I know people who’ve done crazy things midlife: A friend who ran the Chicago Marathon, New York City Marathon, and Boston Marathon in seven-minute miles and still keeps trying to better her time. An acquaintance who, on her 45th birthday, flew to Africa to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. A recently divorced relative who rode from Chicago to Alaska on her boyfriend’s motorcycle to watch grizzly bears hunt salmon during spawning season.
Additionally, inspired to give back, many of the graduate students at the university where I teach decide midlife to become teachers or counselors. I have many friends who’ve gone back to school in their forties to become real-estate agents, interior designers, physical therapists, and life coaches. I recently befriended a woman who became an ordained rabbi midlife and now teaches Torah to women in prison. Even though few participants were Jewish, the Passover seder was packed. In prison or at midlife, we’re all searching for freedom.
I don’t know if these activities reflect an ache or a longing for freedom or merely a general feeling that something is missing. Perhaps these friends read Gail Sheehy’s Passages, woke up one day, and realized they wanted to live differently or more fully and that the only way to accomplish this was through bold action and some dramatic gesture, some dramatic midlife crisis.
Like Gail Sheehy, I’m uncomfortable with the phrase “midlife crisis,” but I don’t want to judge what my friends do. Hell, my philosophy is usually, if you’re not hurting anyone (including yourself), why not go for it? I don’t want to imply that these friends are crazy and outrageous. Secretly, I have always admired their courage, their midlife chutzpahdik, this I don’t give a damn what anybody thinks; I’m doing it anyway attitude.
I am trying to muster a bit of this attitude myself. Even though I have a very loving husband of almost 20 years (his sense of humor and waning eyesight probably help), two amazing kids (who keep their adolescent eye-rolling to a minimum and are still willing to cuddle), and a successful career in academia—where I am the tenured chair of my department—I find myself at 45 starting my own little press to publish my debut novel, Oxford Messed Up. This, in spite of the fact that I was fortunate enough (or so I thought) to get a New York agent on my first try.
At times this publishing process has seemed a lot more difficult and outrageous than climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro. But I don’t think it is a midlife crisis. And if I am outrageous and crazy, I knew this long before I thought about publishing a literary love story about a young woman with OCD. Just ask my husband. Still, I don’t really know why I am so compelled to risk resources and humiliation in this very public way at 45, when I should have nothing left to prove.
Asking myself this question has brought me to the realization that this publishing business is more like my midlife scavenger hunt than my midlife crisis. Each part of this publishing journey—the highs and lows, successes and failures, brick walls and automatic doors—has taught me about who I am and what is really important to me at this time in my life. So I’ve decided to write my blog about the clues I have garnered in this midlife scavenger hunt—what I will call publishing my first novel, Oxford Messed Up—and what they have taught me about myself.
I know that members of my team will be concerned about me using my blog to talk about midlife issues when they’re always stressing Oxford Messed Up’s wider demographic appeal. The novel is, after all, about graduate students in their twenties who are fanatical about the music of Van Morrison. I know they’ll think I’m smoking hash because this blog has no buzz-worthy key words or hashtags as I was instructed to provide (although I still don’t really understand what a hashtag is). And I know my editors, with their New York publishing-house pedigrees, will shake their heads at the personal, confessional, and Oprah After the Show nature of this blog. After all, it should fit with the blogs of more established authors so that my work is taken seriously. I appreciate all of your help and concern, but—sorry, guys—I have to follow my gut on this one.
So the first clue in my midlife scavenger hunt and the real benefit of publishing Oxford Messed Up independently is that, ultimately, I do not have to listen to anyone. On this crazy midlife journey, I am learning to follow my own instincts. Mt. Kilimanjaro and my galleys are sending me more clues; please don’t remind me I have plantar fasciitis.