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fear of 50
by ellen winner

The birthday cards started arriving in the mail a full month before my birthday. Not just one or two, but three and four a day, every day.

The inordinate profusion of colorful envelopes in the mailbox made our daily mail look like the beginning of holiday catalog season. I can’t tell you how loved I felt knowing how much my “best friend” cared that I am older than she is! Here’s a sample of her empathy : “Many people think 50th birthdays are very serious—Except me. I think your 50th birthday is funny as hell!”

I turned 50 years old! How did that happen?!! I always figured there would be time: time to change my career, time to fight for the causes I’m always ranting about, time to write the book, or three, whose sheaves of notes crowd my file drawers like forgotten photos waiting for albums. Then last year I turned 49 and the big 5-0 began looming over my head like the stone grey clouds of an imminent storm. It was a milestone that threatened to become a millstone around my neck—my increasingly crêpey neck. Crepe used to be a fabric, now it’s a neck texture! This card’s encouraging: “Pull your ears back and suck in your belly! Let’s see what you looked like twenty- five years ago!”

I wanted to lose 50 pounds by the time I reached 50. Now I just want to be ok with how and who I am at 50. I know that sounds like a copout, but my friend Cathi, who’s a colonel at an Air Force base, also just turned 50 and she looks fabulous. She works out religiously to keep her size miniscule figure and really does have abs of steel. She does 300 sit-ups holding a medicine ball. Can you imagine?! She says even that doesn’t change skin and gravity. She says, “Yeah, I could wear a bikini, but I’d have to walk around with my arms straight up the entire time!” She’d appreciate this one: There are worse things than another birthday......try slipping into a bikini in front of a security video under bad lighting.

Do you remember setting your hair in orange juice cans or those pink spongy curlers? Wow—you are old! Wow. I did use those pink, spongy curlers. Where has the last 30 years gone and what do I have to show for it? What do I do now? And who in the hell is that middle-aged woman in the mirror? When I graduated college and charged out into the 70s in my hip hugger bell -bottoms and tie died t-shirt with flowers in my long straight hair, I had no idea what to expect or what changes I would face.

My mid-life malaise started late last summer when my husband and I drove from Tampa to Daytona Beach to meet with friends from college, some of whom I hadn’t seen in nearly 30 years. I haven’t been to my college reunions, so I fretted over what to wear that wouldn’t make me look too fat and whether I should get my nails done so I would look successful. I arrived at the beach house with my insecurities intact and joined the group standing around the pool. Our hostess Annie was visiting from Spain, where she lives with her martial arts instructor husband and their son. Annie lived on my hall in the freshman dorm, and I remember her as a hippy artist —a cross between Goldie Hawn and Sandy Dennis from the movie Out-of-Towners. (Now I’m dating myself!) We used to sneak back into the dorm together after midnight runs to the Dunkin Donuts. That was back when I could actually eat donuts.

I asked Annie what she had been doing all this time. She said she wasn’t painting anymore. In fact, she told me that one of the two art professors at our small university had loved her work, but the other one didn’t. Then one day her roommate mentioned casually, “Have you noticed that everything you do is maternal? You paint pictures of mothers and children, or just children or relationships.” Annie retorted, “That can’t be right,” but she looked through all her work and found that it was true. She thought, “The professor doesn’t like my work and this is all I can do.” Then she thought about the work of popular artists like Andy Warhol, Peter Max and Jackson Pollock. “I’m just not good enough,” she thought. So she stopped. She said, “When I stopped doing what I did, I just dried up.” She hasn’t painted once in the last 30 years. She made me think of all the things I had wanted to do, but instead ended up doing what I thought other people wanted me to do. Annie and I lived what we thought we should be doing, instead of using our gifts. Annie and I were afraid.

Somewhere along the line, we lost our muse and found fear: fear of failure, fear of success, fear of risk and loss, fear of not being quite good enough. Wherever it comes from, fear changes the way we live. Look at turning 50 this way—in the big antacid of life...you may no longer be an active ingredient.

50 seems to be the point in life where it becomes easier to look backward than forward. As I look back, I realize that my life happened anyway, despite my being the Queen of Denial. Life happens to us whether we are afraid or not and whether we are prepared for it or not. So, here I am turning 50. My life sure hasn’t been what I expected, but I realize that the things that have happened were not the ones I was afraid of!

When I left college, I had no idea that today I would be faced with 28 emails a day from people who want to lower my mortgage or enlarge my penis. The only spam I wanted to get rid of then was in my diet!

I never expected to get divorced —but I survived it. And now I celebrate 23 years married to my very best friend.

I never expected to battle infertility. But I won—and now I have two great kids to show for it.

I sure didn’t plan to be the recipient of the emergency adoption of a newborn baby when I was 39. I might survive that.

I was never afraid of breast cancer- but I beat that, too. And now I can celebrate my two (much perkier) breasts!

I never expected to fall off that trampoline while checking out the neighbor’s landscaping over our fence six years ago. My daughter said she was the only kid in her class who got to call 911 that week. The doctor said I would never run on my broken knee again. So, I really celebrated running my first 5K with my daughter last fall.

I’ve lived through career successes and failures, automobile accidents, major surgeries, and raising children—and I have the scars and gray hair to prove it! And the prescription drugs! Turning 50 has made me change how I look at things. I actually like this card:

Don’t worry, you’re not having hot flashes. It’s your inner child playing with matches!

My mother always tells me that she liked her 50s best. She said,”There’s not as much responsibility for the kids, no worries about getting pregnant, and you’re still young enough to be able to do what you want!” Here’s a card that lists many good things about getting older: Neutral colors are in so your gray hair goes with everything. Stroking chin hairs while thinking makes you look smarter. Hot flashes save time —you can undress in less than 30 seconds. Forgetfulness keeps your friends interesting ‘cause they always have something new to say, and it’s worth buying DVDs because you can watch a movie again and again as if you’d never seen it before. Not to mention the many benefits of AARP!

The challenge is to keep looking forward. Luckily, I have things to do—goals to keep me moving forward! And, with the stock market and the social security system in the states they are in, I’d say motivation to keep moving forward is not a problem! It’s that nasty little voice in your head that says, “You can’t.” or “What will people think?” that keeps us from doing what we want to do, what is right for us to do. My friend Lydia recently told me, “You know Ellen, I always keep my promises to everyone—except to myself”.

Conquering our fears may not be a matter of trekking through foreign lands alone or eating worms like they do in reality TV. It may entail smaller things that take a lot more commitment, like keeping your promises to yourself.

To celebrate turning 50, be adventurous—do something you’ve always wanted to do but never have. Er....’cuz, , you don’t have all that much time left here, ya know.

Well, look at that one. That’s it. My fear of 50 is the fear that my best 30 years are gone and that the outlook for the next 30 years is not quite as exciting. And the next after that?......... Facing our own mortality is a tough thing to do, but some of us work better on a deadline! The next 30 years is all I have, and I can’t count on that, so it is sure time to make the best of every day!

At 50 you’ve become a national treasure! Unfortunately, Congress has cut the budget for your maintenance. That’s okay. I am quite capable of my own maintenance, thank you. I have indeed survived all those years! So what’s the point of those fears I’ve clung to? I can appreciate what I have accomplished so far, but I’m so looking forward to my next 50 years because there are a lot of things I really want to do. I have a book to write, an invention to market, causes to fight for and trips to take. I have promises to keep. Turning 50 is like crossing a river, even though you can’t get around it—you can get over it. Yep, time to start swimming!

© Ellen K. Winner

After 35 years in Florida (above) and nearly 20 in commercial real estate, Ellen Winner took her mid-life crisis to heart. She decided to find her passion and relocated with her family to Western North Carolina (below) to write and create a resort for dogs and their people. She performs Fear of 50 in Powerstories Theatre production of Clarity Cometh. This story is excerpted from the new book Powerstories: Inspiring, everyday women share personal victories by women, about women, for women to be released by Jada Publishing July 2004. For more information about Powerstories Theatre and workshops for women and girls, see powerstories.com.

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