Just before the end of the past year, I decided to forgo my usual habit of cramming my annual planning into the most riotously busy time of the year. Hence December in January, where I spend the first month of the chronological new year planning my own, to begin in February.
I was born in September of 1961, which means that I started the first grade at the tail end of eligibility, back in 1967, which means that while I won’t be turning 50 for another year and a half, I’ll be watching many, many friends do it between now and September of 2011.
While I stopped taking numbers quite so seriously somewhere around 41, when my intestines decided to go south for the winter (they still vacation there from time to time), 50 is so round and so firm and so halfway-to-100 that it’s hard not to sit up and take notice of it. Maybe we feel that way about every rounded-to-ten number (I’ll let you know when and if I do hit 100), but the only way I can describe thinking about 50 is that it has a way of thinking right back at you. It’s objectively impressive in a way that we in our rule-obsessed culture have subjectively made 18 and 21. It’s just there. FIFTY. FIFTY. FIFTY.*
I am taking careful note of what my ever-so-slightly-elders are doing during these 18 or so months rolling up to my own, personal Main Event, because that’s what most of us humans do, I think: we look to each other for cues. Thankfully, I’ve chosen well enough that my friends aren’t doing idiotic, bucket-list things like shooting themselves out of cannons or idiotic, Masters-of-the-Universe-type stuff like scheduling face lifts or destination luaus. No, mostly they’re hitching up their big-boy pants and getting down to business. My friend, Kevin, took a wide view of his life via an interesting collaborative project involving the most meaningful people from his life. Other friends are putting the finishing touches on their families (because who wants to be 60 chasing babies, even if it’s medically possible) or making appointments with the hypnotherapist about that little smoking thing (so hot when you’re 20, so not when you’re 50).
Most of them, of us, are looking at how we want to spend our time on the back nine, and where.
Will we be healthy? Nature and circumstance leave us less and less margin for error, so we step it up a bit, but not in that insane, hell-or-high-water way of our youth. We drop a bad habit, or better yet, quietly replace it with a good one, and keep our fingers crossed, just in case. I cannot work the hours I used to, nor eat the things I did, nor drink the way I did, so I make minor adjustments, then more, then more. To an outsider, my new life may look like nothing much; for me, it is nothing short of revolutionary, this sleeping for eight hours, or reading for one, or almost holding still for half of one.
This, then, is what goal-setting looks like now: not the crazy, brash, bold and hopeful lists of youth, but deep and ruthlessly non-sexy shifts: read more. Sleep more. Eat better. Slow down.
Halfway through this December-in-January I’ve conjured up for myself, with “MORE ROOM” as my mantra, I have let go of an astonishing amount of stuff. More than you know, or that anyone will know, and maybe that’s as it should be. The point is no more to die with the fewest toys than the most, and the point is definitely not to advertise it on a bumper sticker. The point seems to be, what do I need to really and truly live every day of my life?
Halfway through December-in-January, things are still messier and dirtier than I’d hoped they’d be at the beginning of it. You will notice that this is not a post filled with items, as was last Monday’s; this is a painstaking and slightly painful admission that while I have been working assiduously at certain things, mostly, the removal of extraneous ones, and the processing of attendant grief, I don’t have a big, shiny plan yet. Halfway through the month. Yet.
Instead, there is a growing field of index cards on my dining room table. The cards say things like “Read 52 books” and “Practice Nei Kung 30 min/daily.” They also say things like “PIANO?” (underlined) and “DRAWING?” (not); they are messy and sprawling and not ready for personal commitment, much less public consumption. Believe me, I wish we were locked and loaded, but we’re not. Change is messy, and frequently painful.**
My Nei Kung instructor, who has much finer motor control and strength and all the other things that practicing a martial art for 20 years will give you, plus the probable advantage of not being in the midst of painful change, gave me a great image at last week’s session: “When one door closes, another one opens, but it’s hell in the hallway.” This is a thing, according to Google, but was new to me.
Halfway home, things may or may not be comfortable. But pretending they are anything other than what they are is even more foolish than it might be a quarter or a third of the way through.
*And if you ladies aren’t impressed enough by FIFTY, there’s always The Change ready to lend a hand. That is, if you haven’t had things changed for you by nature or surgery already. Change happens around your ovaries and your middle and your brain and everything else your hormones have a hand in, which is just about everything. Those hormones, they are nature’s overachievers, boy howdy.
**I will say that real change, while painful and messy, also makes you feel very, very alive. Not good, but alive.