“When you turn and look back down the years, you glimpse the ghosts of other lives you might have led. All your houses are haunted by the person you might have been.”
A few weeks ago, I watched The Wizard of Oz for the millionth time. I was sick in bed with a winter cold and Judy Garland singing Over the Rainbow is reliable comfort.
But my take-away was startlingly new. In the closing scene, Dorothy wakes up in monochromatic Kansas, grateful and relieved to be home.
I’m not buying it. I agree that there is no place like home, but how many days can she slide her feet into those dull black loafers before she starts longing for Oz? We’re supposed to believe that feeding the cows day after day is better than a Technicolor Life of Adventure, where those around her break out into song and dance? Kansas is safe and known, but magic and wonder are sparse on the plains.
I’m feeling it the other way around. I wake day after day in a tedious, colorless world of never-ending chores and responsibilities. This vague sense of hopeless dread I’ve been living with the last year or so is cognitive dissonance because I suspect I am living the wrong life. I’m stuck in Kansas but my soul longs for Oz.
All of my peers are in the same boat, slowly acknowledging that life is finite and time is running out. I’ll be 49 in August. In America, 49 is the average “sandwich” age for women, where we’re still raising kids but also doing more for our aging parents. The demands on our time are relentless, the worries never-ending. The pandemic has created new stressors in our work and hormones have created new terror in our bodies and minds. There are daily, new, unexplained aches and pains. Night sweats and weight gain and insomnia. We sometimes resent our kids and husbands, suspect we’d be happier without them around. We romanticize the days when we were unencumbered, and had ample collagen. We see photos of our carefree selves at 20 and want to be again that beautiful girl who probably thought she looked fat in that dress. We wake sweaty in the night to crunch the numbers, wondering how we have worked so hard and still have so little to show for it. But we figure that burnout in 2022 is de rigueur, so we just keep plugging along on caffeine and a little too much wine.
Yesterday I caught my haggard reflection in the mirror, dark eye circles and stained Led Zeppelin shirt that hasn’t really fit since my menopausal boobs came in. I was instantaneously enraged, would shatter the damn mirror if only I had a ruby slipper to throw.
For me, it’s the rage that’s the canary in the coal mine. Most of my life, disappointment and worry was met with sadness, not anger. I’m a crier, not a shouter.
So I took an online screening to see where I fell on the existential crisis rating.
Are you feeling unfulfilled or bored?
Do you suspect that life is meaningless?
Are you getting a sense that you’re living the wrong life?
Check, check, and check. I didn’t agree to dramatic changes in appearance, though that’s only because my hairdresser flatly – and wisely – refused to give me bangs. The other item I didn’t check was marital infidelity or constant thoughts about infidelity because that just sounds exhausting. The logistics of an affair seem like so much work.
I know I’m not alone. Gen Xers, those of us born roughly between 1965 and 1980, are primed for a midlife crisis. We were raised in an age of Title IX and Free To Be, You And Me, but also the AIDS epidemic and several recessions. We were told we could be anything. What we heard is that we should be everything. Our generation of women is arguably the best educated in history, and yet we have more debt than any other age demographic. We’re grateful for our lives, but also overwhelmed and terrified. We’re scared of cancer, of covid, of climate change, of losing our rights, of the bleak future we might be leaving our children, of turning into our mothers, old and out of touch. On top of that, we feel guilty for feeling this way, at once aware these are mostly first-world problems and still equally enraged that we’re trapped in the bleakness of sepia-toned Kansas.
There’s no perfect solution. It’s an angst no amount of Botox or Xanax will cure. So we do the things we know work for us, those things that help us find tiny glimpses of Technicolor in an otherwise faded existence. And we remember that – fingers crossed – a different life lives on the other side of 50.
I also remind myself that, in Frank L Baum’s books, Dorothy not only goes back to Oz several times, she ultimately decides to live there. A fine retirement indeed.