While kicking around on my ancestry website the other day, I noticed that my Aunt Liz, my mother’s oldest sibling, will be turning 94 in two weeks. The most recent photo I saw of her was on her Christmas card last year, which showed her riding a camel near the pyramids on the trip she took, by herself, to Egypt.
There was a time, in fact most of my last several decades, when I could easily say I expected to follow in her footsteps; that her spirit, as well as her good genes, had been passed on to me, and I could take for granted the prospect of generativity into old age. Something has happened lately, in my 49th year of living, that I did not see coming. I think it’s what they call a midlife crisis.
I never thought I would be the person to have one. At every earlier age, I’ve resolved not to fight the changes the years bring: I cropped my hair close to my head when baldness made it clear that denial was unseemly; I changed the colors in my wardrobe when I was no longer a blonde who could wear olive and gold, and the grey in my beard was flattered only by blue and white; I started watching carbs when the scale started reading 10 pounds higher than I was accustomed to. I did not think I was allowing any confrontations with age to sneak up and catch me unaware.
Then it seems one did.
I have spent months now trying to put a finger on it. It’s not as though I have many regrets about the direction I have taken my life. I can point to all the major decisions of my last decade and say I’d happily make the same ones over again. I am not ready to renege on any of the commitments I have made, to parenthood, to marriage, to career. If anything, my funk seems to stem from an unwelcome realization that I have reached my limits in a way that I never have before. In the course of a week I struggle to find the energy it takes to follow through with current plans, to wake the child and supervise the science projects, to keep the dog in kibbles and keep clean socks in the drawer (or at least in the dryer) on a weekday morning, to return the phone calls that can’t be postponed and to move the work projects forward that are coming due, to think at least occasionally about the need to creatively advance what is done at the agency that employs me (where my ordinary responsibilities are piled high and the exigent needs of patients are always pressing down) and I hit an existential moment where I think, “Is this all there's going to be, then?” I entertain the thought that I might burn out my last ounces of energy following through on my current commitments, only to discover that something really important got overlooked, postponed too long, left on the shelf past its expiration date-—or past mine—-because time and energy and devotion were never spared to undertake it. I worry that the friends I have will drift off and eventually die off, and suddenly I dread finding myself stranded, alone, without the capacity to make any new ones.
Don’t get me wrong. I love my life. I love my husband and my child and my work. But heading toward the benchmark of 50-—less than 20 months off, now-—there is something afoot that I quite possibly think-—or feel-—that I hate. Something that can cast a dark pall over the whole, quite against my will.
I am put in mind of the ending of the movie “Amadeus,” when Antonio Salieri in his wheelchair describes himself as the patron saint of the mediocre. He turns and addresses the audience directly. “Mediocrities everywhere...I absolve you...I absolve you...I absolve you..I absolve you all,” he says. I think my dark pall these days may be the internal judge who does hate, in fact, the mediocrity of my life. Who disdains my failures and my limits and my isolation, disdains the tree-falling-in-a-forest anonymity of my cumulative efforts in the course of a day, the course of a year, the course of a lifetime.
I wonder what motivates me to spend the time I do researching lost ancestors over the internet, and gives me such pleasure to find their gravestones in Willow Island, Nebraska, or Adrian, Michigan when their names but not their ultimate fates have been known to me throughout my life. Is it just a vain effort to fight my own encroaching sense that my life is one of anonymous toil, misspent devotion, and ultimate unimportance?
I left my saints in childhood, in the way that Elizabeth Barrett Browning referenced when she professed “I love thee with a love I seemed to lose with my lost saints.” I do not believe they are in the sky, able to intercede for me with the Almighty. But there was another idea of saints that I had when I was little, one of saints being spiritual role models, and that is one I may still need now and then. I may need it now, especially, at midlife.
Antonio Salieri was not a saintly man, at least not in his movie version, but I think of him, all these years after F. Murray Abraham and the crew put away their props and ceased their efforts on “Amadeus.” I think of his offer of absolution for mediocrity, and how dear that suddenly seems. I need absolution for what is being left undone, for the traits I have not evidenced, my omissions as a parent, the friends I have not cultivated, the affection I have squandered because I have chosen something else, chosen my job, chosen my patients, chosen perhaps the vain significance of work over the more important significance of something else, all the while not knowing, blind, foolhardy-—and yet moving inexorably into tomorrow still not knowing, just living with the choices I have made and hoping I am not judged too harshly for how sadly I stack up to the next person, whose more admirable human qualities will make his or her time here on Earth a better, more praiseworthy journey.
Is this what it means to look at life and realize you’re well beyond halfway, and your energies are only declining from here on out? Your focus becomes drawn away from what is, to what is not, with regret? With judgment? With encroaching sadness? If it’s too late for me to get a new superego, then maybe I can have back one of my saints-—the one who promised to be my patron. Saint Antonio Salieri, I beseech thee, absolve me of my mediocrity. Soon, if that can be arranged. By my 50s, I want to get back to just living life, without any dark cloud overhead. I want to wake up and start the day with lightness in my step.
(P.S. I hope, Antonio, that you are not actually in hell.)