Safe, on the Other Side of Sixty

In 1979 I was standing on a mountain in the Himalayas. My face hadn’t seen water in four days and my 25th birthday loomed over me like a serial killer. The thing I’d been dreading all year had arrived. It was finally time for me to grow up. I made a few promises to myself back then, which I’ve kept. For example, to stop going for gold in the drinking Olympics.

Thirty-five years later my 60th birthday stands before me like a brick wall. I have no way to interpret the number that so thoroughly blocks my view of the future. I know I’m being silly. My husband is already sixty-one, my older sister the same. They haven’t spontaneously combusted or dropped dead of old age. What exactly is my problem with this birthday?

For one, I’ve begun second guessing myself. In the last few months I’ve started worrying about middle aged/ old people things like slipping and falling on icy roads. The roots of my hair seem, overnight, dramatically grayer. My face insists on keeping my chest company on its journey south. But still, all that has been going on for awhile. Why am I so bummed out?

If I compared my life span to a hike in the Himalayas, then I reached the summit at the age of fifty. So ten years ago, I was on top of the world. There was none of the uncertainty of my present age. Now that I’ve begun the descent, though, I’m remembering that climbing uphill is actually easier than going down. A steady descent is very hard on the knees. Two hundred and fifty miles of traveling the highs and lows of the Himalayas taught me that much. Perhaps that’s the problem. I fear the hardship of the journey on the way down.

I have a disposition that is inclined to rebellion. I’m easy going, but I don’t like to be told what to do. Maybe that’s part of the problem. None of us gets a say in our future. We can’t press the pause button, turn to Father Time and tell him, No Thanks. I’ll be leaving the station now and going my own way. You go on without me. Everything I need is right here, right now.

Facing the number sixty has made me feel helpless. Why can’t everything and everyone just stay put? Why can’t the earth keep renewing itself, the water flowing clean and uninterrupted to the ocean. The air crisp and undamaged by industry and frequent flyers.

Why can’t everyone on the planet just get along?  Turning sixty is stripping away all of  my illusions. I’m not really in charge of anything. I have no say over the car that is rounding the bend toward me, or the Tsunami of events waiting to surprise me. Would it be easier, then, to check out early? Stop writing, or running my business? Quit my marriage, say adios to my kids.

I can’t do that. For one thing, I want to see how things work out for all of us. And the parts I don’t get to see, my children and friends will witness for me. I guess that’s one of the reasons we’re here on Earth. To observe the wonderful, the ridiculous and the heartbreaking events that make up a life. What we do with those observations, how much we decide to take part, well. That’s up to each of us. That’s the real power of living.

And in the aha moment reached this very second, I’ve realized what my sixtieth birthday is really telling me. I must continue growing up, and upward. Every day brings new lessons, and it won’t be over until God reaches out and gives me the golden hand shake. That part, I’m looking forward to. “Good job! (God might say) Please head directly toward the light. And no worries, Judy, cause its all downhill from there.”

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