Would you call asking people to throw pies in your face, getting your first tattoo, cutting your hair off, and packing your bags for a faraway continent a midlife crisis? If so, I’m having one.
I turned 52 in April. On my birthday I ate escargot for the first time. A few weeks later, I learned to do a handstand, rode a Segway, took acting lessons, and left for London on a honeymoon. All of these “firsts” are part of my plan to do one thing I’ve never done each week for 52 weeks straight in celebration of my 52nd year.
At first, I flatly rejected the notion of “midlife crisis” — isn’t that when men dump their wives and buy little red sports cars? If a crisis is a time of intense difficulty, trouble, or danger, that’s not what I’m feeling. These last several weeks have been exciting, not difficult. Maybe a little dangerous, but the fun kind of danger!
Yet the term coined by psychoanalyst Elliott Jaques in 1965, just a few years after I was born, pretty much sums up the way I’m feeling: “A time where adults come to realize their own mortality… The result may be a desire to make significant changes in core aspects of day-to-day life or situation, such as in career, work-life balance, marriage, romantic relationships, large expenditures, or physical appearance.”
Mortality may have been on my mind when I woke the morning of my 52nd birthday, and thought: I never want to stop being brave. I never want to feel that the aperture of my view on the world is narrowing.
When we’re young and inexperienced, we constantly make choices about what we do and don’t like, from food to hairstyles, music to mates to careers. When we get older, we relish knowing who we are. But there’s a risk, too, in blindly following habitual likes and dislikes without even weighing our options. I refuse to think what I know about myself to date is all there is to know.
Last year on a family trip to Hawaii, I surfed for the first time. Having grown up a mile from the Pacific Ocean, I’d always associated surfing with cool blondes, not freckled redheads. It thrilled me to be afraid as I paddled into the sea, belly to the board, to wait for the wave, stand, fall, and do it again. I’ve started craving that feeling of surprising myself about who I am, what my tastes are and what I’m capable of. Rather than a panicked reaction to aging, I see this moment in my life as a time when I’ve slayed my insecurities. Like some novice superhero who has trained long enough — honing my brains, talents and looks — I finally feel equipped to take on pretty much anything I want.
The 52 new things I will do this year is no bucket list. I could have died perfectly happy never having eaten a snail. But I dared myself to try the garlicky, rubbery coils in order to switch up the story I tell myself about who I am. The week after my birthday, I sat in a tattoo artist’s chair – the sign Le Rebelle appropriately displayed above my head – the needle buzzing as the ink burned into my skin. The following week my husband of 22 years and I jetted off on a long-deferred honeymoon. And, yes, we had great sex every night just like newlyweds.
My 52 things include adventures: Next month, I will go to Rishikesh, India, the birthplace of yoga, to deepen my decade of yoga practice and hike in the Himalayas. My list includes spontaneous inspirations: A Lorrie Moore short story led to my husband, son and daughter lining up to pie me. My list includes things that scare me: open mic storytelling, kayaking, cutting my long hair short. I’ve reached out to friends for surprising suggestions: pole dancing, seeing the sun rise in the East and set in the West on the same day, mechanical bull riding, trapeze-ing, a cross-country road trip.
A month into my 52 weeks, I read an obituary in The New York Times about an editor who died while rock climbing. She’d previously blogged about “changing her narrative” from bookish to outdoor adventure woman. If she hadn’t diverted from her storyline, she might still be alive. But she’d written in a plot twist. I wondered if my midlife crisis — or as I’d begun to think of it, “my year of living dangerously” — would similarly imperil me.
I love my life as it is, and could choose to live it like a favorite book read again and again. The fact is, it’s a challenge to make room to do new things when my life is already full, and to find exciting new things to do using my old, reliable moral compass. I’m going to India and riding a Segway– not hiking Everest and doing heroin.
Yet most of us don’t make room for the smallest diversions from our tried and true paths. Even my 20-something friends find my 52 things project thrilling. I hope that, when they see me paddling out to unknown waters, they think: If she can — she’s old enough to be my mother for goodness sake! — so can I.