I am now officially older than Jesus. Well, of sorts. I’ve just had a birthday which has nudged me one year closer to oldness and means I’ve now been on the planet longer than Jesus was. I can’t help but feel that he achieved a bit more than I’ve done to date.
And if that’s not enough to prompt a bit of a crisis, then my god-daughter turning 10 has been a bit of a shocker. I remember her being born as if it was yesterday; that joyfully incoherent phone call from my friends at the hospital to say she’d safely landed. Where did the last ten years go? Seriously.
Wherever they went, I don’t think I mind their passing. Issues, angst and hopes aside, I’d rather be the me I am now than the me I was then. After all, I’m alright. I have kind of found myself. I sort of know what I’m doing. Sometimes I think I know what I think. Occasionally I even remember the secret of contentment. If I existed in a vacuum, I reckon I’d be ok.
No, my issue is not me, ageing as I am, measured against me. My issue is me, measured against my cultural contexts and their prescribed norms. The ages by which you’re supposed to have done certain things like get married and have kids, clamber with agility onto the property ladder, stop having housemates, spend Saturdays at B&Q choosing decking, become a manager, start your own company, earn a proper salary, learn to talk eloquently about petrol prices, and so on and so forth. Measured against my culture’s norms, I am suddenly feeling incredibly deficient.
‘What comes between youth and middle age’, someone asked deep-and-meaninfully after a couple of drinks at a birthday do last year (or was it the year before? I forget). Of course, none of us would own middle age for ourselves, but we are definitely no longer the youth of today. I mean, I work with ‘young people’ who were born in 1997. 1997? Surely that’s about 3 years ago. How can they be 16?
Anyway, some bright spark’s solution to the ‘what comes between youth and middle age?’ conundrum was the fact that the answer doesn’t matter because it’s all about ‘stage’ not ‘age’. You cease to be young when you do grown up things like get married and have children. (At that point, I smiled at the memory of my then 7 year-old god-daughter describing me as ‘like a grown up, only she doesn’t have children’). The marrieds and the parents nodded sagely while I felt too outnumbered to point out the flaw in this facile solution for those who’ve missed those rites of passage along the way.
So, what would that mean for me? Should I stick with my prescribed ‘stage’ and hang out with 20 year-olds who probably still assume that their lives will more or less follow the cultural blueprint? Should I frantically pursue husband and family (more foolish attempts to make love out of thoughts), or career progression or property, as a way of feeling like my life is going somewhere? Or am I simply to languish in an undefined limbo land between youth and middle age until I emerge in about 10 years time as someone of whom they say it’s such a shame she never married.
By no means! Right? I’m pursuing life in all its fullness now, not a life that is curtailed by regrets for the might-have-beens or put on hold in the mistaken belief that happiness and fulfilment is just around the corner, incarnated in a house, a boy, a job, or whatever. I know that I can act on maternal instinct and find outlets to parent without having children of my own. I know that I can enjoy family and community without being in a relationship. I know that I can show hospitality and experience settledness without having a mortgage. And enough married friends have generously opened up their lives for me to understand that marriage and parenthood, while being amazing, have their – er, how should I put it? – challenges, and definitely won’t fix me.
I suppose, when you think about it, the cultural markers of ‘ages’ and/or ‘stages’ have often evolved to express and capture those more fundamental things for which we’re made, like relationship, community, hospitality, security, peace, and something that lasts. It’s just that those things are abstract until they are lived out in a particular time and place. And as they come to life in a context, they morph into institutions and norms, and then those institutions and norms get mistaken for the ends not the means, and then we start pursuing them for themselves and feel like we’re missing out if we don’t have them.
Of course I want to break that cycle and reclaim what lies beneath and beyond, but sometimes it’s just so blooming hard to know how to fashion and articulate the reality of those underlying abstracts in alternative ways. Especially when I didn’t necessarily choose for it to be like this. Especially when the place I turn to for true counter-culturalism sometimes just seems to reflect society’s prevailing patterns. I want something more radical but need help to battle my default mediocrity.
D’you get me, Jesus?
Occasionally I wonder if one solution – other than hiding under my duvet all day (which I don’t actually do that often, I might hasten to add) – would be to change my cultural context altogether. I’ve just been on holiday in a Middle Eastern country where single women over 30 get disability benefit. AMAZING. Perhaps I am just living in the wrong culture? If I moved there, I could even wear a hijab to cover up all those grey hairs which I’m currently refusing to dye on principle.
At least I’m now old enough to know that jumping ship like that won’t save me. I’ll take that as a birthday gift. Onwards and upwards…