Sixty is not middle-aged. Not even close. Sixty is a reckoning with the truth of mortality, with change, with a new sense of myself as finite.
Sixty is an expanded awareness of time passing. It’s wondering where the years went and, too, marveling at the breadth and depth of the journey — past, present, future. Sixty is standing on a threshold, contemplating the beginning of the end. To reach this place, alive and relatively unscathed, feels like both serendipity and blessing. Sixty is a more respectful understanding of fate. It’s the small but real comfort of being the youngest of the old. Sixty is a chapter between mid-life and old age, a chapter that has no name.
Sixty is twenty times three. Twenty more than forty, which sounds like a lot. And twenty less than eighty, which sounds like too little. It’s a number. Still, I can’t quite believe it’s my number. Sixty on the inside doesn’t feel very different from fifty, but sixty as the age I am now takes some getting used to. Still, sixty is quite different today than it was a generation or two ago. My sixty is not my grandmother’s sixty.
Sixty is facing the fact that my youth really is over. (I thought I’d faced it a while ago, but I guess I hadn’t. Not quite.) It’s coming to fully appreciate that those of us who grow old are the lucky ones. And it’s realizing how little I actually know about getting old. It’s pausing to think of the friends who didn’t make it, who will never be sixty, who are missing these surpassingly lovely autumn days. Sixty is about doing my best to live for them, too. It’s remembering their birthdays and their death days and the togetherness we shared along the way. Sixty is about trying, somehow, to hold on to all the years and ages that came before. It’s about accepting that they’re already gone, sifted through my fingers like sand.
Sixty is a constantly shifting landscape of diminishments and benefits, losses and gains. The losses are dramatic and obvious (think death and beauty) while the gains are often invisible but no less dramatic for that. Sixty is an appreciation for the moment at hand, because I know it won’t last. It’s a greater ease with things as they are, because I know they will certainly change. It’s delight in simple pleasures and other people’s joys and successes. Sixty is less drama and more contentment.
Sixty is the sweetness of waking up in the dark, spooned close to my mate of thirty-one years. It’s stepping outside with the dog into chill morning air just as the sun slips into view. It’s swirling cream into a mug of strong coffee, taking a walk, receiving a hand-written card in the mail. It’s a plane trip to visit a son in grad school and an hour on the porch with my mom, the reassurance of connection, caring, and the long, complicated tapestry that is one family’s history — a tale in which we are but single threads woven through our tiny portion of the vast human whole.
It’s a morning of raking leaves and watching the clouds, skipping the ibuprofen afterwards and feeling the soreness in my tired but still strong body instead. It’s a few silent hours of writing, a sense of satisfaction in having work to do, ideas to wrestle with, and sentences to shape. It’s continuing to believe in the power of words to heal a wound, to close a distance, to make a difference.
Sixty is trying out a recipe from a new cookbook, curling up on the loveseat once the dishes are done, watching a movie, legs stretched out into my husband’s lap. It’s a few minutes of reading before bed. Sixty is a newfound regard for the quotidian. It is realizing that the gift of an ordinary day becomes only more precious with each passing year.
Sixty is two parents in their eighties, two sons who are suddenly closer to thirty than to twenty, and a husband about to turn seventy. It is stopping in my tracks every now and then to wonder, “How did that happen?”
Sixty is about creating fluid relationships with aging parents and with grown children. And sixty is about making room for new connections to flourish. It’s about opening our home and our hearts to a soul daughter who was in search of a family, only to realize that I was also a mother who still longed for a daughter. Sixty is not caring at all about the labels and caring a great deal about the love. It’s living proof that family isn’t always defined by blood, but by affinity and affection, choice and intention.
Sixty is offering an arm to my elderly mother and receiving a helping hand from my youthful daughter. It is marveling at the strength of all these bonds even as I begin to absorb the necessity of one day letting each of them go. It’s about stepping in to steady the older generation and stepping aside to allow members of the younger one to stumble and fall and get up on their feet again. It’s about waiting to see how my mother and father will navigate their final years and how my sons will become the men they are meant to be and whether my husband and I will grow old together, side by side. Sixty is a dance of intimacy and independence, closeness and distance, reaching out and holding back, longing and surrendering. Sixty requires more tact, faith, and compassion than I ever knew I had in me.
Sixty is an ongoing private conversation with the universe. It is a prayer that by some combination of kismet and karma my sons will be blessed with lives that are rich and full and not too painful. It’s a hope that my parents will live out their days in peace and comfort. It is stopping by and hanging out at their kitchen table as often as I can. It is missing them in advance. It is being grateful for every day I still get to be a daughter. Sixty is about feeling my heart lift, always, at the sound of a familiar but fully adult voice on the other end of the phone. It’s knowing from the intonation of just one “Hey, mom,” whether it’s been a good day or a tough one, as surely as I once knew from the tilt of a head or the hunch of a shoulder what kind of day a little boy just had in second grade. Sixty is being grateful every single day that I am still a mother.
Sixty is funerals and weddings. It’s losing loved ones and bearing witness to tender beginnings. It’s showing up to be a steady presence at bedsides and showing up to help launch the young people I’ve known since birth who are suddenly taking marriage vows and starting companies and having babies of their own. It is watching children who once spent every day together, inventing worlds in the backyard, turn into grown ups and scatter like leaves in the wind. It is writing an obituary for a friend who should still be here and a happily-ever-after wish for a young man who, in my mind’s eye, is still a nine-year-old snapping gum on a pitcher’s mound. It is pretty new dancing shoes with heels that aren’t too high and it’s the plain dark skirt hanging at the back of the closet, awaiting its next call to duty. Sixty is gathering to mourn and gathering to celebrate. Sixty is grief and gratitude, sorrow and joy, all tangled up together.
Sixty is flipping through cute outfits on the rack and knowing better than to try them on. It’s being able to say “I’m too old for that” without resentment. Sixty is being done with shopping around. It’s brand loyalty: Jockey underwear, Darn Tough socks, Hoka sneakers. Sixty means arch support, even for flip flops. But it’s also finding out that dressing “my age” means wearing whatever feels good. It’s the freedom to have my own style and to change it by the day. It’s shopping at thrift stores, just as I did in college. Sixty is a stretchy black dress and the confidence to wear it and it’s soft faded jeans broken in by a stranger and silver hoop earrings made just for me by an eighty-eight-year-old friend.
Sixty is never leaving the house without a list. It’s forgetting things even if they’re written down on the list. It’s forgetting to read the list, or to bring the list. It’s about forgetting things that don’t go on lists and remembering things I thought I’d forgotten long ago. It’s leaving a message on a neighbor’s answering machine along with the phone number from the house we haven’t lived in for fourteen years. It’s losing my cell phone and finding it in the refrigerator. It’s losing my reading glasses and finding them on my head. Or worse, it’s losing my glasses, finding them, putting them on, only to realize I’m already wearing a pair. It’s being able to laugh at all these things. It’s rummaging around in the pantry for dinner, or eating cereal, or skipping it. It’s take-out Thai without guilt. It’s going out to dinner just because. It’s the freedom to trash the list.
Sixty is a soft-bristled toothbrush, Sensodyne toothpaste, and a mouthguard at night. Sixty is my husband reminding me that once upon a time we slept naked together even in winter, even in a bedroom with big old windows and bone-chilling drafts, even when we could see our breath. Sixty is a different body thermostat altogether. It’s moisture-wicking pajamas, cozy sleeping socks, and a soft chenille bathrobe that ties at the waist. Sixty is choosing comfy over sexy. But sixty is also, once in a blue moon, the lace bra that lifts and separates, the silky nightgown that looks just fine, the glass of champagne, the jasmine oil.
Sex at sixty is both a waning and a waxing. It is less about need and more about connection, less about desire yet more about intimacy. It’s less often but more intense. Slower and less predictable. Not as athletic but more tender. As much about pleasure in the mind as it is about hunger in the body. (Age is full of surprises. Not all of them are bad.)
Sixty is more dry than juicy. It’s leave-in conditioner, moisturizer twice a day, hand cream in my purse, shea butter for cracking heels, and sunscreen even on cloudy days. (Better late than never.) Sixty is about lubricating. It’s receiving a birthday gift of four different face creams from a lifelong friend along with instructions to “layer.” It’s wrinkles and pouches and unwanted flaps of skin. Sixty is wrinkles. And it’s eternal hope, too. After all, four face creams!
Sixty is no more hair growing in the places I used to shave and brand new hair cropping up in places it never was before. Sixty is keeping tweezers handy and letting the blade on the razor turn to rust. Sixty is a crepey neck and a permanently furrowed brow. It’s a new ability to spot a botoxed forehead from across the room. It’s realizing how many of us are smoothed out between the eyebrows. It’s looking crabby in every photograph, even when I’m happy. Which I am. Mostly.
Sixty has its moments of melancholy. So much is over. There’s no going back. Sixty is the realization that joy doesn’t just happen, I have to choose it again and again. It’s a choice that requires effort sometimes. Sixty is an opportunity to rethink some old ideas. It’s a farewell to a certain kind of ambition and it’s an uncomplicated pleasure in the job at hand — cutting back the garden, stuffing envelopes for a local nonprofit, driving a friend to the doctor, writing a good-enough paragraph. Sixty is time to let go of perfection. Time, also, to give up comparing, worrying, arguing over petty things, and taking slights personally. Sixty means there’s no more time to waste. (Not that there ever was.)
Sixty comes with permission to love my friends more deeply. It’s making the phone call, writing the note, coming up with the plan, making it happen. It’s texting a photo of the sunrise or the salad I made for dinner and getting a sunrise or a pie or a basket of swiss chard in return. It’s not hesitating to say whatever words I need to say: I’m sorry. Please forgive me. Thank you. I forgive you. I love you. It’s finding the perfect gift and it’s the joy of giving something extravagant to someone who doesn’t expect it.
Sixty is about accepting my limitations. It’s realizing I can’t be all things to all people. It’s speaking the truth and living with the consequences. Sixty is choosing integrity over popularity, which means watching some people walk away and being ok with that. And it’s befriending my own imperfect, less driven, less busy self. A self not so adept at retaining facts but somewhat better at taking the long view. A self who is done with multi-tasking but who turns out to be happier doing one thing at a time slowly and carefully and well. A self who is slower to hurt and anger and quicker to apologize. Less of a grind, but more at ease in her own skin. Less polished and more vulnerable. Less impressive but more honest. Kinder. Or so I hope.
Sixty is an impulse to simplify. It’s looking around and noticing how much of what I have, I’ve ceased to really see. It’s packing stuff away, giving stuff away, throwing stuff away and exhaling into the empty spaces left behind. It’s more trips to Goodwill than to the mall. It’s wondering why I ever thought it was a good idea to collect anything. It’s a box in the basement slowly filling with things that once seemed like reflections of me but are now just things. It’s realizing they were always just things. Sixty is less time spent taking care of things and more time attending to what is ineffable, invisible, intangible. It’s forgiving everyone for everything and traveling a bit more lightly through my own emotional landscape. Sixty is about clearing some space — in a kitchen drawer, in my mind, in my relationships, in my heart.
Sixty is a bit devil-may-care. It’s doing things because I want to rather than because someone else thinks I should. It’s saying no to what doesn’t feel right and yes to the small voice inside that says, “This way.” Sixty is planning a hiking trip to England with a bunch of women and volunteering to teach yoga to women in recovery. It’s discovering that we are more alike than different.
Sixty is a deepening concern for our shared future. It’s a desire to give something back, to make the world a little better while I still can. Sixty is flexible. It’s understanding that information isn’t wisdom, and that wisdom arrives quietly and in its own time, nourished by listening and silence and reflection. Sixty is a greater willingness to compromise, to collaborate, to consider another point of view. Sixty is less about being right and more about being present.
Sixty is daily gratitude for modern medicine and replacement parts. It’s two artificial hips and two four-inch scars and long, pain-free walks. It’s taking nothing for granted: climbing a mountain, carrying groceries, running upstairs, pushing a wheelbarrow, warrior pose. Sixty is still a two-way street, up and down, breaking apart and coming back together again. Sixty is self-care and maintenance. Sixty is strong and able. Sixty is fully alive, awake, and vital. Sixty is also knowing, in the words of the late poet Jane Kenyon, “Someday it will be otherwise.”
Sixty inspires a certain kind of urgency. It is a desire for a life that is both less and more. It’s the end of carrying on as if time were an unlimited resource to be spent and spent and spent. There is no world but this one. No meaning but the meaning I’m willing to create. I have one life and one life only. Though brief, it will have to do. Sixty feels like a nudge in the direction I’ve always wanted to go, a summons to pay closer attention to the way I spend my days, to the things I say and do, to the qualities I still aspire to embody.
Sixty is an invitation to make a deeper kind of peace with impermanence. It’s about rising to the challenges of aging and also embracing the mysteries, wonders, and gifts of growing older. It’s a desire to ripen into wisdom, into goodness, into a woman who may one day be an elder but who is, for now, just another year older. Sixty is knowing today is an occasion, tomorrow isn’t guaranteed, and every plan is provisional. Sixty is the beginning of the if-not-now-when decade.
Burn the candle. Use the china. Open the wine.
Originally published at www.katrinakenison.com on November 6, 2018.