Joi Maria, Featured Collaborator
I was 34 when I left my career in non-profit volunteer management to pursue a lifelong dream of being a writer. When I wasn’t posted up at Starbucks with my laptop, I was taking full advantage of the liberties being a housewife afforded me. I went to bed late and woke up late. No longer confined to running errands on weekends or in the evenings, I grocery shopped alongside the stay-at-home moms and went to the gym during the magic hour—after the morning rush, but before the lunch crowd. I freebased television shows, read for hours at a time, and indulged in leisurely, boozy lunches with the few friends I had who also didn’t work. In the evenings, I met my working friends for happy hour, and I was the only one who didn’t have to worry about feeling sluggish at the office the next day. For the first time since we’d gotten married, I was free to accompany my husband when he traveled on business. While he attended meetings, I slept late and ordered room service.
For my 35th birthday, I had a party. I’d never thrown myself a birthday party before, but I felt I’d reached a significant milestone. I was excited about what lay ahead for me as a woman in her mid-thirties. I was not yet “a woman of a certain age,” but all the inexperience of youth was behind me. I had a wonderful, supportive spouse of six years, good friends, and I was writing again. I was finally going to make something of myself. You couldn’t tell me I wasn’t on top of the world.
Before I knew it, I was 37, and just a few months shy of another birthday. It happened so quickly, I never saw it coming, but as I rounded the corner towards 38, the light began to dim. There were many contributing factors, but a large part of it was the realization that I wasn’t where I thought I’d be by that time in my life. I was deeply dissatisfied with what I was writing. In fact, as far as I was concerned it was all terrible, not a word of it worthy of running off on my own printer. I still hadn’t finished my short story collection and where was the blog I’d planned to start? To make matters worse, I had begun to see myself not as the housewife I’d once embraced being, but as just a housewife. I grocery shopped with the stay-at-home moms for Christ’s sake! There were days when the most exciting thing to happen to me was Whole Foods having Mock Chicken Salad on the prepared food line. Panicked, I began questioning everything. What the hell was I doing? Did I really quit my job to stay home and do…nothing? Did I really just watch 121 episodes of “Lost?” And is that really how it ended, with everyone frigging dead the whole time? Lost. It was the perfect metaphor for those months leading up to my 38th birthday because it was precisely how I felt. In just over two years, I’d gone from being on top of the world, to being on the bottom. The very bottom. I was Antarctica.
I was repulsed by the idea of turning 38. Thirty-eight was as good as 40, and 40 was—oh God—middle-aged. And I didn’t even have anything to show for it. No published stories. No book. No blog. Zilch. The questions kept coming. Where had all the time gone? Was this it? Was this all that was in store for me? My dream of being a writer, of making something of myself seemed like one big joke. And it was all on me.
Keeping up appearances as best I could, I continued to co-manage my writing group even though I felt like an utter failure as a so-called leader. I could critique my peers’ writing and even submit my own short stories for review on occasion, but I constantly questioned my end game. Where was any of it going? Was I just spinning my wheels? I was envious of the enthusiasm of my fellow writers, of their confidence and motivation. I wished some of it would rub off on me.
To combat the misery, I tried to focus on simple things that brought me pleasure. I had taken up running at 36 and I found it helped. Traveling—even if only for small weekend getaways—also helped. But these diversions were all just so many Band-Aids. At the end of the day, I was still unhappy. I still felt like I was running of time.
During this period, some of my interpersonal relationships suffered as well. A few familial ties unraveled. Long-time friendships I’d thought were golden began to reveal a dull patina. Hungry for fresh experiences—anything to shake up the monotony my life had become—I unwisely allowed new people into my orbit, people who would never have gotten clearance had I been operating with a clearer head. I started going out more than I had since college, late nights propelled by the desire to feel vibrant, happier, younger. I wanted a time machine. I wanted to be 22 again, with my whole life laid out before me. If I couldn’t turn back the clock, I decided I would take the battery out. I refused to accept that I was getting older. If someone called me “ma’am,” it stopped my heart. When I looked in the mirror, I didn’t see a “ma’am.” Then again, when was the last time I was carded while buying alcohol? This wasn’t supposed to be happening. I was too young to get old!
I turned 38 and the lights went out completely. No party this time. What was there to celebrate? I got through the birthday dinner my husband arranged with another couple, the entire time thinking, Welp, this is it. My best years are behind me. This is all there is left.
But deep down I knew it wasn’t. I wasn’t too young to get old; I was too old to be acting like such a baby. With my husband’s urging, I entered therapy. My therapist helped me quiet the racket in my head, all the negative things I was shouting at myself about my best years being behind me and what was next and yadda yadda yadda. It took several months, but I eventually began to crawl out of the pit I’d dug for myself.
With my husband’s help, I was able to look in the mirror and see what he saw—the woman he fell in love with. A joyful, creative woman full of potential and ambition. A woman who had lost her footing, but could get back on track. A woman who could do whatever she put her mind to if she would only get out of her own way.
Instead of resenting the passage of time, I began to look forward to it. I stopped beating myself up over all the things I hadn’t accomplished and set new goals. I started journaling. I finally started my blog. I got back to beginning the day with “quiet time,” a ritual my grandmother instilled in me when I was a pre-teen. When I actually began to look forward to turning 39, I couldn’t believe it. Instead of aging gracefully, I was aging gratefully.
Aging gratefully is about focusing less on the things I haven’t done or achieved and appreciating the things I have done, all I have achieved. It’s not about counting regrets; it’s about enumerating the reasons I have to be thankful. And there are many, many reasons. Aging gratefully is about looking ahead of me, not behind me. So bring on the birthdays, each and every one.
I threw myself a party when I turned 39. I felt my heart grow larger each time a new person walked into the room. By the end of the night, surrounded by the friends and loved ones who’d come to celebrate with me, I would not have been surprised if my heart burst from my chest. These are the relationships I focus on now—the ones I have, not the ones I don’t.
As I age gratefully, I am also less fixated on youth. Physically, I’m in the best shape I’ve ever been and I wouldn’t take my 25-year-old body back if someone paid me. Does it still rankle me when someone calls me “ma’am?” Not so much. I am a ma’am. What of it? And yet, I realize youth is not something you have to give up just because the years on the calendar increase. A few weeks ago, I spent time with some of my college friends. It was my time machine, my turned back clock. Reminiscing and laughing at the same silly jokes that tickled us two decades ago, I felt 20 again.
Last year, I turned 40. I was so eager to reach this milestone, I started counting it down over a month in advance. I commemorated each day with an activity, some big, some small. It didn’t matter what I did, whether visiting an art gallery, having drinks with an old friend, or getting a massage, the idea was to welcome and celebrate each day of 40’s approach. It was the complete inverse of how I’d spent the days leading up to my 38th birthday. The birthday I’d once dreaded turned out to be the one I looked forward to the most.
And yes, I threw myself a party.
Joi Maria is a Texas-based short fiction writer and personal essayist. She is a co-founder of Write Inside the Loop, a critique group for new and emerging writers in the Houston area. Find her blog, The Joi of Writing, at joimaria.com.