I’m turning 60 later this month. There, I said it.
I know what you’re thinking. “Gee, you don’t look it.”
Work with me here.
The ever wise and wicked funny Anne Lamott wrote a marvelous Facebook post last year about turning 61. She said she thought she was only 47 and then she checked the paperwork. I get it. I don’t know how I got here so fast.
Most folks have a bit of angst about such a milestone birthday and the universe has certainly conspired to humble me as I approach the Big One. Funny, I can remember when 40 was the Big One. At least I think I can remember.
Anyway, my year began with losing my job as the leader of a local AIDS service organization. Now that will do wonders for your self-esteem, especially if you are kicked to the curb as ungracefully as I was. After 11 years of heartfelt service, my office was packed up for me and delivered to my home in four FedEx boxes. Ouch.
My dear wife has a charming saying she uses in delicate situations: “Now that will hurt your feelings.” That about covers it.
Along with my job, I also temporarily lost faith in what I always thought I knew about loyalty and integrity. That was a terribly distasteful feeling but I’m grateful for the many good and kind people who reached out to remind me that these virtues are still alive and well.
I’m not sure I ever thought much about turning 60 but when I did, I guess I assumed I’d be at the peak of my career, not starting a new one. But perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. You see, I’ve always been a bit of a late bloomer. I was 26 before I got my ears pierced, 48 before I got my first tattoo (yes, I have more than one) and 57 before I was a bride. Oh, and I was in my mid-thirties before I came out. True story, but when I did come out, I came out loud and proud.
I guess you could say that I’m the slow and steady type and I think that served me well for a very long time but there’s no getting around the reality that I feel the meter running these days. I lost two friends in January – both to cancer – and one of them was only 54. And my oldest friend on earth – we met in the 4th grade – survived a brutal battle with Stage IV tongue cancer before she turned 60 in April.
You can eye-roll a cliché like “Life is not a dress rehearsal” but it’s true. It’s show time and I plan on making the most of my second act. And now that my bleak career midwinter is behind me, most days I’m very excited about what’s next and on my very best days, I’m even grateful for this opportunity to reinvent myself at such a seasoned age.
A handful of my friends have already retired or are counting down the days but an early retirement was never in the cards for me – not too many careers in non-profit afford you that luxury. And the truth is that I don’t want to retire. Maybe if I won the lottery (which I never play) I suppose I would not work and move to the coast of Maine where I would write the next great American novel. Okay, maybe I have thought about it a few times. (Note to self: Buy lottery ticket.)
One of my favorite books, which was turned into a surprisingly good movie, is The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler. It’s about a rather sullen man who writes travel guides for reluctant business travelers. Imagine Rick Steves not enjoying travel and writing his guidebooks. It’s a delightful premise for a story.
I think I’ve had an accidental career – actually a few of them – and while I very much enjoyed each of them, I’ve never been particularly strategic with my choices. My first career was in retail management as a buyer and then division manager for a department store chain. This was when the economy was booming and the mall was the hub of civilization. “Going to the mall” was pretty much a part of everyone’s weekend vernacular. Yes, kids, there really was a time when people shopped at the mall, in the dark ages before Amazon Prime.
I loved the energy of retail – every day was different. And I loved the seasons, most especially Christmas. You can’t be in retail and survive it if you don’t get excited about the holiday season. I especially enjoyed assisting the husbands who came in on Christmas Eve looking like a deer in the headlights. You could smell the fear – they needed a gift for their wife and the clock was ticking. They were easy prey for an overpriced sale. And they were clueless. Many of them didn’t even know what size their wife wore and they always asked with desperation, “She can exchange this if she doesn’t like it, right?”
There are so many women out there who have me to thank for the upgrade on their Christmas gifts in the eighties. You’re welcome.
My two stores were in Charlottesville, VA – still the most beautiful place I’ve ever lived – and I got to know a lot of my customers personally. It may sound a little Lake Wobegonish but it felt really good when Mrs. Shifflett came in to buy a dress for her daughter’s wedding and asked me for help. (Oh, you cynics. I don’t eat meat, either, but I know a good burger when I see one.)
I feel like I got to work in the Golden Age of Retail and I was fortunate when the fall came to be able to transition to a new career in fundraising. A friend of mine from retail was working for the Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) in Washington, DC and told me about a brand new position in planned giving. I had no idea what that even meant but I was lucky that their program was just getting off the ground and my track record as a good salesperson was enough to get me in the door.
To my utter amazement, I got the job and thoroughly enjoyed my eight years on staff there. PVA was the first time I was out at work and I was received incredibly warmly by the veterans’ community. Those guys loved me and I loved them back. God, they were funny and disarmingly optimistic. And they drank like the sailors many of them had been.
I learned so much – about science and heart – getting to know so many wonderful people in the spinal cord injured community and I can tell you that not a day goes by that I don’t have a moment where I am intentionally grateful for my mobility. That was PVA’s gift to me.
Those good folks also kindled my patriotism in ways that have remained with me over the years. I think of my time there every Veterans Day – on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.
If my time at PVA taught me about sacrifice and courage, my time at my last job taught me a lot about stigma and poverty and how they are the natural enemies of HIV prevention. My position also gave me a front row seat to magnificent acts of generosity and compassion – some large ones that came with checks with lots of zeros and some small ones that came in cases of green beans from Costco. All of them mattered.
It is an extraordinary thing to spend your work days with passionate people who share a vision and my time there broke my heart wide open in remarkable ways that will inform the rest of my life. And it has ruined me for ever just working for a paycheck.
Nope, I need a side order of a mission statement, even if it’s just one of my own making.
The upside to a forced sabbatical has been the luxury of time to do a lot of pondering about my past and my future. I’ve thought a lot about my parents. Certainly losing them both just a few months apart from each other in my mid-forties was the watershed event of my life. Their deaths, or rather how I handled their deaths, changed the course of my life.
I came across a line in a book recently that stood me still. One of the characters, who has lost a son, explains that he and his wife will often not speak to each other for hours at a time because, “We’ve learned that grief can sometimes get loud, and when it does, we try not to speak over it.” I know now that I tried to escape the deafening din of my own grief in destructive ways and it cost me a great deal. I deeply hurt a few of the people who I held most dear and that can never be undone. And, of course, I hurt myself in ways that only I can fully know.
This has led me to thinking a lot about regrets and for the record, I don’t really buy it when people say they don’t have any. It’s an arrogant reflection on life. I have 1,001 small ones – that I didn’t learn to play the piano, the tragic dress I wore to my senior prom (picture Laura Ingalls in polyester organza) and my early insistence that John Edwards was not a cheater.
But it’s the big ones that I stumble through like thickets at 2:00 AM. I’m not ready for a full confession on those but I will say that I regret saying no more than I regret saying yes. I need to remember this.
I was actually feeling pretty good about myself at 60 until I listened to Bill Clinton’s 42 minute recitation of Hillary’s resume at the Democratic National Convention last week. As I brushed my teeth before going to bed that night, I was afraid to look in the mirror for fear of seeing the reflection of a sloth. Oh well, I still believe in a place called Hope.
I’ll be in California for my actual birthday visiting my younger (damn her) sister. I couldn’t imagine not celebrating this birthday with her. I love her beyond measure and no one knows me as well and deeply as she does. We share an emotional GPS that alerts us when the other is off course in any way. It is an indomitable connection that has kept me tethered to this world in my darkest storms.
My sister is known for her extravagance and I’m a little nervous about what she might pull out for this celebration. Sissy, if you’re reading this now, I was just kidding about the Tom Ford sunglasses. Sort of.
I didn’t want a big party. I never want a big party. And I most certainly NEVER want a surprise party. And so I will have a sushi (my fav) dinner out with my wife and my sister. The icing on my birthday cake is that my best friend from college will join us the weekend before my birthday for some revelry. She turned 60 in June and is anxious to have me join her in this new bracket so I’m approaching it like signing up for a very exclusive wine club.
She just sent me the loveliest email that might just be my wish when I blow out my candles. She wrote, “I’m hoping our time might have a magic slow quality to it.” I’m hoping the rest of my life has this quality.
It makes me happy when I just think about looking at those three beautiful faces all in one place for a few precious days.
Sometimes I imagine a soundtrack for my life when I’m processing things in my head.Who needs Pokemon Go when you have an overactive imagination? Lately, I’ve been hearing this Iris Dement song – My Life.
My life, it’s half the way traveled
And still I have not found my way out of this night
My life, it’s tangled in wishes
And so many things that just never turned out right
But I gave joy to my mother and I made my lover smile
And I can give comfort to my friends when they’re hurting
And I can make it seem better for a while
It is an achingly beautiful song and if you ask me, it’s a pretty damn good resume, too.
(All photos property of Addison Ore)
2 thoughts on “A work in progress”
Imagine my chagrin at arriving at nearly 70. I’ve decided to embrace my age. They still ask me if I qualify for the senior discount on Thursdays at Harris Teeter!
You wear it well, dear Alice.