My birthday has been arriving, without fail, on February 19th since 1965. In some years past, I’ve put together a “Things I’ve Learned” list to mark its passing and create a record of notable things Ive had on my mind. At times, I think that list is my way of feeling like I’ve done something over the past year other than grow older. This year I’ve struggled to pull it together. Not because of a lack of material, but because I see how technology has given every single person on the planet a platform. Many shouldn’t have one and that leads me to think deeply about whether I’m one of those people. If you feel that I am, take comfort in the knowledge that I’m giving it serious thought and it’s likely I’ll eventually come to the same conclusion.
This is the first year that I’ve felt a bit ambivalent about getting older. Possibly because this is the first year I’ve felt old. I’ve never been one to expect the masses to fall at my feet and kiss my rings on my birthday, but I’ve never felt melancholy about it either. My fortieth didn’t scar me and, truthfully, I really started coming into my own in my mid-40’s. Prior to that, I was pretty much fumbling around in the dark. At 50, not much had changed. My son did point out that I had almost certainly lived half of my life already, but I shed not one tear because verbal harassment is our love language. At 55 I was feeling wiser than ever before and, despite the visible signs of aging, that felt like a good place to be.
This year was different. A couple of weeks ago, I went in for a bone density scan. As a non-smoker who exercises regularly, avoids soft drinks and lives a fairly healthy life, I considered it a formality. It was a surprise when I received a call telling me I have osteoporosis in both hips and osteopenia in my spine. Is it cancer? No. Not even close. It’s not any number of really serious things it could be and for that I am grateful. For the first time, though, I felt old. Right down to my bones…or what’s left of them. It was like this flashing neon sign that wouldn’t be ignored. A firm realization that no matter how I felt mentally, my body is a bunch of quantum particles whose DNA can only hold up under environmental attack for so long. I know I’m fortunate just to be here and healthy, but I still feel a little put out about being at the top of the sliding board headed straight for 60. I can’t swear to it because I’ve never been a man, but getting older is hard on women in a different way than it is men. It’s particularly tough for women in my age group. We were, after all, raised by a generation of women who never left home without full makeup. In fact, I know a woman who swears that within minutes of delivering her first child, her mother looked over at her and said with a gentle smile, “Honey, you look pale. You need a little lipstick.”
Those lists I mentioned previously were always pretty unisex. This year is a little different. This year is about why, despite the unique challenges of aging as a woman, I feel privileged to be one. This is a celebration of the women in my life and all of the ways we’re wonderful that haven’t a damn thing to do with the way we look. It’s a reflection upon the unique ways we approach life and our responsibilities. So, maybe this gives a woman around my age an opportunity to feel understood. Maybe it gives a younger woman a fast track to a new perspective, or an older woman a sense of recognition for the trail she blazed for all who followed her.
- When it comes to upper body strength, men have us beat. I worked my ass off in my 20’s to be able to do ten pull ups. Can I do one now? Hell no. Half of one? Maybe, with the promise of a Cosmopolitan afterward. But I’ll tell you this, what we lack in upper body strength we make up for in emotional strength. When the worst tragedies of life take place, we are the ones who rise up. I have, over the course of my life, seen women deal with soul-crushing challenges like the loss of a child, addiction, infidelity, rape, both mental and physical illness, aging parents, divorce, and destitution, with grace and perseverance. We may wallow for a minute, but we always regain our footing. We are where life begins, after all, and there is something in that gift that enables us to rise when we really don’t think we can. Don’t know what I mean? Watch Steel Magnolias. Is it sappy? Yep. But every woman sees some of Mlynn’s character in herself and, if she’s lucky, recognizes her circle of friends in Ouiser, Truvy, Annelle, and Clairee. I don’t move to tears easily, but there are two movie scenes that get me every time. Sex and the City, when Big leaves Carrie at the altar and Charlotte defends her in the street and that Steel Magnolia’s scene at the graveside when M’Lynn loses it. The power of female friendship is the resounding theme here. I hope that each of you know that kind of fierce female love.
- As women, we feel intrinsically responsible for our children. Children, despite our best efforts, sometimes stray from the trail we blazed for them. When it happens, we question every decision we made as a mother. Did I push too hard? Did I not push hard enough? Should they have had more responsibility? Should they have had less? You can do everything right as a parent and still have a kid who stumbles. You want to see the fight in a woman? Any female from any species? Endanger her offspring. Women never stop fighting for their kids. We love them in a way that’s reflexive, like breathing or blinking. We love them when they’re the least loveable. Sometimes we show that love by giving advice, financial support, or attention. Other times we show it by having the strength to say no, set difficult boundaries or withdraw financial support, despite the fear of losing them forever. Our love is built out of something otherworldly. Whatever your child may be going through, I hope you never give up. I hope you never stop talking. A mother’s love has saved more than one life.
- Women take self-sacrifice to an art form. Really, we do it all. Should we? No, we really shouldn’t. The rub though, is that we are wired to step up and keep the world rotating on its axis. Imagine what your little corner of the world would look like if you just took a month’s hiatus. That’s how incredibly remarkable you are. You will feel overwhelmed. Often. Why? Because you are overwhelmed. Occasionally, you’ll drop a few of the 100 balls you’re juggling. That’s okay. I once forgot to pick my son up from first grade. Feel free to boost yourself up with that little nugget any time. I see you. I see what you do and I’m awed by it. There’s more than one of you out there that inspire me in ways you don’t even know about. I hope that any time you’re feeling the weight of it all, you’ll look in the mirror and remind yourself of all the good you put out into the world and how many people marvel at you from afar.
- With all of that responsibility comes stress and maybe some anxiety. Take a walk. Yes, a walk. When we walk, our eyes (which are actually a part of our brain that extrudes from the skull) engage in a unique side-to-side movement which shuts down our amygdala and puts our brain in a state of relaxation. The benefits are endless. A walk reduces stress, encourages creativity, and helps prevent osteoporosis. Learned the brain stuff from my favorite neuroscience podcast. Dr. Andrew Huberman is a super smart human being who wants to make science accessible for everyone. You’re everyone. I hope you will do yourself a favor and check him out.
- In my youth, I gravitated more towards men as friends. Mostly, because I was uncomfortable with emotion. They appreciated my wit and sarcasm, were impervious to my zingers, and things never got too heavy. I learned though, that when your world implodes, the people that come to your rescue will be the women in your life. They will care for your children, scrub your toilets, cook food, walk your dogs, pay your bills, give you permission to cry, cry with you, and find a way to give you hope. Don’t listen when a friend tells you she’s fine. Women always say they’re fine when they aren’t and I don’t think we’re going to learn how to ask for help anytime soon. If there’s a crisis and your friend is left to depend on just her husband, everyone is going to starve, none of the bills will get paid, and there will be no clean sheets on the bed. Thank you to each one of you who has come to my rescue when I most needed it. I hope that you will look for more opportunities, not only to help but to accept help.
- You are beautiful. I don’t care what message you’re getting every time you see a 70- year-old woman who could pass for 30, you are beautiful! I say that, I think it when I run into people I haven’t seen in a while, and I mean it. I will be the first to admit, if I had a few thousand uncommitted dollars, I would find it hard to resist replacing all that youthful collagen that abandoned this ship over the last five years. It’s an unexplained phenomenon. When I look at other women, I notice everything that is beautiful and interesting and pass right over the very things I’m critical of when I look in my own mirror. This year, I’m going to work hard at giving myself the grace I extend to others. I hope you will too.
- As women, we are often multi-tasking. Did someone tell you it isn’t possible to multi-task? They’re a damn liar. We do it all day, every day. Raise your hand if, in the 70’s or 80’s, you ever changed gears, drank coffee, smoked a cigarette and applied makeup while driving. I rest my case. As a result, we get a great deal done. Usually for other people. And hey, that’s okay! After all, it is believed that there are four independent brain circuits that influence our feelings of well-being. One of the four is generosity. We are wired for cooperation, compassion and generosity. I just hope you all remember to take a step back and do for you, as you do for everyone else.
- For years I struggled with the idea of vulnerability. I was afraid it made me look weak. Eventually, I realized there’s more than one definition of vulnerability. It doesn’t have to just mean “open to attack.” It can also mean open to loving and being loved. It was other women that taught me the toughest people I knew were the most vulnerable ones. Crawling into your shell may protect you from ever feeling hurt or trusting the wrong person, but it also prevents you from meeting the people that could open your world up, possibly change your life for the better, and show you the care and love you deserve. It takes much more courage to be open than it does to just close yourself off from feeling. I hope that you will take that risk of vulnerability and reap the rewards that each of you so generously deserve. Just stay off of Twitter. Those people are miserable and vicious. We’re looking for openness, not a beat down.
- I read somewhere, and firmly believe, that people are always in a constant state of either showing love or crying out for it. I don’t remember who said it but WOW. What a truth! Sometimes, the most undesirable behavior is just a person crying out for love. As women, we need to focus on judging each other less and do a better job of recognizing when we’re crying out to each other. Do you have a friend who you think is struggling but she’s withdrawn from you? It isn’t because she doesn’t need you, it’s because as women we fiercely protect the people we love. We avoid talking about the struggles of our kids or our spouses, because we never want others to focus on their failings and lose sight of all that’s still beautiful about them. That’s a lonely place to be. I hope that you recognize the opportunity to be someone’s non-judgmental sounding board. My friend Gina and I have “vaulted” conversations. When we’re at our wit’s end, we drive to Sonic, get a couple of slushies and begin by saying, “Okay, this is vaulted…” What a gift, to unload and know that you’re in a safe space. I hope you grab a cherry limeade slushie and a friend and fill your vault slam full.
- Despite how the world is progressing, as women we still have great early influence on children. If you have young children or work as a teacher, you have a unique opportunity to introduce practices to enhance mental wellness. Mindfulness helps us manage our emotions, increase focus, and decrease stress, anxiety and depression. It teaches us to manage our emotions rather than our emotions managing us. I hope that you’ll learn more about how being in the moment, focus, and breathing can have a powerful impact on our lives. If you teach them nothing else related to mindfulness, teach them starfish breathing for when they’re feeling overwhelmed. Using their index finger, have them trace the outside of their other hand, beginning at the thumb and inhaling as they move up and exhaling as they trace down the other side. Focus on the movement and the breathing. Mindfulness has helped me in every aspect of my life. If you want to learn more, John Kabat Zinn wrote a great book called, “Where Ever You Go, There You Are.”
My 55th year brought more knowledge of self, especially as a woman. I learned that exercise, avoiding soft drinks and not smoking, is no match for genetics and bone structure, so I’m committed to taking the extra calcium. I realized I’m more intelligent than I thought I was as a young woman but not nearly as intelligent as I would like to be, so I’m embracing every opportunity to learn. I found that I need the company of my girlfriends more than ever before, so I’m committed to making more time for the women that have so graciously blessed me with their friendship. If you have great women in your life like I do, there’s nowhere you feel more supported and less judged.
I’m hopeful that during this year of 56, I stop looking in the mirror and feeling disappointed that my body isn’t 25, that I continue to gain a better understanding of myself and the people around me, and that I break my addiction to tortilla chips. I’ll continue to look for ways to grow intellectually and spiritually, and make contributions that help rather than hurt. I’ll resist the urge to curl up in a ball and coast.
And tonight, when I blow out my candles, I’ll wish to find myself awash in even more funny, gifted, kind, determined, fallible women and that the coming year presents endless opportunities to celebrate all that makes being a woman such a worthwhile journey.
Long live the sisterhood.