Catching Age in the Act
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Catching Age in the Act

In my early 50’s, retirement was on my mind—even though the means to do so were conspicuously absent. I don’t remember where, but I read something that I will never forget: don’t wait until you retire to start doing what you want to do in retirement. So the big unanswered question for me: what did I want to do? A palm reader gave me a direction to ponder. In broken English, she said, “In the future, you will do something you’ve wanted to do since a child.” After months of discarding likely subjects—ballerina and female Lone Ranger among them—I found my path. Writing. The essay that follows is my ‘coming out’ piece, written in the SFU Writers’ Studio in 2007, featured in that year’s “Emerge” publication, and delivered to an enthusiastic audience of family and friends at that year’s Granville Island Writers’ Festival.

Two years later, I retired.

Catching Age in the Act

Buddhist philosophy encourages me to start where I am: age 56 and three-quarters, rounding the corner on 60 way too fast. On a bus with no brakes, I can but swerve and steer and hold on for dear life because ultimately there is no stopping until the final destination looms up to meet me.

Star Trek got it wrong. Age is the final frontier, not space. There are vast numbers of us waking from the lucid dream we have so far called life to the reality of the next phase. Somehow, I never considered that this dream could end. Not my marriage. Or my career. Not my role as mother. But end they did. And so it is with dismay that I look up and find myself standing at the portal of an entirely different journey. The ultimate trip.

I am sitting in a classroom at the university where I work.  However, it’s not young people around me; these people are as old as, or older than, I am. We are sitting in a classroom at a university, the bastion of the young, to learn about strategies for retirement.

There are bald heads, grey hairs and crinkled faces. Then there are others like me, whose genetic good fortune and sympathetic hairdressers have managed to stave off the evidence of lives lived long. We look at each other and smile, buoyed by the knowledge that we look much better than those others do. We are still vital. Not old.

The day-long seminar is to brief us on financial planning. The reality of retirement these days is that there will likely be 30 or more years of active life ahead of us. A panel of retirees advises us to stay active and engaged, to find community in interests that have nothing to do with what we did as workers. It’s a completely new playing field. When my grandfather retired at 65, he marked time until he died at age 78.  My Dad, retired at 65, is now 84: he and Mom play golf three times a week, host twice-monthly bridge games and walk daily.

I sit at my desk in my cabin, age 56 and three-quarters, trying to catch age in the act. As if by catching it, I can slow it down. But a lifetime has not yet shown me how to accomplish this.  In spite of meditation, yoga and breathing to stay in the moment, I still sit here, watching the seconds go by uncounted. Watch them turn into minutes that turn the hands on my watch into hours.

Above my desk, The Upside Down World Map locates Australia, and South, at the top, Canada on the bottom of the page. Now, I always believed that the map of the world was a given. Discovering this alternative map turned my belief system upside down and sideways.

This new place I have come to feels like that. Upside down. And sideways. I have to look backwards to find the largest part of my life’s trajectory. What lies ahead is foreshortened, has a ‘best before’ date that I have not noticed before. My thoughts cling to the past, trying to find solid footing from which I can traverse this new, shifting landscape called age.

I am 32 years old, sitting in the kitchen nook in the house on West 12th Avenue. I am alone with my thoughts. The sun is streaming in the south-facing window, and I feel momentarily held in a warm embrace. I realize how sore I feel: my back is cramped, my head is aching, my fingers complain about the tension they are holding, and for how long.

Since I am 32, that means I have two children. No husband, we divorced before my daughter’s first birthday. While I was still on maternity leave, they closed my department. There is no job to return to.

Two kids. No husband. No job. No support.

I felt old that day.

This new country stamps my passport with wrinkles and limitations. I am at the port of entry with no charts to guide me. I look around in amazement that I am here. Panic sends me looking through the rear view mirror to track how I got here.

I am 51 years old. I have been at the ad agency for 17 years. Today is my last day. I pack my belongings, pocket my severance cheque and step off the elevator into the next adventure. I leave next week to search for what’s left of my soul. I am drawn to the desert, compelled to discover what secrets it has to share with me.

I feel blessedly young.

As I sit in my cabin, age 56 and three-quarters, I realize there is no prescribed set of events that defines what age is; it is attitude that defines how old I am. It is attitude that will chart my course through the next phase.

It is time to begin.

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