22 Apr The Second Half
By my fiftieth birthday in 2000, I had the sense of an ending. I’d experienced the highs of raising two healthy, happy, and independent children, the lows of doing it as a divorced, working mother. My career in the advertising agency had taken me up the corporate ladder to the glass ceiling, and I’d loved every minute of it. But that was soon to be over. Half-way through a two-year Executive MBA, I wanted the currency those three shiny-new letters would gain me when I shopped my resume.
And I’d started to become very curious about what the next half of life held.
Unlike many of my peers caught in the headlights of downsizing, rightsizing, and just plain firing, I wanted to find out how best to jump into the next phase of life. I’d read an article about retirement that made a lot of sense. “Don’t wait until you are retired to indulge your interests,” it stated. “Beginning anything new is a lot of work and often not much fun. So, start taking courses, explore your options, hone your skills while you are still employed. By the time you retire, you’ll be a better than average photographer, writer, cook, gardener.”
Researching my thesis, I stumbled on a great paper about Baby Boomers entering the 21st century, and how we would reinvent retirement, as we had every other stage in our lives. Freedom 55 was nirvana, although most of us acknowledged it as the advertising fantasy it was. Still, we Boomers were a bulge with the power to change things; and I took away a sense of promise and excitement about this next stretch of life’s journey.
My fiftieth birthday, and the lure of what lay ahead, motivated me to book an appointment with a palm reader.
I mounted the stairs of a building off Broadway and opened the door to a dimly lit apartment that doubled as the fortune teller’s office. Smells of a recently-cooked meal suggested eastern European ethnicity, her accent confirming the region if not the specific country. She may have been four foot ten, swathed in layers of cloth. She motioned me to a small table. I placed my tape recorder on the table, brushing a few crumbs off, as she held out her hand for my palm.
Her English was minimal; she knew the words, but her tongue couldn’t figure out how to say them. I remember she kept saying, “three, six, nine,” as if the words were a mantra. “Three years, six years, nine years,” she said first, then changed the sequence to “Years ending in three, six, nine, very important, fortune shines.” I figured she was hedging her bets, giving me a range of years to expect good luck. But then, in her clearest English, she sent me on a quest.
“You stop working, then you do something you always dreamed, since a child.”
I left with a sense of optimism about the future. I packed the tape recorder away and got on with life. But that statement about doing something I’d wanted since childhood buried itself deep in my brain. What, I wondered, could that be? I quickly discarded ballerina and sky diver. Any desire to become a doctor or lawyer had long ago disappeared. What could I have wanted that I’d forgotten so completely?
A year later, I completed my MBA, said goodbye to the advertising agency, and took myself on a six-week pilgrimage to the American southwest. A way to wash away the toxins from working seventeen hectic, challenging, and demanding years in the advertising industry. Driving solo through New Mexico, I breathed in the spaciousness of desert air, the horizon visible for miles. So unlike my home in Vancouver where mountains shouldered the sky in almost every direction. In Albuquerque, I attended a women’s retreat that convinced me I could embrace the spiritual values of India and Asia without betraying my Catholic roots. In Chimayo, halfway between Santa Fe and Taos, I was the sole occupant of an eight-bedroom B&B. From there I explored Anasazi cliff and cave dwellings that housed fifteen-hundred people between the 900’s to 1500 AD. I attended Mass at a tiny Franciscan church that boasted dozens of crutches, wheelchairs, and other devices no longer needed because of miraculous cures. I visited Abiquiu, Georgia O’Keeffe’s home and studio. And I followed the wrong turn-off, ending up stuck in snow and ice on a deserted national park road I’d mistaken for the way to Taos.
Throughout my pilgrimage and my return to Vancouver, the question accompanied me. When I started work at SFU, developing marketing for their MBA programs, I stumbled across my answer.
I leafed through a Continuing Education brochure, stopping at a Creative Writing page. As I read about “The Writers’ Studio,” my heart beat faster, and a wave of recognition flooded me. The year-long, part-time program offered mentorship, workshops and craft lessons, evenings and weekends. Even as my brain analyzed the information, my body and soul were shouting, “This is it!”
I’d never wanted to be a writer; the palm reader wasn’t quite accurate on that point. But I’d been a voracious reader since I could spell “Dick and Jane,” and lost myself in books as often as possible. I’d rather read than attend my own birthday party, as I did at age six. Since then, I’d immersed myself in books of every description, and occasionally dared to enrol in writing courses.
The program required twenty pages of my writing. I sat down and wrote them and submitted a hodge-podge sample. Lucky me, one mentor thought I had promise. I was accepted into the Creative Non-Fiction mentor group, 2007.
That palm reader hasn’t crossed my mind for many years. However, as I write this piece, I realize that I retired from SFU at 59, started my MFA program when I was 63, graduated in 66, and self-published, “A Fuller Life” at 69.
I love it when that happens.