The birthday girl

It’s been almost a week since I celebrated my 41st birthday with a trip to the Museum of Fine Arts, and let me tell you: I simply love life on this side of forty.

Above and below

Last year when I celebrated the Big 4-0, I wasn’t sure how middle age would suit me. “Middle age,” in fact, sounded like a term I couldn’t imagine applying to myself. Given the fact that it feels like I finally finished graduate school only yesterday, it seems physically impossible that I could be over forty. But, it really is true when they say time speeds up as you age, for my long-awaited graduation from graduate school happened over five years ago, not yesterday. My twenties were the decade I married and moved to New England; my thirties were the decade I finally finished school, divorced, and came into my own; and my forties are…now. I’m not exactly sure how I got here so fast, but here I am, waking up to “middle age.”

And therein lies the kicker: it turns out I actually like being “middle aged.” I don’t necessarily like that term, as it sounds middling and mediocre: not quite young and not quite old, just a nondescript mishmash of This and That. I don’t like the way that many folks utter the term “middle aged” as if it were an epithet synonymous with “out-of-touch and stuck-in-a rut” rather than “a period of life when you’re still active enough to do fun things and wise enough to enjoy them sensibly.” But despite my initial indecision about how I’d like being 40, I’m finding that being a “woman of a certain age” really suits me. I’m beginning to think, in fact, that I’ve been a 40-something-year-old all along, and only now am I behaving in a way that is age-appropriate. Finally, the sprinkling of gray hair that looked so strange when I started getting it in high school looks entirely appropriate on a 40-something head: a badge of wisdom rather than an unfortunate genetic inheritance.

Sky walker

Jo(e) hit the nail on the head in her post about not making New Year’s resolutions when she remarked, “By the time I was forty, I had decided to accept my vices as part of my charming personality.” In my 20s and 30s, I looked at myself as some sort of self-improvement project that was never quite finished, and this meant I spent a lot of time and energy mentally comparing myself to people I thought were more “improved” than I was. During the long slog to my doctorate, for example, I wondered why I couldn’t/didn’t finish sooner, like others did. In the years leading up to my divorce, I wondered why I couldn’t assume the character of the “perfect wife” as I imagined other married women did. Throughout my twenties, I worried that I wasn’t as good a college instructor as my peers were, and throughout my thirties, I even compared myself to my female students, wondering why I as a 30-something woman couldn’t look as cute, thin, and fashionable as a fresh-faced coed.

Corner of a Calder

Somewhere around the time I turned 40, though, many of these comparisons simply fell away. It was as if I reached a point in my life–as if I reached “a certain age”–where I was simply too tired to worry about how I look, seem, or behave in comparison with other people. Somewhere around the time I turned 40, I remembered I’ve never been cute, thin, or fashionable in a conventional sense. I was always the strange kid who, in elementary school, used to climb to the top of the jungle gym to contemplate the universe while my classmates played kickball; I was always the kid who spent more time reading than socializing. Now when I see my 18- to 20-something female students in their crop tops and skinny jeans, I no longer compare myself with that because I was never a girl who wore the latest fashions or anything called “skinny.” As a 40-something, I’m in a completely different category than all the world’s 20- and even 30-somethings, so there’s no use trying to make a comparison.

Going to an art museum on your birthday, it turns out, is a wonderful way to embrace this kind of age-acceptance. The MFA contains artworks of all ages, with galleries devoted to objects both contemporary and ancient. In an art museum, there is no indication that works “of a certain age” are less valuable than younger works; instead, older pieces are cherished as “classics” and “masterpieces.” Why then do we worship human youth over the more seasoned ripeness of age?

Museum steps

Last year, a few months after I turned 40, I went not once but twice to the MFA’s eye-popping exhibit of paintings by Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese, and as a woman of a certain age and body shape, I absolutely loved viewing artworks where full-grown and fleshy women were displayed as being the pinnacle of erotic beauty. Titian’s Venus and Tintoretto’s Susannah aren’t young girls or wispy waifs; they are mature, substantial women who would never stoop to squeeze themselves into skinny jeans. Standing in a room where voluptuous Venuses hung on every wall, I had a moment of clarity: “Maybe this is what mature Italian women actually look like.” If you’re a woman of any age who has ever felt a pang of insecurity when you looked in the mirror or compared yourself with the models in magazines, you know how liberating such a realization can be.

Ultimately, the lesson of any museum is that you should enjoy beauty wherever you find it, regardless of its age or shape. It’s a lesson offered to any who would hear it, but it is one especially savored by those of a certain age.

Click here to see my photo-set from my birthday trip to the Museum of Fine Arts. Enjoy!