The Fantastic Freedom of Mid-Life

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So, here you are, at life’s midpoint, with a little more time on your hands but feeling vaguely unfulfilled. Are there things you wish you’d done before now? Languages you’d have liked to learn, trips you’d loved to have taken? If it’s fear that’s stopping you, don’t let it. It’s now or never, says Aoife O’Brien, who’s working her way through a sort-of bucket list, doing the things that really make her happy 

There’s another birthday coming up next week and I’d swear the last one was only six months ago. I have a theory which I frequently expound upon to my sainted friends, and that is that time has speeded up since the beginning of this millennium. According to my calculations, although the clock and the scientists would disagree, an hour’s massage feels like half an hour, it feels like only seven years since my 14-year-old was born and it can’t possibly be a year since my last birthday. Oh God, empty nest syndrome awaits and I’m already two-thirds of the way there. Time is flying and I haven’t done half the things I meant to. I definitely don’t want to be that woman who celebrates her 80th birthday with a parachuting lesson compliments of her doting grandchildren. No no no – I want to do things now.

The New Year isn’t the only time for gear changes and resolutions. Life is littered with opportunities to change tack and deal with the watershed moments it throws at us, we just need to know ourselves well enough to grab them.

A new decade, mid-life, empty nest, divorce, bereavement or just plain old disappointment – they all provide us with a choice of dwelling on it or moving on. “If you can’t change it, change the way you think about it. Don’t complain,” said Maya Angelou.

Maybe it’s because I’ve entered my fifties that I’ve had a rethink. It’s a watershed of which one is constantly reminded, not only by the mirror but by every element of one’s life. Getting the knack of a new computer/car/television remote fills me with despair and makes me yearn for the one RTÉ channel of my youth.

I find the idea of going to any lengths in order to look ten years younger slightly creepy. I’m damned if I’m going to fall for anything invasively youthifying – even if it were to work, how freaky would it look to one’s nearest and dearest? Why would I try to look like my eldest son’s girlfriend? I’ll do a bit of yoga and avoid cakes now but whereas my forties were about physical maintenance, I’m turning towards mental maintenance – doing the things that really make me happy.

Life is littered with opportunities to change tack and deal with the watershed moments it throws at us, we just need to know ourselves well enough to grab them.

I am definitely not one to even consider yomping up and down Kilimanjaro twice a year in between Buddhist retreats. There’s a much cheaper way – I’ve decided that I’m just going to be happy to be me and my age because I’m too lazy to rewire and too young to throw in the towel.

There’s something very liberating about not constantly trying to pull it off as a young one. It hit me at Tom Ford’s show during London Fashion Week. In my days as a fashion journalist I’d have dragged the woman who took my seat out by the hair. This time, older, wiser, and there for pure pleasure, not work, I happily stood enjoying the show from the gods, ignoring the woman behind me who kept slopping her champagne into my shoe.

It’s a tad depressing to call it a “Bucket List” and anyway the eponymous film had me in buckets of tears. It has shades of “kicking the bucket” and I’m definitely not anticipating doing that when I reach the end of my current list. I much prefer to think of it as a something-that-rhymes-with-bucket list, something that I’m doing for me, now that I have a bit of time.

There’s something poetic about fly fishing. The beautiful amount of time it takes to find the right bait for the right river. The turning of one’s body into a waving reed as one casts upstream. The oneness with nature as you peer through special glasses to track the path of the unsuspecting trout. The discovery that, actually, trout are not eejits and miraculously manage to avoid the trajectory of your fishing rod once they’ve clocked where you are. It’s a pas de deux with nature, a performance which demands patience you never thought you had. Few things thrill me more than the anticipation of the new season, an unhurried day on a quiet river with a couple of friends on three-legged stools with sandwiches and a bottle of wine, putting the world to rights. Now that beats lunch and a catch-up in a trendy restaurant. And when you catch a three-pounder, the joy is indescribable. I felt at that moment that I understood the meaning of life. If you had told 40-year-old me that I’d be getting my kicks on a riverbank with a mewling trout I’d have had myself committed there and then.

My friend Karin, a statuesque former model, was having a meltdown dealing with an empty nest and approaching 50 when a friend asked her to look after her eco-hotel on an island off the Kenyan coast for three months. “I’m doing it,” she said. “I’m going to learn to dive on my days off,” she said, “always wanted to get my PADI even though I am the most ‘unbrave’ person but I’ll make myself do it.” I reminded her that she could barely put her head under water let alone deal with whingeing guests and foraging rodents. Well, she did it and has just returned completely reconnected with life. Nothing like three months of drop loos to help bring one closer to nature. She slept in a hut among the baobab trees, reduced the rat population with some illegal poison and, according to guests’ glowing reports on TripAdvisor, was the best hotel manager they could have hoped for. “I realised I had become a bit stuck, playing it safe. I didn’t want to be one of those people who ‘can’t do’ – I like the fight.” Most importantly, her stint away has re-engaged her with life back home and though she’s not rushing back to Kenya immediately, she’s learning Swahili just in case.

But *ucket Lists don’t always have to be about adventure, a lot of it is about doing those things that you thought you couldn’t afford the time to do. Always having wanted to see what my grandmother talked about, I took myself off to Fatima of all places. Fascinated by the phenomenon of “miracles” since childhood, I needed to see this for myself. How did the Virgin Mary appear to three young shepherd children on the same day of every month in the summer of 1917 and give them three secrets about the future of the world. “If my friends could see me now!” I thought as I stood at a midnight vigil, candle grease dripping everywhere and images of my grandmother in a mantilla flashing across my mind – they’d think I’d turned into Mrs Doyle.

Back home my inner Mrs Brown took over from Mrs Doyle and, although I feel seasick at the mere sight of a wave, I gave in to my three sons who’d been imploring me to join them on a week-long sailing adventure holiday. I spent the first few days thinking of 50 Ways to Kill Your Mammy, clinging to the mast like a preternatural mollusc, inducing much hilarity among the lads. By the end of the week I’d learned how to make it from one end of the boat to the other in lumpy seas without spilling a drop from my glass of wine.

A straw poll among friends throws up fear as being the obstacle to changing one’s horizons at certain life watersheds. But just getting out there and taking the first step, can, by default get rid of the mental impediment of fear.

But *ucket Lists don’t always have to be about adventure, a lot of it is about doing those things that you thought you couldn’t afford the time to do.

I’m no thrillseeker but earlier this year, I found myself being driven by an 80-year-old friend the wrong way up a Zimbabwean dual carriageway unaware we were about to enter Mugabe’s curfew zone. I’d gone to Harare to look at a charity project I’m involved in, another thing I’d been meaning to do for years and you know … I came home glad to be alive and in fact, devoid of fear. That is until I had to stand in front of a class of inner city 14-year-olds and tell them about my favourite book. I was petrified of boring them.

Ah, the joys of poetry too. I could speed-read the latest novel but I hadn’t really had the time to read new poetry since becoming a wife and mother so, urged on by a poet friend, I threw myself into reading verse again, and found myself realising that poetry has all the answers. From Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill to Eoghan Rua Ó Suilleabháin, the richness was there at my fingertips but I hadn’t ever given it the time of day. Highbrow or lowbrow, let no one dictate. I have no qualms about putting the book down to watch X Factor followed by a bit of online shopping. Time well spent, I say. And I’m pathetically proud of having gone alone to the cinema this year, slinking into my seat between two total strangers so I wouldn’t look like Peggy-no-Mates. Funny what scares us.

Now I’m thinking of seeing whether I can manage to shut up for a few days. I may test myself and go on a silent retreat and learn to meditate. I tried once and got a terrible migraine from not talking. I’d also quite like to see if I’ve any willpower left and join Dr Dermot O’Flynn on one of his famous cleansing weeks in Brazil. Coconut water and no fags for a week … Then again I could take up an offer to review a samba academy in Buenos Aires, or do a ballet retreat in Cuba under the watchful eye of Carlos Acosta. Or I may just borrow my friend’s camper van and rediscover West Cork in winter. Wherever the list takes me – if you see a woman hanging off a parachute, drawers flapping in the breeze, I pray it won’t be me.

This article first appeared in The Gloss Magazine in 2015

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