Even if you’re the most amateur of foodies, you are probably familiar with the term “reduction cooking”. This culinary technique involves simmering a liquid such as a stock or a sauce until its chemical composition has changed and its volume has been reduced. What is left in the bottom of the pan and does not boil away or evaporate becomes richer and more flavorful than its original composition or the sum of its parts.

In life, this process is not unlike “trial by fire.”

If my own chemical composition could be examined microscopically, I am certain it would look very different from how it appeared twenty years ago. It’s a time of stress and transition, these middle years. I have stood shoulder to shoulder with my women friends, as we have each come undone in our own ways. I have seen a friend who enjoyed nearly fifty years of a solid marriage watch it dissolve before her very eyes. Many of us have had health scares. Some have lost homes and incomes. We’ve lost parents to disease and old age and lost our children to everything from substance abuse and mental illness to simply growing up. The generation before us is thinning in numbers and we find ourselves emerging to the front of the line.

Our loss is not even limited to humans. We’ve had our pets now for fifteen or twenty years; even they are dying in droves. My Australian Schnauzer Shredder had a stroke last year and surgery this summer at age eighteen. In people years, he’s older than Rip Van Winkle. He can barely find his food in the bowl unless I shake  his aluminum doggie bowl. When I call his name, he looks in every direction except the one I am calling from. Since he has also lost the ability to alert me  when he needs to go outside to use the bathroom, I have begun laying down bath towels in his path, hoping I will fool him into thinking he is outside in the grass. My home looks and smells like it did when my son was a baby. The scent of chlorox permeates the air. Baby gates are secured in all the doorways and medicine droppers fill the kitchen windowsill.

During this time, we are often surprised to discover we lost ourselves along the way. We were just too busy to notice. I don’t have to tell you this is a scary place, but what I do want to assure you is that there is no need to be afraid.

This process of “trial by fire” has a secret and often overlooked component. In the midst of giving up so many false forms of security, we found surprising strength in places we didn’t even know we had. We have discovered an inner resilience. We still have the ability to learn and excel at new skills and have developed boundaries that let us take situations at face value without getting so personally involved. We have even found that stripped of much that we hold precious, we are still standing, only a little worse for wear. We’ve found support from all four corners of our lives because during those years we were serving on committees, dropping off food when someone was sick, babysitting a friend’s kid- we were really building relationships that have nothing to do with the business of life but everything to do with our own foundation.

Recently, I lamented to a friend my lack of feeling worthy to enter this new phase of life. I thought by now I’d have it all together. I thought my 401-K would have another digit. I thought I would have stayed a lifetime member of Weight Watchers. I thought I would have learned to wash the dishes as I go rather than letting them pile up in the sink. I thought I would floss my teeth every single night.

Somehow, I thought I would have accomplished so much more by now…
My friend says maybe we’re not supposed to grow up and become those older and wiser people we thought we were supposed to. Maybe we’re not supposed to grow old, but should aim to grow young. What if the secret to remaining vital is willing ourselves to stay vulnerable, to stay silly, to continue to love and have faith in the hard parts and to simply not take life too seriously? Maybe in our ideas about growing older, we have it all wrong?

I’ve seen a new beauty emerge in my friends. Not the same type of beauty as when we were younger with unblemished skin, flat tummies and breasts that didn’t sag. I am talking about a reduction cooking type of beauty. This is an essential and deeper kind of beauty that leaves behind the extraneous and radiates outward like a tree standing tall and strong in the forest, a weathered rock, the scent of fresh cucumber and grated ginger, a sunrise.

It’s a glow that comes from within. It has nothing, and everything, to do with the temperature.