A long time ago, a few months before I turned 30, my then-husband and I spent a weekend in a wonderful little inn not far from where I live now. We had decided to leave the city and were checking out the area we hoped to move to in January, because how can you really know what upstate New York is like in the winter if you don’t visit during the most desolate time of year (we still found it lovely). The best thing about the inn (mostly all I can recall about it now) is that it had a wood stove in the center of what you might call the common room, a wood stove that was directly in the center of the room with chairs placed all around it, and all we did for most of our time there was read in this warm smoky room around the stove. (I also remember falling in love with a tiny toy poodle who was also a guest there. She sat in my lap like a cat, which is probably what I like most about small dogs.)
Whenever I go to guest houses I always like to hunt among the often randomly stocked bookshelves first to see what my options are before nearly always settling on the book I brought along with me. One exception to this occurred some years later in Cape Cod, where I found the book The Lovely Bones in our guest house and stayed up reading it compulsively way into the night, despite the fact that our young children got us up pretty early in the morning. And the other exception was this time, in that smoky warm room, where I found Erica Jong’s Fear of Fifty and devoured it similarly.
I have always been a fan of Erica Jong. I first discovered her in early high school, when I was probably too young to be reading her, but what I understood then, and what I will insist on now, is that despite the fact that she is more known for the explicit sex in her books, she is a genuinely talented writer, literary really, but doomed forever to be thought of as “naughty,” a problem that never seems to follow male authors around.
Fear of Fifty is the book she wrote when she had just turned 50 and realized she would never again be the youngest or cutest person in the room. Of course, just as it happened when I read her for the first time, at 30 I was really kind of too young to appreciate it. What I remember most about reading that book was really just the pleasure of reading for hours around a wood stove with my then-husband. And the way that the book sucked me in, the way my favorite kinds of books do. But though I knew it was a sort of memoir, sort of feminist exploration of getting older, I remembered so little about it.
So now, at the age of 48, though I find myself delighting in the fact that I will never again be the youngest or cutest person in the room, I decided to read it again. This time I am spending the day on my couch in a town not far from that inn, in mid-summer, reading this book with the same sort of compulsiveness. It hits me that I am finally reading her at exactly the right time. (Though, of course, this book was written in the mid-1990s and now she’s 76. But still.)
The story of her life is what fascinates me most. The fact that she says that the only way she could write anything like Fear of Flying was to pretend that she was writing it for herself and would never show it to anyone. I keep thinking about this. What if I wrote like that too? Without the voice in my head that reminds me that no one is interested in what I have to say, that it’s all been said before, that I keep repeating myself. What if I could just write for myself?
I keep trying to trick myself into writing, trying to treat it like a habit I can incorporate into my day, the way I have somehow been doing yoga every day for nearly three years without missing a single day. But I don’t think all habits are the same. And a habit that allows you the freedom from your own constantly chattering mind is a lot different than one that insists you listen to that constantly chattering mind and figure out what it’s saying. It’s so much work! It’s strange that writing comes to me so easily and yet it is also so freaking hard. I both love writing and hate it. I am compelled to do it and often feel relieved when it’s over. I don’t think I’m saying anything particularly surprising here.
As for turning 50, well, I’m watching it happen all around me. Because I was skipped in school, many of my friends are turning 50 this year, and I’m just observing as I always do. Sure, it doesn’t sound great. The number itself. And I love so much being in my 40s that I feel so sad thinking of leaving them. The remarkable thing is that because my parents had me so young, I clearly remember my father’s surprise 50th birthday party because I was a married adult when it happened. That’s the other thing. Many of my friends have parents that are older or much older than mine. We are not all going through the same things at the same time. And yet. Of course we are. But what’s happening to us? We’re the same people, we are really the same people we always were, and yet there’s no denying that we are all in unexpected places now.
As for me, my older daughter is leaving for college in five days and I don’t yet know what this will be like. Nothing is like what we expect. It will be just me and my younger daughter here with my older daughter 3 ½ hours away and I haven’t still quite processed this. And I certainly won’t in five days’ time. Because how I feel is that there was this time line. We knew about it from day one. The clock starts the minute your baby is born. And this clock was somehow in the background all the time, but you could forget about it, especially as your children became some of the best roommates you’ve ever had, and it seemed like things were really going to be great for a long, long time. And then, one of your roommates decided (or so it seemed, even though you helped her every step of the way) that even though things were going really well, she just felt like moving out. Oh, you said, that’s so great! But your heart was sinking sinking sinking. This was it. You’d always known it was coming, and many years had actually passed, but you still felt it had come too soon.
Once upon a time, you were reading a memoir about turning 50, and you were not quite 30 yourself, and just a few months married, and you had no children, no debt, no worries, and you delighted in a sweet little poodle who curled up on your lap in front of a wood stove. And now you are reading that same book, approaching 50, no longer married, no longer debt-free, full of worries, with two children that have been delighting you both like and unlike that poodle for years, and things are going to change yet again. I suppose the one thing that has not changed, that has never changed, is my love for finding a good book and reading and reading until I feel like my real self again, the one that devoured books as a child when the whole world was ahead of me and would turn out to be, forever, a complete mystery.