I turn 50 tomorrow. I can’t quite believe it. I feel more like 15: still a bit nervous when I meet new people, uncomfortable with figures of authority, curious about the world, full of awe for its beauty, and longing for connection with my fellow human beings.
But I have to face it; I am now in my autumn years. The high energy and excitability of youth has gone; the decade or two of focused intent on work, marriage and children is passing and I am entering a new phase.
Like autumn, it’s a time for drawing in the fruits of earlier efforts, for consolidating and building up stores for leaner times ahead.
I’m old enough now to realise how precious life is; through the death of parents and a few contemporaries, I’ve had a glimpse of what the end of life can be like. There is a non-negotiability about the body’s own story. Whatever we tell ourselves with our sometimes delusional thoughts, the body doesn’t lie. It is a record of all we’ve done and experienced and as it ages it is less forgiving of our mistakes.
And once the body is gone, the loss of its physical presence is absolute. At this age, we know we’re not indestructable.
And so it’s a time for self-care. I’m unapologetic about needing sleep at night – and times of rest in the day. I’ve become better at tuning in to the natural rhythms of the day. When I was younger I would plough on with a project I was working on until it was done – whatever the time of day or night.
Now I try to honour my body’s wisdom: I’m most productive and driven in the morning (if I’ve had enough sleep), but there’s a little dip mid-morning and big dip mid-afternoon. If I respect this with a rest – or even better 20 minutes of restorative yoga – then I can keep functioning into the evening, by which time things need to calm down and be approached more slowly and thoughtfully, taking time to absorb and enjoy.
There’s a rhythm in the calendar as well. This year I took the whole of August off from teaching yoga. When I came back – after a month of rest, self-practice and study – I was a better teacher: more energised, focused and with more to give. Whatever our job or role in life, at 50 we have to acknowledge we can’t keep giving without regularly nuturing ourselves. It’s essential we replenish our own resources – physically, emotionally and spiritually, for me through connection with nature.
The natural cycles of the year have plenty of opportunities for taking stock, adjusting direction and setting forth, and autumn is one of them. As Pullitzer prize-winning author Wallace Stegner puts it:
“Another Fall, another turned page: there was something of jubilee in that annual autumnal beginning, as if last year’s mistakes had been wiped clean by summer.” (Angle of Repose, 1971)
It can be a time for pruning; for cutting out stuff I don’t need anymore. In the autumn of my life I’m less willing to make compromises on important things – and I’m a little more confident in trusting my judgement on what the important things really are.
I know it’s not “stuff”. I’m exasperated by my children’s gullible acceptance of whatever the profit-seekers tell them is the new must-have gadget. And then I remember what I was like at that age: desperate for a pair of high wedge shoes and for our family to get a colour TV.
I know also that the rights and privileges I’ve enjoyed as a woman born in the late 20th century were hard-won and easily lost. I regret not having done more to stand up to sexism and other expressions of power concentrated in the hands of the greedy few.
I thought working hard and succeeding in my own right were enough and I happily accepted the opportunities in education and work that my older sisters, aunties and grandmothers had carved out for me. It was only when I had children I hit the wall of intransigence that is society’s view that men play only a secondary role in child-rearing.
Neither did I pay attention to the way sexual objectification of young women – that I had experienced, of course, at times – was getting much, much worse in the era of instant internet access to the abusive, violent end of pornography.
I also took for granted the benefits of the social contract our parents and grandparents had forged after the Second World War. It never occured to me that it would one day be necessary to protest or demonstrate to protect council housing, the welfare state and the BBC.
Standing up to Thatcher was part of my youth’s culture in the 1980s, but those of us in work in the 1990s and 2000s happily enjoyed our supposed “consumer power” – ignoring the implicit deal that this is a power only available to those with money to spend. And the more money, the more power. Meanwhile, the checks and counterbalances to extreme concentrations of that power were being dismantled all around us.
So these autumn years are a time of renewed political vigour for me. In the last year I got off the fence, joined the Green Party and have started trying to bring together other people in my neighbourhood over issues that affect us. At the moment we’re campaiging to make safer the hideous A23 that carves a polluting and deadly division through the heart of our community in Streatham.
The autumn years can be a time of great creative as well as political flourishing. I’m inspired by authors who made their debuts in their 50s: George Elliot’s Adam Bede was published when she was 50, Alex Haley’s Roots when he was 55, Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees, when she was 54 and Annie Proulx’s Postcards when she was 57.
I haven’t yet got the space in my life for this kind of intense creative effort; having had children relatively late, I’m only just encountering the hard mill of parenting adolescents and they will be my main focus for a few more years yet.
But I’m enjoying the perspective from this mountain-top of 50 – able to see back down the slopes I’ve climbed, the possibly rocky path ahead, but also the spectacular view from here. And I’m making notes.