“You are fearless,” my friend Carson told me. We were at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan, and I had, no joke, just had a conversation with Margaret Atwood about books and writing. I recognized her, introduced myself, and was rewarded with roughly 15 minutes of her time before she shook my hand and told me it had been lovely to speak with me. “Absolutely fearless,” Carson said, shaking her head, and I smile because, yes. I am.
I wasn’t always this way. In fact, two years ago, I would have been too timid to approach the tiny woman with the curly gray hair and ask if she was Margaret Atwood, but something happened just before I turned 50. Maybe it was finally getting old enough not to care about people’s opinions of me, my actions, or my clothes. Or it was becoming confident in my own wisdom and no longer being embarrassed by making mistakes. Maybe it was having confidence in my own competence, after years of feeling like I was faking it.
I don’t know what changed but I do know that the change was as instantaneous as it was dramatic. One day, I was somewhat shy, reluctant to speak my mind for fear of what the other person’s reaction would be, content to fade into the background, and the next, I was suddenly and irrevocably visible, 100 percent comfortable with it, and didn’t give a fuck what people thought about me. This metamorphosis coincided with my first, and to date, only symptom of menopause, a missed period.
In January 2015, a month before my 50th birthday, I read an interview with the writer Ayelet Waldman in which she implored a friend of hers to interview her, “before I disappear.” The problem, Waldman explained, was that she was turning 50 in a month and feared the invisibility so many women experience as they pass the half-century mark. I read the article with interest because my own experience was so different.
Finding fierce at 50
That week in Manhattan has become a litmus test of sorts for me, a measure of how much I have changed, of how permanent that change is. I grew up on the East Coast and attended college in upstate New York, but moved out West as soon as I graduated. As the week progressed, I saw a couple of friends from college, people I haven’t seen in almost two decades, who were amazed at how I look. “You’ve got a vibrancy about you,” one told me.
I get told several times that I do not look like I am over 50 with two adult children. On streets where I walked as a teenager, a 20-something, and as a 38-year-old mother of two, people moved out of my way. Though I am aware of men watching me and Carson, I am not intimidated by them as my younger self might have been. When one man says, “Looking good, ladies” with an obvious down-up, I snapped back, “We’re not here for your approval,” and kept walking.
Looking better than ever
Of all the changes I have undergone since turning 50, the most visible one is my appearance. On that milestone birthday, I weighed 180 pounds and wore a size 16. I was the stereotypical minivan mom who had gotten too busy chauffeuring her kids to activities to take time for herself. Two and a half years later, I am 150 pounds and, though I can wear a size 6, I prefer a size 8, which is still a full three sizes smaller than I wore in high school.
My workout routine is varied: I bike, workout in a 6 am fitness boot camp five days a week, do yoga a couple of times a week, and run. Though I have always maintained a disdain for running born from gym class, I now have two 5K races under my belt and am training for a 10K in October. I am constantly looking for ways to test out the limits of a body I feel I am just beginning to get to know.
The trip to Manhattan is immediately followed by a visit to Scotland for my older son’s graduation from the University of Aberdeen. My husband and I plan to travel through the United Kingdom while our sons tour Europe. Freed of both children for the first time in 18 years, it quickly became apparent we were going to have an impromptu second honeymoon. We talk, we hold hands, we stop in the middle of streets to kiss. When we ate dinner, we reached across the table, fingers entwined, until the food arrived.
Becoming a crone
While the weight loss was a visible testament to the renaissance I was undergoing, a far less visible change was happening, too. To put it bluntly, my sex drive went through the roof. While my husband and I had always maintained a healthy sexual relationship, the months leading up to my 50th birthday saw a dramatic uptick in our activity; one that caused a bit of panic when, two months later, I realized my period was late. Very late. The only time I had ever skipped a period was because I was pregnant. Three negative pregnancy tests later, I was in my doctor’s office where she gave me some unexpected news. The blood work she had done showed I’d missed a period because I was entering menopause.
The revelation that my reproductive years were behind me was both liberating and disconcerting. Disconcerting because, at 50, I thought I was too young for menopause; and liberating, because, for the first time since I was 12, I no longer had to put thought or energy into the care of my reproductive self. No more days to count, supplies to buy, cramps to endure, pregnancy to worry about. It astounded me how much energy I suddenly had.
“Congratulations,” my husband said, without a trace of irony, “you’ve become a crone.”
Revisiting of self
Our U.K. visit took on a new aspect when we visited Bath, a place I had first seen 31 years previously while studying in London. I brought my husband to the Roman Baths, to the place where I had stood with my tour group, missing him horribly, and wishing we could experience these things together. I felt a piece of myself return while we stood there.
“Samsara,” my friend Sheena labeled it a week later when we have dinner with her in Edinburgh. It’s a Sanskrit word that encompasses the idea of karma and a revisiting of self, but Sheena says it also includes the sense of picking up pieces of yourself that you have left behind and reconnecting them with the whole, a sense of repairing the vessel of our self that shatters during life. It perfectly describes the experience I have had since turning 50. I feel as though I’m returning to a sense of my younger self. A self who willingly gave itself over to being a mother, a wife, and a teacher because those things were necessary, but was now coming back into its own.
A few days later, we were on Islay, the legendary home of Laphroaig and Lagavulin and half a dozen other single malt whiskeys, on the west coast of Scotland. Since Bath, we have visited more of the places I first saw as a 21-year-old, and each time, it was as if a piece of myself had been waiting for my return. On our first night on Islay, my husband pointed out that this is the hinge point in our trip, the place where it turns from the past to the future. My love of whiskey is a new thing, he said, born at the time our older son started university in Scotland, born at the time my new sense of self was emerging.
I have never been to Islay before, whereas I had had a connection to almost everything we have done to this point. I discover, to my delight, that I can hold my own in conversations about whiskey and Islay, even with Scottish bartenders and distillers. I have become a whiskey drinking woman.
Back to the beginning
In many ways, this trip was a celebration of the changes that have occurred since I turned 50, as well as an encounter with my 21-old-self and her dreams and insecurities. I watched my son at his graduation, in awe of who he is at 21, and tell him, as he mourns the end of college and said goodbye to friends he may never see again, that he might be surprised.
I tell him one of my favorite quotes by T.S. Eliot: “We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” At 52, I realized this is what has happened to me. I have come back to the beginning, the place from which I started, the core of myself, and know myself for the first time. Call me a crone if you wish because, from where I sit, it’s a damn fine thing to be.