THE CHAIN THAT SET ME FREE

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I turned 50 last week, and when friends ask the inevitable, “How are you coping?” I can’t help thinking that I started to embrace my new age about a year ago, with the purchase of an unlikely accessory.

“You look like an old lady,” my son said.

“Hmmm. Not sure,” my fashion-conscious daughter cocked her head.
My husband rolled his eyes, and my therapist said this new addition “makes you look a little kooky—in a good way,” he hastened to add.

Strangers looked at me trying to see if the beads hanging alongside my cheeks were retro dangly earrings or what they really were: part of an eyeglass chain.

“It’s septuagenarian chic!” I told my friends. But my main motive for purchasing this accessory was practical. My glasses no longer worked for reading or for my hours in front of the computer. In taking my glasses off several times a day, I was spending more and more time in frantic, panicked searches for them. When you’re nearing 50, your reading vision goes, but certain things become clear:
You can’t spare an hour a week to look for lost things.

You can’t waste time finishing books that are just so-so.

You can’t afford to spend time with “friends” who try your patience.
And you need to make peace with who you are, in all your flawed glory.
About a week before I bought the eyeglass chain, I got new glasses. It had been more than 10 years since I’d had an update. While I religiously got my eyes checked, I kept stuffing the hieroglyphic prescriptions in my purse and tossing them out with old receipts. All the while my eyesight gradually worsened, and my lenses got progressively more scratched. My therapist was a smart guy who knew I loved a good metaphor. He thought it was no coincidence that I finally got my new specs as we were nearing the end of our work together, as the tendency to hold tight to one’s handicaps is strong. He showed me how perversely unsettled I could be when things went well and that I had spent years throwing obstacles in my path. It’s no coincidence, he thought, that I had been more at home with my scratched, imperfect vision and that finally I was ready “to see.”

Well almost. When I put on these new glasses and looked in the mirror, I was stricken by my appearance. What had been blurred by my constantly taking the glasses off or glimpsing myself through the wrong prescription and scratched lenses was suddenly all too clear: the dark wrinkles under the eyes, the receding chin with its flabby wattle beneath, the feathery wrinkles going up the neck, age spots on the forehead, recalcitrant black bristles above my upper lip. When I had last gotten my old glasses it was 1997 and I was trying desperately to conceive a second child. Now that child is 9, and I’m in menopause. My 13-year-old is moving beyond my grasp. I can see time both dwindling to a point—my children’s eventual departure—and expanding to contain this more assured self. I’m doing the writing that I want to do, not just what employers pay me to write. I feel more at peace with my own limitations…such as the fact that I am too cheap and vain to purchase expensive progressive lenses. With their graduated prescription, you must look ahead to see distance and look down in order to read, a posture that accentuates that receding double chin.

I thought on one hand of the few bold, bookish women I had seen sporting eyeglass chains, and on the other hand of my favorite British expression—“mutton dressed as lamb.” My husband says it when we see women “of a certain age” wear tummy-baring tops, exposed thongs or too-short skirts. The glasses chain signals mutton dressed as mutton. I liked the notion of giving in to my aging face, but not to that extent. After a few months of the eyeglass chain, thankfully my children gave me a different eyeglass holder, a pretty beaded necklace with a single loop in which you can hang your glasses. When I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror I like the way my glasses swing from my chest like a scholarly pendulum, leaving my face—wrinkles and all—free.

But at 50, I’m more engaged in using my eyes to look at something besides the mirror, which doesn’t reflect the core of who I am now: the mind, less fettered by anxieties, crackling with curiosity and enthusiasms. With my new glasses I became amazed at the world’s sharp edges, varied textures and surfaces. From my seat on a crowded city bus, the colorful jumble of bodegas, shoe repair shops and building facades comes into sharp focus. And with my glasses dangling from the loop around my neck, I can move deftly between the two worlds I love: the one around me and the world conjured up on the page.

Nancy J. Brandwein, a West Sider and freelance writer, contributes occasional essays and her weekly “Snack Attack” column to West Side Spirit. Her essays have also been published by The New York Times, Brain, Child and Insideschools.org

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