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I went to T.J. Maxx the other day, the store that offers designer clothing for substantial savings. I’m not wild about T.J. Maxx, because it’s big and chaotic, filled with abandoned carts and endless racks of clothing sliding halfway off their hangers. Plus, there’s no one to help me decide what I should buy. I’m forced to trust my instincts. But I had a gift card and was feeling sturdy, so off I went.

The Challenge

I need some clothes for a meeting in NYC with The Moth, where I’ll be one of three performers training corporate executives how to tell stories. I’ll just be observing, but it’s my first meeting and I want to make a good impression — to look creative and confident, a perfect blend of business and the arts. I’ve spent the last 20 years trying to blend my business self and my artist self into one authentic, integrated self and there’s no place where that battle rages more openly than in my wardrobe. Finding my authentic self is hard; dressing it is exhausting.

Lately, though, shopping’s been easier. As I get older I know more about who I am and what I want. I’m actually starting to trust my instincts, both in fashion and in life. But I still need the occasional push out of my comfort zone, some reassurance around more adventurous choices. Plus, I live in New Hampshire — described by a close friend as a “fashion-free state” — so I’m often clueless about the latest trends (although I hear L.L. Bean flannel does have a timeless quality).

The Doubt Begins

I’m standing in the T.J. Maxx dressing room, looking at myself in the mirror, thinking the well-priced dress I’ve chosen is the perfect blend of artsy and corporate. At last! My integrated self made manifest. I can really trust my instincts. Then, I start to second-guess myself; the doubts creep in. Is this dress too young looking for me?

I need someone to validate my choice, so I ask the T.J. Maxx girl in charge of the dressing room for her opinion. She’s about 18 years old and I think, she’s perfect. A young woman who knows what’s in and what’s out. She’ll help me make an appropriate but bold fashion choice for my meeting. I ask her, “Do you think this dress looks too young for me?”

“Not at all,” she says.  “I think it looks great on you.”

Score one for my instincts! Then I think, wait, she doesn’t know how old I am. She needs to know how old I am to really know whether this dress is too young for me. At a Christmas party this past December I was told I look 35 (which had me riding high for days, I’ll admit). If the T.J. Maxx girl thinks I’m 35, her whole point of reference is wrong. She needs to know I’m 51.

The Moment of Truth

So I ask the aforementioned 18-year-old T.J. Maxx girl, “How old do you think I am?” She says, “I dunno, 60?”

She actually said the number 60.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with being 60, of course, unless you’re 51, and your ego is expecting an answer of around 35 or 40. I’m thrown way off balance. Then I think about it. I know I look like a lot of things — for instance, a lot closer to 51 then 35 — but I’m pretty sure that age 60 is not one of them, even if it is winter in New Hampshire and the wood stove can make my skin look like those old women carved out of apples.

I self-correct and right myself. The issue here is one of perspective. It reminds me of when my husband — who has no sense of time or weight — was buying me a pair of snowshoes. When the sales person asked him how much I weighed, he said, “I don’t know, about 150 pounds?” Now, there’s nothing wrong with weighing 150 pounds, of course,  unless you weigh 125, and you know that soon enough you’ll be overweight, and you’d like to get some credit for being in good shape while you can.

It’s Not Over Till It’s Over

To this young woman, and many others of her generation, the concept of age is baffling. Life after 30 is a wasteland, so you might as well be 60, and leading a middle-aged life of limited expectations. A dear friend who’s in her mid-50s and boasts the body of a very fit 30-year-old was recently buying a pair of fashionable skinny jeans. The 20-something sales girl said, “Wow! I didn’t think you would look so great in those!” Several years ago, as a mature art school student, I had an 18-year-old classmate respond to my paintings by saying, “Don’t you think those images are just a little too phallic for you?” as if now, in mid-life, sex was a thing of my past.

I thank the T.J. Maxx girl for her help, trust my instincts, and buy the dress. By all accounts, I look creative and confident, and make a good first impression. Hey, I may be 51, but I am just getting started.

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