Midlife Malediction

It's not all sweetness and light.

Middle age is wonderful!

Except when it's not.

But first the good stuff. When I started this blog in May, 2013, I was 52 years old, finishing my second (and, I hope, final) year as a high school music teacher with no clear path to returning to elementary general music, a year away from being married to Amy, and looking forward to the most active summer of my life. By the end of that summer, we had backpacked in the Olympics and the Tetons, I had blogged more than once a day (that's an average, of course: I didn't blog while backpacking in the wilderness). I wrote about many things: music, education, theology, Biblical criticism, those backpacking expeditions, gun control, politics. Implicit in all these topics, and sometimes very much on the surface, was my transition from prime adulthood to middle age.

By and large, I've found middle age to be immensely satisfying. Most of the relationally driven anxieties of my youth have fallen away, though I do from time to time revisit younger traumas, mostly employment-related. Even then, the emotions driving my interactions with the world are far cooler than those of even just a decade ago. Time and experience help put all such things in perspective, enabling me to address each crisis with essential truths: It's not that big a thing. It will get better. There will be another. You'll find another way.

Along with perspective, experience has made me more capable of taking on projects that I would've found overwhelming in that not-so-distant past. Last year, I wrote about the "Age of Knowing" (and yes, I'm aware it was a Viagra ad that brought that concept into the general parlance), and how I'd managed to install both a garbage disposal and a ceiling fan with a minimum of cursing.

Middle age also has made it far easier to deal with younger people who are, themselves, in the midst of crisis. I can empathize with them, knowing how terrifying it is to pass through such things for the first time; keep my own sympathetic anxiety in check, knowing such things are survivable, even transcendable; and restrict my words of advice to assurance that this, too, will pass, knowing (again from experience) that much more than that will be received poorly.

In these ways, middle age is literally cooler than youth. More times than I can count, I've looked on the misadventures of teenagers and young adults and been profoundly grateful that I don't have to go through that again.

Of course, it's not all good.

There are reasons, I'm realizing, why so many older people spend so much time complaining.

Let's start with the body. My body has been letting me down lately, constantly reminding me that I'm not young anymore. For years now, I've been suffering the middle-aged male curse of the sensitive prostate: always a light sleeper, I find myself waking up multiple times each night, unable to go back to sleep until I've visited the bathroom. Add to this the loss of vitality in my internal repair systems: it takes me longer to come back from injury or illness than when I was younger.

Another case in point: June 3, I had a few hours to kill between the end of school and a busy evening of meetings and performing. Eager to jump-start my summer exercise, I took a run through Portland's inner east side, passing through some of my favorite neighborhoods. It was a hot afternoon. In my desire to keep to the shade, I allowed myself to forget a hard-earned lesson, and ran on a sidewalk instead of in the street. As had happened to me so many times when I was learning to run three decades ago, one of my feet caught on the edge of a slightly elevated concrete slab. I struggled to catch myself, couldn't, and forgot to roll as I landed, hard, on both knees.

That was six weeks ago. I've only been running once since then, haven't been on my bicycle at all. Monday, I had an MRI on my right knee which, according to an x-ray I had last week, is experiencing arthritis. 

Now there's a word I didn't want to hear.

It's been a month since school got out, and my active summer hasn't started yet. I may have to have surgery on that knee. The only remotely aerobic exercise I can handle is walking, and that leaves me stiff and achy in ways it never used to. I have to think carefully about getting up from a sitting or lying position, and especially carefully about getting into and out of the car. Stairs are no fun.

And those projects: I completely bungled a toilet repair last week, thanks in part to how painful it was to kneel while I worked. A leak that could've been fixed with a $4 gasket turned into a $365 new toilet. Knowing my body wasn't in the right place for strenuous projects, I also coughed up the extra money to have our new garage door opener installed, rather than tackling it myself.

Hand-in-hand with the loss of activity comes growth in my waist line. I'm still eating like an athlete because I still have an athlete's appetite, but I'm just not burning as many of the calories I'm taking in. My clothes are feeling tight, my feet hurt more when I walk, and I'm just not happy with how I look in a mirror.

All of that puts me in a crankier place than I'd like to be. I'm less patient, less charitable, more irritable.

Finally, there's the inertia: it's hard to summon the motivation to get up and do things. Yes, some of that is a mindset that comes from the knee pain induced by standing up; but it's more than that: at times, going out is a chore. I'd just rather stay at home.

Pardon me for a moment while I make some generic old person grumbling sounds.

There. That's better. I'm ready to end on a positive note.

All my life, I've had a bucket list. The items on it have changed over time, as some have been checked off and others lost their importance to me. There was a time when Disney theme parks mattered to me; now I don't feel the need to ever set foot in one again. The same goes, to a lesser extent, for cathedrals: if I'm visiting a city that has a church of historic and/or artistic importance, I'll stop in, but I'm not building itineraries around them.

Much more important to me in the last couple of decades has been places of great natural beauty, especially those set aside to be national parks and monuments. I'm not through with these places, not by a long shot. I fully expect to continue building vacations around them as long as I'm able.

But two days ago, I had an epiphany. I was out on a long walk that was (blush) built around playing Pokemon Go. (Yes, in some ways, I'm still just a big, balding, wrinkly kid.) Toward the end of the walk, I was heading down a paved trail when I noticed a patch of tall grass moving gently in the breeze, backlit by the sun, the foothills of the Coast Range in the distance. I was captivated by how much beauty there was in this mundane sight. And as I was, I had a dayenu moment: if this was the last thing I ever saw, it would be enough. So what if I never laid eyes on the Matterhorn, never snorkeled on a tropic reef, never hiked across the Continental Divide, never beheld any of the other wonders of the world on the bucket list? Right now I was experiencing a moment of transcendent beauty, seeing how even in its smallest details this world is a masterpiece. It was enough.

I believe I glimpsed in that moment the serenity that lies ahead of me, the acceptance that comes with entering life's final stages. When I reach that place where my body is no longer able to do any of the things that have enriched my life, when all I have left is the peace that comes from beholding beauty, it will be enough for me if I can have an open window onto a field of grass, a rose garden, or, if I'm very lucky, a view of distant mountains. I'll lie in my bed and watch as light comes and goes, as the colors brighten and fade with clouds and rain, as the seasons alter the shape and hue of the vegetation. And rather than be frustrated that my hiking days are over, disappointed that I didn't check off all the items on the list, I'll know I'm blessed simply to have my senses filled with what's outside that window.

I'm not there yet. I'm grumbling a lot right now about the limitations my body is putting on me. But there is something reassuring about discovering that, at 55, I can still be a novice at something, and know that some things never stop getting better.


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