Earlier this year I turned sixty. And I approached it with a great deal of trepidation – not because of the number, but because of where I find myself, both physically and mentally. I give you a true story, a piece of advice you may choose to ignore, and a question.
Many many moons ago, when I was sixteen or seventeen and at art college in Taunton, the smallish county town of Somerset in the UK, I had a part time job in a little cafe on the High Street. It was the old fashioned kind of tea room that is currently enjoying a renaissance, where when you ordered afternoon tea, you were also presented with a cake stand to make your selection from although they were Mr Kiplings cakes, not home made.
My fellow waitress was a lady who was probably younger than I am now but who seemed terribly ancient to me at the time. I’m afraid I don’t remember her name, but I have never forgotten her. At that time in my life I was extremely busy rebelling against everything; a punk rocker, desperate to be anywhere but where I was: looking for adventure and bright lights, wanting to explore the world, jump on the Marrakesh Express, recklessly hitch-hiking around the country, experimenting with drugs, pushing against every possible boundary just because it was there and most especially those set by my parents who through absolutely no fault of their own were from a completely different world – they were in their forties when they adopted me in 1962, I was a precocious and difficult child anyway, and by 1977 we had absolutely no common ground: I hated them, unjustifiably, for moving the family in the early Seventies from London to rural Somerset where at that age I saw none of the beauty in the countryside as I do now.
Anyway. Back to my fellow waitress. We didn’t have many conversations – we had little in common and were always busy – but on this particular day I recall telling her I was hitch hiking away for the weekend, possibly to a festival. Knebworth maybe, or Deeply Vale, I’m not sure. She shook her head and asked why I’d want to go anywhere ‘like that’ and it transpired that she had only ever left Taunton once in her life, on a school bus trip to Minehead to see the sea and she hadn’t liked it very much.
I was astonished. In fact, I shall use the word ‘gobsmacked’. I remember asking her, haven’t you ever been to London even? It’s the capital city, have you never wanted to go there? It’s wonderful, the art galleries, the museums, the parks, the history… (Even in my punk rock days I was a bit of a nerd)
‘No’ was the reply. ‘I have everything I want here. My family, my friends, they are all here – why would I want to go anywhere else?’
Well. I was floored by that as I recall. I really did not understand how anyone could be as happy with what I perceived as such a limited life as she was. And now I need to jump to another thing that was said to me later in my life, after in a headstrong moment I’d married an Australian and flown with him to Queensland in my early twenties – told you my feet were itchy, I couldn’t have got much further away! It ended badly, but I stayed In Australia and raised my children here – Britain in the early Eighties was Thatcherland, not pretty, and it seemed to me to be much better for my boys to grow up here. But here’s the advice…
‘The trouble with calling another place home for more than a year is that you will always miss it when you leave’. Wise words.
So far I have called the UK, Australia, India and Indonesia home for more than a year. And whichever I have been in, I have missed the others. Still do. And the older I get, the more I think about my fellow waitress in Taunton, who was, in retrospect, the most contented person I have ever, ever met. And at sixty I deeply envy her contentment although I hasten to add, I have had a wonderful life and still look forward to the rest of it with great optimism.
To clarify. I am pretty bloody happy looking back on the last six decades, and very grateful to have lived the life I have. Many adventures, six incredible children, a rarely dull and only occasionally boring life. But all that has come with a sense of regret that I didn’t appreciate many things I had until it was too late, and failed to find ‘contentment’ because I was always seeking something else. At the present moment I am missing spring daffodils in England, Holi in India, the end of the rainy season in Java. But loving the onset of cooler weather here. I miss my family in the UK, but am happy to be closer to my family here in Australia. I miss friends I’ve made in all sorts of places, but am eternally grateful I have them, and the ability to stay in touch through the internet.
I’m working as hard as ever, rebuilding my Etsy business, doing a Sunday market, and a business course as well – no retirement in sight for me yet, but that’s ok. There are days I’d love to have nothing more to do than a spot of gardening and reading – other days I find myself totally stimulated by the challenges I’m facing. I lost my home some thirteen years ago after a poorly considered relationship and business decision, and getting back here from the UK last year with all the additional costs thanks to Covid put a serious strain on finances. Most of the time I’m pretty damn resilient – other times I wish someone would just sort it all out for me.
Sixty, I’m told, is the new forty. All well and good, but not if you find yourself in the same position you were in in your twenties – no property, no investments, living week to week, and with so much less energy than you had then. I’m fortunate enough to remain in good health which is remarkable – and I’ll soldier on regardless, but by jingo I’d like to turn the clock back and have another crack at it all. I still wouldn’t stay in Taunton, but I wouldn’t foolishly believe I’d be young, energetic and capable of doing whatever I wanted to do for ever.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing. And here’s my question – am I the only person who’s been blind sided by sixty? Internally, I still feel roughly eighteen. Did either of my mothers feel the same? Do you?