A strange thing happened last December. I turned 50.
I know. I’m as shocked as you. As my friend Jené said to me recently, “You are 38 in my brain.” Which is kind of ironic, because I was at least 40 when I met her. But I feel 30-something—and not only in my brain, but in my body, energy, and spirit, too. So this milestone birthday caught me off guard.
I attribute my youthfulness, at least in part, to a sort of reverse emotional aging. You see, I was a fairly serious kid. I had plenty of good times, but I was always quite introspective. I had an unusual amount of responsibility and independence at a very young age. Heck, my parents sometimes put me in charge of babysitting my two brothers, who are 1.5 and 4.5 years my senior. (The role of babysitter was assigned to the three of us in rotation when our parents went out.)
I had childhood experiences that demanded a certain maturity. Moving every three years to a new state, and having to adapt and start over as the new kid. Splitting time between two homes when my parents divorced, and then adding a third home when I went off to boarding school in ninth grade. My high school friends (with whom I’m closer now than ever) would probably tell you: I was fun enough, but I was also one of the more studious, mature ones.
You’d think that might make me really stuffy and boring by now. But here’s the thing. I’m kind of doing it all in reverse. I feel younger than ever. And far less serious than I was, even a decade or two ago. I’m not immature, exactly. I’m just more playful. Lighter.
And that made the prospect of turning 50 downright terrifying. I mean, this gigantic number had no place in my life. 50? What is that? It was the first time I’d attached any weight to a milestone birthday. I dreaded it. I couldn’t fathom the moment I’d have to admit to someone, “I’m 50.”
The strange thing is, I only felt that way up until it actually happened. It helped that on my birthday I was in Honolulu visiting my friend Sara, who was celebrating a milestone birthday also (she turned 45 a week later). We spent the day at a Korean spa, getting every last inch of our bodies exfoliated for a solid hour, to the point that we were truly born again.
Lounging in the Himalayan salt sauna afterward, we chatted with an elderly Korean woman, relaxing before her spa treatment. It came out that we were celebrating our birthdays, and she stared in disbelief when we fessed up to our ages (we were stark naked, but it wasn’t as awkward as it sounds). “No! You both look so beautiful,” she said. “And so young. Especially for Caucasians. They usually look good in their 20s and 30s, and then everything starts to fall.”
And then her wisdom poured out. Naked in all her 60-something glory, she delivered a soliloquy on aging. How age really is a state of mind, and numbers are meaningless. How happiness is what’s important, and what keeps us young. That the secret—to basically everything—is love, and sharing love and kindness with family, friends, and yes, even strangers. We fell in love with her then and there, our Yoda of the salt sauna.
Then and there, it sunk in. Turning 50 is nothing to be afraid of. Especially not when I feel younger, more vibrant, and more playful than ever. Because I’m not 50 at all. I’m 50 AF. And it feels damn good.