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What to do with one’s life . . .
Three months today and I will be 50.
When I think about what one’s 50s means, various scenarios come to mind.
If one is healthy it’s another decade of achievement and growth.
Turning 50 is perhaps the last time you can ever kid yourself that you’ve still got as much time ahead of you as behind. It’s the decade when things like heart attacks, strokes, cancer and other depressing possibilities seem just that little bit more . . .
Whatever word one chooses, the reality remains the same. The odds start stacking against you.
Two roads diverged in the woods and I . . .
Much of Robert Frost seems a little twee and dated to me now but there was a time when some of what he wrote could have flowed directly from my own pen.
I’m talking about content here, not quality or craftsmanship.
When we’re young and life stretches before us like an unexplored continent full of unchartered territory, it’s easy to wax lyrical about the fulsomeness of life’s potential and possibilities.
It’s also easy to use this process as a means to delay and forestall the really important decisions we need to make.
How many people have I loved in my life? More than I care to recall. When I was younger, much younger, my entire universe could be and often was violently rocked by the blind passions that would well up within me as I projected all my future hopes and dreams on some poor, hapless individual who had chosen to take an interest in me. Given the degree of emotional insecurity with which I used to be plagued it’s no wonder so many of them took fright and fled, unable to withstand such a tidal onslaught of unrestrained and unbridled need.
We turn 15 this month.
There was a time when the idea of being in a relationship for 15 years was some kind of holy grail, desirable but ultimately unattainable.
Mind you, that was a long time ago; more than 15 years in fact.
One of the things about being in a relationship with someone for 15 years is you can’t help wondering how life might have turned out had we never met. I’d still be turning 50, although I guess that’s not a certainty. Who knows? I might’ve been run over by a tram.
Two paths diverged in the woods and I . . .
Way back when I was a teenager I used to have these dreams. In these dreams I would find myself really liking someone who in my waking hours I despised. Such was the nature of the dream that by the time I awoke I could no longer maintain the feelings of enmity and hate that had previously plagued me. Instead, I would find myself liking and seeing the person through completely new eyes. In place of the negative emotions I discovered it was possible to find qualities that were endearing and affirming.
I wish more people had dreams like these.
It’s a little surreal to look back on those early years when we didn’t know whether you were going to survive or not. The odds were certainly not good. I’ll never forget the nights we laid together, you wrapped in my arms while I willed the universe and everything in it to come forth and channel itself through me to you to keep you here on the planet, promising to trade everything in exchange for your right to be here. Those were dark and frightening times; yet they were also the years that bound us together like nothing else could.
The science of quantum physics raises, amongst other things, the possibility of multiple selves and multiple realities. It’s a curious thought: the idea that I could have many of selves inhabiting many universes. The mathematical permutations of such a concept are mind-boggling, not to mention the paradoxical tension between a multiplicity of selves and the annihilation of self implicit therein.
When we’re young life seems long. The older we get the more we realise that it’s not, making the idea of multiple realities attractive.
Then again, what’s the point if we can only be aware of one at a time?
It’s odd to think that one day this will all stop. One minute I will be here and the next minute I won’t be.
I remember waking up the day after Dad died back in 1978 and thinking to myself that it was the first day I’d ever known without Dad on the planet.
I don’t get depressed about the thought of dying, largely because I’m still in the fortunate position of not having to contemplate it in any real sense. I’m healthy and well and my instinctual denial of mortality is still strong.
But it’s an odd thought, nonetheless.
There’s something interesting about shadows.
When I was a young boy I used to run along the road and watch my shadow running with me. I knew it was my shadow but I can recall imbuing it with a distinct personality all of its own. It’s something all kids do at some time or another; hence the term, ‘me and my shadow’.
As I’ve grown older so has the shadow I cast. It’s lost a lot of hair for one thing. And of course it will only last as long as I do.
I cast my shadow; therefore I am.
I stayed up late last night so I could call Mum and wish her happy Mother’s Day. As luck would have it the flowers I’d ordered had arrived just five minutes earlier, although given her advanced stage of dementia she had no recollection of receiving them when I asked her. And while she said she knew who I was once I’d told her a couple of times I’m not entirely sure that she did. But one thing she can remember is how much I love her: ‘Up to the sky, down to the ground a lots and lots in between’.
I feel as though I’ve spent my whole life being a jack of all trades and a master of none. Sure, I’ve done a lot of different things and developed a wide range of skills, my ability to work effectively with young people being perhaps my greatest one, but I’ve never really excelled in any one area. My levels of interest and commitment have never been strong enough to propel me headlong into the kind of single-minded obsessiveness that the truly successful seem to thrive upon. Whether it really matters or not, who can say? But I do wonder sometimes.
She’s so young and attractive and full of zest and I definitely want her on my team but sitting and listening to her describe her methodology I realise for perhaps the first time that my previous role as the zany art teacher has been compromised by my more recent role as Key Stage manager. I’ve always had a very left of field approach to art teaching but it’s not really happening the way it used to and with so many other concerns and preoccupations, I’m guessing it’s time to step aside and allow someone new to take up the baton.
I’m not yet ready to concede that one’s energy levels diminish with age, in much the same way that I’m not really ready to think of myself as old. That said, I can’t pretend that I’m not getting older. People still tell me I have incredibly high energy levels although I know I’ve always been prone to periods of utter exhaustion. There are days when I feel I could take on the world and days when underneath the duvet cover seems the most desirable place to be. But it worries me that one day my zest for life might evaporate.
There’s so much I don’t know about that I would love to know. There are days when I wish I’d studied psychology and persevered with the piano; days when I wish I’d stuck at painting instead of seeking the financial security of teaching and days when I wish I’d forged ahead with writing. To have really excelled at something other than teaching and to have created something lasting of note! I know people often say it’s never too late and that may be true, but the older you get the more the odds are against you.
They are, aren’t they?
At the age of 49 I’m still young enough to be placed contextually between those who are much younger than me and those who are much older. Having people who are older allows you to maintain the experience of being younger than, which in turn maintains the sense of being young. This, combined with being the youngest of four other siblings and a mother who is 95 and (just) still alive (if not kicking) is one of the reasons I’ve not bought into the age stereotype beyond the more philosophical aspects that are as yet still more curious than worrying.
A colleague in his 60s once told me that he was in the fortunate position of having a body that had been a good friend to him. He’d remained active, trim and betrayed no sign of slowing down.
I too have been fortunate in terms of my health. Other than the occasional bout of back pain and knee pain I’ve had little to seriously worry about and I remain, if not fanatical, certainly conscious of what I eat and maintain a fair measure of moderation in all areas of my life which, while a tad dull, certainly has its upside.
There are days when I’m positively brimming with enthusiasm about my career. I look back on what I’ve achieved since landing back in London in 2001 and I realise I’ve taken on challenges I could only have dreamt about ten years ago.
Then there are days when I question whether I took a wrong turn somewhere along the way and ended up stuck in the area of behavioural management at the expense of more interesting and creative pursuits.
I’d like to think that when we move back to Australia my breadth of experience will serve me well.
Time will tell.
Sometimes the daily media barrage of doom and gloom is such that the idea of opting out and finding a quiet corner of the Australian countryside in which to withdraw to is an appealing one. Quite what I’d do for work I don’t really know and no doubt a couple of weeks into things I’d be going stir crazy.
Maybe, maybe not.
It’s just that living in a city like London there are times when I crave the wide open spaces and the sense that all the troubles of the world are far away rather than always in my face.
Sometimes I look in the mirror and see this stranger and I wonder, how did I get to be so old? And sometimes I look in the mirror and think how well I’ve aged. I guess it’s all a question of perspective, and perspective can be shifty at the best of times.
I see guys my age who look 10 years older than me and guys who look 40 who are 25. That makes me feel good. Then I see those impossibly toned billboard models and I have to concede that my body is not what it once was.
When I was 22 I was living in a huge rambling house that I shared with two others. Although still studying I owned just about everything in the house Ė fridge, freezer, lounge suite, dining suite, beds, piano, old church organ, a fully functioning dark room, spinning wheel loom, more books that I knew what to do with, not to mention a motor bike, a new car and even a dog. Then one day I decided to sell the lot and go travelling. Within three weeks all I had left was what I could fit into a rucksack.
Those were the days!
For someone who used to be described as a perpetual student and a gypsy at heart, the last few years have seen me buying into security in a big way, to the extent that the thought of throwing caution to the wind and heading back to Australia to embark on a major building project with no idea where or when Iíll find work is a tad unsettling. Iíve always been one to jump off the deep end and land on my feet, to mix my metaphors, but to do so in my 50s feels mildly terrifying to say the least.
Perhaps more than anything else itís a question of perspective, which in turn begs the question of choice.
There are many choices in life which are relatively neutral; e.g. will I have red or white tonight?
Nothing too challenging in that.
Then there are those choices which are to do with fear and/or opportunity. And what IĎm developing is a tendency towards risk-averse or fear choices.
Letís call this Ďmore of the sameí.
Iím guessing this comes with age. So the challenge of remaining youthful is perhaps to remain willing to jump off the deep end and swim like crazy.
I can see how it happens. We spend so much of our lives travelling back and forth to work, dealing with the daily mix of professional and domestic demands, juggling time and energy to fulfill our sometimes overwhelming quota of responsibilities both to ourselves and others while never really stopping to take stock of what we really want or what really matters. Itís so easy to push those things aside and hope for the best, kidding ourselves we have all the time in the world when in truth the only time we ever really have is right here, right now.
are you? You show up out of nowhere in a dream and itís like Iím 20 years old all over again. Thereís that youthful chemistry of mutual attraction that in my waking state is little more than a distant memory Ė that thrill of meeting someone new with all the charged excitement of possibility infusing us like some powerful, mind-altering drug. How can you be conjured up out of nothing when you appear before me so tangibly real and authentic? Yet even as I write these words, that realness fades, like life itself ebbing slowly, almost imperceptibly away . . .
Given that we live in the beating heart of the city it can seem surprisingly peaceful and quiet. I remember the day we had the double glazing installed and our astonishment at the difference it made to our otherwise noisy flat. Gazing out at the street below it was akin to watching the TV with the sound turned down. So today, stepping out to buy the morning paper, I was taken aback at how busy and full of life the street was as people strolled in the sunshine whilst others sat outside little cafes, reading, chatting and sipping their cappuccinos.
It wasnít the anniversary dinner either of us had expected or would have wished for. I got something wrong and what should have been a cause for celebration was marred by animosity and ill-feeling. Perusing the menus, neither of us had much of an appetite. But we persevered, each saying their piece until we pushed on through the anger and disappointment to reach a place where we could smile again and acknowledge the love and reaffirm our commitment to each other.
Neither one of us is perfect, especially me, but thereís no one else Iíd rather be with than you.
I was born on this island and Iíve been coming back down here for many years now. Itís my sanctuary from the pressures of the big city, a place where I can relax back into myself and reconnect not just with my childhood but also those younger selves who have returned here at various intervals since then. A friend once asked me why I do so when there are so many other interesting places to go to. Iím sure there are but coming here is not about exploring new places. Itís about being somewhere I can truly feel at home.
Heís me 30 years ago, serving behind the bar, his whole life ahead of him as he smiles and chats and does whatís required to put people at ease and in the mood for another round. His youthfulness is intoxicating and listening to him talk about his life and his plans for the future, unencumbered by the layers of real life experience than eventually weigh us down, Iím afforded the opportunity to vicariously share in his youthful optimism and sunny outlook on the future, just as others did with me when I was the young guy serving behind the bar.
Standing out in a starlit field it all seems to make sense. Thereís a perspective to be gained from remembering how small and inconsequential we are in the greater scheme of things. But once the stars have faded and become obscured by the light of day the uneasiness returns. What the source of it is I canít say for sure. All I know is that I have a pit in my stomach that stubbornly refuses to leave. Perhaps Iíve overdone this contemplating growing older business. Maybe itís time to loosen up for a while; to relax and let things be.
We play together in the sandpit but before we can begin we have to turn it the key in the sand. Now we can pretend to be automobiles or aeroplanes battling trolls and monsters getting caught in snow or mud and going from one land to another while carving shapes in the sand and burying things and then re-discovering them again right where we put them. This total immersion in the playfulness of a three year old is a privilege and a joy and serves to reconnect me with something that is both enchanting and humbling at the same time.
The thing is, none of us are immune. Weíre all getting older. Weíve all got that inoperable condition known as mortality. Some of us do a little better than others in terms of health, others in terms of money and still others in terms of happiness. Not that these three are in any way mutually exclusive any more than they are guaranteed.
A little bit of naval gazing is not necessarily a bad thing but there comes a time when it becomes self-defeating. Better to focus on others things and get on with the business of living day to day.
The Tip Jar