(photo credit: 20110513-IF-Beginner by Chris Piascik on flickr.com. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/legalcode.)
What am I allowed to do? What are the boundaries of my life? How far am I willing to go to make the second act of my life worth every single minute?
For so long, I’ve thought about what comes next.
For years, I was wrapped up in the cocoon of parenting children, and now the layers are peeling back. With each independent move one of my children makes, more light shines into my enclosed space and instead of rushing out into the open air, I find myself wasting time stumbling around inside, searching for another misplaced pair of sunglasses. It’s a self-protective stance, which is misguided at best.
I’ve talked to many friends and acquaintances who are in similar places in their lives and while a vocal few have it all figured out, most of us don’t have a lot of confidence regarding what we should do with this sudden opening up of our lives. We may have lots of ideas but we can’t seem to harness them or to believe that we are actually capable of going where those ideas might lead us.
Another barrier exists that we don’t talk about readily. Are we allowed to decide at age 50 or 60 or 70 that we are going to be novices again at something that may be a path that leads nowhere? We want yet we are stuck in the cultural belief that we lost our chance to do that thing now that we are older and still haven’t taken the first step.
A woman I met recently, who is newly 70 years old, was discussing her love of literary novels. In the spirit of the writing world’s mantra, “Write the book you want to read,” a few years back, she tried her hand at writing a literary novel. In her opinion, she failed miserably. It was what she really wanted to be able to do, but alas, she lamented, I am not good at this. Because she likes writing, and from what I’ve seen has some natural skills as both a writer and a storyteller, she has tried writing non-fiction as a panacea to the self-designated death of her literary novel writing future.
Her reasoning, when asked why she stopped after one attempt at writing the novel if that is what she really wanted to do, was that she is 70 now and she could never get as good as she wants to be with the limited time she has left in her life.
I could have cried when she said that (but managed to restrain myself since I don’t know her well and I didn’t want to make her feel worse.) What I wanted to shout at her, after wiping away my tears, was “if you have limited time, why aren’t you choosing to use it doing the thing you really want to do?”
Who cares if you aren’t good at it? The more you do it, the better you will get at it. In the process, you’ll probably meet others doing the same type of work, other lovers of literary fiction, and grow as a writer and make new friends.
If you do this thing you passionately want to do and surround yourself with people who either support your efforts or can work alongside you and learn with you, then whether you become world-class at your passion becomes less important than the fact that you spend your limited time immersing yourself into this world that inspires you and gets you excited.
I’m 50 and sometimes hear that voice in the back of my mind questioning the practicality of taking on something that could end up taking a long time to master. I’m fighting myself at 50 because I am older than the “typical” writer just starting to make a name for herself; why am I so troubled by this 70 year old who is using the excuse of old age to stop doing the thing she wants to do?
Partly, it’s because of empathy. And partly it is selfish. Her letting her fear get the best of her reminds me how close I get to letting my own fear crush my dreams. I don’t want to even imagine the possibility of my giving in to my own self-destructive thinking.
When I’m beginning to feel defeatist, I always try to remind myself that Julia Child asked what a shallot was when she was in her mid-30s. She went on to be a great cook and teacher of cooking even though she didn’t begin learning how to do it until she was 40.
For good measure, I also remind myself that Lara Ingalls Wilder didn’t publish her first book in the Little House on the Prairie series until she was 64 years old.
At 50, I’m a spring chicken.
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