It’s eight pm on a Saturday night. I’m in the middle of moving from central Pennsylvania to my hometown of Buffalo, New York. The move is part of some big, mid-life changes, and on this particular night, I’m by myself in Buffalo. So I call a friend from high school.
“Hey, Lily,” I say, hopeful she’s free.
“Hey!” she replies.
“I’m sorry I haven’t called,” I admit, ashamed that it’s taken me several months to return her offer to get together. “The house is still a mess. We’ve finished the kids’ rooms, but the rest of the place is still a construction zone.” I ramble before she can get in another word. “Anyhow, I’m in town tonight. Do you wanna go out?”
“Tonight?” She sounds surprised by the thought.
“Yeah. It’s just me, so I thought you and I could hang out.” I kick some of the tile floor I’d been demolishing.
“I’m already in my pajamas.” Lily laughs, and then pauses briefly. “Yeah, that would be great! Hold on. Let me ask Scott if he can watch the boys.”
I hear the lightness in her voice – the excitement about the sheer novelty of doing something without the husband and kids. It’s the same feeling I had when I dialed her number.
Somehow in the past two decades, I’ve grown from a scared but hopeful college kid to a wife, mother, and woman with multiple careers. Responsibility dangles around my neck like a choker, and the simple act of getting together with an old friend seems almost selfish. I change into nicer clothes, and delight in the guilty pleasure.
Lily and I meet at Trattoria Aroma. With its brick interior, open-wood beams, and candles on every table, it’s a decidedly adult place. Lily looks more beautiful than ever, and I wonder – not for the first time – about the benefits of aging. At least that’s what I focus on because this year we both hit the big 4-0.
“I remember when my mom turned 40,” Lily tells me. “It wasn’t pretty.”
“I remember when my mom turned 40, too,” I respond. “She and my dad had already divorced by then, so we went to lunch at the Eagle House with a bunch of women.” Truthfully, I don’t remember much of it, just that it was a big deal. My mom dressed up and all the women fussed over her and gave her presents. Now that I’m approaching 40, it feels like an even bigger deal. Our cultural fixation on an older woman’s appearance, relevance, and role in society makes me anxious.
My husband jokes that once I hit 40, it will be like I flip a switch and nobody will find me attractive or intriguing anymore. He’s teasing, of course, but there’s a twinge of fear that it’s true. Amy Schumer explored ageism toward women in her famous “Last F**kable Day” sketch, a piece widely shared among my friends, women who found the piece both funny and frightening.
The hyper-sexualized view of women in our society makes me wonder how life will change after this birthday. For so long, I’ve been focused on my family’s needs, and this milestone is forcing me to evaluate myself and my life choices with a focus that is like headlights that finally got the dirt washed off.
I confide to Lily, “I’m freaked out.”
Lily works in a doctor’s office, and she tells me she’s been paying attention to all of the older women patients who look and feel good. “I ask them what they do to take care of themselves.”
I expect some advice about cutting sugar, exercise, or balancing work and home. Something I could totally do to stay sane and fit and fresh.
Lily takes a sip of her wine. “Yoga.”
I groan. “Uggh, I can’t stand yoga. I feel like I’m going to fall asleep every time I try it.” I wonder if I’m not mindful enough or mature enough to appreciate it. I think of another friend who is a few years older who’s been practicing yoga, and her skin has taken on a youthful glow. Maybe there is something about the relaxation benefit.
My knees have started to ache when I run, and sometimes just when I get out of bed in the morning. One of these days they’re going to give out, and I suppose that’ll be the day I start yoga. Lily tells me that she takes classes. It’s possible that’s the reason she looks so good, but it has to be more than that.
When we were kids, Lily was heavy with thick glasses. Now she’s an accomplished professional, lithe, and wears contacts. She radiates confidence. She’s calm, collected, and kind, and she seems genuinely happy with who she is and who she has become.
Perhaps the best thing for me about getting older is that I’m starting to be comfortable in my skin too. I’ve softened in more ways than one. Parts of my body are not as taut as they once were, but as my body has loosened so has my mind. Self-doubt has begun to ebb away.
For the first time, I’m regularly wearing my hair down, and I finally like my curls. I’m no longer that worried about how people will judge me. I’ve lived long enough to know that people will judge no matter what, so I might as well embrace myself for who I am and go after I want; no one else is going to understand me more or advocate better. Though yoga’s not for me, supportive friends and family make me grateful to be alive, and the career I’m pursuing feels exactly like what I’m meant to be doing. It’s a little frightening, but exhilarating too.
Sitting across from Lily, I feel my old high school self inside me even as I know I’ve become so much more.
Lily and I close the place down at 11 pm. The wood-fired oven lets out its last breath of the night and our waitress brings the bill. “I got it,” Lily says.
I thank her, tell her I’ll pay the next time, and return home energized.
In my new office, the crown molding is almost finished. I take books out of boxes and shelve them. "The Monster at the End of this Book" and "Rosa" go with the kids’ books. My husband’s album of baseball cards and his dissertation go on a shelf for him. To motivate and remind me of what’s important, "Daring Greatly" cuddles up to "Next Life Might Be Kinder" behind my desk.
With my history and future surrounding me, I’m content.
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