The In-between: on coming to grips with the 'middle' in middle age


I was scrolling through a website the other day and a photo of an actress I hadn’t seen in decades popped up in the “related” posts at the bottom. The headline was such obvious click-bait that I rolled my eyes, but at the same time I *had* to check it out. So there I was scrolling through These Popular Women from 1970s Still Look Beautiful. I mean, c’mon, wouldn’t you? (Rhetorical because we’re going down that dusty, bell-bottomed road anyway.)

We’re talking celebs from Charlie’s Angels, Dallas, those of The Brady Bunch/Partridge Family/Little House ilk, and Barbi Benton because who was she anyway? (It turns out nobody that memorable.) It was screen after screen (after screen…this list kept going 70+ deep) of actresses conjuring up the folks who did cameos on Fantasy Island and The Love Boat: the formers, the has-beens, and the once-loved. Actually, many of them did in fact do cameos on those shows—Barbi Benton being one of them.

This foray proved to be rather depressing. It’s not that these stars looked bad. With each click of the “next” button, I noticed how each woman made concerted efforts to preserve the youthful version of herself in a way that almost seemed unnatural—with the exception of Jacqueline Smith and Linda Carter. I’ll have what they’re having.

What disturbed me, in retrospect, was that the absence of wrinkles felt more forced and artificial than if they had simply allowed themselves the luxury of slipping into their age unrestrainedly.

It made me think about the stage of life that I’m in right now—when no cream will erase the life experience etched into me—this midlife nowhere zone where I’m not exactly young anymore (though still in denial about that), yet not quite old enough to “look good for her age.” (Or not.) Old enough for friends who haven’t seen me in ages to comment, “You haven’t changed,” and for me to think, “Yes, I have, and I’m trying to be ok with that.” That’s middle age. I knew I reached this milestone when the unlawfully young checkout guys started to call me “Ma’am.”

I mean, do you know any context that celebrates “middles”? Let’s take a look at several common “middles”:

  • the middle child: overlooked
  • the middle of the day: slump
  • the middle of the week: hump day
  • the midriff: the excess you need to stuff into your high-waisted Spanx
  • the mid-life crisis: overused and misunderstood tantrum (really, it’s not that at all)

Middling isn’t exactly a coveted performance rating, nor is doing a mediocre job: half-ditch effort. And then there’s middle age: purgatory of the aging human. All something to get through, overcome, cover up, or move on from without losing it.

To come up with a framework of what middle means literally, I took to WordHippo. (That’s not a cartoon on PBS. It’s a user-friendly dictionary with thesaurus and other features.)

I found entries 11-15 to be particularly interesting:

  1. divided or dividing something equally into two parts
  2. engaged in or in the process of doing something
  3. involved in something, typically something unpleasant or dangerous
  4. a place that is remote and isolated
  5. adopt a policy that avoids extremes

The In-between: on coming to grips with the 'middle' in middle age

I feel the truth of each of these.

Middle age seems like a glacier breaking free from a land mass—this separation of what was (youth) to a newer stage of life (old lady status). Let’s just put that out there. Middle suggests being split in two, an isolated state that avoids extremes, that could incur getting involved with something dangerous.

Does considering toying with illegal substances constitute a dangerous activity? That is, unless pot gets the ok, in which case I’ll still be in good standing with the law should I eventually cave in. (Thus far, I have not.) Or I’ll just pay attention to what comedian Jonathan Katz recommends: “I’m officially middle-aged. I don’t need drugs anymore, thank God. I can get the same effect just by standing up real fast.” Totally.

Each possible definition sounds eerily accurate.

As to the specifics, I get to look forward to menopause, extra laugh lines and worry lines, hot flashes that have nothing to do with a boy crush, counting more gray hairs than I ever thought possible and finding them in my eyebrows too, short-term memory loss (where are those sunglasses I was just holding?!) and far-sightedness, which sounds more like a favor come to think of it, all things observed in close scrutiny being somewhat gloomy.

At the same time, there’s a world ahead of me as yet unseen and unexperienced from these crinkling older eyes. Things look mighty different from here than they ever used to. Come to think of it, I’ve accumulated a middle-aged dose of wisdom and training tucked away in those high-wasted Spanx, and those notches on my belt won’t go down without a fight!

I’m in the In-Between and I’m working hard on finding a cross between orthopedic shoes and the latest heels. Today, I’m wearing Birkenstocks with socks. Have I lost my mind? I still dress like I’m 20-something because that’s what I feel like on the inside.

“Almost all my middle-aged and elderly acquaintances, including me, feel about 25, unless we haven’t had our coffee, in which case we feel 107.” ~ Martha Beck

Yet it’s no longer a rare thrill to find that my favorite throwbacks are receiving a fresh 21st century look. Birkies are not the only revivals, of course. Pippin, The King & I, and Streisand come immediately to mind. And so does CATS! Now and forever at whatever theater it has reincarnated in.

Another case in point: those slinky Maddens of the 90s are ba-ack, and I know exactly what all this means. I’m old enough to have experienced a new release AND its comeback. Star Wars? Heck, yes. I still remember the day I saw Episode IV (which is officially #1 for history buffs and those who like to dispute this stuff), but seven-year-old me was really hoping to see the Aristocats which was sold out, and the movie attendant directed us to the theater down the block to see [direct quote] “some movie about robots.” True story. Who knew?

I’m on that precipice before a lot of unknowns and straddling the desire to wedge a door stopper in the shriveling, sagging, drooping, and bulging that are not-so-delicately succumbing to gravity or face the obvious injectable plasticity that glared at me from some of those celebrity photos. Their images held the transparent desire to arrest the inevitable, and maybe that’s what threw me off me the most.

Perhaps somewhere in their faces, I was not only seeing how slippery beauty can be, but also looking for the future of me. Would someone one day draw this unfair comparison between younger me and older me and limit their impression to how well or how poorly I’ve aged? Or would they instead go deeper and see a genuine smile, eyes that kindle when talking about my family, a world map of lines that prove I felt all the feels that carve an older face, a body delivered by childbirth, and the gentle stoop of a human who carries the burdens of others with love? Will it be my accomplishments and my altruism or my aging that become the object of scrutiny?

It reminds me of one more middle that I’ve neglected: The Golden Mean. This path idealized by the wisest sages from Plato to Maimonides teaches that the middle is the desired path. To the Greeks, the golden mean meant beauty, balance, symmetry. Even feminist Virginia Woolf said, “All extremes are dangerous. It is best to keep in the middle of the road, in the common ruts, however muddy.” The middle, it would seem, not only has its benefits but all the glory too.

It’s possible that there’s greater comfort in settling into those fine lines with a matcha green tea, a large-print book, and the hippest looking progressives I can get my hands on than in resisting the inescapable. Somewhere in all the anti-aging angst, acceptance seems the simplest route. It may even be golden.