Stevie Nicks says she never had a family because she knew from a very early age that music would be her life. She’s in her 60s now, and music still defines her. I recently turned 60 and everything that had previously defined me went away. Not overnight, but slowly, over the last six months or so, the things that once made me who I am, or thought I was, disappeared. I’ve suddenly got a clean slate.
For most of my adult life I have been held aloft by four pillars: family, friends, teaching, and writing. One by one, I have seen these things that used to hold me up recede. They still stand, but apart from me, as if at a distance. I continue to love my family and friends, but they take far less room than before. There is an empty spot inside me now and it is not a bad thing. It feels spacious.
I no longer teach and even writing is on pause as I contemplate what my life, going forward, will look like. What will hold me up now that my children have children of their own and live thousands of miles away? Who will fill my days as friends move to warmer climates, travel to visit their own far-flung families, become hands-on grandparents or deal with aging parents, death and illness? What will replace my days as the lesson plans and students fall away and my writing feels tentative and not at all important?
None of this is exactly causing me distress. It feels natural, inevitable. But a question remains: what IS important to me now that I’m 60? Now that those outer pleasures cease to fulfill quite as effectively as before? I found a clue this past summer, although at the time it felt more like a blow. It was in fact a car accident that threw me into an uncomfortable place, somewhere I’d been before, somewhere I didn’t want to go again.
I felt a great need to escape. I wanted to leave every part of my life behind, but running away was not an option. I was in the middle of my final semester before retirement. I had not one but two grandchildren on the way, and this, even in my terror and sadness, was a wonderful thing, a shining full circle from the past when I had wanted, with every fiber of my being, to be a mother. Now my children were carrying on the tradition, passing on the genetic code. Such a sweet and satisfying feeling for me, but (obviously) infinitely more for them.
Then there was the novel I was writing. It decided to take a surprising turn, and, while the events of the plot shocked me, I stuck with it, even while my marriage of three decades eroded for reasons I found difficult to understand. Slowly, I worked out what was not working. Slower yet, we found our way back to each other. But it is different now. Everything is different. Because I am different. I think I am finally me. Not mom, not BFF, not teacher, not writer. Just Cindy. Who is she? What does she want? What does her sixty year old heart need to feel whole?
I have been looking for answers and found some surprising thing about this person I call my “self.” For example, I am capable of great pretense. I suppose that goes along with the fiction writing. For as long as I remember, there have been things I glossed over, pretended to like when I didn’t, pretended were okay when they weren’t, pretended made me happy when they did not. Learning this brought on a state of shock. To understand that my happy life had been a kind of lie I told myself was almost more than I could handle.
I spent months unpeeling the layers of my discontent, taking apart the components of my fear. And what I found was that I could not outrun fear. I could not control panic with pills. I could not manufacture a convenient contentment. But I could, if I scraped together some courage, face those fears. I could learn new habits, replace old ways with new scaffolding. Repair. Rebuild. Regenerate.
What does that even look like? I have no idea. I’ve been moving forward by instinct. Signing up for workshops, planning solo cross-country trips, acquiring a new desk. That desk was a clue. Maybe writing still had a place in my life. Maybe Stevie Nicks had a point. Perhaps it’s the inner life, the creative life, the secrets softly spoken to the self, that stay with us for a lifetime.