As the “unplanned” baby in the family, my brothers were 10 and 14 when I was born. This made me the youngest person in my immediate family by a long shot. That sense of youthfulness followed me for years. I was nine years younger than my partner in my first serious relationship, born at least a decade after most of my colleagues when I got my first tenure-track college teaching position, and often the baby in my circle of friends.
And then—and here’s where the calendar pages would fly off the wall in an old movie—it was suddenly 20 years later.
Even when I was teaching English, journalism, and speech, my students would ask me how long I had been out of school, presuming I was close to their age. And I wasn’t that far behind, at least for awhile. I was buying my first house, running marathons, dancing in the aisles at Pretenders concerts, and trying every new restaurant I could find.
And then—and here’s where the calendar pages would fly off the wall in an old movie—it was suddenly 20 years later. I swear, one moment I was sitting at the feet of my mature mentors, and then, perhaps when I stepped out to use the restroom, I became the oldest woman in practically every room. Rather than listening to the sages in front of me, I’m the one giving advice, sharing what I can about life and careers and relationships.
At 65, I must seem as if I know what I’m doing. If they only knew.
Changing My Persona
Obviously I’m not crazy about my rapidly thinning, sagging skin and a body that is suddenly marked more by age spots than firm abs, but the physical changes aren’t my biggest lament.
More than anything, getting older has meant changing my persona, or at least coming to terms with it, and that’s not as simple as it sounds. For months after I first retired three years ago, when new acquaintances asked the ever-popular “what do you do?” question, I answered by saying what I did before I stopped working. Honestly, it never occurred to me to say, “I’m retired.” I just didn’t see myself that way yet.
I wasn’t longing to be a svelte 30-year-old anymore—well, not completely—but I just wasn’t sure how and who to be.
I wasn’t longing to go back to work, or even to be a svelte 30-year-old anymore—well, not completely—but I just wasn’t sure how and who to be. I’d been the young newbie, and even the more experienced professional who moved into management. I’d been married and divorced and remarried (to someone younger, of course), but I’d never been the one to stay home and keep up with the laundry. Part of my challenge was figuring out what to do with my time, but the rest was how I wanted to see myself and how I wanted to be seen by the rest of the world.
I think the kicker was the day I was visiting a friend’s mom at her senior living complex and one of the residents asked me which apartment was mine. I was definitely old enough chronologically to live there, but not in my heart and head.
Adjusting to Retirement
When I turned 60, I remember feeling as if I had about 15 minutes left in my life. So part of who and how I am these days has to do with making sure I’m as present as possible in every moment. Being grateful for each of those moments is part of it, as well. I also remind myself on a regular basis that I actually do have wisdom to offer my younger friends—much of it these days is about how to retire gracefully and happily.
As I aged, I realized I don’t have to live in some way that matches a preconceived idea of old.
As I aged, I realized I don’t have to live in some way that matches a preconceived idea of old. Instead, I went back to school and got a second master’s degree to become a writer, just as I’d planned to do when I was in my early 20s, until I realized that teaching writing was much more lucrative than freelancing would be.
In many ways, I feel so much like that young woman I was back then, building a person, testing my values, learning to pay attention to what’s around me. Only this time, I actually know what I’m doing: I understand the consequences of my actions better, and I trust my instincts much more than I did when I was a 22-year-old out in the world on my own for the first time. I know better now than to drive a car with only one working door, I actually believe it’s not the best idea to wait until midnight the night before something is due to begin it, and I’ve almost completely outgrown relationships with people who are crazy.
So now I’m not only the oldest woman in the room, but often the most energetic. I don’t have the drudgery of heading out to work every day to exhaust me, and I have gaps of time I longed for all of those years to read and learn and discover and scheme. I’m the same me I always was, only in this iteration I can enjoy every step of the path, without constantly fretting about the future. I don’t enter marathons anymore, but I sure find myself trying to outrun the other gray-haired joggers I see on the trail. It turns out it’s pretty fun to start over, to construct a new person, but to have these quality, “naturally aged” materials to build with this time around.
A version of this story was originally published in May 2017.