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COMMITMENTS : With Midlife, New Priorities and a Mourning of Lost Youth


OK, so I'm 46, as are many of my colleagues, give or take a few years, and the looming 50th birthday is a subject of consuming interest to us. We, the leading edge of the postwar Baby Boom--stuck with the label like an 80-year-old still called Sis or Babe--are now entrenched in middle age.

As if on cue, we are being buried--excuse the allusion--in books about the transition from 40 to 50 to 60 and beyond. Among them there is, of course, the heavily publicized "New Passages: Mapping Your Life Across Time" by Gail Sheehy (if you haven't seen her on at least one news or talk show you haven't been paying attention). And "Secret Paths: Women in the New Mid-Life" by Terri Apter, "Jubilee Time: "Celebrating Women, Spirit, and the Advent of Age," by Maria Harris, and "Mid-Life, Notes from the Halfway Mark" by Elizabeth Kaye. Looking even further down the road is "Lives of Our Own: Secrets of Salty Old Women" by Caroline Bird. And surely, many to come.

So what do these books have to tell us? First, that there are awakenings, some gradual, some rude, that come with age.

"The main point of this whole genre is there comes a day when you wake up and something aches or somebody dies and you realize you're not young anymore," says Kaye, a journalist and contributing editor to Esquire. "That's the core moment." For Kaye, who is 50, that moment came in her 40s when she "realized I was embarrassed to tell people how old I was.

"My resume held up if I was 30, but it seemed a little bit lacking for somebody of 40," she says. "I knew I had become too old to be precocious. . . . I was trading on youth when I could no longer trade on it."

"We grew up on a cult of youth," says Apter, who is 46 and a social psychologist and fellow at Clare Hall, Cambridge. "We didn't realize that older wasn't optional."

It is a moment to be mourned, Kaye argues eloquently in her deeply personal memoir. "The book is about the fact that life has a lot of sadness in it and that things that matter most are often the things we can least control, and that is sad," says Kaye. "And we learn to live with that because we have to live with it. That doesn't mean it isn't sad."

Kaye says that reassurances in books and articles about the extended youthfulness of older people today denied her feelings of grief. "I'm the kind of woman who feels really bad if I lose a sweater or sunglasses, so am I not allowed to feel bad because I've lost my youth?"

Still, these observers tell us, with the awareness of age and, let's face it, death, comes the impulse to rethink our priorities and scale down our expectations. And believe it or not, some of us might find we not only survive but prosper. As Kaye writes in her book, "I've always been one of those people who does better on a deadline."

One of the main messages of midlife is that life is filled with limitations, and the sooner we accept it, the better off we'll be.

"We are the generation that came up with the phrase 'having it all,' " says Kaye. "It's a grotesque and deluding notion. . . . The fact is there is this point we mourn all these things we'll never accomplish."

But there are consolations. "I think entering midlife is a shock that finally subsides," she says. "What you realize is not that you settle, that you find out to your great surprise that you don't have to get everything you want to be really happy.

"Not because we give up," she adds. "Or fold our tents or just collapse [but] because we are a surviving creature . . . adaptable . . . with a tropism toward the light. That is what we are."

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