When I was 17 years old, my mother cashed out her retirement account, bought a car and a mobile home, and left my father. It was a gutsy move, born of desperation at my father’s continuing abuse of alcohol. She had left him before, but never on such a grand scale.
Looking back, I am amazed to realize that she was only 51 at the time, younger than I am now. Upon reflection, though, I shouldn’t be surprised. As a 50-something myself, I regularly see people my age making major life changes, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence. When you’re standing on the threshold of The Rest of Your Life, anticipating 30 to 40 years rather than 60 to 70, you want to get it right.
Robert Herrick, in his classic carpe diem poem “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time,” called upon youth to “gather ye rosebuds while ye may” because “having lost but once your prime / You may forever tarry.” With all due respect to the poet, I am not convinced “That age is best which is the first.” In fact, I have argued one’s fifties may well be the best, bringing with it an increase of wisdom, time, respect, and self-awareness that can lead to great contentment.
I realize I am painting with a broad brush and there are certainly exceptions. No age is immune to life’s crud. There is also undoubtedly at mid-life a certain sense of urgency, of time running short, that can lead to that phenomenon known as a “mid-life crisis.” It is often stereotypically depicted as the normally staid, dignified businessman who suddenly shows up on a motorcycle, freshly tattooed, with a much younger woman on his arm. But real mid-life crises, as opposed to those of the cartoon variety, are way more complicated.
Not a Mid-Life Crisis But a Mid-Life Launch
Looking at the many 50-somethings (and beyond) I know, I am not seeing mid-life crises as much as mid-to-late-life launches, manifested in renewed levels of personal energy, interest, and excitement. I know multiple people my age who are moving across the country, buying their dream homes, taking on new jobs, and immersing themselves in fresh (or long-delayed) interests, passions, and goals.
That’s not to say there aren’t struggles, some of them devastating and life-altering. But amid the struggles, there is a level of carpe diem I can’t say I’ve seen in my peers since my twenties. It is thrilling, and I love it.
My mother, may she rest in peace, not only bought a car and a mobile home with her retirement money all those years ago, but a piano as well. The piano, an upright instrument small enough to fit in the living room of a single-wide, was purchased for me, a prospective college music major, so I had a ready place to practice. After I went away to music school, my mom returned to my dad, and they remained together until he died of lung cancer 12 years later. Thank you, mom, for teaching me things about guts, commitment, fortitude, and worth that I have only begun to appreciate.
If the twenty-somethings of Herrick’s acquaintance were in danger of not gathering enough rosebuds, the fifty-somethings of mine are, if anything, in danger of gathering too many. To my dear 50ish friends: God bless you. You’ve reared your children, buried your parents, survived job loss, bankruptcy, cancer, and worse, and you’re still standing. Laid out before you are 30, 40 or 50 more years of rosebuds just waiting for you to gather them in.
Here’s One for the Fifties
As I head out to pick some blooms for my own weathered basket, I look to you and am inspired and encouraged. Keep striving, keep dreaming, and keep living, up until that moment Old Time absolutely makes you stop. But while you’re skipping up and down the blossom-covered fields, don’t forget to stop, catch your breath, and inhale every now and then. With apologies to Herrick, here is one for you.
Sage Herrick once told tender youth
The best years were a-ticking.
But be your decades two or five,
There still are flow’rs for picking.
That age which sees more years lined up
Behind than in the fore,
Has no less beauty, life and love,
Than youth; and may have more.
So pick those buds, my seasoned friends,
What number there may be,
But hold them not so tight
Their varied blooms you fail to see.