When I was in college, way back in the late 1970’s, I took several courses on Marxism. One may have been enough for most people but not me—I was fascinated with Marx’ five year plans. As I remember it, his idea was to move Marxism forward in five year increments, so he would map out all these detailed five year strategies and then at the end of the five years he’d come up with another plan, a new direction.
For a 21 year old French major, this seemed like a logical approach. I liked maps, I liked the idea of a set time frame. I decided I, too, would travel through life based on Five Year Plans.
It took me a long time to realize that none of Marx’ Five Year schemes had panned out. By that point I had already wandered far and wide off the planned path myself—and Ronald Reagan had Alzheimer’s.
I thought a lot about my Five Year Plans this year. Specifically, I wondered what had happened to my original map and how the hell I was suddenly standing on the outskirts of some place called Fifty. I don’t think anyone ever deliberately plans on visiting Fifty. Paris, definitely. But Fifty? Not exactly on Travelocity’s Top Ten List. Standing on the edge of Fifty I felt a little lost, I felt a little weepy. I felt like I wanted to chuck everything I’d been doing and run away to San Francisco, like some 1970’s movie heroine.
George kept asking what I wanted to do for my fiftieth. I said, “Run away to San Francisco like some woman in a film from the 70’s” and his eyes lit up. He said, “You mean like Jill Clayburgh?” George has a sweet spot for brunettes. Don’t even get him started on Diane Lane. I said, “Yes, like Jill Clayburgh” and George volunteered to play Alan Bates.
Costume sex is always a tempting offer, but I declined. I was restless for something, I didn’t know what. An older, wiser friend (54) said my vague malaise was brought on by my approaching 50th birthday. She said, “You’ll feel much better the morning after your birthday. Trust me on this.” Maybe. But I couldn’t figure out why 50 was bugging me when 30 and 40 never had. I had looked forward to those milestones. On my 30th I had gone to a supper club in Manhattan and stayed out all night like Zelda Fitzgerald. On my 40th I had launched my own business. So I didn’t expect any problems on my 50th—and the fact that I was having one made me want to wrestle it to the ground and tame it.
One evening in the middle of this angst I was hanging out with Wally and the Snapper, bonding over some extremely trashy programming on VH1. Every family has a certain glue that binds them together; for my teenage sons and me, it’s extremely bad television shows. As I sat there watching “Rock of Love” with them I remembered how my parents used to take us to the drive-in movies and I wondered what my boys would do with their kids.
Then it struck me suddenly: fifty is the halfway point.
It’s halfway between backpacking around Europe at 25 and turning into your parents at 75. It’s halfway between being a young parent and a grandparent; mid-point between career goals and retirement.
At 50 I knew things I’d never known were important, let alone existed. At 25 I knew how to decline French verbs and smile my way past a bouncer. At 50 I knew how to sleep sitting up next to a child in a hospital bed and micromanage a grocery budget. At 25 I knew how to pick a baby up to stop his crying; at 50 I knew I could stop his crying but I couldn’t make the hurt go away. At 25, I had no past. At 50 I could see the past as clearly as if it were yesterday—and I’d been seeing my future ever since my AARP application arrived in the mail.
All that clarity paralyzed me.
I wondered, how do you make a decision about where to go next when your life choices are playing back to you on a panoramic screen? When you can only see what’s directly in front of you, it’s easier to decide because your options seem limited. When you have a 360 degree view the stakes—and mistakes—are higher. In one of my favorite fairytales, a man goes through an enormous calamity. He survives and says to his wife, well, I really learned from that experience. A little while later he goes through another terrible ordeal. Luckily, he survives. And he says to his wife, well I really learned from that one. A bit further one, he encounters another catastrophe.
The moral being that it’s great to learn lessons, but you have to actually apply them or it will kill you. Literally.
This thought also immobilized me. What if I made the wrong decision? How many more chances would I get at this age anyway? All the roads I’d traveled had led me here, to the outskirts of 50 and I needed to know which road would take me out of here and onto the next path. I envied Karl Marx. He managed to make those Five Year Plans work for him right up through his death. I envied those 1970’s heroines—San Francisco seemed like a pretty easy choice.
I chewed on this for months and came to no conclusion. Then one morning I ran into a former lover, a disreputable artist who had succored me through some of the rough nights early in my single parenting tenure. I had gone into a coffee shop, desperate for a shot of espresso and there he was.
I didn’t recognize him.
Though he had been younger than me when we were together, he no longer looked it. He was losing his hair and had developed a paunch. Well, haven’t we all. Anyway, we started talking and we talked about books and birthdays and I told him I was approaching 50. He laughed as if he couldn’t believe that he had actually slept with someone who was now almost 50. Then he offered me a birthday present, a paperback he had in his backpack. It was a book about Aboriginal mythology. I tucked it away, hugged him and left.
A couple of days later I found the book at the bottom of my purse and began to read. It turns out that in Aboriginal creation myths, the people did not come to earth after the Gods had already created it. In their myths, the people were here first and they walked along paths called song lines, and as they walked they sang their world into existence.
Imagine singing your world into existence. Not mapping it, not five year planning it, but singing it into existence. What a beautiful thought. I decided that’s what I would do. I’d stop combing the maps for signposts and high speed routes. I would instead follow my own song lines, and sing the next phase of my life into being.
I climbed off the fence and walked happily into Fifty. I stopped worrying about how I should celebrate my birthday and just celebrated by surrounding myself with everyone I loved.
I had dinner with my best girlfriends and drank champagne.
I got a pedicure.
My sons got me two birthday cakes (I know one was on sale).
I had great birthday sex (George got a present, too).
And my friend was right. I did feel better the day after I turned 50.
In fact, I got up, singing.