Most of us remember where we were when JFK was assassinated. I was in Driver’s Ed, and I was instantly catapulted, along with my classmates, into a scary new reality: our generation’s sudden loss of innocence.
Five years later, Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon became etched in our communal memory. I was in a youth hostel in Zurich, perched atop my backpack in front of the cafeteria TV. The young Americans spontaneously leapt into each others’ arms, suddenly believing that there were no limits to what was possible for us.
Four decades later, I had another intensely personal yet startlingly universal moment of transformation. If you haven’t had this experience yet, you probably will. And it, too, will be emblazoned on your neural pathways forever. I’m talking about the moment you realize you have become “old.”
For my friend Melanie, that moment arrived while she was bounding down Fifth Avenue. Pausing to window-shop, she caught sight of the reflection of her grandmother in the window of Saks. “I stared at her, and she stared back at me. And then I realized that she was me. It was a shock, but I was okay with this. I just hadn’t expected to see someone with such white hair and deeply-etched laugh lines so soon.”
Not everybody gets over that kind of realization so easily. For some, an occasion as seemingly mundane as trying on your first pair of reading glasses can put you on the emotional fast track to mortality. For others, it’s dropping the youngest child at college or having someone give up his seat for you on the bus, calling you "ma’am."
Like Melanie, my moment caught me by surprise. In fact, whenever I’d anticipated becoming “old,” it had been with a mixture of fear, dread, denial and romanticizing. The reality was none of these things…and more.
The occasion was a marketing-to-women conference that takes place annually in Chicago. As a veteran marketer, I’d grown up at conferences like these, making once-a-year-friends in my field.
I rarely if ever saw my conference buddies between events, but we always greeted one another enthusiastically. We’d lightheartedly recall who’d eaten all the jelly beans off the convention booth display back when we were junior associates. Or we'd share more salient memories, like the first time one of us had a generous enough expense account to pick up the bar tab, or when the last of us got promoted into the executive suite.
Eagerly, I entered the auditorium, seeking out the women in my pod. Tension rising, I could not locate a single one. And then, as I stood above the masses, I realized something that was equal parts horrifying and astonishing. Everybody there was years younger than me. I had, while going blithely about my everyday life, become the oldest person in the room.
After the shock wore off, I sought out younger associates to fill me in. One of my peers had taken early retirement and was sailing in the Greek Islands with her boyfriend. Another had penetrated the corporate stratospheres and delegated this year’s attendance to a subordinate. A third decided to pass because she realized she could deliver all the presentations by heart. It was as if the memo had gone out that this particular party was over for my senior class of marketing vets, but I’d somehow been left off the list.
After a brief mourning period, I realized something that would change my life forever. I might indeed be the oldest person in the room. But I was something else as well, something I’d been aspiring to become all my life: I was free. The spell of youth had been broken, and for the good. Old routines disrupted, I found myself thinking scandalous thoughts.
For starters, I, too, need never again sit through another boring conference. Retiring was not plausible — and taking off in a sailboat wasn't appealing — but other intriguing options instantly presented themselves. What, for example, was stopping my husband and me from subletting our New York City penthouse and working virtually from a cabin in the mountains? Why shouldn't I start a Gertrude Stein–inspired literary salon? And, while we’re at it, how about accepting the kids’ invitation to celebrate Thanksgiving dinner at their house instead of ours?
I understand that “old” is a mixed bag, one that brings new challenges, opportunities and occasions to which we must rise. But hasn’t this been true of every new life stage we’ve encountered on our journey through time? Among the many gifts age has brought, this is the one that I cherish above all: my increasing capacity to take life as it arises — and my ability to remember that, each time a new challenge catches me unawares, I can adapt, I can embrace, I can soar.
This spontaneous moment of transformation represents the initiation into a new life stage that is available to all of us. But first, we’ve got to cross over the line from resisting, denying, romanticizing or fearing age to instead become fierce with age. (I find this new definition of what it means to grow old so important, I chose it for my website.) By becoming "fierce," we can begin to embrace the wide open space beyond midlife and get our first, promising glimpse of what it can truly mean to be free. Sharing the moment you realized you are “old” is a great place to start. What’s yours?