I Wish I Knew Then What I Know Now

Prevention Magazine . March, 2006
What I’ve learned about men, friends, and the benefits of small breasts

Last October, as my husband, Gordon, and I were hiking a trail near Aspen, CO, my biological clock struck 60. No alarm went off; instead, I heard a voice in my head saying: Life gets really good just when the end starts to come into view. You wise up in ways that weren’t possible when you were younger, simply because you have greater perspective.

And the wisdom of age can be pretty quirky. My mother, for example, always told me to be grateful that I had small breasts. I couldn’t imagine why; to say I’m a B cup is being generous. But at 60, I’ve realized that the gravity-defying power of minute mammaries is awesome. Ditto the wrinkle-resistant qualities of the oily, blemish-prone skin I once lamented.

What follows are other bits of unexpected wisdom that have come with age. Here’s hoping they give you a lot to look forward to.

You Can Have More Than One Soul Mate

I was 15 when I met the teenager who would eventually become my first husband. Based on what seemed like years of romantic experience, I was convinced that we were soul mates for life. Despite big obstacles (called parents), we married when he was a 20-year-old in college and I was a 21-year-old grad student. Barely out of adolescence, we were sure we knew everything about marriage and that love would prevail.

It didn’t, and we parted company in a few years. I was devastated and confused: How could soul mates fall out of love? But our brief union taught me that every person with whom we share deep love or loss is a soul mate, because each one teaches us something important about ourselves. Without our first soul mates, Gordon and I wouldn’t have the depth that makes our marriage such a grace. Are we soul mates, too? You bet. And we bow to the ones who came before. They helped us prepare the sacred ground on which we now stand together.

Men May Come and Go, But Girlfriends Stay Forever

I was at a 5-day conference with my good friend Beverly, who was single and looking. An amazing thing happened: She met a wonderful man on the very first day. The only problem was that they lived on opposite sides of the country. On the final evening of the conference, Bev and I had planned to dine together. I assumed that our plans had been trumped by romantic destiny, but she surprised and delighted me by keeping our date.

Her wisdom is well worth adopting. She said: “I’ve learned never to stand up a friend for a guy, Joanie. Men may come and go, but ‘the Girlfriends’ stay forever.”

She and her beau had a yearlong cross-country relationship. I was by her side through the excitement and the eventual breakup. Friends stick together. They’re the connective tissue of life—cherish them.

All Women Are Beautiful, So Enjoy What You Have

Though a healthful diet and a lifetime of exercise (sometimes consisting of dashing through the airport with a suitcase in each hand) have kept me in decent shape, the bloom of youth has been replaced by the bloom of blush. I won’t tell you what I look like without clothes. Suffice it to say that my skin could use a good ironing.

Yet when my age slips out at lectures or workshops, the audience usually responds with a round of applause. What a trip! It makes me wish I hadn’t spent my younger years judging my body so harshly and going nuts if I gained 5 pounds. I didn’t realize how good I had it. My advice to younger women is this: Whatever your body looks like now, celebrate it. You’re much more beautiful than you know.

Meaningful Work Is Never Wasted

In my 20s and early 30s, I was a cancer cell biologist and an assistant professor at a medical school. That career took a lot of training and sacrifice—4 1/2 years to get my Harvard doctorate and then 2 more of postdoctoral study and research. But after 6 years in the lab, I yearned to work with people instead of petri dishes and decided to retrain as a psychologist. Some folks thought I was crazy to “waste” my valuable scientific training. But trust me, nothing is ever wasted.

Anything you’ve loved and worked at becomes an integral part of who you are. Without my scientific training, I couldn’t have become a medical psychologist specializing in the mind-body connection. I’ve worked as a teacher, writer, researcher, and columnist; I’ve founded an institute that trains spiritual mentors; I’ve been a mother, wife, chief cook, and bottle washer. In my next act, I’ll be hosting a radio show and possibly even a TV show. I can’t even imagine what comes after that. But everything I know, and all that I am, has gone with me into each new career.

Reinventing yourself is such fun. Don’t ever stop doing it.

An Empty Nest Can Give You Wings

I absolutely adore my children. But raising Justin and Andrei as a working mother was incredibly stressful as well as joyful. I’m glad to be on my own again while I’m still young enough to enjoy it. I know some women worry that they will be overcome with loss when their kids leave home, but an empty nest is truly a beautiful thing. You’ve created a family and given them wings. I love the wings part. Now that the kids have nests of their own, I get to love and be loved without the cleanup. The moral of this story? Aging is awesome. Particularly considering the alternative.

Tips for Owning Your Wisdom

  • Applaud your mentors. Think of an important bit of wisdom you heard from an older woman and then write her a thank-you note.
  • Choose something about your body that you don’t like (remember my small breasts and oily skin?) and imagine some way that it’ll serve you as you age.
  • Look forward to being a grandparent. If your kids are making a mess and driving you crazy, the sweetest revenge may be the fantasy of giving their children a gift of a 100-piece box of Tinkertoys. That time will come sooner than you think. So try to relax and enjoy the kids, mess and all.

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