Middle Distance: On Turning 40 and Being a Late Bloomer
I caught the phrase "middle distance" in the breeze the other day on Seven Mile Hill. It whirled around my head as I traversed a lightly-worn path up a high desert ridge which was carved 10,000 years ago during a flood event that shaped most of Northern Oregon and Southern Washington.
As I rose from the trailhead near the valley floor, the middle distance, and those words, revealed themselves to me. As I pulled out my camera and shifted my focus from the textures of the grasses and yarrows underfoot to the folds of the hills layered upon layers along the horizon, I thought about what was being exposed as my perspective lifted higher and higher.
From the road, the hills above looked monolithic, uniform and smooth. From the trailhead the distance was difficult to gauge. While in a valley, vision is limited - how would I know that Mt. Hood lies due south, ringed in clouds heavily laden with rain and storm, while the skies above were cloudless and blue and hot? I couldn't judge how steep the path would be until I was on it; how slow-going and small my steps would become as the simple rhythm of hiking in the late spring/early summer heat took me up, up, up in a sweat of near heat exhaustion. I didn't even believe how steep it really was while on that uphill climb, believing instead that my legs and lungs and heart are simply not strong enough for the task. It wasn't until I returned downhill and I leaned a little into the land to keep balance that I understood what I just climbed up.
Balsamroot and lupine bloom in masses like licking flames of color along these hills in early April, but I was there on my birthday in late May. I'd been told that the balsamroot was faded and finished, that the lupine might still be in bloom, however. At the trailhead blue coneflowers dotted the grassy hillside, and yarrow poked through in tender white bunches. A rattlesnake sunned itself across the path. A faded balsamroot flower hung on here and there in isolated bunches.
HIgher on the hill, however, the balsamroot flourished, blooming at higher elevation, sharing the landscape with the purple lupine, mountain strawberry, and wild cucumber. The reward for keeping forward, climbing, reaching for that view of the middle distance. And there I was, hanging out with the late bloomers on my 40th birthday.
The middle distance is not really a thing, though, I suppose. The middle is a moving target, a concept that shifts as your perspective changes. When you reach the top of the ridge, there is the other side to explore, the midpoint between the top of the hill and the bottom being only a temporary way post.
40 was once considered middle aged, and if I were to live to be 80 that would certainly be a true designation. But none of us know how many more days, weeks, years we have and which is our particular middle notch on the slide rule. All I can know is how I look at where I've come from, and how I see what I see from my perspective; on the valley floor, from the middle of the hill, from the ridge line, from the desk where I sit looking out at my back yard while I write.
The only way that age has been relevant to me recently has been in relation to my thoughts on my career, my process of self-discovery, and my changing perspective about what is both meaningful and lucrative (financially and emotionally) in my work and life. I recently discovered the artist Lisa Congdon who writes honestly about age and being a late bloomer on her blog. To hear her say "I am in the same place in my career that some illustrators are when they are 30" while also seeing her meteoric rise as a successful commercial artist feels important for me to hear, for anyone to hear. I've always been a huge advocate for development, allowing work to take the time it takes, while at the same time having difficulty putting that into practice or appreciating how my own process has fit into that metric. The middle distance is not a static focal point.
And it's nice to know that the balsamroot is still in bloom at the top of the hill while the coneflower blossoms are showing off down below.