Most of us don’t have tornadoes in our lives. Our disasters are manageable and predictable, the losses systematic and expected. The car conks out, a young man is promoted in our stead, our incomes shrink, the heart goes haywire. Our grandparents die, then our mothers and fathers, then some of our friends. People manage to rebound from great devastation; we read about them every day—the parents who survive the death of a child (though we know we couldn’t), the workers who lose lifelong jobs (a turn of affairs we’re certain we wouldn’t survive), the patients whose bodies are wracked by terrible disease (which we wouldn’t want to live with). And then sometimes we become one of those people and are amazed, not by our own strength but by that indomitable ability to slog through the storm that looks like strength from the outside and just feels like every day when it’s happening to you.
The older we get, the better we get at this. The older we get, the better we get at being ourselves. We’re not busy being born but busy being born again. My knee makes this noise like Rice Krispies when I do squats and lunges, and my dermatologist likes to joke that she has to clear her schedule when she checks my skin for age spots. But as my friend Robin Morgan, the writer and activist, said as she was approaching 70, “Parts of me I never even knew I had sometimes ache—but parts of me I never knew I had in my brain sing.”
So much of our knee-jerk negative response to aging is a societal construct. It’s yet another version of the conflict that shapes and sometimes deforms our lives, the conflict between what we really want and what we’re told we ought to desire. We are supposed to think young is better. But we know deep inside, in the ways that count, that better is now. On the day my friend Lesley’s first grandchild was born, she sent out a message that ended, “You’re never too old to have the best day of your life.”
I opened the screen door tentatively after the tornado was over, took the dogs and went outside to relearn my immediate world. There were trees and branches everywhere and a wicker rocker from the front porch flung into the back field, and beneath it two squirrels, unmarked as though they’d died as we all say we want to die, lapsed into a good night’s sleep that never ends. And I thought, How in the world will we ever come back from this? How in the world will this place ever look the same? A year went by, and then two, and it didn’t look the same, any more than I do. In two places on the banks of the pond I found large pointed rocks slammed several inches into the dirt, rocks the wind turned into missiles, or weapons. For a moment I considered that if the dogs and I had been walking around the pond, as we often do, one of those rocks could have hurtled toward me and done the kind of damage my daughter so feared.
But for whatever reason, that didn’t happen. Life is various, millions of moving parts, dogs, stones, high winds, sandwiches, squirrels, tornadoes. There was a time when I behaved as though I were the center of that universe. It was a good time, when I was young and eager and terribly insecure and not beholden to anyone else, without responsibility for houses or children or the cleanup after a disaster. I just like this time better. I used to wonder what I was going to be when I grew up. Now I know.
Copyright © 2012 by Anna Quindlen. Excerpt adapted from her new book, Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake, published by Random House.
Anna Quindlen is a best-selling novelist and Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist. She turns 60 in July and has never colored her hair.
Click here for a behind the scenes video of the author at her New York townhouse as she discusses her book.
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