Enough with the sweet-yet-clueless ingenue — the Emily in Paris type. If I’m going to spend a couple of hours hanging out inside someone else’s head, I’ll choose a fiercely reflective midlife narrator every single time. These days, I’m particularly enthralled by midlife female narrators who are brave enough to challenge and build upon the thinking of their younger selves. Watching that process unfold opens up so many exciting possibilities for me as a reader, as a writer and as a human.
The view from midlife is broad and expansive — it lends itself to introspection. This can make for both an incredibly fascinating and incredibly messy life stage. And so a big part of what’s required of any midlife narrator is to attempt to find meaning in all that messiness.
For some midlife narrators, that means rejecting and reframing certain stories that they’ve been telling themselves for a very long time, narratives that may have proved to be downright harmful. One powerful example is how Gayle Brandeis reframes her experience of sexual assault in her essay “The Women Who Helped,” from her new book, Drawing Breath: Essays on Writing, the Body, and Loss. Brandeis makes a conscious decision to tell the story of her sexual assault in a way that focuses less on the men who contributed to her suffering and more on the women who rallied around her to offer their care and support. “I wish I had acknowledged them sooner,” she writes of these women. “When I tell this story in the future, this constellation of women will light the way.”
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For other midlife narrators, it’s more a matter of being brave enough to be emotionally honest — finally recognizing that the emotions you work hardest to suppress have a tendency to unleash themselves in the most inconvenient ways. Take grief, for example. Grief is patient — until it’s not. Sure, it will wait for you, but only for so long. And then, ready or not, it will erupt with a fury that can upend everything in your life.
It’s a lesson that Sam ends up learning for herself in the critically acclaimed series Somebody Somewhere, which debuted last year on HBO. Played by comedian and singer Bridget Everett, Sam is a 40-something former bartender in the midst of a midlife crisis. Having moved back to her hometown in rural Kansas with no clear plans for the future, she takes solace in drinking wine on the couch in her underwear. On her first day at a new job grading standardized tests, a tsunami of tears is unleashed when she starts reading an essay about a girl who teaches her little sister how to take the training wheels off her bike. For Sam, who’s reeling from the death of her own sister just six months earlier, it’s a painful trigger. Her grief is still so fresh and so raw.
While Sam clearly feels embarrassed by the intensity of her reaction, other women celebrate the emergence of their fiercely authentic midlife voice, messy feelings and all. Jen Sookfong Lee, a poet, novelist and podcaster from Vancouver, embraces all her emotions in her self-described “memoir in pieces,” Superfan: How Pop Culture Broke My Heart. She recalls the moment when her “outer shell as the respectable lawyer’s wife began to crack and then fall away” and she found herself writing “new poems, angrier poems, poems that shouted their words into the air, demanding space.”
What happens if a midlife narrator actually manages to burn it all down — by rejecting toxic narratives, by daring to be emotionally honest or by finally finding her voice?
Well, for one thing, she’s able to break free of the life-limiting narratives that only serve to make life harder. I’m thinking, for example, about the many ways Lee questions and rejects cultural messages about what it means to be a good mother, a good daughter and a good writer. At the same time, she points out how much more freedom certain people are given when it comes to breaking the rules. “Historically, famous or accomplished or rich white men have been given second and third and fourth chances,” she writes.
Anything becomes possible in this moment of rupture.
The midlife narrator might find herself breaking free in other ways, too. Over the course of the first season of Somebody Somewhere, Sam manages to slip out from behind her curtain of emotional numbness to begin to awaken to the life-sustaining force that is community. She goes from standing on the sidelines, alone and isolated in her grief, to quite literally taking her place at centre stage. She finds the sense of connection that she’s been craving and a creative outlet, too, as she builds community with other singers and performers.
On the path to self-acceptance, the midlife narrator may engage in a process of compassionate remembering: acknowledging the many ways she has let herself and other people down. Consider, for example, the honesty and grace demonstrated by Brandeis when she writes about “the gift of reconciling with my husband after I blew up our marriage.” She acknowledges both the pain that she caused and her gratitude for a second chance.
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Basically, anything becomes possible in this moment of rupture — and it all begins with a willingness to tell yourself the truth about who you’ve been, who you are and who you hope to be in the world.
And that’s what hanging out in the presence of a brilliant midlife narrator unlocks in me. It gives me permission to continue to learn and grow, both as a writer and human being.
As Brandeis reflects in Drawing Breath: “There is still much I want — so many stories I want to get on the page, so many books I want to read, so much change I want to see and work toward in the world, so much time I want with my loved ones (and so much health and joy I want for them) — but I feel settled in my own skin, my own life, and I’m grateful for that, for the peace that comes with that.” I, too, am grateful for that peace.
Ann Douglas is the author of Navigating the Messy Middle: A Fiercely Honest and Wildly Encouraging Guide for Midlife Women, published by Douglas & McIntyre in 2022.
This story first appeared in Broadview’s April/May 2023 issue with the title “Taking the Long View.”
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