Yesterday, a young friend of mine posted a funny story on Facebook about a "middle aged" man that he had seen at the gym. I instinctively cringed a bit as I read it, especially when he revealed that the guy was in his mid- to late-forties.
The cold, hard fact is that I am middle-aged. I just turned 46. Multiply that number by two, and you get 92. That's a pretty ripe old age to aspire to. The first time my therapist referred to some of my issues as having to do with being "middle aged," I almost cried. My ass sags, a fact which I am happy to blame on my mother's contribution to my gene pool. The pant size I am currently wearing doesn't exist at Macy's. The arm muscles which I used to be so proud of seem barely there. I shave my head so I can forget once in a while that I actually have no hair on the top of my head, whether I shave it or not. The lines on my face get deeper and deeper with every passing hour.
We live in a youth-oriented society. We love to see the smooth young skin, the innocent eyes, the faces not covered in laugh-lines, the unconscious swagger and confidence that defines a 20 something's walk, the six-pack abs, the full head of hair, and the promise of a lifetime ahead of them. We love to watch the hope of a new generation. Let's face it, we also don't mind so much the perky butts, the six-pack abs, and the ability to become sexually excited without having to think about it or mortgage the house for the little blue pills.
I am struck by the fact that my reaching middle aged seems some sort of failure. God forbid that I have a stomach that sticks out, or that I have to pull my ass cheeks up to clean under them, or that my hairline stopped receding after it had nowhere else to recede to, or that my biceps don't bulge like they used to. Or how about the fact that going to bed at 10:30 p.m. on a work night seems late? Or how about the tacit surrender at 6:00 a.m. when I opt to put on the "relaxed" jeans, and the XXL t-shirt to trudge off to work in?
I always felt the need apologize for all of that, even if just silently.
Well, honey, it's a brand new day.
It occurred to me that not only did I just turn 46, but I just marked 24 years as being HIV+. If you do the math, you'll realize that I seroconverted in 1990 at the age of 22. I should be dead. Really. Dead.
Middle-aged means I survived. I survived AIDS, including AZT, Crixivan and resultant kidney stones, Sustiva and 10 years of nightmares in Technicolor, and other medications, the names of which I can't recall, but which I do recall made me feel crappy. I survived Hep C, two failed treatment regimens, and the evilness that is pegylated interferon. I survived drug addiction, alcoholism and depression. I survived the passage of Prop 8 and two terms of George W. Bush. I survived the loss of my personal faith, being told by devout Christians that I was going to hell right along with everybody else like me, and the period of time in which I was deathly afraid they were right. I've gotten through the illness and loss of a parent. I've survived a marriage and a divorce. I've been defeated and abandoned and lost, and had my heart broken into so many pieces I didn't think there was enough super glue on the planet to put it back together again. I've survived my legions of mistakes and the darkness of my own humanity.
But you know what? "I'm still here." To quote Mr. Sondheim.
Not only did I survive, but I thrived. I've held a job for 19 years. I've taken pills to keep HIV from killing me for almost that long. I've studied the arts. I've played some of the greatest Shakespearean parts ever written and directed some shows that cut to the heart. I've sung. I studied ballet in my late 30's. I've told stories and spoken other's words. I've loved intensely and forgiven with gusto. Mourned the passing of friendships, smiled at a stranger and been struck with the amazing force of a friend's love for me. I've hoped and I've dreamed. I've struggled to be better, to be more loving, kinder and gentler. The days that I chose not to give up far outnumber the days that I have. I've had spiritual experiences that boggle the mind and overflow the heart. I've seen the presence of Divinity in the smallest of miracles and in the greatest of events. I've prayed in a forest, and let my soul fly free with the wind. I've had long conversations with passing animals and let them heal my soul. I've knelt in empty churches and felt the prayers of countless worshippers and the comfort of God. I've told my truths and let the chips fall where they may. I've felt the hope of youth inside of me, even now. I've gloried in the sight of beautiful men and giggled with the humor of mankind. I've done all those things and more. I still do them. I hold the possibilities of my life in front of me, and I hunger for the expansion of that knowledge and that love of my fellow humanity and the earth which keeps us close.
Middle age? It's not something to apologize for. It's something to celebrate, admire, and appreciate. It's something to aspire to. Not something to draw away from in shame.
It's a brand new day.
The next time somebody refers to a middle aged man at the gym, I'm going to smile really big and say, "How exciting!"