On Approaching 50
Written by: Gwyneth Paltrow
Published on: September 22, 2022
I remember my mother’s 50th birthday very clearly. I suppose it was the first “big” birthday I was able to celebrate with her as an adult. It was upstairs at Michael’s, an early LA food-scene star, a place both my parents loved. The dining room was filled with friends around round tables. The dinner was delicious, the good wine flowed. Everyone was asked to contribute a poem instead of a typical gift. I remember uproarious laughter, happy tears. I remember my mother full of life and joy at the convergence of the love on display, the deliciousness, and wonderful/heartfelt/brilliant/messy poems.
The following November saw my father’s 50th and this was a different tenor altogether. We went to the island of Nevis, just the four of us. The weather was bad. It was grey and unseasonably cool. My father was gripped by something I could not articulate but I could feel. The membrane between us was porous, as we were so close. He said he was “fine,” but I found him swallowed by something—he felt bereft, unanchored in some way. It was unsettling. He could not embrace the milestone, this marking of the passage of time. Perhaps on some level he knew it would be his last decade.
I am struck by how, for both of my parents, 50 seemed like a reckoning. For my mother, it was a culmination of the wonderous, the highs, the loves, the art. For my father, a culmination of sorrows.
On September 27, I’ll turn 50. As I sit here contemplating this idea in the late summer morning, no moisture in the air, breeze moving only the tops of the trees, I strangely have no sense of time passed. I am as connected to this feeling of longing, of promise—promise of the fall, of something ebbing—as I was 30 years ago. I understand on some level that life is linear, that I have lived x number of days thus far and I have more in the basket under my arm than I do in the field before me. But there is something about the sweetness of life that exists deep within me that is unchanged, that will not change. It is the essence of the essence. It seems to be getting sweeter.
My body, a map of the evidence of all the days, is less timeless. A collection of marks and irregularities that dog-ear the chapters. Scarred from oven burns, a finger smashed in a window long ago, the birth of a child. Silver hair and fine lines. The sun has left her celestial fingerprints all over me, as if she soaked a brush in dark-taupe watercolor, flecking it over my skin. And while I do what I can to strive for good health and longevity, to stave off weakening muscles and receding bone, I have a mantra I insert into those reckless thoughts that try to derail me: I accept. I accept the marks and the loosening skin, the wrinkles. I accept my body and let go of the need to be perfect, look perfect, defy gravity, defy logic, defy humanity. I accept my humanity.
I, perhaps, am moving out of this felt sense of the cumulative just in time. It is being replaced with an awareness that is hard to define. An awareness that lives somewhere between the physical chapters of my life, the data points of what I did and where I was, and the energy of the life itself. To move into this new territory, an inventory of those data points is being taken. It requires owning my mistakes and finds me prostrate, praying I have learned from them all. Accomplishments (or things I did), though known and quantifiable, feel part of this linear past, less relevant. My errors, which live in the shadows, slippery and dark, are harder to define. Not because I don’t know what they are, but because we keep them hidden, out of the logbooks. The transition into the sweetness requires these be brought into the mind to adjudicate (do amends need to be made to anyone or to myself?), then into the heart, to be forgiven. I have hurt people, never intentionally, but I have done so just the same. I have let people down by not being who they needed me to be. I have betrayed myself to keep the peace. I have crossed lines, the thoughts of which sometimes rip me from sleep and suspend me into the hollowness of shame for a long, dark night. Most regretfully, and so often, I have not spoken my truth to spare some perceived consequence, that hurting someone will tear us both apart. My most lasting mistakes and the mess that comes with them have all stemmed from me not standing fully in my truth and speaking from it, come what may. Saying the words that could have spared seasons of heartache and repercussions. No. This does not feel right to me. Your expectations are not appropriate. Your behavior is not appropriate. This relationship is no longer right for me. This project is not right for me. You are no longer right for me.
I’m not sure I believe in going back in time to correct mistakes; every one of those sleepless hours that came from one of these transgressions against myself or others has led to something. Something meaningful, I hope. If nothing else, they have led me to a path of questioning. Of seeking a better version of myself. People often ask, “If you could go back to your 21-year-old self and give her some advice…” Well, I would know my boundary and hold on to it more tightly than my life itself. And yet, perhaps the more important question is what will I do going forward.
So, what do I want to do with the rest of my time here, I ask myself.
I would like to slow down. I would like to retreat a little bit. I would like to make my circle smaller. I would like to cook dinner more. I would like to see misunderstandings become understandings. I would like to continue to open the deepest part of myself to my husband, even though it scares me. I would like to sing more, even if it’s just in the shower. I would like to tell anyone that had a negative experience with me that I am sorry. I would like to fully acknowledge myself. I am imperfect, I can shut down and turn to ice, I have no patience, I swear at other drivers, I don’t close my closet doors, I lie when I don’t want to hurt feelings. I am also generous and funny. I am smart and brave. I am a searcher, and I can bring you along on my quest for meaning. When I love you, you will feel it encompass you through time and space and till the end of the earth. I am all of it.
I have seen so many changes in my 50 years. The fabric of our society has changed, we have become global, digital. We have gone from bell-bottoms to skinny jeans to bell-bottoms and we will go back again. Some argue we have gone backward as a society, some argue the Overton window is shifting over toward progress. What excites me is the feeling that we are living in the time of the spectrum. We seem to be embracing, like it or not, that life is not black and white. We are starting to be able to hold this idea of complexity, of grey area. We seem to be, in pockets anyway, embracing that what is unknown to us might not be threatening. That every human being has their own spectrums and colors and different proportions of light and dark. I want to hold myself in that understanding as I move through this (hopefully) next 50 years. Hold myself to a higher standard of compassion.
I think of my children, now old enough to remember this “big” birthday of mine into their own adulthoods. Perhaps their memory of it will be neither that I was solely elated, nor grieving the things I lost or did not bring to fruition. I hope that they can feel me feel all the things and hold in the complexity of that notion. That they know I am both good through and through, yet sometimes not. That my feelings of regret and my mistakes can act as scaffolding for what I build from now on. That they are the greatest accomplishment of my life. And that “this being human” as the poet Rumi says, is a canvas that will be filled with the many colors of who they are, an abstraction that will continue to reveal itself. That knowing comes with time. That balancing the scales of acceptance and accountability is also an art. And that I really won’t know what it was like to turn 50 until much later, when I can reflect back from a higher perch, perhaps at one of their 50ths, hearts full and broken simultaneously (as that is life).