My high school classmates and my college classmates almost all turn 50 this year along with me. It is an opportunity to go back and look at our lives and reassess our successes and failures, to re-examine our choices and rethink our goals. I have had many discussions with friends from way back that fall into just this range of topics.
Why is it that in years ending with -0s we do this to ourselves? Some of us are suddenly letting themselves realize this wasn't really what we had planned when we hit the adult world. Some of us are realizing that the compromises and choices led us to a place we hadn't really expected but that is pretty much okay. But all of us are thinking over these forks in the road we have passed.
Without sharing the particular stories my friends tell (they are, after all, stories that belong to other people), their positives and negatives confirm for me that I am pretty satisfied with what has gone on so far. I don't have a husband (or partner of any kind) but I enjoy having private space at the end of the day. I don't have children but that is usually okay, too. I never had that biological clock kick in and being responsible for someone else is very frightening. It also means that my schedule is my own and I can travel to take care of my parents when they need me.
I have been thinking about my past and future, my friends and work, this weekend. I woke up Friday morning, after a late spring/early summer spent in dorm rooms at various conferences, and said "There is too much clutter in this bedroom" and decided to do something about it. Follow me past the orange croissant and I'll tell you a bit about why this has been a really good way to celebrate my fiftieth birthday. Cleaning? No, really!
I have lived in this house for 16 years. The boxes that had piled up in my room don't go back that far, but the bills did go back more than a decade. I have filled five bins of shredded material. There have also been old expired medications, doctor's visit reports (physical therapy directions for when I was recovering from a broken ankle, and test results back when my glucose was much lower, sigh), Christmas cards and a gift card for a cat health magazine from a wonderful woman who is now sadly lost from us. There was a note on one of those free Humane Society cards from my also-deceased aunt, who had cats when I was little and wrote about them in multiple letters to my mom which always fascinated me as we had no warm blooded pets, just fish of various sorts.
This is like writing a biography of a scholarly life from the detritus of that life. It is interesting what I have chosen to save, both short term and longer term. I have shredded almost all my receipts from my trips to Rome and Venice (2000 and 2006, respectively) but have found it really hard to give up on the various receipts and flyers from a trip to Istanbul right at the turn from 1999 to 2000. That was a magical trip. And I love walking up the hill to stand in front of Haghia Sophia after dark, for the last call to prayer, to watch the seagulls circling the minarets of the Blue Mosque. The cold and damp evening air, the smell of coal fires, and roasted chestnuts, all are part of Istanbul in December. The menu for the New Year's Eve dinner that year is something I cannot throw out.
Another thing I can't discard is a small flyer from the J. Peterman catalogue advertising their reproduction of the "Heart of the Ocean" necklace from Titanic. I just gave a talk a couple of weeks ago on the Titanic and how it has been interpreted in each successive decade; I have a lot of Titanic books. One of my first in my collection is one from my mother and this was the start of my post-graduate school investigation of the Titanic wreck. That culminated in a scholarly article in the festschrift for my graduate supervisor whose great uncle (or similar relation) went down on the ship. I will put this advertisement in a book in my collection to refind it several years from now.
Scattered in the boxes I have emptied have been a series of business cards for me and for other people. Mine trace my advancing academic rank, and the move from one building to another. Those of others are an interesting assortment of people I have met at conferences, book representatives, tour guides and museum professionals as well as antique dealers and rug merchants, book binders, and print sellers. There are photos of me reading at a couple of AP sessions, an old passport photo from back when I still had a curly perm, some pics my mother took when she traveled to Alaska on a cruise, a polaroid of Efrat, my late lamented orange pootie, and one of a couple of students on a study abroad trip I led to Cairo.
There are syllabi for courses I have taught and directions for various experiences I have had -- how to meet a limousine driver at the Philadelphia Airport and where I was going to stay at the University of Ghana. The script for a play that was translated from a medieval text by a friend for which I played the lead at a women and rhetoric conference, my one visit to Minneapolis, is in the most recent box.
I reread a couple of really warm and moving letters from friends I have only met since I came to my small town in Missouri. Those I am keeping. You couldn't make me throw them away. We can choose to measure our lives in the friends we have made and that makes me amazingly rich.
I have been fortunate that my foundation, my parents and brother, are wonderful and supportive people. There have been challenges (problems in grad school and a supervisor who really didn't want me here when I started) but I have been so lucky generally it is amazing to me. I have not pushed myself as much as some of my friends from school, but I have learned really exciting things and still enjoy my job after 21 years. I look forward to the next 20, which will bring me to 41 years in this job, the length of time that my Dad taught at his university before he retired.
The biggest problem I have had over the past few years is that my body thinks I am 50. In the last ten years I have torn my Achilles tendon and cartilage in my left knee, have gotten the warning that I am closer to Type 2 Diabetes than I should be, and just in the last six months ruptured discs in my lower back. That may make getting to 70 or older more challenging than I would like it to be, but again it isn't too impossible so far, and I have the insurance and good medical care that should help me get there.
The idea that I have 20 more years ahead of me in the working world makes me a bit nervous. The pollsters could poll me and I would say it is very possible we are on the wrong track as a country. I believe it is very important to hold on to the future as it really needs to be better. We need to shake off this awful fear of spending the money that is necessary to get a country that has a decent safety net, good affordable education at elementary, secondary, and higher education levels.
I have been voting since I cast an absentee ballot for John Anderson in 1980 in Kansas (it is the only time I have not voted for a Democrat for the presidential ticket). I have been fortunate to have an occasional Democrat representing me. In Missouri we have often had pretty decent Democratic governors (although I am still missing Mel Carnahan), and occasionally there have been good people in other positions, although we were hurt really badly by the 2010 sweep. Although I will always be a Kansan (Jayhawker) at heart, Missouri isn't a bad place to live, and it occasionally goes into the blue column, which is a benefit of not living in Kansas anymore.
All in all, the past fifty years have been pretty good. I am nervous about the future, but it is coming, and I have faith that there is a possibility of it being better than the past. There was that Atlantic article about whether one can have it all -- it depends on what "all" means. In very traditional terms for a woman it is having a husband, having a job, having kids. I have one of those, a really satisfying (if at times frustrating) career, but I have friends whom I care about deeply, a family who are great, and pride and satisfaction in what I do, both in work and outside of it. As I said, all in all, this has not been a bad life.