Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Becoming 50

It's My Party

by Tina

I am about to turn fifty. With my students and friends, I joke about being old, but alone, in the eerie silence of dawn, I find myself agonizing over where I am in the span of my life. My anxiety actually has nothing to do with being x-number of years old; other than a handful of minor complaints, I don’t feel that I’m at death’s door or any such morbid thought. Instead, what I find myself anxious about is what I am not doing at age fifty. My anxiety is little more than unfulfilled expectations.

Looking back over the span of my life, I have to chuckle at myself for dragging this cloud of disappointment around with me. If I am honest, my life has been a series of unfulfilled expectations, almost from the beginning. Why I would choose only the latest in the series to go into a major decline over probably bears some contemplation.

If we are honest, most of us would probably find that our childhoods, no matter how idyllic, were a series of unfulfilled expectations. It is in truth the nature of the beast. Children can imagine almost anything and usually do. This, in turn, leads them to expect almost anything. Few if any of those childhood expectations will be realized. At six, I truly expected one day to discover within myself the mental and physical ability to fly—without benefit of machine. Needless to say, that expectation remains unfulfilled. On a more prosaic level, I expected to be a brilliant, awarding-winning doctor—didn’t happen. It is normal for us to go through an entire gamut of expectations as children—about our futures, our families, our own abilities. It is equally normal to have the majority of those expectations unmet, unfulfilled. It’s not considered a tragedy; it’s growing up.

Even as we leave childhood, however, and venture into adolescence, the threshold of adulthood, we have expectations which more often than not are never realized. Whether they be meeting and marrying prince charming or having an award-winning career, rarely do the road maps envisioned in adolescence hold up to reality. There are always unmarked obstacles and detours. In high school, I was overwhelmed by offers to attend colleges such as Bryn Mawr and Northwestern. I ended up at a local public university. By late in my teens, I envisioned myself on a quest to achieve fame and fortune as an award-winning writer. Two years out of college I was married to a local airplane mechanic, trudging along his chosen path to fame and fortune.

While in retrospect, the results of many of these unfulfilled expectations may sound dull and depressing, in reality we are very adaptable creatures. We compensate and adjust and most often try to carve out the best niche for ourselves in whatever pond we land in. I created an entire universe around family and children. Idyllic it was not, but it was for the most part busy and full and interesting. I still found time to write, and I still entertained notions of one day being a nationally-recognized author. Along with that expectation, however, I had discovered an entirely new set of expectations—watching my children grow and thrive and succeed, growing old with my mate, achieving enough financial security to sit on the back porch and watch the sun set in peace and tranquility. Those expectations fell victim to betrayal and divorce.

Now on the precipice of fifty, I sit contemplating the plethora of unfulfilled expectations that have adorned my life. The crotchety old woman in me wants to wag her finger and shout, “See, see! Just one disappointment after another!” There are moments, days, that it is not only easy to hear her, it is impossible to shut her out. I sigh, I sob, I fret over how I got to be where I am now. I blame life, I blame my ex, I blame myself, and I wallow in despair. I can throw an absolutely brilliant pity party.

Fortunately for everyone, however, my optimistic super-ego comes to the rescue. It picks me up, dusts me off, and gives me a firm whack on the back. “You’re not dead,” it points out. “There’s life in the old girl yet!” Despite everything, I find myself chuckling over my own doom and gloom. Everyone has unfulfilled expectations; they are a part of the human condition. They go with the territory, like birth, death, and spoiled milk—they happen.

So I reexamine this anxiety I have about what I’m not doing at age fifty. It’s true enough that I’m not doing what I expected to be doing—not what I expected when I was ten or twenty or thirty or even forty. But, then, neither was I doing what I expected when I was any of those ages either. Life truly is an unfolding mystery that most often defies game plans and road maps and even simple expectations. What can I expect as I turn fifty? Who knows? What do I hope as I turn fifty? I hope that I can greet each day with joy and curiosity and the energy to tackle the unexpected.