How often have you passed a shop window, caught a reflection of an old, jowly broad out the corner of your eye, mutely snickered at her, then realized it’s your own reflection? How many times have you stood up, turned your head, crossed your leg, or picked up your purse and felt pain streaking through your nerves as a no-longer supple muscle seizes up? How often have you not written down that task or that message, confident your steel-trap memory will retain it, and found yourself in trouble later, because the trap has morphed into a sieve?
Acceptance is the first step toward recovery, right? So maybe you need to accept that you’re getting old. Ignoring the decline in your physique and faculties isn’t helping you prevent it. In your mind’s eye, you see yourself as a fit and fine fifty-year-old, like your neighbor who runs marathons and looks fantastic in those demure but fitted dresses she wears. You also believe your brain works as well as it did twenty years ago. It doesn’t.
But the hardest thing to accept about butting up against the half century mark isn’t the decrepitude, it’s the fact you no longer revel in your age. Your life has gotten better each decade you’ve been alive. Of course there have been a few valleys, but overall your happiness has increased like the stock market since the seventies. You breezed through your twenties and thirties, confident the trend would continue, and despite the insults to your vanity, it has. You have a terrific family whom you love, with a child in the parenting sweet spot: old enough to carry on an interesting conversation and young enough to still want to talk to you. You may grumble about your husband’s quirks, but he’s pretty terrific too—the best friend with whom you can dive deep into a film’s meaning, or riff on a pop culture icon, or play ventriloquist with the cat.
So why does the prospect of a sixth decade worry you? Ten years ago you were very comfortable in your own skin; why do you feel as awkward now as you did when you were 19? Elaina has written about standing on a precipice, and you feel your toes gripping the edge of that cliff too. Man, you hate heights, especially when there’s no railing. When there’s a railing, you can deal; no railing, you’re dizzy, and your instinct is to fall down with your butt on the stone behind you, rather than risk pitching forward and flying head first into the abyss.
You are trying to take your writing career in a new direction, and that’s scaring you. You’re scared of losing income as you shift focus, and you’re worried your aging brain doesn’t have the capacity to pursue parallel career tracks, even though you’ve brought yourself to a place where you have the flexibility and freedom to do just that. At the same time, you are wholly unsatisfied with the status quo. You are still the 19-year-old whose major ambition is to be famous. Did you stop wanting that at 39—is that why you were content then, when you’re not now?
The other day you asked an acquaintance who is a well-regarded author about a movie deal that had been in the works. He expressed some wistful regret the project never moved forward, but also said making movies had never been his goal, and his career had already surpassed his hopes. You admired his polished response, and you trust the humility was sincere on his part. You doubt it would have been on yours. You know however well you do, you’ll want more. If your work is ever published by a major house, you’ll want the movie deal. If you get the movie, you’ll want to write the script, and if you write the script, you’ll want the Oscar, because you’ve carried a list of people to thank in your pocket since you were nine.
This spring, you’ll turn 49. You’re counting on having another 30 or 40 years to achieve your life’s goals. An Oscar would be really nice. You’d take a Pulitzer, or even a Nebula. As writers we’re supposed to stay humble and realistic, and not admit our desire to see an award or two on the shelf. But perhaps you need to own up to that ambition. Acceptance is the first step toward recovery, and stating a goal may be the first step to achieving it.
To read more of Amanda’s letters, click here!