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I Turned 65 – and it wasn’t (exactly) what I expected

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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.

This is part of what I get to come home to… the river is a few minutes from my home.

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.

 

35 Comments

  1. Chere Weiss on May 22, 2018 at 2:15 pm

    thank you Leyla and a belated Happy Birthday. I will be 65 in 4 months and decided to take early retirement because….I want to travel more while I can. I plan on spending my 65th birthday at a house/pet sit in Asheville, NC because it’s been on my bucket list for US travel and I am going to try house/pet sitting to find free places to stay in the places I want to visit.
    I really enjoy your webpage and blogs

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on May 23, 2018 at 9:11 am

      Thanks Chere – and your plan sounds… PERFECT!

  2. Connie on May 22, 2018 at 2:33 pm

    Oh, dear Leyla, all my best wishes to you!!!

  3. Maria F. (Canada) on May 22, 2018 at 3:15 pm

    Maybe there is something about the North American practice of providing ‘Senior’ discounts at age 55, 60, 62 that softens the blow of reaching age 65 – the more globally accepted defining age as ‘Senior’. I know it totally perplexes global contributors to a travel forum I use when people in their 50’s post on the ‘Senior Travel’ forum. Here some were blessed with the financial ability to retire in their early 50’s and they seem to equate ‘senior’ with ‘retiree’. The age of ‘change’ is staggered such that by the time 65 comes around, we are living the life we want for our older years. ‘Old’ is still a long way off.
    I believe ‘old’ is also defined by one’s self. Sure, certain social benchmarks exist to make us more aware of passing years, but whether we accept them or not is purely a personal decision. So, use that birthday to be somewhere magical; or use that date for new resolutions. Don’t let a number define a negative shift in your psyche, hopes or dreams.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on May 23, 2018 at 9:10 am

      Thanks Maria! I’m amazingly fortunate to have been born with few negative bones… optimism runs in our family, whose motto should be “Look on the bright side!” I like taking stock – usually to convince myself that there isn’t a better path I should be following out there, or something I should be doing differently. I don’t know what old is – I’ve had no role models in my family because even those who aged stayed incredibly young at heart. I hope I’m like them!

  4. Fran Moreno-Randle on May 22, 2018 at 3:41 pm

    I cried when I turned 30 because I felt I had no more excuses if I made a mistake in life. I was depressed when I turned 40 because I was at the doorstep of middle age. My family threw a huge birthday party for me when I turned 50 and I no longer cared how old I was. This lasted until 3 months ago when I turned 69. Wow – in 1 year I’d be 70. I felt a dread, that I needed to get all aspects of my life in order. Well, now that birthday week is in the past, the dread is gone, and the only thing I still feel I need to get in order is my health. I must lose weight, I must remain active, and I must be as physically fit as I can be so I can keep enjoying life and keep traveling!

  5. Marian on May 22, 2018 at 3:56 pm

    I didn’t mind 65 too much — maybe I was too busy that year — but 70 has been a challenge. I can see my ability to do the more physically demanding travel gradually waning, although my interest in travel has not. So I try to focus on staying as healthy and active as I can and remind myself that I will never be younger than I am today, so go for it! Thank you for continuing to encourage and enlighten your fellow travelers.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on May 23, 2018 at 9:08 am

      Yes, I anticipate it might get harder as time passes, but I hope there is always SOMETHING we can do. Maybe we’ll forgo that bungee jumping (never, ever tried or would!) but travel is so much more than that… I travel near my home – I often hop the train to spend the day exploring Lyon or Geneva (I live about halfway between the two). Sometimes I visit a single museum… but it’s all travel. Even having a conversation with someone from another country is travel!

      • Jordan Meredythe on May 26, 2018 at 9:15 pm

        Yes, so right! I have planned on traveling until … When depends on health and I never thought about that much when I was younger. I was in a bad accident long ago that left me somewhat cautious about bungee jumping, zip lines, parachute jumping! So I have missed out on those.

        But I have many conversations with people of the world! And I love that and miss it when I am in the States – as I am now. And being here reminds me of how much I love being away!

        • Leyla Giray Alyanak on May 31, 2018 at 2:14 pm

          I’m sorry to hear you had a bad accident but I suspect you may not be missing out very much on the “jumping out of high places” stuff… I can’t imagine that level of adrenaline or danger… I may have been to war zones but you’d never catch me jumping off anything higher than my knee!

  6. Penelope on May 22, 2018 at 4:39 pm

    Just, wow.

    I am collecting people like you, because we need you to guide us into older age. My challenges are different, but like you, feeling that I belong somewhere (still not sure where exactly!) has come late. The love of a few people and animals remains important.

  7. Nancy Cygan on May 22, 2018 at 5:09 pm

    Happy Birthday! I just reached the 65 mark last month and realized it was just a number with nothing really changing. I think the one thing it did change in me was the realization that life is short and getting shorter all the time so I had better kick my explorations into high gear. That kitchen remodel can wait until later (or maybe even for the person who will buy my home when I’m gone) because the money will be better spent on experiencing new places and understanding new cultures. Home is wonderful to come back to when I have exciting stories to bring back with me after meeting that new friend. Enjoy!

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on May 23, 2018 at 9:06 am

      I so agree with every word! (like your kitchen, my living room can wait… )

  8. Fida on May 22, 2018 at 5:27 pm

    Beautifully written. Happy belated Birthday Leyla! Keep on exploring! I want to read about your experiences 🙂

    I never celebrate my birthday. Age is just a number for me, and as long as I can move, hike and travel – I am fine. I feel flattered when my nieces 3year old calls me her Kumpel (buddy). So it seems that I am not as immune to old age as I would like to be. I have to admit that it felt awkward when someone called me Ma’me for the first time. It was like I turned ancient in a moment. A punch in the gut. Call me anything just not Ma’me 🙂 I know it’s probably a sign of respect but that single word makes me feel as if I don’t belong to the living anymore 🙂

    Happy travels!

  9. Tamara on May 22, 2018 at 8:01 pm

    Lovely thoughts as always Leyla I cannot help admiring you. Wishing I could be more like you. Keep travelling and writing, you are my inspiration.

  10. Kathleen on May 22, 2018 at 9:56 pm

    I’m another one of your many admirers Leyla. Happy 66th. Your words ring true and the message is powerful, so wonderfully put. You are a voice for optimism and a fierce champion of travel. Congratulations x

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on May 23, 2018 at 9:05 am

      Thanks so much Kathleen – other than personal enjoyment, the reason I love travel is because it shows us the similarities within the differences. So much fear comes from ignorance (don’t get me started!) but through travel, we get to understand our differences better, and begin to see that underneath it all we aren’t that different from one another.

  11. Beryl Greene on May 22, 2018 at 10:04 pm

    Happy Birthday, Leyla. Here’s to many, many, many, many, and more adventures and trips in your lifetime.

    Beryl

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on May 23, 2018 at 9:03 am

      And here’s to your being right!! 🙂

  12. Corinne on May 22, 2018 at 11:47 pm

    Happy belated birthday Leyla! And keep on keepin’ on!!!! I enjoy your writings and you are a big inspiration to me😊

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on May 23, 2018 at 9:03 am

      Thanks Corinne – we can do so much when we believe we can!

  13. Karin on May 23, 2018 at 6:30 am

    Happy birthday! I think our perceptions of age are all wrong. I’m fifty, and every successive decade has been BETTER than the last. I was a miserable child, an unhappy teen, a stressed-out twenty-something, an overworked thirty-something, a happy forty-something and my fifties are panning out to be quite joyous. Not what I expected but not complaining 😉

    Thanks for your lovely blog!

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on May 23, 2018 at 9:02 am

      Thanks Karin – that’s exactly what I found (although my childhood was great) as years pass – they’re not what you expect, and often better!

  14. Linda on May 23, 2018 at 9:18 am

    Happy Belated Birthday!!! Thank you for your inspiration!

  15. Suzanne Fluhr on May 23, 2018 at 1:00 pm

    When I turned 60, I took stock, realized things had gone pretty well, and that the rest is gravy. Every time we find ourselves in an airport with a mile (or more) of corridors to sprint to make our connecting flight, we look at each other and say, “We better travel while we still can.” The big 65 is next year for me. My mother is 93. Not sure I want to be that old. If I make it harder, maybe I’ll change my tune, but for now, like you, I’m content. Happy milestone birthday.

    • Suzanne Fluhr on May 23, 2018 at 1:02 pm

      Ah autocorrect. “Harder” was supposed to be “that far”.

  16. Christine Roderick on May 23, 2018 at 4:02 pm

    You will never be invisible to us – your blog fans – who rely on your wisdom which comes with age and experience. Happy birthday and many more!

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on May 24, 2018 at 8:17 pm

      What a wonderful thing to say! I’ll try not to let it go to my head 🙂

  17. Any Gigi Alexander on May 28, 2018 at 1:44 pm

    Happy birthday Leyla, great window to your world
    AGA

  18. Gaye Harvey on May 29, 2018 at 8:53 am

    I am turning 70 this year (how scaring is that !!!) but you have put my thoughts into words. I may not be able to endure the long flights any more (I’m in Australia so all destinations are hours and hours away) but I can still find adventures close at hand. You have to have a plan and a dream and believe me I always have one and hope to have them for a lot more years yet to come. Life is for living no matter how much our bodies put up road blocks.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on May 31, 2018 at 2:11 pm

      Now THAT is the spirit and that’s inspiring! I’ve often promoted travel closer to home when you can’t go overseas for whatever reason – just remember that your “down the street” is someone else’s “dream destination”!

  19. Judy on May 31, 2018 at 1:49 pm

    Happy birthday 🎉 I am a new fan of your blog. Thank you for this “65” article and it’s positive energy! If you ever need an assistant who loves to travel, I’d love to apply for the job!

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on May 31, 2018 at 2:10 pm

      I wish!! But thank you for the offer 🙂

  20. N. Cushing on June 6, 2018 at 11:16 pm

    I can relate nicely to your post. I am in my 50s and have been traveling for many years. Last year I took a month to do a bucket list tour of Europe. I spent 3 weeks visiting places in France and Italy that I have wanted to see for so long. I then flew to Ireland where my daughter and I took a train tour. I love planning trips during our long, cold winters! It isn’t easy traveling alone when you have a family and my health has become an issue. So, I promised my family that last year was my final trip alone. That doesn’t mean I won’t travel! In fact, this summer I will go to Italy with my sister and I’m hoping that next year I will be able to do a trip to France with my daughter. I’m ok with growing old because I have so many great memories and experiences that cross my mind on a daily basis. I plan to keep making memories with my children and grandchildren, just on a more local basis. There are plenty of places to visit and new experiences just waiting for me right here in Maine and Canada.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on June 10, 2018 at 5:48 am

      Absolutely! Travel isn’t about how far you go, nor is it about whom you travel with. I prefer solo travel but if I get to where I cannot do that, I’ll travel with others – the important thing is to get out there and see the world and meet new people and stay fresh of mind and discovery. The same goes for distance. I’ve had accidents, illnesses, been laid up and experienced plenty of other circumstances that prevented me from going far – but my back yard, as I like to tell people, is an exotic destination for 99% of the rest of the world. It may be something I know well, but others don’t. And even in my back yard, there are a zillion places I haven’t been to yet, streets I haven’t explored, museums I haven’t seen, restaurants I haven’t tried, paths I haven’t walked…

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