Advice for the new 50 year old

The daughter of one of my cousins is in college now where she is a member of a sorority. Occasionally she will post a photo on Facebook of herself posing with a large group of her best friends. I look at these photographs and see 10 or 12 very attractive smiling  young women, all with the same color dark hair in the same longish style, all of them around the same height and weight and all wearing similar variations of tank tops and extremely short cutoff jeans. As I peruse these images, I get the very strange feeling that if I were a visitor from a far distant planet I wouldn’t feel more alien than I already do when I look at those photos. The reason for that is that I have never had that kind of experience in my entire life – to be part of a group where I was just like everyone else – looked the same, talked the same, liked the same books and films and TV shows.

From the time I was very young, I was taller than everyone else, with long, skinny arms and legs. I had green eyes and thick curly red hair when everyone else was blond or brunette. I read horse stories when other girls read stories about some cute blond heroine who goes on vacation and solves a murder mystery. (I received some of those types of books as birthday presents one year and though I managed to read them, I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to buy more to read) I read Science Fiction when NO ONE did, except perhaps those nerdy guys in the A/V club. However, when I was in grammar school I did sort of belong to a group comprised of other girls. We hung out together on the tarmac behind the school during recess and other breaks. The group consisted of me, the tallest girl in the class; Carol, the shortest girl in the class; Margaret, the fat girl; and of course Alison and Susan, the twins. Are you starting to see a pattern here? All of us were different from the pack. None of us was was like anyone else, each different in our own unique way. And that was why I liked them. I haven’t seen them in almost 50 years but we are Facebook friends these days. I hope they don’t mind me writing about them.

So why am I reminiscing about all that right now?

Girls on the balcony

Girls on the balcony

Last night I had the pleasure of attending a tjejfest. That’s Swedish for girl’s party. Besides me there were 12 other girls (ladies? or are we supposed to be some sort of politically correct and call ourselves women now? I don’t know.)  But me and the gals met at an apartment in Stockholm whose balcony offered a magnificent view of Stockholm rooftops. Well supplied with margaritas made by Catherine, whose apartment it was, we sat all squished up together on the big outdoor sofa cushions, chatting, joking, noshing yummy quesadillas made by Cecilia and laughing a lot. It reminded me of my cousin’s daughter. Most of us were Americans. And we all had different stories about how we happened to end up somewhere other than America. As I sat there pressed shoulder to shoulder with all those other women, my third eye, that nasty bugger who hovers above me impersonally observing all I am doing and commenting on it, said to me, “Look at you, Hilarie, you’re part of this group of fantastic women. They’ve let you in and you fit!” It was a great feeling!

Raindrops put an end to our balcony sitting and we moved indoors to wine and guacamole. The evening was a bit of a reunion. Though it was here in Sweden that we all got to know each other a number of us have moved on to other places. Tonight we were gathered together  –  Jane was in from England, Sally from Malta, Amy from Florida, Yasmin was here from NYC and Christin from Massachusetts. The common denominator between us is that we all live or have lived in Sweden. We are all different; from hippy-dippy graphic designer Hilarie to super smart scientist Yasmin, to psychologist Stina and strategist Jane. Some are business women. Many are writers. All are interesting and different. In a way, its like my group from grammar school all over again but without the nerd factor.

The party’s second agenda item was to celebrate Christin’s 50th birthday! All of us, except for Cecilia who is still 50- are 50+, with me and Carol being quite a bit more than the others but the youngsters seem to like us anyway. It was suggested (notice my use of passive tense here because I can’t remember who suggested it – Yasmin perhaps?) that we go around the circle and everyone describe to Christin their idea of what it means to be over 50. To pass on advice or “Words of Wisdom” so to speak, to her. So, after eating the fabulous birthday cake that Susan made, we started. I won’t try to recap what others said but a common theme was that once you’re over 50 it’s easier to just do what you want to do without getting hung up about what others think of you.

Halfway round the circle it was my turn. (Someone, I won’t say who, gave me a scathing look and said, “It’s supposed to be positive things!) I had been giving this some thought since the topic was suggested and listened with interest to what others had to say. And in all honesty, this “aging” question is something I spend a lot of time thinking about.

50! My god, that seems so young to me now. And so long ago yet it feels like just yesterday. How is life different over 50 than younger than 50? Yes, what other people think of you becomes less important to you. But its not that simple.

When I was in my 20s I spent a lot of time trying to see who I was and to figure out how to make myself into the kind of person I wanted to be. The kind of person I wanted to be was pretty much a mashup of the roll models I respected or admired. And no, they weren’t my parents! Roll models: Mrs Peel from The Avengers TV show (the original), Veruschka the model (look her up if you youngsters don’t know who she is), Marlene Dietrich because she could be sexy without taking off any clothes, Katherine Hepburn just because she was like no one else. And because a girl doesn’t have to have only female role models, Yul Brynner in The Magnificent Seven because when he walked down the street, he owned it – a good skill to have if you live in NYC. I’m sure I had some others I respected, admired and wanted to emulate but that’s all that come to mind at the moment.

By the time I reached 30, I had pretty much made myself into who I wanted to be. The 20 years between 30 and 50 were pretty damn good. I came to Stockholm the first time. I met Håkan. I had 7 fun years working as a freelance graphic designer in the A/V business in NYC. I got married at 38, had my kid at 40. Spent 10 years fixing up a run down country property and learned to like country life and my green rubber boots. And all the while doing good, creative, satisfying work.

And then I hit 50! Yes. Yes. I know, positive things! But it’s difficult. Just after I hit 50 a major recession hit us here in Sweden. Many of the clients my husband and I had, dried up and died. Money became tight. Life became difficult. While in my 30s I felt in control of my life. In my 40s I felt in control of someone else’s life. In my 50s I started to feel like I had very little control over anything. And for a recovering control freak like myself thats a really bad feeling. But that was all over 10 years ago now. I can’t say life got a lot better after everything fell apart but many of those things that happened after I turned 50 were circumstantial not metaphysical. And that’s the important difference!

So here are some of the things I learned since I turned 50.

1. I can’t control everything. Partially because I’m now just too tired and partially because you just can’t. So stop trying. OK, Ok, you can try a little.

2. You can’t change other people. So stop trying to do that too. It will only make you unhappy. And you know the second part of that “advice”, when they tell you that you can only change yourself? Well that’s a lie! You can’t really change yourself either. You might think you are but you’re not. I spent all my 20s creating the Hilarie that I wanted to be. And for the most part, I became that person but underneath it all I was still the original Hilarie – insecure, self-conscious, afraid of change. You’re stuck with you no matter what so you better start liking yourself. But after 50, you’re more willing to say, “Oh, what the fuck! This is me!”

3. And that brings us to the thing that many sitting around the circle mentioned. Being less influenced by what other people think about you. I personally don’t think this should be something that only applies to “older” people. From the time I was 16 years old and 6 feet tall, I worried what other people saw when they looked at me. I spent years controlling, as much as possible, that image that others saw. I don’t so much any more. Its just too much damn work. I even dare to go out without any makeup on these days (but mainly only in my own immediate neighborhood) The only thing that really matters is what you yourself think! When I graduated art school I took my portfolio around to everyone I could think of for advice on how I should present my work. Everybody gave me different advice. I realized then that the only opinion that really mattered was my own. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t ask for advice, but the buck has to stop in your own backyard. And nobody knows your backyard as well as you do.

4. Here’s something else not specifically for 50+ers but for anyone. Figure out how to laugh. Learn how to tell a joke and make other people laugh. Because life is so crappy sometimes. It hits you when you least expect it and if you can’t laugh then you’re doomed.

So here I sit 14 years past 50 and you know what I feel like? I feel like I did when I was 14 years old, all over again. When I was 14, my body was changing in ways I couldn’t imagine, with new bumps developing in different places. I spent a lot of time wondering what life would be like after I leave my family, what was I going to work with, where was I going to live, how would I support myself, who would be my new friends or family, etc etc etc.

And here I now stand, on the brink of retirement, again about to start a new life. Just like when I was 14! Once again my body is rearranging itself. (not always in equally positive ways as it did the last time) I wonder what I will be doing after I stop “working”. How will I stay creative? Where will I live when a large apartment will no longer be needed. I wonder what life will be like when my family – my son –  leaves home. And I readily admit I am scared shitless. Back then I had the possibility of 80 years ahead of me. Now I have most of my life behind me and if I’m lucky barely 30 more to go. (and probably not 30 fully healthy ones) But if I allow myself to calm down a bit I also have to admit a touch of excitement. Because I know I won’t be doing it alone. I’m a member of a group.


8 Responses to “Advice for the new 50 year old”

  • claude pigeon Says:

    You were great in 1970 and I love you as much in 2015… in fact, you are much more accessible in 2015!

  • Alison Sheehan Says:

    It is an honor to show up in one of your postings, Hilarie. As for old age, the part that I truly enjoy, in spite of the failing physical plant and anxieties about what truly old age will bring, is that those former responsibilities, primarily work and childcare, are OVER and done with. If I have to sit and wait for death, I’ll do it in a comfy chair with a glass of wine.

  • Hilarie Says:

    Oh Pidge, you are still such a sweetie! I have a memory of us cruising the bars of SoHo together. Is that a real memory or just something my brain concocted all by itself?

  • Hilarie Says:

    Alison, I’m glad you approve of my use of you for my own purposes. When I get really old I just want them to sit me down on a bench along a sunny wall and let me watch the people go by. If I’m really fussy a soft cushion might also be nice.

  • Catherine Says:

    It seems you’ve always been one-of-a-kind, Hilarie! Thanks for adding to the festivities and sharing the wisdom. 4 is my fav. One we didn’t cover on Thursday.

    XO

  • Hilarie Says:

    Catherine, I can see why you would appreciate #4! You are one of those who know how to do it! Laugh that is! Always a good thing!

  • Amy Says:

    Hilarie, That was brilliant. I loved every word. Thank you for taking the time to write it. I will share it on my FB page, if you don’t mind, and with Marielle and Sara. You may be a hippy-dippy graphic designer but you are also a wonderful writer and you’ve once again proven it. I would add another point of advice: NEVER STOP DANCING, AND IF YOU HAVEN’T STARTED, DO IT! I am glad I got you dancing. We need get our group together again soon so we can work on those moves. “Loosen up your body till you come undone…” (“Fun” by Chris Brown and Pitbull, that’s your practice song:-) Lots of love and puss and kram, Amy

  • nancy--you know whom Says:

    I can’t imagine you to be 14 yrs past 50…I am just 17 yrs past 60!! Ad yes you can change part of you..shrink that demon on your shoulder. Tell it to shut the FUCK up. And I am so glad we r part of a family, albeit a distant one. And I got you off your couch!! Hooray!

    Sorry you couldn’t come further wit me bc I found the absolutely best Danish pastry! At one bakery they were closing so she gave me all the last pieces! I even gave one to the bus driver. But I ate all the others which means I will NOT be eating them when I go home.
    Yes you do write well. my friend Carolyn thinks so too!!
    Remembere to let me know when you r in SFO so we can have a long Skype or phone call.
    Hugs back

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