A few weeks into quarantine, Claire Bruining picked up a box of hair dye sitting on her bathroom sink when she had a sudden thought: Wait. Why do I care if my hair is gray? Who is going to care?
The 43-year-old event planner mentally ticked off a list of celebrities, strong, beautiful women who rocked their whites and grays, and her mind flashed to Whoopi Goldberg’s striking white locs. Then she put the box back on the sink (where it’s been ever since). She also stopped wearing makeup during Zoom calls, stopped shaving her legs, and embraced the “come as you are” aesthetic. One coworker wrote to ask her what she’d been doing differently, and said that she looked “stunning.”
She laughed, “I spent all this time worrying about my appearance, and then I do nothing, and everybody thinks I look great. I thought, ‘Okay, we’re going to go with this.’”
Bruining says she also felt a new sense of empowerment and self-trust; she felt more at ease calling the shots. After a few months, her daring grew in new directions: in September, she launched an online arts and crafts business, which is both a passion project and way less taxing than event planning, with its frequent 20-hour workdays. “I feel more liberated,” she says. “[I’m] being truer to my own needs instead of everyone else’s.”
For many Gen Xers like Bruining, COVID-19 has been a kick in the ass to ditch keeping up appearances, both literally and metaphorically, whether it’s proudly owning gray roots on Instagram (#grombre), or bailing on an unfulfilling career path.
Enter the Age of IDGAF
“Getting older and giving less fucks” was definitely on a lot of folks’ 2020 bingo cards. The disruption of the pandemic provided a reason to pull life’s emergency exit lever mid-flight, to slide down the inflatable ramp and escape choices that had been made on autopilot.
Austin-based designer David Cajolet, 52, made an unexpected U-turn: deciding to become a father. In his 20s and 30s, Cajolet always assumed he’d be a father. But in his 40s, disheartened after a divorce, Cajolet came to grips with not having a child. Eventually, he even counted the silver linings: with no kids, he could easily maintain his independent, active lifestyle, two-stepping and swing dancing around town and engaging in extreme sports like rock climbing. He didn’t have to worry about being an older father with less energy for late-night bottle feedings or strategize about paying for college. He was good.
Then, four years ago at a honky-tonk, he met Elona Rose, 34, now his partner, whose daughter was then two years old. He was impressed by Rose’s mothering and knew that she was very open to having another child, but Cajolet didn’t want to go there. Very happy together, the trio enjoyed their unconventional family unit, living separately, with Rose playfully referring to Cajolet as “the Dad guy.”
During the pandemic, Cajolet’s design work slowed down. In the lull, he built a chicken coop for Rose in her backyard, along with a wooden swing for her daughter. His quarantine handiwork received gangbusters accolades on social media, and he wound up building nine more coops, happy “to meet Austin’s homesteading craze,” as he puts it. Spending hours outside working with his hands, Cajolet had headspace to ponder what really mattered to him, self-reflection that had begun after the death of his mother in 2019. The dawning realization? That “there was a lot of comfort and reassurance in the tenderness of family life,” he says.
So, in the midst of the pandemic, Cajolet surprised Rose on a Friday afternoon date, overlooking picturesque Lake Travis, and said, “I’m ready. I want to have a child with you.” They agreed to try and, if she got pregnant, to continue to live apart, for now. “Elona helped me let go of norms and expectations about what a traditional family structure looks like. The situation we have is working,” he says.
And a few weeks later, Rose was pregnant.
Cajolet says that the experience has led him to trust life more, embracing aging and his place in the continuum of life, adding that, to become a parent, “I had to let go of the idea of age as a restriction.”
Letting go has been the theme of 2020 for Dora Fang, 45. In July, Fang, a business consultant, found herself idle in her San Francisco apartment, unemployed and worried about her parents in their assisted living facility in Southern California. A typical quarantine day for her involved staying in bed, eating cookies, and doomscrolling.
Then, she stumbled upon an article about dark-sky stargazing — which sparked an idea, or a memory, or both. In her 20s, Fang had lived an entirely different kind of life, running an adventure company. In fact, she still had her seven-foot yellow jeep and adventure gear in Utah, where she owns a home. In mid-July, she left California with her dog to swap out her cars and go camping. She told her roommate she’d be back in a few weeks — and hasn’t been home since.
From July through October, she explored places like Glacier National Park in Montana, Yellowstone in Wyoming, and Craters of the Moon in Idaho, often staying in dispersed sites (public land outside of designated campsites), where she was mostly remote and alone Her first night in Idaho, she told friends that the experience was like “sleeping in a bowl of sparkles.” Fang felt way happier than she had in a long time (and certainly more peaceful than her doomscrolling days).
Figuring out logistics, like food, water, and shelter reacquainted her with her inner badass. Also badass was her oh-so bubbly reply to anyone who asked if she was alone, “Yup! Just me, my dog, and my Glock.” (Translation: Don’t fuck with me, kthxbye.) She also found peace in solitude, a stark contrast to the persistent hum of low-grade panic she had felt back home. “This whole experience has allowed me to become more comfortable alone and in silence, for the first time,” she explains. “And I’m someone who used to be a super-active, activity-based, off-the-charts extrovert.”
“The longer and more unusual this trip became, the more freeing it was for me,” she says, while also acknowledging her good fortune in being financially able to take this trip (she has been living off of rental income from her property in Utah, as well as a home in San Francisco). Fang is now considering selling her San Francisco home and choosing this freer, open-road life in the West permanently. In what could be the year’s COVID-inspired Gen X motto, she says of her adventure, “People think it’s interesting or crazy, but this is what makes me happy.”
In the early days of her camping tour, when she was stopping at various public libraries to diligently search for jobs back in San Fran, she worried about how to explain this wilderness walkabout to future employers. Eventually? She got to this: I don’t have to explain myself.
Call it the COVID effect: in the midst of this world-on-pause uncertainty, many Gen Xers were sped along to embrace that key internal wisdom as to what — or who — they really wanted to be, no longer needing to wait for an arbitrary mark of even-older age to set themselves free.
Next For X, sponsored by #disruptaging
You might also like:
4 Inspirational Books About Aging, Loving, Reinvention, and Living Well [AARP];
Going Gray, All the Way
Tell us in the comments: How are YOU embracing your age?