Midlife is a collection of stories from University of Alberta alumni.
By Eliza Barlow | April 19, 2021
In the movie Friends with Money, the character Jane, 43, is so depressed she can’t wash her hair, and gets kicked out of Old Navy after objecting to someone who cut in line. Her husband asks what’s going on.
“I feel like there’s no more wondering what it’s gonna be like,” she says.
“Like what’s gonna be like?” he asks.
“My fabulous life,” she replies.
When that movie came out in 2006, a group of friends who used to work for the University of Alberta’s The Gateway newspaper were venturing into adulthood. Some – like Sarah Chan and Don Iveson, Jhenifer Pabillano and David Zeibin, and Leanne Brown and Dan Lazin – would marry. Many have kept in touch. Like Jane, they’ve found life has brought some fabulousness, certainly, but also lashings of pain, anguish and heartbreak, and a generous helping of angst.
Together they’ve published Midlife, an anthology of their reflections on reaching middle age.
“The goal was to reconnect – to ourselves as creatives and to each other as friends,” says Chan, 40, who dreamed up the idea for the book in the depths of COVID-imposed isolation last winter.
“People have gone all over the world, they’ve fulfilled their dreams, they’ve gone to Oxford, they’ve become the mayor, they’re all leading pretty heavy duty jobs and they’re people of significance and success in the world. But we’ve all been spread across the globe, and so it was nice to be able to reconnect and also acknowledge the relationship and bond we had 20 years ago.”
For Pabillano, 39, the project filled a gap she’s been aware of – a lack of writing about the particular experience of reaching midlife in Canada at this point in history.
“It felt like we were at a point in our lives where you’ve accumulated things to say and I wanted to hear them, and I wanted to also try my hand at saying some of them,” says Pabillano, who co-edited the project and writes in the book about the transformative experience of pregnancy.
“The work is genuinely good writing, really touching and funny, and a great snapshot of what life is like in Canada, at midlife, in 2021,” says Pabillano.
Chan writes about her tumultuous relationship with her mother, who would tell Chan to “go die” when she was a child.
“Shaped by Mom’s criticisms, I overachieved to avoid being unlovable,” Chan writes. “Don’t be stupid, ugly, fat, inefficient, or useless. Most of all, don’t be useless. These expectations were reinforced through exhaustive reminders and routine belittling. Bad performance, which I now realize is relative, resulted in being hit, threatened, insulted, or made fun of. I was supposed to know things without being shown. It wasn’t fair, but I taught myself anyway, and have since become incredibly capable. Now it’s my gift and my curse.”
Chan also touches on a personal trauma in 2019. “Grieving shattered trust” led to a breakdown during which she lost 20 pounds and most of her hair, and had recurring nightmares.
In an interview, Chan doesn’t say what actually happened, but explains that it led to her being invited – out of pity – on a trip with her mom and sister for the first time. It ended up being an empowering journey.
“A lot of the people who have read it so far are really focused on the pain part of the essay,” she says, adding readers have asked her who the story is really about.
“The story is about me, and at the end, that’s the whole point. It doesn’t matter who did and who didn’t (…) the story is ultimately about growth and healing.”
Other selections in Midlife deal with miscarriage, divorce, living single, the terminal illness of a parent, child-rearing and intentional childlessness.
Iveson, Edmonton’s mayor since 2013, writes how his fears over climate change almost pushed him not to have children. But he decided having kids was “like going all in, rather than placing small bets on an uncertain future.” He now has two children with Chan.
Other essays in the book reflect on getting old, and cranky.
“God, let me not turn into yet another old white grumpus,” Lazin writes.
Many include references those who came of age around the same time will appreciate – crying while watching Bridget Jones’s Diary in a mall theatre, working at Blockbuster Video, the dashed hopes of Edmonton Oilers fans after the team’s failed 2006 Stanley Cup playoff run. Many contemporaries will relate to the particular smell of Badass Jack’s barbecue sauce.
But can the book find appeal beyond fortysomethings who once wrote for The Gateway?
Pabillano admits the primary audience is likely people who knew and read The Gateway in the early 2000s, but believes it will resonate with everyone facing midlife, and perhaps older and younger generations, too.
“We sort of intended this to be a gift to ourselves, but now that we’ve started sharing it with people, the experiences we talk about, they’re extremely human, they’re so timeless, they’re just things that you experience at this stage of life, even though the context around you changes – like, people were turning 40 in 1970.
“Those feelings of, ‘Where am I in my life, what am I doing now,’ those have existed over time, and what I’m seeing is there’s a real resonance for anybody our age who is entering this kind of mushy middle of life, where the goal posts aren’t clear anymore.”
Midlife is available in a limited edition print run, or as an e-book, at midlifebook.ca.