“What you leave behind is not what is engraved on stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.”  Pericles

This birthday got to me.  It’s never those clean, easy numbers, like 30 or 50 that do it.  Instead, odd ones sneak up on me, like 45, the age at which my mother died (subconsciously assuming I wouldn’t live past the exact number of days she had.)  21 meant nothing, but 28 meant I was really an adult. 53 hit hard.  By the most optimistic estimates, I’m halfway through.

It’s as if I’ve been crossing a wide stream for years, moving methodically from one stone to the next.  I stop, catch my breath, adjust my balance, and look for the next spot on which to plant my feet.  Sometimes I glance backward for a moment; usually my focus is ahead.  What I haven’t done is sit down, relax, and bask in the sound of the water rushing around me and the blue sky above. 

My life has been full of artificial standards of what makes a person important or valuable, no matter how hard I’ve tried to fight them.  Even when I can free myself from judgments about others, I lay them thick on myself.  From career to mothering to education,  I replay the tape of my choices and cringe, forgetting that at every moment, I truly did the best I was capable of at the time.  When I am fair, I realize that it’s more complicated than my simplistic rubrics allow. Yet, I am stuck buzzing around in my head about what I haven’t done, what I am not, where I have fallen short.

So today, as I turn 53, I am giving myself a gift.  At this fudged midpoint, I am deciding to take a sabbatical from the shoulds and the haven’t happeneds and try to sit in this year, this space, this huge opportunity.  I suspect that if I were 95, I would feel delighted and amazed if I could spend a week in the body of a 53 year old.  So why not enjoy it now with delight instead of scorning its creaking and wrinkled bits? In order to enjoy the possibilities of what the next decades may bring, I am turning off the cruise control and changing the rules. No matter how I have done things in the past, I choose now to do them differently.  Just like that.

Since I was a child, I have observed elders around me—the average, the exceptionally inspiring, and the embarrassingly horrific—and wondered how they got to be who they are. It is a curious process, aging, that often removes the tact filter and amplifies the extremes of personalities.  Many appear to stop receiving input around midlife, content to live with the lessons already learned, which they defend with gusto within a gradually contracting shell.  A rare set seems to have found a way to keep the doors wide open, They grow in wonder and enthusiasm, rooted in a deep wisdom and calm. I want that for myself.  Desperately.

Although I mostly still feel young, and like life is nearly limitless, I am also a gardener.  I know that a small bend in a young tree turns into something unchangeable with time.  Before I move on, I plan to mull over what I’ve learned, to think about who I’d like to be going forward. Labels and accomplishments have done little for me.  I am ready to leave their emptiness, to be mentored instead by real people who have shown me that it is possible for this next part of life more grateful, loving and fruitful than ever.

I wish to listen more, understand better, and continue to learn, to be more accepting and forgiving–to throw around compliments and encouragement with wild abandon. I expect to make lots of mistakes.  That’s how we learn.   As long as I know which direction I’m walking in, I will get there.