Speak truth to power: Declare your age

I turned 60 on July 4th.

There, I said it. Can I still write a blog about middle age?

No less an august authority than The Economist recently illuminated my dilemma in an article that argued for a new “age category”: What do we call this vital period between midlife and old age? I feel less affinity with a retiree of 75 than I do with a 40-year-old just entering middle age. Yet I am past those years of raising children, long commutes, holding an all-consuming job that could support a family and wearing stress like a badge for my achievements.

I still work. I exercise daily. I am engaged in life. I have good friends. At 60, I am not young anymore, but I am not old yet, either. What do I call this stage of life? Am I a “tweener”?

“Branding an age category might sound like a frivolous exercise,” says The Economist article, published two days after I tumbled out of middle age. “But life stages are primarily social constructs, and history shows that their emergence can trigger deep changes in attitude.”60 is classic

That explains why I have decided to be open about my age, despite the risks to my employability. I want to debunk the idea that women lose value as we grow older, which is true only in a society that prizes us primarily for reproduction. In fact, we have more time and far more perspective once we have made it through the child-rearing years.

Gloria Steinem’s famous rejoinder to an intended compliment on her 40th birthday, “You don’t look 40,” seems apropos: “This is what 40 looks like.”

For me, this is how 60 looks and feels:

  • wrinkled skin;
  • more need for sleep;
  • a lean body that craves yoga but can no longer sustain a runner’s 9-minute mile;
  • a determination to volunteer because I have less time to change the world (but still enough ego to believe I can make a difference);
  • more patience and self-acceptance;
  • more gratitude and humility;
  • and, thank goodness, still much to learn.

A woman can find freedom when she refuses to lie about her age, when she finds the gumption to declare her truth and share her story.

Wisdom from Bruce Willis

“Most of us have an inner age,” wrote the late author and gay-rights activist Robert Levithan in his book The New 60 (2012).

When I was in my mid-40s, working at a publishing company in downtown Minneapolis, I posted a quote in my cubicle from a Vanity Fair profile of Bruce Willis: “I see the lines on my face, but I don’t feel the weight on my shoulders. In my heart, I’m still 27,” he said.

MotownI could say I still feel young, that I take pride in keeping fit. I preen a bit when friends tell me I don’t look 60 and feel relieved when some commentator declares 60 as the new 40. What is all that, however, but a denial of the inevitable and a denigration of the gifts that come with age?

Ricka Kohnstamm calls these the wisdom years. “Age is totally an asset,” says Kohnstamm, who will turn 61 in August. A former partner with her husband, Josh, in Kohnstamm Communications, she recently earned a master’s degree in integrative health and well-being coaching.

“I bring a whole different set of experiences,” explains Kohnstamm, who is about to launch her own business, ALIGN Whole Health Coaching. “Many of us at 60 have experienced a lot: disappointments, joys, dreams that may not happen, transitions, deaths and losses.”

Over coffee, I tell Kohnstamm that I did not expect to feel so much uncertainty at 60. Her laughter breaks my fearful, reflective mood. “I want uncertainty!” she declares. “We have to learn to ride that wave.”

The secret? Keep learning

Loss can teach us lessons. Here is what the loss of youth is teaching me.

Being 60 means becoming acutely aware of time — in work, in relationships, in how I spend my days. I no longer have time to waste, and I use it wisely.

Being 60 means becoming more deliberate. I love to work and expect to hold some sort of part-time job for decades, but I likely am entering the final stage of my career. That makes me more careful than I was in my 20s and 30s, when I changed jobs too quickly, loving the energy of the chase, always seeking the next challenge and the thrill of something new.

Being 60 means accepting other people’s choices even when I think they’re wrong (a sentence that my husband will love to read).

Being 60 means breaking free of the façade. I look at women wearing layers of makeup and hobbling around on high heels, and I want to ask why they invest in their own subjugation. I dress up when circumstances warrant and relish the attention it grants me, but I don’t fool myself into believing that those appreciative glances define my worth. “Elegance attracted me,” says the protagonist in Zadie Smith’s novel Swing Time (2016). “I liked the way it hid pain.”

Being 60 means becoming willing to share that pain, to risk being real, and that requires the courageous work of being vulnerable. “The majority of people, if they’re awake, have pretty complicated lives,” says Kohnstamm. “Wouldn’t it be nice if we didn’t have to pretend we didn’t?”

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‘Emerging’ into a new stage of parenthood

“All I can do is feed him and listen.”

I have repeated that sentence like a commandment, a mantra — a helpless prayer — since my younger son moved back home in February. Only 22, he had his heart broken when his longtime girlfriend left him, their apartment and the shared life they had built. They had been together since they were 15 years old.

This past Monday, they would have left for a four-week excursion through Europe, where he had planned to propose. “You will look back on this as one of your life’s most significant losses,” I have told him, acknowledging both the worth of his former girlfriend (whom Nate’s dad and I loved, too) and the depth of his pain.Millennial T-shirt

Since Nate moved home, he has graduated from college with honors, increased the hours at his part-time job and gradually built a new circle of friends. He and I have taken long walks and had soul-searching talks. I iron his shirts. He helps pay a few bills.

Repeatedly I have asked myself whether I am helping or enabling him. Truth is, I don’t know. My late mother had Dr. Spock (“and Dr. Penn,” she would say, referring to the general practitioner who delivered her five babies). But I have no guidebook for how to parent a young adult, and neither do my contemporaries.

Consider:

  • A majority of young adults live independently in only six of this country’s 50 states, according to 2015 U.S. Census data. Minnesota is not among them. That compares with 35 states a decade earlier.
  • Social scientists have coined the term “emerging adulthood” to describe this uncertain, often scary period between adolescence and functioning without parental support.
  • Conversations with my female friends increasingly involve whispered worries about our young adult children. The son, 27, who lives at home because half of his income goes to child support; the accomplished daughter whose tumultuous relationship could affect her career; the promising college graduate who may be with the wrong woman, though his mother feels powerless to help him see it.

“I thought I was done, and technically I am done, but you have these concerns,” says the mother of the young man whose sons she is helping raise. Her son left home after high school and did not return until he had a college degree. “I really didn’t think about him on a daily basis,” she says. “Now it’s lying awake till he comes home at night. It means letting go and trusting that he’ll find his way, and that’s hard.”

Navigating a new terrain

Helicopter parents? I find that label too dismissive. Instead, Nate and his dad and I are three adults renegotiating the rules in a household that had been an empty nest.

My husband claims I have reverted to “Mom mode” since our son moved home four months ago. I see myself as trying to guide him through the grief and toward a productive life that will help him feel useful and happy.

“Both adult sons and adult daughters reported more tension with their mothers than with their fathers, particularly about personality differences and unsolicited advice,” reads a report about a study of parent and adult child relationships by the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research. “It may be that children feel their mothers make more demands for closeness or that they are generally more intrusive than fathers.”

Since Commencement weekend in May — when my son flew to Portland, Oregon, with his brother rather than face his former partner at their college graduation — I have been thinking not only about what I owe him. I have been pondering what he is teaching me.

Three conclusions, so far:

  1. Worry does not serve him. Tempting though it is to twist and spin about Nate’s future, it is his problem, his journey — his opportunity. “Worry is a lack of faith in the other and cannot exist simultaneously with love,” writes Duluth-based yogi and author Deborah Adele in her book The Yamas & Niyamas: Exploring Yoga’s Ethical Principles. “We need to trust suffering and trust challenge and trust mistakes; they are what refine us when we don’t run from them.”
  2. Learning crosses generational borders. Just as Baby Boomers can choose to learn from Gen Xers and Millennials in the workplace, I am intentionally seeking my son’s perspective. Yes, I raised him, shaped his values and oversaw his education, but it is arrogant to assume that I still have a “one up” role. He has nudged me to examine how much I invest my identity in work and helped me see that mothers have no monopoly on wisdom.
  3. Risk is its own reward. The notion that a person has to marry, choose a career or have children by a certain age can become its own self-constructed prison. I wish I had taken more risks as a young adult, so why am I uncomfortable with my son doing so? Having him home again has taught me to hold my tongue, withhold judgment and resist my tendency to manage or fix.

As I approach the final third of my life, I want nothing less for my son than I seek for myself: courage, accountability and resilience.

Driving yourself crazy? Sell your car

I have structured my life so I can live without a car. That choice may seem impossible, and, at times, it is impractical. Like any counter-cultural behavior, it initially requires effort to adjust.

I can attest, however, that car-free living is a healthful, fiscally responsible and even joyful pursuit in later middle age.

When I travel for work to Chicago, New York, Washington, D.C., and other big cities, I never rent a car. I stay in the heart of downtown and use mass transit, and my feet. That discipline is doable in the Twin Cities, too, even if you practice it only on certain days.

Discipline? Practice? Some people shrink from those words. Certainly, I make use of my husband’s vehicle — a 9-year-old, manual-transmission pickup — when I want to get to my weekend yoga class or my favorite suburban dog park. It also helps that the two reasons for my old Soccer Mom van have grown and gone.

My purpose is not to suggest that you never drive again at all. Nor do I intend to sermonize or gloat. My hope is to convince you that driving less — and using alternative forms of transportation more often — is a calming, community-minded, Earth-conscious habit that, like mindful eating, becomes easier and more self-sustaining over time.

Five benefits of a car-free lifestyle

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Benefit 1: I exercise more. I seldom post in the 10,000 Steps Facebook group I joined because, unlike the other participants, I rarely struggle to achieve that goal. Between walking to and from work, having a job that requires me to move throughout the neighborhood, and riding the bus or train to my appointments — which generally involves some walking — I have my feet on the street an average of 4 miles a day.

A Metro Transit ad in the still transit-lacking Twin Cities claims that people who commute by bus or train walk 20 percent more than do those who drive to work. More than 76 percent of Americans commute to work in their own cars, a 12-point jump from 1980.

Having access to your own vehicle is more convenient and saves you time. I hear that often from over-stressed workers and working parents. Even if they changed their commuting habits only one day a week, they would recognize how physical exercise can actually help them unwind and relax.

Benefit 2: I save money. My older son, who now owns my red Toyota Prius, pays $1,150 a year for car insurance. I routinely spent $200 a month on gas during the years I commuted from Northfield to St. Paul. My transit card, by contrast, costs about $30 a month, and my employer reimburses me for any work-related rides.

Granted, I am planning to invest in a high-end bicycle for my big birthday in July — a purchase I haven’t made since my college senior was a baby — but I can justify the expense now that I’m no longer servicing a car for my commute.

Benefit 3: I am part of my community. Living in the urban core makes a multimodal lifestyle both easy to navigate and an adventure. I am a 12-minute walk from the Green Line train to the north, a Whole Foods store to the east and the charming Grandview Theater to the south.

If I drove to these locations, I would lose the opportunity to observe architecture, peruse Little Free Libraries, and smile at barking dogs and blooming trees. I also would miss the chance to greet my neighbors. “In yesteryear’s compact, pedestrian-friendly communities, people walked to church and corner stores, and talked with friends on front porches while kids played in streets and alleys,” writes Katie Alvord in Divorce Your Car! (New Society Publishers, 2000). “Making communities walker-friendly can bring back that lifestyle.”

Each of us has the ability — and the authority — to take back our streets from the growing dominance of cars in our fast-paced culture. The City of Minneapolis has a pedestrian advisory committee. St. Paul Smart Trips, in my town, sponsors “St. Paul Walks.” Go online to sign a pledge that, as a driver, you will always stop for pedestrians at crosswalks, whether marked or unmarked. See it as an opportunity to catch your breath.

Benefit 4: I have time to think and read. As a hyper-scheduled person, I need enforced alone time. I use my bus and train rides to read the news on my iPhone, to catch up on e-mail and, sometimes, just to rest my eyes. Leave the driving to us? Happy to do so.

Benefit 5: I mingle with folks outside my middle-class bubble. Charles Zelle, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Transportation, spoke at a recent Saint Paul Chamber of Commerce luncheon about concrete and bridges, the ride-sharing services Uber and Lyft, making the state’s transportation system “work for the next generation” and the inherent class bias that underlies the resistance to mass transit.

We have to deal with “the identity politics of transit,” Zelle said, “the notion that ‘those people’” ride the bus or train, that “we don’t take transit.”

We, of course, is the professional middle class, people who see their own car as their birthright. As a Caucasian, I am often a minority on mass transit — except for the Blue Line when it is heading from the suburbs to a Twins game or the express commuter bus between Uptown in Minneapolis and downtown St. Paul.

I have seen homeless people on the Green Line lugging everything they own. I have sat amid boisterous Somali-American boys who disrupted my reading. I have quietly changed seats when a mentally ill person began to spout obscenities. I have never felt threatened or afraid.

This is the world. This helps me recognize my privilege and inspires me to work toward a greater understanding of why mass transit is essential, for all of us.