Anna Quindlen turns 60 this summer and offers a timeless message in her new memoir: Be who you are, without apology. Don't let anyone tell you how to feel, and cherish those closest to you.
Those might not be earth-shattering revelations, but the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer knows how to hook us with personal stories that resonate with readers, whether we're juggling work and family, deciding whether to use Botox, or dealing with loss, as Quindlen has since age 19 when her mother died.
The book continues in a similar vein as her "Life in the 30s," column, which she began 25 years ago for The New York Times, as well as her "Last Word" columns that later appeared in Newsweek. Six novels and seven nonfiction books later, Quindlen keeps the stories -- and lessons -- coming.
"Many of us have come to a surprising conclusion about this moment in our lives," she writes in the introduction to Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake. "No, it's not that there are weird freckly spots on the back of our hands, although there are, or that construction guys don't make smutty comments as we pass, although they don't. It's that we've done a pretty good job of becoming ourselves, and that this is, in so many ways, the time of our lives. ... Many of us find ourselves exhilarated, galvanized, at the very least older and wiser."
In an interview with SecondAct, Quindlen -- who writes from her 100-year-old row house in New York City and her country house in Pennsylvania -- talks about why aging isn't something to fear, the toughest part of getting older, and the joy of doing "stupid things."
SA: What inspired you to write this book?
AQ: I think there were two inspirations, actually. One was that interaction I describe [in the book] with my daughter, Maria, when I said to her, "Honey, I'm too old to die young now." Of course I can count, so I knew how old I was. But it was just an epiphany, that moment of putting myself squarely on one side of the continuum. When I started to do the reporting and realized how much time we all had gained in life expectancy just since 1952, the year I was born, I thought it was something that would be interesting to explore through personal experience combined with research and reporting. It seemed to me that this was the coda to Life in the 30s, the column I wrote about figuring out the work-family nexus. Now we're figuring out a new way of aging -- how we look, how we live, how we work, how we care for our kids and our parents.
SA: What do you hope readers take away from the book?
AQ: I hope people will get real about getting older. There's this societal construct that suggests that aging is onerous and terrible. Yet if you push people about how it feels to be, say, 60, they eventually admit that they're finding their lives really fulfilling and they wouldn't be 30 again on a bet. I hope we can begin to tell the truth -- that under good circumstances, and I know mine have been very good indeed, getting older can mean gaining, in the depth of your personal connections and your understanding of yourself.
SA: The cover of your book is joyous and robust. Did you feel it was necessary to put a positive spin on aging?
AQ: I have nothing but a positive spin on aging. As I write in the book, I feel as though I'm aging for two. My mother had barely breached her 40th birthday when she died. I'm quite certain that she wouldn't have minded crow's feet or bad knees a bit if she had gotten to live another 20 years. It would be a betrayal of her if I didn't live joyously.
SA: In the introduction, you say that we've all done a pretty good job of becoming ourselves. Would you expand on this?
AQ: The older women I know are more confident, smarter, more connected to others. They don't give a damn what anyone thinks of them anymore. And they certainly have become unwilling to try to massage their characters into some universally accepted form. They are who they are. That's the best way to live.
SA: Does life really get better as we enter our fifties?
AQ: Sure. We no longer sweat the small stuff and, in the words of the aphorism, it's all small stuff. Our kids are usually launched. It can be very challenging, balancing their adult needs and the need sometimes to care for our ailing parents. And for those women who were quite invested in their appearance, that changing face in the mirror can require some getting used to. But when you compare it to the insecurities and self-flagellation of 25? No contest.
SA: You mention a magnet on your fridge that says "You're never too old ... to try something stupid." Have you heeded this advice?
AQ: I suspect my children would say I try something stupid nearly every day. (This month) I will tweet for the first time. That feels like a stupid thing to do. I stand on my head once a week. Pretty stupid. Actually, you could probably argue that building a rich career as a columnist, giving it up to become a novelist, then going back to nonfiction with a memoir is all kind of stupid. But who cares? I'm the boss of me now.
SA: What was the hardest part about turning 50 and now moving into 60?
AQ: Losing people. The older you get, the more memorial services you go to. There's no question that that's the hardest part of getting older. And that only gets worse, not better.
SA: What advice would you give someone who fears turning 50 or 60?
AQ: I would ask why? What's the real fear? Mortality? Depletion? Or have they bought into the fiction that youth is better? Except for the quality of her skin, I can't think of one thing I envy about my younger self. She was like a baby deer, so unsteady on her pins.
SA: How can someone reinvent themselves at 50 or 60?
AQ: The same way you do when you invent yourself at 25. Figure out what you want and how to get it. Be strategic and work hard.
SA: Do any of your children live with you?
AQ: Our three children have their own places here in New York, but they drop by often to use the free laundry facilities and to mooch off our Chinese takeout. This is just the way I like it, although I would like it better if they all still lived in this house. But since they are 28, 26 and 23, that would be kind of lame. For them.
SecondAct contributor Mia Geiger is a freelance writer in the Philadelphia area.