Over the Hill and Around the Sun
I remember when my mom turned forty. We hung black streamers, donned black party hats, and pronounced her ‘over the hill’. She was so old. On November 4, I will cross that same hill and become one of the ancients. I’m weirdly excited about the whole thing.
In part, my excitement stems from the fact that I’ll be spending my birthday in southern Utah, surrounded by antediluvian rock formations and my older-than-Adam siblings (43 and 46, gasp!). But the other part of my excitement might have something to do with the fact that long ago for reasons I don’t quite recall, I memorized this marvel of a poem, and it lingers in my imagination as a model for the possibilities opened by aging. Here is the first stanza:
When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.
And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves
And satin sandals, and say we’ve no money for butter.
I shall sit down on the pavement when I’m tired
And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells
And run my stick along the public railings
And make up for the sobriety of my youth.
I shall go out in my slippers in the rain
And pick flowers in other people’s gardens
And learn to spit.
Okay, okay, I know that forty isn’t exactly old. (And I’m already an excellent spitter.) But somehow, I’ve built this birthday up in my mind as the age at which women shed some of the pressure to be ‘pretty’ or ‘sexy’ or ‘sweet’ and can just go about the playful work of becoming themselves.
Long Covid has been marvelous (and miserable) training for this. We slow down—we are given no choice—and our gaze refocuses, alighting on the beauty of small and ordinary things. We learn—because we have to—what we most want to do with our oh-so-finite energy. We discover—sometimes painfully—which friends we can lean on for support. We find—if we are lucky—that joy is still possible, even in a body that is altered, pained, and unpredictable. We accumulate scraps of wisdom before our time.
Does this feel bleak? Sometimes it is. But black streamers are still streamers. And we are still here, tracing another circle around the sun. Why not wear party hats? Why not wear slippers in the rain? Why not celebrate each ray of light that shines through the clouds? Our culture spews so much negative messaging around aging and around disability, but the truth is that aging (even with a disability) is a privilege. We are alive! We are here. We are doing this.
And so, I plan to wear purple on my fortieth birthday. I’m also planning to treat myself to a break from writing obligations, which means that I won’t be sending you another email for a bit—probably not until Friday, November 19. If you need a pick-me-up between now and then, spend some time in the archives, listen to one of the Corona Cafe podcast episodes, or dive into another great podcast like Kate Bowler’s Everything Happens. I hope the month ahead brings gifts and healing your way—for body, soul, or both. Thank you for making this past trip around the sun brighter and more tender than it would have been without your presence. I’ll be in touch again in a few weeks!