I’m 43 years old now, damn it, and my life is amazing. So why am I comparing myself to some styled professional?
Exit the freeway at 39. Photo by Nadine Rovner/Gallery Stock
Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum. Her latest book is the memoir Disaster Preparedness (2010). She lives in Los Angeles, California.
Today I have to go to the Department of Motor Vehicles to get my driver’s licence renewed. My current licence photo is 10 years old, so old that the carefree woman in the picture always takes me by surprise. Her hair looks unnaturally shiny. Her smile says, ‘I have nowhere in particular to be. Let’s go grab a cocktail!’ Today I have to say goodbye to that lighthearted girl, and welcome her older, more harried replacement. Today I have to stand in poorly marked lines with impatient strangers, reading signs about what we can and cannot do, what we should and should not expect.
Last time I got my licence renewed, the first picture was so bad that the DMV guy laughed out loud. I was young and carefree then, so it didn’t bother me. ‘Show me,’ I commanded. He turned the screen around. My eyes were half-closed and my mouth was screwed up in a weird knot. Remember that scene in Election (1999) where they press pause just as Tracy Flick, the wannabe school president played by Reese Witherspoon, looks drunk and deranged? It was like that. The next photo turned out great, though, because I couldn’t stop smiling about the first.
That’s not the mood I’m in today. Today, if the same thing happens, I’ll stew. They’ll take a second crappy photo of me and no one will be laughing. To them, I’ll be just another angry lady to tag and release back into the wild freeways of Los Angeles. When you visit the DMV, you realise that you can bestride the narrow world like a colossus for only so long — namely, until you’re about 39. After that, you’re not special anymore. You’re just another indistinct face in a sea of the nobodies.
I have all of my father’s old driver’s licences. That’s the kind of thing you save when somebody dies — not their unpublished papers, not their shelves full of books, not their boxes of old photographs of girlfriends you never met before. You save the evidence of their trips to the DMV. Something about those little snapshots of my dad’s face, four years older, and then four years older again, standing up against that dark-red background they once used in North Carolina, slows my pulse a little and makes me find the nearest chair. My father was not one to smile for these photos. He did, however, open his eyes a little wider as the years went by, possibly to make himself look less old and grouchy.
On 5 March 1973, he wore a red gingham shirt and matching red tie. He was about to turn 34. On 10 March 1981, he wore a V-neck sweater over a maroon shirt. He was about to turn 42, and he looked fitter than he was at age 34. On 14 March 1985, my father looked as tan as George Hamilton. On 13 March 1989, he was about to turn 50, and he took his glasses off before they took the picture, maybe so he would look younger. His face was more relaxed and open than it was in the other shots. In his last licence photo, taken on 15 March 1993, he had let his hair go grey, and he looked relaxed and happy. Two and a half years later, he went to bed feeling a little bit sick, and died in his sleep of his first heart attack.
The fact of someone’s premature death shouldn’t make everything they ever did seem tragic, but it still does. I wish I were enlightened enough to have a more uplifting story at the ready when I shuffle through these laminated cards. I wish I didn’t feel quite so melancholy about his life, neatly sliced into four-year intervals, his face transforming from young to older to oldest. What was he feeling at each moment when the camera flashed in his face? What buried shame or sadness bubbled up, what bit of longing worked its way to the surface in the bleak light of that DMV office?
When you glance from one licence to the next, you don’t see the long nights I spent tossing and turning
My father talked a lot about not wanting to get old. He visited his parents regularly, but it often depressed him. He didn’t want to live the way they did, growing stooped and wrinkled, smoking and bickering as they circled the drain. He seemed to have an unusually strong fear of ageing and death. He was very fit, and he was always juggling three or more girlfriends at once, one of whom was usually under 30. Old age made him anxious.
Twenty-odd years later, I realise that most people feel this way so strongly that they’re hesitant to say it out loud. We can’t quite believe that we’ll grow old, too. At a certain point, we start counting the years we might have left, if we’re lucky. We become more pragmatic. We take what we can get. We don’t need big signs to tell us what we should and should not expect.
Ten years ago, when that last driver’s licence photo was taken, I was 33 years old and weighed 125 pounds. In the photo, my face is lean and tan because I went hiking every single morning. I worked from home and made good money as a freelance writer. I read a lot. I adopted house plants. I wrote songs on my guitar. I was so young, I had no idea how young I was.
But before you go flipping between the 33-year-old, with her broad smile, and the 43-year-old, with her vague look of world-weariness, keep in mind all the things that happened in the 10 years in between: I dumped my boyfriend. I found a full-time job. I bought a house. I got married. My stepson moved in. I had a daughter. I wrote a book. I had another daughter. I quit my job. A close friend died of cancer.
When you glance from one licence to the next, you don’t see the long nights I spent tossing and turning, working up the courage to ditch my boyfriend. You don’t see me painting the walls of my house alone, trying to accept my uncertain future. You can’t see me driving through the south of Spain with my future husband, or big and pregnant a year later, pulling weeds out of my front yard in a fit of hormonal mania. You don’t hear the breast pump — ahwooonga, ahwoonga — or feel that sinking guilt I had when I left the baby at day care for the first time. You don’t see me at the beach with my kids, smearing sunscreen on my face and hoping that no one eats sand when I’m not looking. You don’t see my hands shaking as I crush up pills, trying to help my friend die a peaceful death of colon cancer, wondering if there even is such a thing.
A lot can happen in 10 years. You can’t be carefree forever. But when I was just 33, I thought that I would never have the bad taste to grow old, let alone allow it to depress me. I thought I was better than this. What is youth, but the ability to nurse a superiority complex beyond all reason, to suspend disbelief indefinitely, to imagine yourself immune to the plagues and perils faced by mortal humans? But one day, you wake up and you realise that you’re not immune.
When my driver’s licence photo arrives a week later, it feels like an omen of my impending decline. My hair is limp and scraggly, I have dark circles under my eyes. I look like the ‘after’ photo in one of those photo essays on the ravages of crystal meth. I have the blank but guilty look of a sex offender.
It’s maybe the shittiest photo of me ever taken, and now I have to carry it with me everywhere I go. On the bright side, my husband and I spend a good half-hour passing the licence back and forth, laughing at how hideous it is. But privately, I wonder if I have the face of a woman who missed out on something. This is the shape my mid-life crisis is taking: I’m worried about what I have time to accomplish before I get too old to do anything. I’m fixated on what my life should look like by now. I’m angry at myself, because I should look better, I should be in better shape, I should be writing more, I should be a better cook and a more present, enthusiastic mother.
I go online looking for inspiration, but all I find is evidence that everyone in the world is more energetic than me. Thanks to blogs and Twitter and Facebook, I can sift through the proof that hundreds of other people aren’t slouching through life. They’re thriving in their big houses in beautiful cities, they’re cooking delicious organic meals for their children, and writing timely thank you notes to their aunts and uncles and mothers for the delightful gift that was sent in the mail and arrived right on time for Florenza’s third birthday.
When I was younger, I thought I might wake up one day and be different: more sophisticated, more ambitious, more organised
Forget those weary strangers at the DMV. This country is apparently populated by highly effective, hip professional women, running around from yoga class to writing workshop, their fashionable outfits pulled taut over their abs of steel, chirping happily at each other about the upcoming publication of their second poetry chapbook — which is really going to make the move to the remodelled loft a little hectic, but hey, that’s life when you’re beautifulish and smartish and hopelessly productive!
It’s not enough that I know all about their countless hobbies and activities and pet projects and book clubs. I’m also treated to professional-looking shots of their photogenic families, their handsome, successful husbands and their darling children who are always hugging kitty cats or laughing joyfully on pristine beaches, children who are filled with wonder around the clock. Their children never pee in their Tinker Bell undies by accident and then whine about going commando, just for example. But maybe that’s because their children have parents who never lose their tempers or heat up frozen fish sticks for dinner or forget to do the laundry. Their kids have parents who let them sleep under the stars at Joshua Tree, and no one soils her sleeping bag or has a bad trip from too many corn-syrup-infused juice boxes.
Dear sweet merciful lord, deliver me from these deliriously happy parents, frolicking in paradise, publishing books, competing in triathlons, crafting jewellery, speaking to at-risk youth, painting bird houses, and raving about the new cardio ballet place that gives you an ass like a basketball. Keep me safe from these serene, positive-thinking hipster moms, with their fucking handmade recycled crafts and their mid-century modern furniture and their glowing skin and their optimism and their happy-go-lucky posts about their family’s next trip to a delightful boutique hotel in Bali.
I am not physically capable of being that effective or that effusive. I can’t knit and do yoga and smile at strangers and apply mascara every morning. These people remind me that I’ll never magically become the kind of person who shows up on time, looks fabulous, launches a multimillion-dollar business, and travels the world. When I was younger, I thought I might wake up one day and be different: more sophisticated, more ambitious, more organised. Back then, my ambivalence, my odd shoes, my bad hair seemed more like a style choice. When you’re young, being sloppy and cynical and spaced-out looks good on you.
But my flaws are no longer excusable. I need to fix everything, a voice inside keeps telling me. It’s time to be an efficient professional human, at long last, and a great mother and an adoring wife. It’s time to shower on a predictable schedule.
No matter how fervently I try to will myself into some productive adult’s reality, though, I’m still that 43-year-old superfreak in my driver’s licence photo. Some day, one of my daughters will hold this licence in her hand and feel sorry for me, long after I’m gone. ‘She was only 43 in this one. But, Jesus, look at that awful hair. And that look on her face. Why does she look so down? Or is that fear? What was she so afraid of?’ I don’t want my daughters to look at me — then or now — and see someone who’s disappointed in herself. At the very least, I have to change that.
That woman on the curb probably looks great in her driver’s licence photo, because she isn’t afraid of falling short
One Sunday morning, when I was running out to get some groceries, I saw a big woman standing on the sidewalk, waving a Yard Sale sign around. She was wearing an outfit that didn’t compliment her body. Her boobs were jiggling and bouncing in a wild way, but she was smiling and shaking this big piece of cardboard with something scrawled on it. You could barely read the words. The writing was in ballpoint pen and maybe she ran out of room for the address because the last part was squeezed in there, and then there was this huge space under the words anyway. The whole thing was very unprofessional, the kind of thing that, if I had done it myself, I would’ve ripped it up, declaring it unacceptable, and then I would’ve complained about how I didn’t have anymore goddamn poster board to start another sign. Then I probably would’ve blamed my husband for not buying more poster board at the drugstore. ‘When I say get some poster board, that word “some” means more than one piece.’
I also would not have put on that outfit, if I were as big as she was. I’m not slender, mind you. But let’s be honest: if I were her, I would’ve looked in the mirror and moaned softly and then crawled back into bed. Even with a perfectly good outfit on, I wouldn’t have agreed to stand on the curb with a bad sign, drawing attention to myself. No way. If I were her, I would’ve made my husband stand around with the sign, and then I would’ve blamed him when the yard sale got too crowded and hectic. ‘Where have you been? I can’t handle this whole thing on my own! This was YOUR IDEA IN THE FIRST PLACE!’
But that morning, I sat at the intersection in my idling car and watched that woman bouncing around, and even though I was in a bad mood, she made me smile. She had swagger. She didn’t give a shit that she looked a little unwieldy out there, jumping up and down, boobs jiggling. She didn’t care that her sign sucked. And the drivers in the cars next to me were smiling and waving at her, and some of them were men, too. They weren’t giving her a cheap, ‘Hey there, little hottie!’ wave, they were giving her an appreciative, you-made-my-morning wave. They liked the cut of her jib. And so did I.
I need to be more like that woman. I’m 43 years old now, goddamn it, and my life is amazing. So why am I comparing myself to some styled professional in my head? Right now in my life, I keep ripping up the stupid sign and starting over. I keep saying: ‘This is all wrong. YOU are all wrong.’ I keep saying: ‘You messed up. You should be on your third novel by now. You’re running out of time.’ When did I fall into the habit of seeing myself in such a bleak light?
That woman on the curb probably looks great in her driver’s licence photo, because she isn’t afraid of falling short. No one can tell her what she can and can’t do, what she should and should not expect. I guarantee you, that woman doesn’t give a fuck about mid-century modern furniture or organic dairy farms in Wisconsin. Maybe her house needs to be vacuumed, and her hair colour needs a touch-up. So what? She doesn’t do yoga and she doesn’t consider that a personal failing of hers. She doesn’t ask herself whether or not she has it all. She has other stuff to do.
She looks in the mirror and sees a dishevelled fortysomething and she feels good. She is just a person in the world. She’s not indistinct, though. She knows that she’s someone with ideas, with spirit, with heart. She is someone who can make strangers smile and feel really good inside, for no reason at all.
That’s what it looks like to accept what you have. That’s what it looks like to feel grateful for who you are, in all of your messy, fucked-up glory. The next time that DMV flash goes off in my face, I’m going to think about her.
3 July 2013