Written by: Gwyneth Paltrow
Published on: September 22, 2022
I remember my mother’s 50th birthday very clearly. I suppose it was the first “big” birthday I could celebrate with her as an adult. It was upstairs at Michael’s, an early star of the LA food scene, a place both my parents loved. The dining room was filled with friends around round tables. The dinner was delicious, the good wine flowed. Everyone was asked to contribute a poem instead of a typical gift. I remember loud laughter, happy tears. I remember my mother full of life and joy at the convergence of the love on display, the deliciousness and wonderful/heartfelt/brilliant/messy poems.
The following November, my father turned 50, and this was a completely different tenor. We went to the island of Nevis, just the four of us. The weather was bad. It was gray and eerily cool. My father was gripped by something I couldn’t articulate, but I could feel. The membrane between us was porous when we were so close. He said he was “fine,” but I found him consumed by something—he felt lost, ungrounded somehow. It was disturbing. He could not embrace the milestone, this marking of the passage of time. Perhaps he knew on some level that this would be his last decade.
I’m struck by how 50 for both my parents seemed like a math. For my mother it was a culmination of the wonderful, the heights, the loves, the art. For my father, a culmination of sorrows.
On September 27th I will turn 50. As I sit here pondering this idea in the late summer morning, no moisture in the air, wind moving only the tops of the trees, I strangely have no sense of time passing. I am as connected to this sense of longing, of promise—promise of the fall, of something ebbing—as I was 30 years ago. I understand on some level that life is linear, that I have lived x number of days so far, and I have more in the basket under my arm than I have in the field before me. But there is something about the sweetness of life that exists deep within me that is unchanged, that will not change. That is the essence of the essence. It seems to be getting sweeter.
My body, a map of every day’s evidence, is less timeless. A collection of marks and irregularities that lurk the chapters. The scar from oven burns, a finger broken in a window long ago, the birth of a child. Silver hair and fine lines. The sun has left her heavenly fingerprints all over me, as if she soaked a brush in dark-taupe watercolor and smeared it over my skin. And as I do what I can to strive for good health and longevity, to stave off weakening muscles and receding bones, I have a mantra I insert into the reckless thoughts that try to derail me: I accept. I accept the marks and the loosening of the skin, the wrinkles. I accept my body and let go of the need to be perfect, look perfect, defy gravity, defy logic, defy humanity. I accept my humanity.
I might move out of this sense of the cumulative just in time. It is replaced with a consciousness that is difficult to define. A consciousness that lives somewhere between the physical chapters of my life, the data points of what I did and where I was, and the energy of life itself. In order to move into this new area, an inventory is taken of these data points. It requires me to own my mistakes and find myself worn down and pray that I have learned from them all. Accomplishments (or things I did), while known and quantifiable, feel like part of this linear past, less relevant. My flaws, which live in the shadows, smooth and dark, are harder to define. Not because I don’t know what they are, but because we keep them hidden, out of the logs. The transition to sweetness requires these to be brought into the mind to judge (need to make amends to someone or myself?), then into the heart to be forgiven. I’ve hurt people, never on purpose, but I’ve done the same thing. I have let people down by not being what they needed me to be. I have betrayed myself to keep the peace. I have crossed lines whose thoughts sometimes tear me from sleep and suspend me in the hollow of shame for a long, dark night. Most regrettably, and so often, I have not spoken my truth to spare a supposed consequence that hurting someone will tear us both apart. My most enduring mistakes and the mess that comes with them have all come from not standing fully in my truth and speaking from it no matter what. Saying the words that could have saved seasons of heartache and aftermath. None. It doesn’t feel right to me. Your expectations are not appropriate. Your behavior is not appropriate. This relationship is no longer right for me. This project is not right for me. You are no longer the one for me.
I’m not sure I believe in going back in time to right wrongs; every one of the sleepless hours that came from one of these transgressions against myself or others has led to something. Something meaningful, I hope. If nothing else, they have led me down a path of questions. Seeking a better version of myself. People often ask, “If you could go back to your 21-year-old self and give her some advice…” Well, I would know my limit and stick to it tighter than my life itself. And yet, perhaps the most important question is what I want to do next.
So what will I do with the rest of my time here, I ask myself.
I want to slow down. I would like to step back a bit. I want to make my circle smaller. I want to cook dinner more. I want to see misunderstandings turn into understandings. I want to continue to open the deepest part of myself to my husband, even if it scares me. I want to sing more, even if it’s just in the shower. I want to let everyone who has had a negative experience with me know that I am sorry. I want to acknowledge myself fully. I’m imperfect, I can shut down and turn to ice, I have no patience, I swear at other drivers, I don’t close my closet doors, I lie when I don’t want to hurt feelings. I am also generous and funny. I am smart and brave. I am a seeker and I can take you on my quest for meaning. When I love you, you will feel it envelop you through time and space and to the ends of the earth. I am everything.
I have seen so many changes in my 50 years. The structure of our society has changed, we have become global, digital. We’ve gone from bell-bottoms to skinny jeans to bell-bottoms, and we’ll go back again. Some argue that we have gone backwards as a society, some argue that the Overton window is shifting towards progress. What excites me is the sense that we live in the age of the spectrum. We seem to embrace, like it or not, that life is not black and white. We begin to be able to hold onto this idea of complexity, of gray area. It seems that in our pockets we embrace what is unknown to us, perhaps does not be threatening. That every human being has their own spectrum and colors and different proportions of light and dark. I want to hold myself in that understanding as I move through these (hopefully) next 50 years. Hold me to a higher standard of compassion.
I think of my children, now old enough to remember my “big” birthday into their own adulthood. Perhaps their memory of it will be neither that I was entirely elated nor grieving over the things I lost or did not bring to fruition. I hope they can feel that I feel all the things and hold on to the complexity of that performance. That they know that I am both good at everything, but sometimes not. That my feelings of regret and my mistakes can serve as scaffolding for what I build from now on. That they are the greatest achievement of my life. And that “this be man,” as the poet Rumi says, is a canvas that will be filled with the many colors that they are, an abstraction that will continue to reveal itself. That knowledge comes with time. Balancing the scales of acceptance and responsibility is also an art. And that I really won’t know what it was like to turn 50 until much later, when I can reflect back from a higher perch, perhaps at one of their 50th, hearts full and broken at the same time (as is life ).