Some of my friends cringe as they near 50; others believe their eighties are their best decade.
For me, that magical threshold has always been 65, the ‘before and after’ dividing line, the day I become… someone else. The beginning of the end. Aches and pains. Pensions and discounts. Winding down. Becoming invisible.
So I approached 65 earlier this month with trepidation tinged with dread, expecting the world to split me off from my tribe and hurl me into that strange, unknown land called “seniors”. I prepared to fight this course correction with all my might, not because I don’t want to get old, but because I don’t want to be treated as old.
I waited and worried. Would my dogs stop barging into me, scared I might break? Would they even recognize me? Would middle-aged men relinquish their seats on the bus?
Obviously I had fallen victim to my own stereotypes – oddly so, since most of the women in my family were energetically flying around the world well into their eighties.
But it was a major milestone and some stocktaking seemed in order.
What I sensed was a life fully lived. A bit nomadically perhaps, with many childhood moves across oceans and grown-up changes in profession, but a life blessed by loving friendships and family and the freedom to make choices. As a writer, a journalist, a communicator and a development aid worker, I found my slot each time. I had access, opportunity and luck. (Except perhaps that one time during a journalists’ strike when I sold toilet seats in a commercial fair for several months.)
I went and saw the world, 86 countries of it (101 to go). I wrote about the places and people and documented their health and rights and, often, the disappearance of their traditions. I tried – and often failed to understand why some had so much and others so little.
I wandered, restless, but not discontented.
Each experience added to my list of joys and regrets, my major regret being a lack of “belonging”. Having greater stability and putting down some early roots might have anchored me more and given me a sense of place.
But then, I might not have quit my life as I knew it at 43 to backpack around the world. I might not have lost myself in the Amazon, fearing I’d never find my way out, or driven into a Mozambican minefield and tasted death. I would not have dined with royalty in the Emirates, a self-confident woman for once at a total loss about what to do or say. I might not have skimmed the Mediterranean in a helicopter to reach Beirut at the height of the war, seeing first-hand what happens when people hate one another to the point of killing yet find it in themselves to share small acts of kindness in the midst of horror. Nor would I have interviewed presidents and farmers, slept in silk sheets and in mud huts (not on the same trip) or eaten things I’d prefer not to identify.
Most of all, I would not have understood the extreme privilege I enjoyed, nor made a conscious decision to learn and write about the majority of people who did not.
But yes, life would have been different. I would have had dozens of friends from childhood, with whom I could recall kindergarten pranks and first loves. I wouldn’t panic when people ask me where I’m from, and I’d be able to point to a city, a street even, as my home.
Instead, I had to wait until my 50s for that stability, for the half-finished rural French farmhouse, a beloved partner, cats and dogs and home-grown watermelons and freshly cut grass. It was worth the wait, although I could have started sooner.
My life hasn’t dramatically changed. I still travel plenty, and I live near several of my favorite cities: Lyon, Geneva, Annecy. I’m 45 minutes from an airport that can take me anywhere. But now, when I travel, I can come home, because I have one. I never knew how important that was.
Had I flown off to another planet 40 years ago and returned today, I might not recognize the world – cell phones, computers, information overload, government by social media (and its creeping incivility), bloated political egos, leadership by greed and pettiness and the shifting sands of our human rights. Sometimes I cheer our advances, other times I despair at our short-sightedness. Some say the traits I deplore have always been around and that we just have faster communication these days. I’m not sure I agree – being online has somehow given people licence to be despicable.
It’s not just the world but I’ve changed too, as we all do. I’m less bothered by little things, and I can stand back with a certain amount of perspective and know that whatever it is, this, too, will pass. Granted, I no longer leap lightly down the stairs (I’m not sure I ever did, actually). I avoid dorm rooms and party hostels, and spring for a nice hotel instead. And the ‘iron stomach’ I could boast about a decade ago is no longer as accepting of chillies and tabasco.
But major shifts and awakenings? No, not yet. Just many snippets of joy at friends from around the world who called to wish me Happy Birthday or who messaged me, as it’s done these days.
Scrape a little and I’m the same person I’ve always been. I’m still noisy and impatient and interrupt people when they talk, and the words ‘road trip’ have me grabbing my keys and running out the door with dogs in tow. And I still write.
The fact that I semi-expected a major shift at 65 shows I’m as easily influenced by my environment as anyone else. Thinking it through in writing allows me to change the way I see things when I need to. Whereas I’m usually too busy living to reflect, these moments allow me to question and reframe. I don’t want to be so taken with ‘life experiences’ that I end up missing the journey.
Still, time flies, and that’s the biggest change of all. I once waited interminably for birthdays. Now, they seem to tumble forward several times a year, and my to do list just gets longer. Family and dear friends pass on, and I can’t help but know someday it’ll be my turn.
But I have little time for those thoughts. This Taurean is already in deep planning mode for her 66th. A Camino walk, perhaps, along the Portuguese coast. (If my eternal diet fails, perhaps I can lose the pounds as I walk.)
So maybe I am a bit wiser, plumper, stiffer and more forgetful. And I have more wrinkles (but as long as my dogs still recognize me, that’s fine). I haven’t become invisible overnight – I’m far too loud and outspoken for that. Nor am I winding down: later this year I’ll visit Moldova, Serbia, Ukraine, Thailand and Cambodia. And that’s just what’s confirmed.
Rather than the beginning of the end, I would like to consider this the end of the beginning.
As long as I have a plan, a goal, an aspiration and enough good health, I’ll feel joyful, productive, alive. It’s when I stop planning that I’ll begin looking away.
As for now, I’m planning on celebrating with those homemade (love the sound of that word!) peanut butter cookies cooling in the kitchen. I’ll diet tomorrow.