Turning fifty is a lot like going on the Tower of Terror, at Disneyland.
I approached that particular contraption of madness on a whim years ago, with my eager 13 year old daughter and friends. They reassured me –not a lover of amusement park rides – that it ‘wasn’t that bad’.
It didn’t look that bad. People walked away from it with seeming composure, giggling even.
I could do this.
We were strapped into seats, not tightly enough, in a closed room -a large elevator -and told some creepy tales I didn’t listen to. I was too busy checking my buckles.
As the elevator rose, the floors ticked away, higher and higher. I told myself I was alright, that it was almost over, actually.
When the doors flew open and the floor tilted, so we hung precariously over the park displayed below us, a sound like the bellows of a wounded lion came pouring out of me. I knew this was a technological disaster, someone had lost control of the buttons. Surely they didn’t mean for us to be in an elevator, tipped sideways, with the doors open? We were going to be on the news. Mother-daughter death ride.
But out of the corner of my eye, I saw my daughter grinning. As if .. she was having fun?
And then we fell.
The floor seemed to drop from beneath us, we descended at least ten floors, plummeting like helpless and stupid baby birds thrown from a useless nest.
I cried, I buried my head in my daughters shoulder, and squeezed her arm until she screamed for me to stop. I hated her for making me do this. I begged God to let us live.
Finally, thank God, it was over. We’d stopped.
Only it wasn’t really over.
I cursed as only an Italian girl can as they dragged us back up. They did it all again.
Dragged us up to the top, opened the doors, and dropped us into dark nothingness, slamming my neck a few times on the way down.
Turning forty was like the first time on that ride. My anxiety drove me higher and higher into the atmosphere, and then I was free falling, watching for the edge of something to grab as I went down, hoping I would survive a crash landing. I was unaware I wore a parachute, that I could have pulled the string at any time. I hit the earth of reality hard.
Today, I turn fifty. My second time on this existential tower of terror.
I wake this morning feeling quite mortal, with, most likely, more time behind me than ahead of me on this world. Sand slipping through the hour glass at an alarming rate, all tautness gone from my belly, joints creaking as I climb the stairs.
I have a ticker tape running through my brain this week. Things I will probably never do, as I turn this corner from my forties: go to med school, publish a novel before fifty, become the president, have perky boobs, run a marathon, be on the list of 30 under 30, raise my children abroad, be a young woman, have sex with the lights on, stop climate change.
Of course, I can write a much longer list of the wonderful things I have already done, will do, and hope to do. Aspirations I can approach with some level of optimism, although with an acute awareness that I should get going already. Time’s not waiting.
There’s also a tribe of women out there who have saved children in Nepal, published first novels, become CEO’s, joined the peace corps, and reduced climate change – all over fifty.
Today, these women’s stories are my parachute. (I will remember I have one this time.)
The free fall has begun, and I reach for the string, pulling hard, listening for the shoosh sound as the parachute takes the wind and slows down my descent.
I float through the sky this time, and take in the wider view, examine the many paths to be taken, enjoy the sun filtering through the trees. A balloon rises to greet me, a memento of birthdays gone by when things were simpler. Most importantly, I see a parade of women in wide hats.
Laura Ingalls Wilder who wrote her first book at 65, and little girls everywhere are still reading them.
Grandma Moses who was 76 when she painted her first canvas
Olga Murray started the awesome Nepalese Youth Foundation at 60, and has saved literally thousands of children.
Vigdís Finnbogadóttir was Elected President of Iceland at 50. She is the longest serving female head of state to date.
Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan environmental and political activist, won a Nobel Peace prize for her work with the Green Belt Movement at age 64.
Anna Sewell sold her first novel at 57, and I read it over and over in seventh grade – Black Beauty.
Emily Dewhirst of Knoxville, Tenn., was the oldest Peace Corps volunteer in service at 83, but she started with the corps at 63.
And Ingeborg Rapoport got her Phd at 102. Granted she did the work long before, denied her Phd in Germany, almost eight decades earlier, due to Jewish ancestry.
I am in good company here, on the northern side of 50. I’ll join that parade of women of substance.
Here I come. Leaping into the void of bottomless possibilities.