They are the classic young lovers, oblivious to others on the dance floor, clinging to each other as if there were no tomorrow, nor any teachers in the room either. Their grip must come naturally: they sure didn’t learn it in dance class. She snuggles into his shoulder, arms welded to his neck. His arms encircle her, right hand gripping his left wrist, both hands resting on the small of her back. You don’t need to see their faces to know that their eyes are closed. As they shuffle around the floor—you can hardly call it waltzing—there is no space at all between them. If a chaperone catches them, there will be hell to pay.
Momentarily disoriented, I give my head a shake. The music is a 1960s love song, all right, and the shuffling is straight out of the high-school dances I remember, but we’re at an office Christmas party with a new-millennium band. These flagrant offenders of a 40-year-old dance code of conduct both have grey hair. His suit is conservative; she’s wearing pearls and sensible shoes.
The flurry of dinner dances through December provided another great opportunity for amateur sociological field work, allowing us to observe with great clarity the natural behaviour of the middle-aged adult, unmodulated by the need to present an appropriate parental or corporate image. Play the songs they danced and dated to in high school and the floor fills up with 50-something dancing fools. Their enthusiasm for the music of their youth is obvious. Less obvious—cleverly camouflaged by rounded shoulders, matronly figures and age-appropriate attire—is the young adults they still are, on the inside.
“We are always the same age inside.”
The younger me knew that for nonsense: the old seemed so different that I knew they must feel different, too. To my younger and admittedly keener eyes, these differences started at about 50. In the best case, 50-somethings seemed more pulled-together—surely that meant they felt more on top of things than I did, teetering precariously in my 20-something heels. In the worst case, they were clearly stodgier—surely they could feel their obvious resistance to change, their intolerance for new ideas. In any case, how could they not feel older, somehow?
Now that I am in my 50s and count it as merely middle-aged, I understand a little better what Gertie meant. Without feeling a day older than when I brought my own babies home from the hospital, I now babysit my grandchildren. Without feeling a bit wiser than when I started work, I now mentor colleagues young enough to be my children.
Although I hurt in new places, know different things and hold different opinions than I did at 20, getting older hasn’t changed how I feel inside, hasn’t made me feel ‘old’. At 20-something, I just felt like me—not a young me. At 50-something, I still feel just like me—not a middle-aged me. How I’ll feel at 70-something is anyone’s guess, but I’m betting I won’t feel old.
It’s something you can’t know for yourself until you’ve lived a while; it would be hard to accept on someone else’s say-so, even Gertrude Stein’s. But as I settle firmly into middle-age and realize that I, like my peers, now look old to young adults, I also realize that there are others out here who understand this disconnect between how we 50-somethings look and how we feel.
Enter the better-than-70-somethings. Through decades of involuntary practice they have at least grown accustomed to being in this odd state—seeming old to others, yet feeling just the same inside. Unlike us, they no longer look around to see who is being called “sir” or “ma’am”; they are no longer startled when someone offers to get their bag out of the overhead bin on the airplane. But just as they think they have found their footing and a permanent, if odd, equilibrium in this strange new world, our own milestones in aging renew their disorientation. While we watch in mingled delight and disbelief as our children become parents, our parents feel the same mixed emotions as we become grandparents. If we are surprised to wake up one morning transformed from up-and-comers into mentors, they are astounded by our impending retirements.
Surprise signals a chance to learn something. In middle age, as we first experience this unsettling discrepancy between how we look and how we feel, we also get an opportunity to learn that others, too, are not necessarily what they appear to be. Not our elders, who don’t feel ‘older’, any more than we do. Not our juniors, who don’t feel ‘younger’, any more than we did.
“We are always the same age inside.” True for us, true for others: one point of connection in a world that sorely needs them. And if we can see past age differences today, who knows what we might do tomorrow, what visible but largely irrelevant differences we can learn to ignore.