This life, this set-up, it’s all a slapdash construction-in-progress initiated by someone who refuses to acknowledge the sharks circling her little vessel, adrift in the sea. I have made a houseboat out of a busted-up canoe and have strung up tiny fairy lights along the roof, though we can’t turn them on because the motor isn’t working by which I mean to say there was never a motor in the first place. Don’t tell the kids that it has been me back at the stern, hand-paddling us along, making engine noises with my lips. I don’t want them to panic. It is bad enough we have to be crammed into a ship that is not-a-ship, wandering aimlessly through the ocean since we have neither charts to guide us or sails to fill with wind and blow us along our way.
As I mentioned, I turn forty in a few weeks and I have been thinking a lot about the term midlife crisis lately. I know how destructive they can be, having been through at least two of them vicariously in the past couple of years. One side of me is wary of it but the other side wants to lean into it as far as I can go. Let it not be a crisis but a period of transformation, of radical reformation, even. The cliched joke of the midlife crisis are middle-classed men whom, having worked hard for twenty years appropriating material goods for their dependents, now wish to indulge themselves, usually in the ultimate symbol of youth (bold red and fast) and primitive masculinity (a V8 engine with all those pumping pistons and power): a sports car, preferably made in Italy. Think about this for a second, the middle-aged balding dad, known for bad jokes and pleated khakis, decides to give up mowing the lawn and signs up for Tinder. What a dufus, we snicker.
And yet, why do we laugh when someone goes through such desperate measures, flailing around in their misery, seeking out younger companions? Perhaps they are drawn to younger people partially because they have not been honest with their own aging process and have overlooked the little pooch rolling over their waistband, dismissed the silver glinting in their hair as bad lighting. Perhaps they do so due to superficial attraction but perhaps it is deeper, perhaps they want someone who is just starting off in their adulthood because they also are beginning a new chapter of life. It is easy to identify young people transforming whereas you cannot judge what another full-grown adult is going through and you definitely don’t want to broach the subject because it is such a trope, the midlife fool searching for meaning in a meaningless world.
I know we cannot stay in this pretend houseboat, that it will either capsize or sink before we get to shore. And yet there is no land in sight. And no one is going to rescue us.
Part of the problem with the term midlife crisis is that we tend to think of adulthood as a fixed period. Like the term grown-up. Not growing up. Grown. Finished. Complete. Childhood is a period of change, of making mistakes and learning from them. Adulthood is limited to the initial boundaries we drew for ourselves at the start of this long and terminal chapter. Decisions made in the beginning of this stage must be adhered to, such as starting a family or embarking on a particular career path, and failure to do so is seen as a failed adulthood, a collapsed life. And even if you meet those prescribed expectations, you are still learning and growing along the way, perhaps outgrowing ideas that used to define you. It is a busy time, especially for people who choose to support new humans as they navigate in this realm. Your twenties and thirties fly by and it is only when you reach your forties, when your kids are less needy or your career is stabilized or your dreams are unfulfilled and you are tired of trying so hard, that you have a moment to pause and reflect, to reassess what is going on. Is that a crisis? Depends on what you do with it, I suppose, how you react. If your reflection leads to divorce, to abandonment, to reckless overindulgence, then that can be considered crisis mode. And yet, destruction is not always a bad thing. Tearing down a building to build anew, especially if the old building was unsound, is a positive but be careful of those trapped inside, who love the building as it is.
Sometimes I am proud of this ramshackle ship and how far it has taken us. I note with pride the holes plugged with seaweed and fish bones. I remember the times when my husband tried to drown me and when I tried to knock him overboard. He is better now, whittling away on a whale bone as the children look on. But if I tell him I believe I can swim until I find an island or continent where we can be free, he turns away, unhappy by the prospect of having to walk again.
early 15c., crise, crisis, “decisive point in the progress of a disease,” also “vitally important or decisive state of things, point at which change must come, for better or worse,” from Latinized form of Greek krisis “turning point in a disease, that change which indicates recovery or death” (used as such by Hippocrates and Galen), literally “judgment, result of a trial, selection,” from krinein “to separate, decide, judge,” from PIE root *krei- “to sieve,” thus “discriminate, distinguish.”
Transferred non-medical sense is 1620s in English. A German term for “mid-life crisis” is Torschlusspanik, literally “shut-door-panic,” fear of being on the wrong side of a closing gate.
Look at this again: turning point in a disease, that change which indicates recovery or death. That change that indicates recovery or death.
Perhaps crisis is an appropriate term for this period of transition if we scrap the modern meaning and return to the medical one.
So when I say I want to lean into my own midlife crisis, what I mean is that I want it to be a turning point instead of a catastrophe.
I have woven a rope made from the hair of a mermaid I caught and scalped. I am tying it to the bow, diving into the water despite the sharks. I will tow us somewhere, anywhere, because I will not let them think that this is all the world is, a crowded canoe that leaks, surrounded by the sea. I am headed toward the sunrise, toward the untouchable horizon.