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All Grown Up, at Last

Novelist Barbara Neely on embracing the person you've become after 65

1.  At 65 you are a distilled and aged version of who you’ve always been: you, only more potent.

As a part of my 65th birthday, I skimmed my journals from my 40s forward — from this vantage point, I consider my pre-40 years part of my childhood. My entries reminded me that the heavy load of fears and foibles I’d once strapped to my back — all those childhood traumas, heartbreaks, disappointments and misconceptions that kept me in a near-perpetual state of self-criticism — had diminished. By 65, this trunkful of angst could fit into a small change purse. Now, as I turn 70, the change purse is so tiny it gets lost on my desk or left in my jacket pocket for weeks on end, unmissed.

It would be nice to report that I was able to ditch my emotional baggage through meditation and sheer willpower. But what really happens, I think, is that — if we’re lucky — we grow into ourselves. We become more nuanced, more able to see the shades of gray, the thing beneath the thing. And we have less room for self-defeat, less patience for the useless and unnecessary. So we begin unloading our bags of woe, bit by bit. It’s as if the unconscious mind knows that the clock is ticking and we don’t have a moment to waste on being anyone other than the person we genuinely are.

2.  Sixty-five is as good an age as any to say yes to everything that isn’t harmful to you or others. Rewards follow.

If you dream of learning Swahili or taking a walking tour of Paris, go for it. If you can still fit into those hot pants and are still inclined to wear them, it’s strictly your call.

One of my throwback urges, as a self-taught author, was to explore what could be taught about writing. So I entered a university M.F.A. program. There were days when I felt as if I’d been thrown into the kiddie pool. But from this experience came many rewards: a stint working with middle school writers, a couple of semesters volunteering as a reading-writing facilitator for a group of adult women and plans to use my new degree to start a program for adult learners in collaboration with community centers and other groups. I hadn’t anticipated any of this at 60.

3. Ignore others’ definitions of who or what you should be at 65 and beyond. Run your own show, and be on guard against internalized ageism.

One of your generation’s most sterling qualities has been its belief in itself. You didn’t always get it right, but you fought for what you believed in. Just as you redefined what it meant to be young and socially engaged, I expect (and hope) you will redefine what it means to be post-65. I urge you to include a resurgence of the kind of sociopolitical activism that has brought us to a place where women’s equality is no longer a total oxymoron and a family of color occupies the White House. I look forward to your doing your thing once again. 

Remaking seniorhood in your own image won’t be easy. Someone will try to make you feel bad about not dying your hair, or about dying your hair. Someone will insist that you are too decrepit to do whatever they hope to exclude you from, or what they want you to shut up about. 

Worst of all, there will be days when you will look in the mirror with astonishment, if not horror. Get over it. One of my solutions is to look in the mirror more often, smile at the lovely lady and hope I look as good as she does when I reach her age.