I've begun to notice lately with another birthday just past - that some interesting changes begin to occur in your sixth decade (and beyond, I expect). You begin to see the world differently, to want more of some things in life and less of others, to enthuse over what you once took for granted or missed noticing, to relinquish that which no longer has meaning, and to embrace that which does. You let go of ego but refuse to be pushed around. The phrase "It is what it is" takes on new relevance. Family and friends become deeply important while ambition and work imperatives diminish. Laughter means more than it once did. Tears flow on occasion, sometimes in memory, often with longing. You understand that neither pain nor pleasure lasts forever.
More than before, I love the sweet smell of summer and the feel of crisp autumn leaves crunching underfoot. I love the vibrant red or green of chopped peppers, the smell of a simmering stew, the taste of a good wine. I cherish the laughter of a long-held secret shared with my husband, just as I appreciate the touch of a baby's soft skin or a hug from a new friend. I no longer want all the chachkes I've accumulated over a lifetime unless they carry with them sentimental value. I've simplified. I haven't worn a piece of good jewelry (or high heels) in years.
Many of us have stopped shopping. Rather than acquiring yet more trinkets and unnecessary accruements, we want to jettison all but that which is essential. We donate, re-gift, bequeath, throw away, and it feels good to unburden ourselves. Only that which carries with it meaningful memory retains its worth. That's why people, and tradition, become so deeply important to us.
Older people joke about the fact that they talk of aches and pains. "So how'd your colonoscopy go?" we ask. "I'm so relieved that my mammography was ok," we say. When someone we love dies, we talk about that too, in new and somber ways, secretly glad that it wasn't us this time around. We smile at Mark Twain's line about hating to grow older until we consider the alternative. But what lies behind that kind of banter is the realization that we are on a one way trip, and the shores on the horizon of our unstoppable journey are coming more quickly into view.
There are interesting and noticeable gender differences in how we age and how we talk about aging. Women, ever the caretakers, tend to think about what they want at the end of life, planning ahead so as to reduce the burden on others. Men, on the other hand, avoid the subject or laugh when we ask about their preferences. It took forever for me to get my husband to say what he wanted done if he predeceased me. I, on the other hand, have had my funeral arrangements written out for years, right down to the poems I want read and the music I want played. (Some might call me a "control freak;" I prefer "pragmatist.")
Women also find getting older quite liberating, even energizing. I once had a friend who said, on her seventieth birthday, "I'm finally old enough to say and do what the hell I want!" Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who urged 19th century women, metaphorically, to become capable of steering their own boats and to embrace "the solitude of self," noted that "the heyday of a woman's life is the shady side of fifty, when vital forces heretofore expanded in other ways are garnered in the brain, when their thoughts and sentiments flow out in broader channels"" Or as Bridget Bardot put it a century later, "It is sad to grow old but nice to ripen."
Reaching Medicare can be a sobering experience but it is also a time to realize that we have learned life's hardest lessons and survived them. We finally know what things are important in life and we recognize that they are precious few, especially when you think about everything we've spent our time worrying about all these years. We know there are occasions when we must take life seriously, but seldom ourselves. We are, at last, our truest, finest version.
Rumor has it that eighty is the new sixty (and one hundred is the new dead.) I'll buy that since "some of my best friends are in their nineties." But one of the things you realize with growing older and wiser is that numbers don't really matter so much anymore. It's not about being first, best, or last. It's about that old cliche, living life to the fullest, with grace, which often means simply being alert to the gifts on offer. For that, in the end, may be the greatest testament to what we have learned -- and how we have grown old or otherwise.