Are you approaching a ‘big’ birthday? Or have you, like me, found that all of them seem ‘big’? I’m often surprised actually how old I am and really have to think when people ask! I’m in that faze where I just try to ignore the passing years but I do wonder if that’s a mistake.
With the kids, their birthdays are big celebrations as we reflect on what they’ve achieved in that year. We see how far they have developed and grown – not just in size – but as people too. Why do we stop doing that?
So today, I’m delighted to share with you an introduction to a brilliant book that I’ve read recently, ‘Forty is my forte’ by Catherine Winton. When faced with her approaching birthday, Catherine did anything but ignore it…
A few years ago I met Margaret, a vivacious lady in her seventies. My husband Mark and I were staying with her while visiting university friends in Oxford. In the twenty-four hours we spent with her, Margaret had been to a fortieth birthday party, a fifth birthday party, a Christening and the obligatory post-Christening nosh up. Mark and I went out for dinner and returned to find her making jam with plums picked from her garden, while singing along enthusiastically to a Prom on BBC2.
She was one of the most cheerful, positive people I have ever met. She told us that Jesus had died so that we could have life in abundance, and she didn’t want to miss out on the abundant part. Those words struck a chord with me. Living abundantly… It sounds great, but what exactly does it mean?
As I hurtle towards the big 4–0, various questions of that sort keep running through my mind. Like: what have I achieved with my life so far, and what do I still want to do? I refuse to countenance the idea that I am experiencing a mid-life crisis, and instead allow myself to indulge in a little navel-gazing.
I remember my dad’s fortieth birthday. I was twelve years old at the time, the 1986 World Cup threatened to wipe out his party guest list and Maradona’s ‘Hand of God’ almost overshadowed the whole occasion. I thought my father was really old. Now it will soon be my turn to turn forty, but I am definitely not old. No, I am still stuck at twenty-six, thank you very much! No longer quite a carefree student, but with plenty of ‘when I grow up’ notions shelved for future consideration – ideas that I once had no intention of following up on until I was much older. (But then, as I write this, I’m sitting in my sensible car on the drive outside my house in the suburbs, desperately trying not to wake my two children who are currently asleep in the back, drinking tea from a Thermos while Pick of the Pops plays on Radio 2, and I find I must acknowledge that perhaps my twenties are finally over. I am indeed nearly forty.)
I celebrated my twentieth birthday in Stratford-upon-Avon where I was doing my university placement year. I went to the pub I’d been going to all year, to be faced with a new bouncer who asked me for ID. I didn’t have any and a familiar barman had to come out and confirm that I was allowed in. It’s a good ten years now since I’ve been ID-ed – the last time was while buying a cheap bottle of wine in a rural supermarket in New Zealand. I was delighted! A few months into my twenty-first year, I went to Canada to work and travel. I had the time of my life, and came back addicted to the idea of remaining footloose and living a more bohemian lifestyle. My parents were so proud.
So my twenties were spent in a wanderlust-fuelled haze of travelling and occasionally working overseas. Every now and then I would try my hand at a ‘career’; something that would justify all those years spent in the education system. Attempts at climbing the slippery pole took place in settings as diverse as Butlin’s in Skegness, financial recruitment in the City of London, and counselling the long-term unemployed in London and subsequently Edinburgh. Each career was interspersed with a jaunt, long or short, to teach English in Chile, star as a penguin in a rather amateur production of Noah’s Ark in Mexico City or climb the Inca trail to Machu Picchu.
If my twenties had been about travelling, failing to have a career, living in shared flats with great friends and spending my entire disposable income on my social life, my thirties were a time to – deep breath – settle down.
When I look at the Facebook posts of some friends, usually younger ones, I see people all dressed up, hair done, make up immaculate, laughing and hugging people that you just know they laugh with, cry with, and will most likely be ‘best friends forever’ with. I remember those days, but they’re not on Facebook. By 2007 and the advent of quasi-compulsory social media, I had moved to Edinburgh to put down roots (how my twenty-year-old self would have sneered), and met Mark, my now husband. I had returned from my final ‘What do I do next?’ trip to Uganda and was going cold turkey from a three-year addiction to modern jive dancing. My evenings were spent curled up on the sofa watching DVDs, and dreaming of suburban bliss and romantic Saturday afternoons spent perusing colour charts in B&Q. I was blissfully happy. Or, as Facebook sees it, dull.
There followed an engagement, a wedding and a house in the ‘burbs. Then Samuel, and then Hannah. I learnt that there is nothing remotely romantic about trips to B&Q, and as a result our house is still painted magnolia from top to bottom, apart from one wall, which ran the serious risk of being left an obscure mosaic of clashing colours until a decision was finally made. I’ve learnt, though definitely not completely, to be happy in my skin, the imperfect product of my experiences. And I’ve learnt that I’m still only halfway there. I have a whole lot more living to do.
I remember saying, in my days of carefree travel, adventures and various career initiatives, that if I died tomorrow, at least I would have lived. Really lived. I remember putting a lot of emphasis on the ‘really’ bit. Can I say the same thing now? Sitting in my family car, looking at my family home, I can honestly say that I am delightfully content with my lot. But somewhere along the line, I think I’ve stopped living life abundantly.
So, what should I do about it? Never one to run away from a challenge, I’ve decided to face my own lack of abundance head on. I’m going to be like Margaret and start to live a little. This year, 2014, the year I turn forty, I will do forty things for the first time…
Having read all about the year that followed – busking, tank driving, and Britain’s Got Talent auditions included – I can truly say that Catherine really did succeed in living abundantly. Aside from being an utterly hilarious read, it’s a call to all of us to truly live life abundantly. To make the most of our time here and have fun whilst doing so!