‘IF YOU THINK I’M 60 and you want my money, come on sugar, let me know…’ I’ve been singing this little ditty for quite some time now – mirthfully paraphrasing Rod Stewart’s anthem, Do Ya Think I’m Sexy, for friends and family who have reached the big 6-0. At parties, I’d substitute Rod’s ‘If you want my body and you think I’m sexy’, for my more ageappropriate line and oh, how I laughed!
Now all those birthday candles are on my cake and somehow it doesn’t seem quite so hilarious.
This is the first birthday I deem significant. Any lingering denial that I’m actually in my Third Act was ruthlessly swept away by those big sixes and zeros on my birthday cards and a letter which arrived in the same post inviting me to go for a free bowel screening. Yes indeed. This is where I’m at.
Drawn to articles on positive ageing and glossing over the latest details of Brad and Angelina’s divorce arrangements, I have no time for other folks’ dramas now. I feel gripped with an urge to do something for myself – something dramatic and out of character, like trekking in a jungle in Costa Rica or throwing myself out of an airplane in one of those charity events – even though actually staying strapped into a plane seat for the ten hours it takes to get to Costa Rica would be out of my comfort zone.
I don’t remember other deadline birthdays being like this. Turning 30 was a doddle – I was a young, married mother, I had a job I loved, my family were all alive and well. I don’t remember what I did, but I’m pretty sure it was celebratory and fun. By the time my 40th birthday rolled around I was checking my pulse to make sure I was still alive. A decade of devastating bereavements had left me shell-shocked and – to quote another Rod Stewart song – not wanting to talk about it. Or maybe not knowing how to.
When I was 50 I remember making myself a promise – this decade will be for me. And it was, but not in the way I’d imagined. My original, admittedly fuzzy, plan was that maybe I would indulge my inner hippie with a round-the-world plane ticket and a gap year for grown-ups type of itinerary, like Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat, Pray, Love. Well maybe not the actual ashram in India. But I was a meditator and a yoga lady already so I felt I could definitely do the Bali bit. And who couldn’t do eating ice-cream in Italy?
I didn’t go around the world as it turned out. But I did indulge in a decade of unabashed navel-gazing, the sort of relentless introspection that busy people get irritated by.
My younger, hipper, more successful self was horrified at how my life was going. That younger self was all about how fast I could go, how fast I needed to go, to outrun the painful feelings of grief and hurt and loss that I had buried many years before. Too fast as it turned out.
Because when I slowed down there they were, all the unresolved emotions I thought I had dodged, playing havoc with my life and my health and my relationships. Demanding attention. So I gave them attention. I threw the book at them. I threw hundreds of books at them – the collective wisdom of all the writers who explained the dangers of avoiding difficult feelings through drinking, eating, shopping, or watching too many American box sets.
So now I’m all mindfulness and meditation, imaging (drawing out your feelings using stick figures as characters) and journaling. I’m even reading a book about whether my hip pain could be from repressed anger rather than the torn tendon that refuses to heal. The jury is still out on that one.
My life at 60 is nothing like it was at 50. The exciting, deadline-driven job that once fascinated me has been replaced by the more precarious adventure of writing. To write novels you’re not sure anyone will want to read and features that are less reliant on the clever turn of phrase and more on authenticity have required me to develop a different kind of skill. Something Elizabeth Gilbert calls ‘stubborn gladness’ – being glad with your efforts regardless of the results. In her book Big Magic she writes about ‘creative living beyond fear’ – doing what makes you happy because it makes you happy and not for any ulterior motive; clearing space in your life for things you love by dropping the things you don’t even like that much.
Sounds great, but actually it sounds easier than it is. Because we all impose standards on ourselves and spend time and energy trying to live up to them. If you decide you want to change them, the chances are you’ll come up against considerable resistance – and only some of it will be from other people.
We all get in our own way. Trying to get out of it is what I’m all about now.
Any lingering denial that I’m actually in my Third Act was ruthlessly swept away by those big sixes and zeros on my birthday cards