some scary medical experiences to shake me out of complacency… so I guess having emergency abdominal surgery was the best thing that ever happened to my body? It’s tangled up.
How does it make sense that I had some of the best sex of my life while in the depths of grief? It makes perfect sense of course because it’s all tangled up.
How is it possible that I cry SO MUCH all the time now, and yet generally speaking am happier than I’ve ever been after decades of being a tough bitch who never cried (WEAKNESS!), now I cry about everything. Leaves changing color? TEARS! Being terrified of being alone forever? TEARS! Good music? TEARS! Seeing an old friend? TEARS! Because it’s all tangled up.
If it was all figured out, it’s not any more
I used to be so clear about how good stuff = good, and bad stuff = bad. I used to work so hard to get more good stuff, and avoid any bad stuff. So much striving to avoid bad stuff! So much working to accumulate good stuff! Then it turns out that, surprise! It’s actually all the same! It’s all tangled up, and in my efforts to avoid bad stuff, I missed some good stuff. And that all my efforts to accumulate good stuff didn’t keep the bad stuff from happening anyway.
I used to be clear about a lot of things. There were things I was really clever about, and worked out great systems for managing. I was quite sure that if I kept doing the things that were working, in the ways that I’d figured out how to do them, that they would stay the same and keep working. Well, HA HA on me because here’s the reality: that’s not how phases of human maturation work! We all know this about children and teenagers — just when you figure out how to manage one phase (toddlerhood: check!), a new one moves in (wait, preschool!?). There are eras where things seem more set or less set, but if you think you have ANYTHING all figured out, you’re in a state of actively avoiding the realities of your own maturation.
Oof? The good news here is that it turns out there’s LOTS of new shit to figure out. This is tough because figuring shit out means also looking really stupid while you learn… but I’ve gotten to a place now where I’m like, “If I don’t look dumb as fuck, I’m probably not learning as much as I should be.” Growth is uncomfortable. Learning is awkward. Maturation isn’t something that happens — it’s a series of moments that are more or less awkward, depending.
Hidden Blessings book club, anyone?
If thinking about this stuff excites you, I recommend the book Hidden Blessings: Midlife Crisis as a Spiritual Awakening. If you need me, I’ll be headed to the midlife crisis retreat this weekend in a rented convertible.