Kim Severson has written for the New York Times since 2004. She is currently a national correspondent based in Atlanta where she lives with her partner and young daughter. She has won four James Beard awards for food writing, and her latest book is Spoon Fed: How Eight Cooks Saved My Life. We spoke in July of 2011, less than two months before Severson turned 50 on September 12, 2011.
I don’t think it hit me until maybe a couple years ago, and then I kind of put it away and it really has only been this year that the magnitude of that’s been apparent.
I haven’t had a birthday that’s felt this big ever. It’s reflective and it’s significant and it’s spiritual. And, boy, it is something. For me, it’s a big, big deal. And I’ll tell you the truth: I’m surprised that it’s such a big deal.
It bothers me a little bit, in like, God, I am old now. But more, it’s just the wonder of it. I mean, I feel like I have suddenly walked into a different body and a different life, to find myself at 50. I still think of myself as 25 and so I go, I’m 50? Wow. And there’s a certain freedom that comes with that, and a certain freaked-outedness.
I think there’s a real heft to it. There’s a real heft to it, and it really makes you think about what little time you have left. But on the one hand I’m like, Dang, I made it. I made it this far. I can’t believe it. And that’s kind of cool. And now that I’m 50 I don’t have to give a shit anymore. There’s a kind of a relief in that and there’s kind of an appreciation of all the things that I’ve done in my life to get here. And then there’s like, Wow, you better really make some choices that you care about. You know, whatever comes next, those choices matter and you better be picking things that are significant to you. So there’s that sense of time speeding up, but there’s also a great amount of acceptance and kind of wonder at it all.
It may not be the day that matters as much. I think it’s more about the run-up to it that’s more significant this time around. You know, it’s the contemplation versus the actual day.
I got on my high school newspaper and then I was pretty much off to the races. But I had two older brothers and early on I learned the value of telling on them as a place of power in my family, and so I was pretty well set to be a newspaper reporter.
I’m three credits away from a college degree, and I had always wished that I had paid more attention to my education. I really wish I had pursued that. I wish that I had spent more time learning.
On September 11th I was in line at the San Francisco airport with my partner. We were getting on a plane. I was going to wake up and turn 40 in Italy, where my grandmother’s from. And my mother was supposed to be getting on a plane in Denver, my brother was already in Italy and we had aunts who were coming in from another part of the country. And so on September 11th I was very excited. I was getting on a plane to go to Italy, and we were going to fly overnight. And I had this whole idea that the first piece of earth I would step on when I was 40 was going to be Italian soil. And, you know, on September 11th, we know what happened. They shut the airport down, and I had to stay there and report for the rest of the day for the San Francisco Chronicle and we ended up, I think after a couple days, driving down to Ojai and kind of trying to go to a spa or something to celebrate, and it just was, you know, a bunch of rich people in bathrobes watching CNN. And it was quite grim obviously. That was my 40th birthday.
I had a dog killed on one of my birthdays when I was kid. I can’t remember if it was my 9th or 10th birthday, but my dog got hit by a car in front of me. I talk about it, but on my birthday it’s not like, Oh, this was the day when that happened. That doesn’t necessarily come up on my birthday, but it definitely comes up. It doesn’t haunt my birthday anymore.
I guess it’s more about trying to cut out stuff that doesn’t matter more than adding things. I mean, I feel like the work now is so much more internal than external. I certainly want to get more out of the things I do. I’m trying to pay more attention to the joy of every day and of the moment than trying to pick things off a list that I feel I need to get done. I feel like I’ve spent a lot of years trying to accomplish things and get things squared away in my life, and now I feel like I need to really spend some time being present in my life. That’s what I feel like I’ve missed in the last 50 years. It sounds a little metaphysical and voodoo, but for me it’s continuing more of a seeking a spiritual path and a spiritual center and understanding. I mean, that’s a big piece now. That looks way different now than it ever did in my life. And also making sure whatever I do I’m really, really having fun and doing what I want to do.
I’m letting go of the supposed to part. I feel largely like I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing in terms of my work, and I think somehow I got this gift of a three-year-old and that feels pretty significant. And I feel like I can show up for my family and other people, so all those things feel like I’m doing what I think is what I want to be doing. But there are a lot of shoulds I’m trying to let go of. You know, you get nervous. Like, what’s the secure choice? What’s the right choice? What’s the obligation choice? And I think I need to shed some of that.
I think it’s a matter of inner happiness. I hate that whole Follow your bliss, but following one’s own heart. And for me it’s been a process of trying to rediscover my heart and rediscover what matters to me and not what I think I ought to be doing or what my obligations were in society. It’s about getting back to kind of a more innocent part of myself and to what makes me happy. And that may have to do with better or different sex or it may have to do with different kind of work or it may have to do with spending my time differently. But it’s something about letting go. You know, stop hauling that big bag of obligation that one has hauled one’s whole life and let go of some of those ideas that what’s in that bag is what’s going to make you happy. And mid-life crisis, for me, is just about trying to get back to my heart and trying to get back to what matters for me.
I am probably in the middle of a mid-life crisis right now. I think the cliché of the sports car and, you know, the twenty-year-old wife is certainly a male focus, but let me tell you, I’ve talked to more friends who are my age who are really rethinking a lot of what they thought they should be doing, rethinking what matters. Some of them are deciding to stay put. Some of them are making really radical changes. But I am here to tell you, a mid-life crisis is part of the sisterhood as well. I can’t tell you how many women I know who came to some kind of something at this age in their life and saw a clear choice of one path or the other and took it. Or didn’t.
I think I realized I was going to turn 50, and then it occurred to me that I was in a mid-life crisis. I think that’s it. And this is the other thing: this is about the age when women either start to go through or are completing menopause, you know, the sort of 48 to 52 range. That’s huge. It’s a huge change for women in terms of sexuality and in terms of the end of those fertile years, and that sure gives a girl pause. That’s a big piece of this for a lot of women.
I think there is something to that, like, Boy, I’m not getting any younger. I mean, I think, like, This might be the last year I play softball or, you know, I’m never really going to run a marathon. But I also think you have to just accept where you are because whining’s not going to bring it back, so you might as well get on with it. I still think I’m in a little bit of a denial about how little I can really do with my body.
I play these gals and some of them are in leagues that are really great, competitive, like the kind of ball I used to want to play, and I just can’t do it. I’m now like the kind of liability old lady on the team, you know. I mean, my mental game’s good but my physical game just isn’t there. I can’t play with the young kids anymore. I just can’t do it. I’ve got to find one of the older ladies leagues, or I’m going to have to start coaching pretty soon.
I used to look in the newspaper sometimes at birthdays of famous people, and I always thought, Well, okay, you know, so and so’s only 47. I’m not that old yet. So and so’s only 46. I’m not that old yet. So I used to pride myself on at least being in the middle of the pack of the list of famous people whose birthday it was, and now I’m one of those old people.
You know, we’re at the age where our parents are dying, and obviously, you know, we’re going to die, but I just don’t think, like, Oh my God, I’m going to die, because I pretty much get that’s going to happen. I’m not scared of death or worried about death, but I do think about being in the wonder of what comes next and being in the wonder of the cycle of life from childhood to old age. I sure have thought about that a lot more.
I have not had a lot of deaths of people my own age around me. I did have a really good friend of mine in Alaska who died a couple of years ago. It was pretty shocking. And she didn’t die a very pretty death, so, you know, that makes you pause.
I don’t know why people die and the more I try to think about that the worse off I am, so I don’t really look at it like, Oh, why them and why not me? With this woman, she died of drugs and alcohol, and so I do think about Why did I stop? Why could I stop and why couldn’t she? And that certainly gave me pause. But in the cosmic sense, like, Why is God picking this person and not me? I’ve been perfectly happy to let that be a mystery and just trust that somebody else is in charge.
I didn’t think I’d make it to 50 to be quite frank with you. I remember when my older brother turned 50. I thought, Jeez, that’s crazy, but, you know, he’s not that much older than me. But I thought, 50? I said that to my mom the other day. I said, “I’m going to be 50. You have a daughter who’s 50.” She said, “Oh my God, I can’t believe that. You’re not going to be 50.” And pretty much I am. And, you know, it’s just remarkable.
I know that you usually get more out of giving to someone than taking. I know that acceptance is the key to my happiness. I know that if you just sit around for a little while whatever’s going on will change; it’s not the end of the world. I know that feelings are not facts. I know that it’s worth it to go out of your way to eat better food. I know that it’s not a good idea for me to drink. I know that my parents did the best they could.
I really believe we’re all going to be all right.