You're Going To Be 50 Anyway, So You Might As Well Bring It

by Mary Ellen Walsh
Originally Published: 

I just graduated from college again, and I’m poking 50 with a toothpick.

Thirty years ago, I racked up an associate’s degree, with no clue what to do. Well, I knew I was a writer, but everyone around me thought otherwise. Take business, you can’t go wrong. Two years later, I stepped off Hofstra University’s podium with a bachelor’s in English and plowed full-steam ahead into book publishing, then Manhattan PR agencies. I never looked back.

Twenty-four years later, in a clichéd minivan-driving suburban life with a journalism side habit, I often daydreamed about going back to school for an MFA to figure out what to do with the novel I’d written. I told my friend, “Everyone in grad school will be so young. Yikes, I’ll be around 50 when I graduate.”

She said the magic words that have become my mantra, “You’re going to be 50 anyway. Do it.”

Really, what is age? We watch helplessly as our physical bodies creep to a slow decline. Gravity wins. When we hit certain stages, are we supposed to do this and not that? Are we blocked from fun? I find aging an emotional landmine where some folks are stuck at “Forever 21,” and others desperately need to find their youthful heart. Is the way to aging gracefully just a simple willingness to keep trying something new? Pick any day on any calendar. Good health prevailing, and sure as sunshine, that day’s going to come. Picture yourself there and do it. You’re gonna be … fill in the blank.

I worried I’d be too old. These Millennials and the cyber world had whooshed past me as I was changing diapers, wheeling strollers through parks, and reading Good Night Moon for the hundredth time. But I dove in and signed up to attend classes at Stony Brook’s Southampton and Manhattan campuses.

To my delight, I was obviously not the youngest, but I was certainly not the oldest by far (80 years old). I was in the middle, knee-deep in all of it. Let’s face it: Very few fortysomethings are in grad school. Fortysomethings are smack dab in the middle of life, paying for it all: at the height of our careers, maybe with children nearing college, halfway through mortgages or helping ailing parents. We seem to be schlepping the most and at a frenetic speed.

With three kids spread between middle and high school, bills to pay, two hamsters and a dog whom I let in and out all day long, life was hectic. I held a part-time PR job while attending classes and rewriting my novel, now my MFA thesis. My husband was often on out-of-state business trips. Once, in the middle of a screenwriting class, my kids left a message on my cell phone that they had wandered to the local strip mall looking for dinner. I had forgotten to leave them a cooked meal while I headed to class. Another time, my son lost his house key and was locked out and had hot chocolate with our neighbor. I learned how to juggle all the balls in the air and not sweat the small stuff—especially the concept of age. I met those I know will be lifelong friends and had a ball writing, talking about books and storytelling techniques, played music with fellow students of all ages, and reignited the creative pilot light.

As my classmate Judy Mandel and I sat at Stony Brook’s main campus LaValle Stadium, 28 years after my first college graduation, Billy Joel received an honorary music degree. While the sun felt good on my face with nothing but blue skies ahead of us graduates, Joel said, “If you’re not doing what you love, then you’re wasting time.”

You’re going to be 50 anyway. Bring it on.

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