One of the most-read posts here on The Gloria Sirens is Laura Sobbott Ross’s poem, Skinny Dipping in the Ocean at Age 50. Why is it so popular with readers? Maybe because they’re women who are celebrating that they’ve gotten to the point in life that Gloria Steinem, The Gloria Sirens’ namesake, says women reach in middle age: where we get to be who we used to be, only better.
It’s that place where we were before adolescent hormones began driving us off course with worry, insecurity, and self-consciousness. It’s that place where we channel our giddy inner child. It’s the place where the worry, insecurity, and self-consciousness fall away and we feel free to express ourselves in whatever way we choose—in the way we dress, in the things we do (ballet, anyone? drawing lessons? improv? how about raising butterflies?), and in the people we choose to surround ourselves with.
Steinem says that we can return to our teen years (minus the kinds of hormones that turned our worlds upside down) and fly our freak flags. Or at least we might paint our nails blue. Or dance like no one’s watching– even if we know they are.
Sometimes the things that bring us the most pleasure arrive in our lives by happenstance.
I bought a used convertible Beetle so my last child still at home could drive herself to high school. It was perfect; she had long blonde hair, and the car was a pale yellow. Harvest Moon is what Volkswagen called it. The name invoked, for me, Neil Young and a sense of hippie freedom, and I envisioned my daughter, her hair flying behind her in the wind, blasting Lady Gaga, enjoying the sky above and the road below.
But she said no. She didn’t want to learn to drive a stick shift.
Instead, she wanted to drive the Mazda SUV I’d just bought for myself. I know she wanted the SUV for the punch of the turbo powered engine (arguably a safety feature), but she knew how to play me. “Mom, shouldn’t I be driving the car with the 5-star safety rating? One of the big reasons you bought the Mazda is because it’s so safe.” How could I say no? I couldn’t live with myself if my daughter got into an accident in a convertible while I drove the safe car.
So I drove the Beetle.
No matter my destination, I played music, and the music I played dictated the mood of the ride. Hippie rebel, New Wave chick, badass in leather (except I don’t wear leather), sexy soul sister, party girl, you name it. I was all of those people and more.
It’s kind of fun to be chilled out but chipper on Christopher Cross when you arrive at the dentist’s office.
When I started driving the Beetle, we lived in a new neighborhood and didn’t know our neighbors well. I saw one of them peeking from behind their window blinds at me—maybe wondering who was this new crazy lady be-bopping with the music and always driving with the ragtop down?
My daughter could never have enjoyed the Beetle as much as I did. I needed a break, and driving a convertible gave it to me.
After finishing college while raising four children, then going to law school, I appreciated with my whole self the freedom, and the blue sky, and the birds that are invariably coasting high in the air above us while we’re sitting dumbly at traffic lights. (They are.)
Where I live, Florida, I could have the top down anytime except when it was raining. In cold weather, I turned on the heat and heated seats and wore a trendy scarf. Chic and cheeky. That was me.
My changed behavior surprised my husband (fiancé then), and not in an entirely good way. He thought it was cute that I was enjoying the car so much, as long as no one we knew saw me. “Try to act your age,” he’d sometimes say. I honestly don’t think I was that bad. I was basking in the relief of having only one child to look after. I was happier then, in fact, than when I became an actual empty-nester, because the vestiges of motherhood are dear, and I hadn’t had to completely let go yet. (But that’s another story.)
Driving the Beetle put me in the mindset of getting away from the constraints of what our culture now calls “adulting.”
I learned a new sport in middle age (golf). I started sneaking grapes in the produce section. I skinny dipped with my husband at a party in the Hamptons. I started going on out of town sleepovers with some of my girlfriends—which, you will see (because you’re going to read the poem; you know you are), is the setting for Ross’s much-read Skinny Dipping in the Ocean at Age 50.
I lost the insecurities and self-consciousness I carried for decades.
I learned that other people have more interesting things to do than talk about me (even the neighbor peeking through the blinds), that I don’t have to wash, blow-dry, and style my hair Every. Single. Day. I’ve gone out for the day with no makeup on, even though my mother always told me I needed to apply more lipstick.
I’m still not finished not acting my age.
But the phrase “act your age” is problematic. If I am this age and this is the way I’m acting, aren’t I technically acting my age?
The intended compliment, “You don’t look like you’re fifty” (or whatever age) rubs me the wrong way, so I try not to say it to other women. It presupposes that women are supposed to look and act old. I say, “I do look 52, because I’m 52 and this is the way I look.” Women are evolving. We’re not sitting in rocking chairs with our hair up in gray buns. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)
Yes, I have plenty of pluck left in my tank, but I got rid of the Beetle—I had to.
One of my sons arrived for a family get-together in the pouring rain and said, “Does Mom know the top’s down on her car?”
I replaced my beloved Beetle with a sassy little custom Mini Cooper S convertible. Yes, I ordered upgraded sound.
Because it’s almost Halloween, you might want to read Diane Masiello’s piece from last week, Remember Me– All Hallow’s Eve.
POSTSCRIPT: Last week while visiting a friend in a small rural town in Vermont, I came downstairs in the morning wearing my warm Pusheenicorn onesie, which I had packed instead of a robe. Our friend had workmen putting up his storm windows. “Don’t let them see you in that,” he said– so I marched into the kitchen while my husband stood by smiling and said good morning to the workmen. Good morning to all of you, too!
Categories: Living, Suzannah's Voice
I turned 47 in June, and certain changes have begun that, well, signal that part of my life as a woman is coming to a close. Lately, all I’ve been able to do is think about endings–the kids are growing and in less than three years my eldest will be in college, which will be the end of my family as I know it now. Two years later and I will be an empty nester when my youngest goes to college. Their rooms will be empty, and the daily parenting work will end. My career as an academic has ended–I can’t imagine ever going back. So. Many. Endings.
Then I read the lines “we get to be who we used to be, only better . . . It’s that place where we were before adolescent hormones began driving us off course with worry, insecurity, and self-consciousness. It’s that place where we channel our giddy inner child. It’s the place where the worry, insecurity, and self-consciousness fall away and we feel free to express ourselves in whatever way we choose—in the way we dress, in the things we do (ballet, anyone? drawing lessons? improv?), and in the people we choose to surround ourselves with.” They gave me so much hope that instead of facing only endings, maybe there are some great new beginnings to look forward to.
Almost everyone I know who has gotten through this particular time of life and has moved on to the next part says that the best is yet to come. Seeing you dance in your unicorn robe, I can believe it! Thank you, so much, for giving me something to not only look forward to, but to emulate!
Diane, yes, there is so much for you to look forward to! I forgot to include that a woman might start raising butterflies at this stage, because now there’s plenty of energy to spend on it.
But before you get there, honor what you’re feeling right now: you know that one day, life as you know it will end. So live what you have left with gusto, because there’s a lot of living to do now.
You have three full years of the status quo, and then two years of the bittersweet, where you’re proud of your child at college and proud of your child at home, but are learning to let go just a bit. It’s a very dear time. It’s where things become real, but not too real that you can’t handle it. You’ll prepare yourself, and when the last child goes off to school, you’ll handle it better than you did the first time. And you will have family weekend and holidays and summers and all manner of great fun because those kids are going to miss you, too.
Besides yours, one of the other most touching responses I got from this was from my newest daughter-in-law, who said that she was watching the same thing in her mother, who recently retired as a family practice physician. She wrote, “It makes my heart happy to be a part of two families that embrace life’s changes and seek ways to make the most of them! You both are wonderful role models, not just to me, but to all the other women out there who need to see (and read) that it’s okay to step out of the norm, put the top down, and seize life acting the age you are and feel!” (Yes, you, Jess, and I all use the phrase “It makes my heart happy.” She’s a kg teacher, so she uses it a lot.)
Another of my daughters-in-law, Rachel, astutely pointed out that “Women in general are held to a higher standard of decorum than men (from childhood and beyond) and ‘act your age’ is definitely a symptom of that.” That reminded me of a couple of stories in the news, but it also made me wonder if the people who read my piece were loosening up. I wrote to my daughter and said, “Nobody commented about me skinny dipping.” She wrote back, “I don’t think it’s a big deal?” I shouldn’t be shocked by that, if I’m so liberated, but I was. Not even my kids blinked an eye.
And that’s something else you have to look forward to: interacting with your children as mature adults. (My daughter, 27, is my youngest.) After they learn to talk, walk, write, read, ride a bike, tie their own shoes, hit a home run, write a killer essay, sing in key, drive, and all of the rest, your children will still bring that level of joy (and higher) to you in ways you probably can’t imagine till they happen.
P.S. At Thanksgiving, most of us will be together for a week in Utah. Last night, we decided we’d all have to have onesies to wear. I have mine!
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Wow, Suzannah, thank you so much for taking the time to write me such a beautiful response.
If the others allow it, you MUST post a photo of you all in your onesies. Oh, to be in a climate where I could actually wear one and not swelter. I’d get a unicorn one, too, because I’m all-about-unicorns. Did you know the book I wrote has a unicorn in it?
As far as skinny dipping, the only reason my mother and I didn’t go skinny dipping in the gulf at the turn of the century is because our partners gave us such a hard time about it. We did, however, go in very scantily clad and we may have howled at the moon while the men stood on the beach and glowered, then met us at the surf line and held up towels because we may have taken off what we were wearing while we were in the water.
My grandmother was the generation that said “act your age.” My mom, in her 70’s, is the generation that said, “Hell no.” And she passed that on to me. I think fewer and fewer women are of the “act your age” type any more. I thank the “red hat” ladies for that.
I think it’s funny that men, who I agree are often given a pass when behaving like man-children, are usually the ones to look askance at women who break social norms. I think, of course, they’re threatened. My husband is utterly embarrassed by me quite often. I love him with all my heart, but I don’t really care very much.
As for the kids growing and moving on . . . it’s hard. Maybe I will start planning for the days I get to raise butterflies. I wonder how the cats would react. . .
Thank you again, so much, for your amazing response. I appreciate it.
I absolutely agree! When you finally reach a stage in your life, where you actually found yourself again, you should embrace it in anyway possible, to make up for all the lost years, when you did act your age 🥳😎
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