Half a century [September 2]
I’ve never liked the term ‘mid life crisis’. It reduces what can be a revelatory phase in your life to a histrionic headline. When I turned fifty late last year there was no crisis. There was a time of reckoning.
In 2014 I published my first book, completed a PhD, clocked up a decade as a freelancer and hit my half-century. To reward myself for this quadrella of significant events I sold my old car, bought a small van and, with the help of my stepfather, converted it into a campervan. I was single and without dependents. I had found temporary tenants to rent my home. It was time to untether myself.
In the first week of winter this year I left my hometown of Melbourne and headed north. For three months I noodled up and down the east coast of Australia in my little van. Along the way I kayaked to islands and hiked to lighthouses, danced to eighties music at RSL clubs and took endless photos of pelicans. Interstate friends and relations who I hadn’t seen for decades contacted me with generous offers of accommodation and companionship. And I made a pilgrimage to the northern NSW beach where my father drowned fifty years ago.
Along the way I gave myself permission to park the van under shady trees, lie down on the mattress in the back and do nothing but think. I thought about the last fifty years and the next fifty years. Hubris? One of my grandfathers made it to 102, so there’s a chance I’m not even half way to the end.
I thought about all the things I’d wanted but would never have, and all the things I’ve had that I hadn’t known I wanted. Thoughts trickled rather than cascaded. Hours flowed rather than scrambled. Decisions came to me slowly but clearly. Yes I could write another book. No I wouldn’t apply for that full-time job my conscience had been nagging me about. Yes I do love my precarious freelance working life. No I don’t want to relinquish the freedom to untether myself from daily life when I need to. Yes I have learnt a few useful things in the past fifty years.
There is a poem by Judith Wright called Turning Fifty in which she describes drinking her morning coffee and tasting ‘my fifty years here in a cup’. The poet’s mind, like the coffee she savours, is ‘dark, bitter, neutral, clean, sober as morning’. Turning fifty is a sobering thing. Bodies have become unreliable vehicles. Physical pain has become a constant companion rather than a temporary annoyance.
Watching the grey nomads doing their gentle laps in the camp park swimming pools, I understood the fear that drove them up and down, up and down. Just keep moving. If you stop it will be hard to start again.
‘These years we live scar flesh and mind’ wrote Judith Wright. By fifty we’re all bearing these scars. People we loved have let us down or let us go. People we respected have failed to live up to our unreasonable expectations of them. Death has begun stalking the perimeter of our circle of attachment, picking people off. We cannot protect them, or ourselves.
As I meandered along in the van the digital post delivered news from people within that precious circle of mine. Dying parents, newborn grandchildren, dying marriages, newborn love affairs. Everyone, it seemed, was going through a time of reckoning.
Meanwhile the pelicans floated serenely past on those great bodies of water that permeate the Australian coastline, oblivious to our little dramas.
So what else did I glean from all that thinking time? I’ve done some dumb things but some of them ended well. I’ve hurt some people but some love me still. Courage has sometimes failed me but courage is not finite. I may have another fifty years to acquire it. It’s not too late to ‘show my colours’, as Judith Wright said.
This winter I paid two visits to the beach where my father drowned. On the first visit I donned my wetsuit and entered the surf. When the water reached my thighs I retreated back to my towel. The tow was too strong. Some risks are not worth taking. This is something I have learnt.
On the second visit there was no tow. There were whales on the horizon. I strode out into the surf and caught wave after wave. I tasted my fifty years there in the sea. Bittersweet, neutral, clean.
(This article was published in The Big Issue in September 2015.)