Learning how to prioritize my time in mid-life

By Sophfronia Scott

The woman who does not require validation from anyone is the most feared individual on the planet. —Mohadesa Najumi

A few days after the 2016 presidential election, my friend M calls. I’m happy she is calling, happy to see her name on my landline’s caller ID and not the usual anonymous toll-free numbers announcing telemarketers. I pick up the phone with a sunny “Hi, M!”

The tone of her voice sounds low, hesitant, and gentle—the approach of someone speaking to the bereaved at a funeral. “How are you doing?” she asks. The word “Good!” bounces out of my mouth before I realize it’s too upbeat.



I know I’ll have to start explaining because it’s not as though she doesn’t believe me. I think her “Really?” is more a question of “How?” as in, “How is it you aren’t floored by this?” Most everyone in our circle is. I have friends who have seriously hit the deck, falling into deep depression, even getting physically ill, as a result of the news that we would have a reality show real estate entrepreneur with the hair of a Muppet as our next president.

It has been a week since the election, and the world—the liberal progressive world, or bubble, if you will—is still spinning with disbelief and despair: professors canceling classes, writers abandoning their writing, and mothers on social media lamenting that they don’t know how to explain the election results to their daughters.

My friend has called me to commiserate. But I’m not miserable. I haven’t given a thought to being miserable. The sun is pouring through the windows of my yellow kitchen, my family is healthy, my friend is on the phone, and I’m glad to hear her voice. So I will try to figure out how to gently put into words the overpowering feeling I have more and more as I walk through middle age:

I don’t have time for this.

I don’t have time to be miserable; I don’t have time to take on the negative energy sweeping the country, energy that isn’t mine, energy that would surely paralyze me if I let it in.

This doesn’t mean I don’t feel the same shock and disappointment that she and so many other people are feeling. It doesn’t mean I don’t respect her sadness. I recognize the hard and fantastical times that are surely before us. But I don’t have time to be floored by it.

I’m not saying I’m too busy to think about the results of the election. I’m saying I want to focus instead on the unique, amazing present moment of my life and drink every ounce of joy it offers—the wondrous faces of my students discussing their first essays; the crispness of the skin on a chicken I’ve managed to roast just right; my veteran actor son saying to his rookie mother after rehearsal, “Mama, you’re doing great!” I savor these moments. They sit tart and bright and sweet on my tongue like the taste of hibiscus tea with honey. From these moments I can cultivate gratitude and from gratitude I distill grace. 

I don’t easily give up these moments of grace and joy. At fifty-one I’ve experienced enough to know that when tragedy strikes, these moments evaporate with breathtaking speed in the bitter cold of loss, and I’m left grasping for them, my wounded spirit parched. That’s what it was like when a gunman opened fire just down the hall from my son’s third-grade classroom at Sandy Hook Elementary, killing twenty-six, including one of his best friends. My heart, shrunken with horror and grief, felt small and dry as though it would never feel joy again. The worst had happened, and the world shockingly, unbelievably rolled on. In my mind the world will continue rolling on, and the worst will happen again and will keep happening.

What will I be doing in the meantime? Holding on as well as I can to what is positive and full of light and life because I know how easily it can be torn from my hands.

Recently I had a conversation with a white friend who felt a sincere need to delve deeply into the issue of race. He told me he’d been reading a lot and was in dialogue with a lot of different people about his views, experiences, and questions about how he could be a better ally. I applauded him for all this but his tone was, like M’s, one of commiseration. There was a point where he shook his head and made a comment bemoaning the things I must have to deal with and suffer on a regular basis as a black woman. I knew he was saying this out of love and concern, but I managed to communicate to him that I don’t linger in a mindset of suffering. If I did, I’d have to be in that frustrated, angry space all the time because racial issues abound (one of my brothers who lives in Florida had a slur spray-painted on his home), and our society is bewilderingly slow to understand as a whole why the Black Lives Matter movement is so necessary. But I feel that it is more important for me to be joyful in the world and to do my writing and focus on the positive over the negative.

There’s a video a friend posted in one of my Facebook feeds from the Baroness von Sketch Show. It’s labeled “Welcome to your 40s. Welcome to not giving a shit at the gym.”

In it, the gym’s receptionist, upon learning a member has turned forty, escorts the woman to a different area of the locker room, an area populated solely by women over forty.

They’re all naked.

They are women who have grown so comfortable with their bodies that they eschew the carefully placed towels and dainty footsteps of their earlier years. The younger women across the room look on them in complete fright and in fact, at the end of the video, one of the nude ladies even says, “Who wants to go to the sauna and scare the shit out of the twentysomethings?” The response? “Yeah!”

I laughed out loud at this video. I loved the joy, the sense of release these women so comically displayed. I want to continue living that kind of lightness and freedom. At this age it’s easier to be bold, to push distraction aside or refuse to take it on when offered.

As one of the naked women in the gym observed, “The mental space freed up by not giving a shit? It’s delicious.” On any given day I may seem like a horse running the earth unbridled—that strong and that free. Sometimes there’s a scent in the air so beautiful, earthly, and alive that it makes me feel ravenous, like this sharp awakening moment wants to cut me open to prove how empty I am, to show how much space there is for me to fill. What will I fill it with? I could eat the dirt and all that is in it and sense it wouldn’t be enough. I am giddy. I want to fly.

It has taken me a long time to access such harmony. I was thirty-five and living in New York City on 9/11. I was a journalist and working on a novel. My words fell away then, so I have deep compassion for the ones who have stopped writing now. But those days of not writing turned into months when I suffered a miscarriage about ten weeks after the towers collapsed. My life wasn’t what I wanted it to be—I’d always said I wanted to work for myself and write from home so I could raise children and not be on company hours. I started to change course but did it slowly—in my thirties I still thought I had all the time in the world. I managed to have a baby at thirty-eight and I published one novel, but then I spent too many years not thinking about my own writing, at least not prioritizing it. I was too engrossed in writing other people’s books as part of my editing/ghostwriting business. Of course I was focused on making money—who isn’t? Year after year I kept thinking I’d find the time to write my next novel, but it wasn’t happening.

Then in 2011, right before my forty-fifth birthday, my sister Theo died. She’d been in ill health following bariatric surgery she’d had a few years earlier, but she was only forty-three. With my grief I felt a deep, deep shock: we aren’t guaranteed our time here.

At forty-five, for me grieving my sister’s death, time lost suddenly felt like precious water poured out on hard, dry soil. And I did act then. In 2011 I finally began to cut back on clients, and I went back to school to earn my MFA in creative writing. There was a lot of sacrifice and work involved in making a commitment to my dream—I even drove a school bus to earn money while I was in graduate school.

Sometimes I remind myself of my aunt Rosie. My mother’s older sister, age eighty-three, died recently. She was a prickly personality—I admit to being afraid of her sometimes. She had no filters and no problem telling you what’s what. When I visited her not long after I married, she whispered to me, very seriously, “You know you can leave him if you’re not happy with him, right?”

She wasn’t joking. I nodded.

It wasn’t until her funeral, as I heard her children and grandchildren talk about the wisdom she was constantly trying to impart—and how they often didn’t listen, to their own detriment—that I realized what had made her so prickly all those years: she was impatient. She’d seen a lot, experienced a lot. This was a woman who earned her GED and started a career at the age of fifty. “Mentoring young women” was listed in her obituary among her interests, along with baking the homemade rolls she was known for.

As she imparted wisdom, even in what she said to me about my marriage, I know she was thinking about time—she wanted to save us time. She wanted to not waste her own. But she saw her advice not taken. She saw her children make life-altering mistakes. It often made her bitter. I’m not an advice giver but I recognize the feeling of impatience. It comes from being all too familiar with the woes of the world, especially when history repeats and events happen again and again. If I’m not careful, I know bitterness could take root in me.

However, I will not cut myself off from the woes of the world. That’s impossible, anyway, unless I become a hermit. Instead I prefer to cultivate, as Joseph Campbell writes in The Power of Myth, a “joyful participation in the sorrows of the world.” He says, “All life is sorrowful; there is however an escape from sorrow; the escape is nirvana—which is a state of mind or consciousness, not a place somewhere, like heaven. It is right here, in the midst of the turmoil of life. It is the state you find when you are no longer driven to live by compelling desires, fears, and social commitments, when you have found your center of freedom and can act by choice out of that.”

To me this means I don’t care about certain things, but it also means I can care deeply about others. I care enough to know what and when to let go. It means when the hard stuff happens, I’m not inclined to move with the masses. I’m not going to reiterate what’s already being said, post what’s already being posted, join groups that are or will soon become echo chambers. I can step back so I can see more clearly the answer to the question I ask in times of difficulty: “What am I supposed to be doing?” There is work to be done and I’m seeking the work that I, because of personality, opportunity, or circumstance, am best suited to do. I’m seeking the answer most in line with who I am and what I believe.

That is how I, as a woman of this age, engage with the world. This is what I want to tell my friend on the phone. But I’m all too aware of the possibility that I could easily come off like a bull in a china shop. I don’t want to break anything, especially not bonds or hearts. I don’t want to scare anyone, not even the twentysomethings in the sauna.

I don’t want to seem callous and uncaring. So how do I relate this? How do I invite my friend into this space, one she can inhabit, too, because she is older, by a few years, than I am. How do I share what I’ve come to learn?

These are the words I choose to say, ever so gently, to my friend: “The world was broken before the election. The world is broken now.” But I’ve learned the strongest stance I can take is to hope and pray for its wholeness, and walk through the world in a way that shows I believe such wholeness is possible, no matter what else is going on. This is the best use of my time.


Copyright © 2019 by Simon & Schuster, Inc. “I Don’t Have Time for This” copyright © 2019 by Sophfronia Scott. From ON BEING 40(ISH) edited by Lindsey Mead. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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