I am not a ‘numbers’ person. I failed my Year Twelve maths half-yearly because I preferred to read the examples rather than practice them. Then my parents hired a handsome, exceptionally tall swiss math’s tutor called Kris, and I sat down and worked. Sort of.
And yet, despite my arithmetic deficiencies, for the last few weeks, I’ve found myself circling equations in my head, drawing different pathways and combinations, all with one terminus.
THAT number, with it’s accompanying dour, hedged-in tagline: ‘middle-aged’. That denominator I always thought belonged to someone else. Someone who was more ‘adulty’, who inhabited their skin with greater surety, possession, accomplishment. In short: Not me.
But maybe not you either (if you so happen to be walking this particular life bridge with me). Because it’s only when you step inside something, that you see, often for the first time, that you never really saw it clearly after all.
I had my hair coloured and cut this past week. For the first time in six months. For some reason indecipherable to me, I am bolder with my hair than with most things in life. Go ahead, I say to the figure behind me holding scissors at my ear, do what you think is best. The result this time: a zealous young woman with a semi-shaved head took my walk-in-with-the-kids gusto seriously and attacked my thick mop with abandon. I appreciated her thinning out my excessive locks, but two days later, as I sat in a second chair to have my hair coloured, I reaped the result. ‘I hate dissing another hairdresser,’ said the young colourist attending to me, ‘but she’s hacked you quite a bit.’
Usually, I try for no more than a half-head of hair colour, to keep the price low. But professional number two suggested due to the feverish prune I’d received only days earlier, I’d need a full colour to balance it all out. And not look, well, weird. I considered his advice for a moment.
‘Full for forty,’ I heard myself say, as I watched that starting to grey, eager-to-fix-it woman in the mirror, mouth the words. ‘Im turning 40,’ I explained to hairdresser no 2’s shiny, maybe late-twenties reflection. I waited for something. Anything. No reaction. I realized then, he wasn’t surprised. I’ve always been one of those young looking people, ID still being tagged at 25, disbelief that I was 30, let alone 35, but this time he said nothing. Maybe, it was as I feared. Age was finally flagging me down,
But back to arithmetic. What are those calculations I’ve spent so much mental time and space attending to recently? Well, they have to do with the past, the past twenty-two years, to be precise. That is, the approximate duration of my adulthood.
Ridiculous as it sounds, I’ve found myself lining up the events and achievements of my life and assigning them value (or lack thereof). Three children in four years, not bad after a very late start. Tick. But still no driving proficiency. Cross. Higher degree. Tick. But lack of work experience. Cross. Writing skills grown. Tick. But lack of publishing experience. Big fat, red, cross. You get the idea. For every gain, there’s a reason for self-blame. And, truth is, the equation isn’t just ugly on the crosses column. The whole system is wrong. Life isn’t a series of achievements or failures. It isn’t even, I’d argue, measurable in a metric of milestones.
Life is made of a million moments—-visible and hidden. Life is less of the neatly arranged certainty of maths, and more of the messy, unpredictable medium, of art.
And life is about more than just me.
What a dead phone, a waitress and a cocktail taught me about keeping time
As I’m writing this I’m sitting in a farmstay cabin in Byron Bay. I’ve joked with friends that it’s all a bit ‘Eat, Pray, Love.’ A woman tottering on the edge of 39, escaping to a place renowned for freedom and self-expression (in a mini-van with her three kids in the back screaming for snacks, her husband beside her faithfully steering through the chaos.) But we’ve never been to Byron before, largely because when we lived in Sydney the drive was too long to consider, but now, only two hours from Brisbane, it seemed the time to seize the opportunity. I booked for the long weekend, not realising that it wasn’t actually a long weekend after all in Queensland. Mistake Number One. See, life’s like that. Full of errors and miscalculations.
The farm property is beautiful. We’ve loved the chance to sit on the verandah and watch the animals on the hills and the lake below. Oh so pastoral and peaceful. Except that our daughter has had a fever, and our sons have enough energy and verbal force to make up their own barnyard symphony. But life’s like that, quiet, but also noisy. Predictably inconsistent.
Today, after a long morning spent at the farm, where our kids made friends with the next-door cabin kids and played imaginatively in the field for a blessed hour of parental bliss, we went into town, where lunch was a disaster worthy of emergency intervention. Over-hungry and feeding on each other’s discontent, our three-person tribe rallied enough protest to direct condemning stares from several of our fellow cafe patrons.
In an act of husbandly sacrifice, Dr M took our tired crew home to the cabin, while I took time to wander the Byron streetscape, dipping in and out of shops lilting with acoustic music and wafting scented candles, emerging again to the street to the sea-breeze waving gently over me. I carried on like this for some time, until the shops closed, and I made my way to the beach for sunset.
That’s when I discovered my phone was almost out of battery and I needed to be able to contact Dr M to arrange a meeting place to pick me up. Mistake number 3. That’s when blissful beachy turned to sinking-in -the-sand predicament.
Thankfully, we’d made a rough plan to meet near a particular restaurant/bar on the beachfront. What I didn’t know was exactly when, or how we’d find eachother. As it was getting dark and cold (well, Byron-cold) I made my way over to the restaurant and entered via the bar door. I waited nervously to be seated, glancing over surreptitiously at the candlelit area, hoping I would be okay taking up a table with something as small as a cup of tea so close to dinner time. ‘Come in,’ the waitress smiled at me when I explained my situation, with, I’m sure, far more words than were necessary (I babble when uncomfortable). She apologised she didn’t have a charger to help with my phone problem, but said it was fine for me to wait as long as I needed. She sat me down on the verandah, with a prime view of the beach in the late stages of orange sundown, and left a drinks menu with me, telling me she’d come back in a moment.
I opened the pages and hesitated. I’d only thought I’d order a tea, but this was clearly a cocktail menu. When was the last time I ordered a cocktail? Sometime in the early 2000’s? And on my own. But something inside me told me to take a chance, and when the waitress returned, a wide smile lighting her face, her nose ring glinting in the candlelight, I found myself requesting one of the pricey cocktails. ‘I’m turning 40 tomorrow, I heard myself confess (again).
My waitress, who was Irish (half of Byron is from Europe, it appears) congratulated me and gave me a wink as she took my menu. But it was what happened next that really caught me by surprise. The lady in the seat in front of me, also flying solo at sunset, turned, and with a hesitant openness asked to see my phone. I held it toward her. ‘I have a charger that will fit, ‘ she said. ‘Why don’t we plug it in while we have our drinks.’
I’ll cut to the chase and say, my cocktail arrived and it was delicious. The lady in front of me and I talked for a few minutes and then continued to sit in companionable silence, which is even better than the quiet of complete alone, and my phone returned to me in the arms of the Irish waitress, alive and well. And sometime after that, our minivan pulled up along beside me, and like Cinderella at midnight, I rushed to go home.
But really, why am I telling you (and me) all this? Why waste all this space telling such a relatively simple story, when I began with so much desperate uncertainty, trying to make the events of my life form somehow into a meaningful, acceptable whole.
Well, because, as I said above, time isn’t so easily measured and quantified. Nor is our Creator limited in his capacity to work. Who’s to say, that that moment of interaction between strangers, that cocktail gift on the beach, is any less significant than all the accolade-worthy moments, or soul-crushing failures.
I guess what I’m saying is, life doesn’t need to be interrogated for its worth. It just is. Whether turning forty or fourteen, we needn’t worry about the corner time has us pinned into, or what we think we have or don’t have in our hands to show for it. Rather we need only turn and face the next step, not casting eyes back to the shadows, nor too far into the future.
Forty is not finally arriving, but continuing forward, as we always have. And yes, it brings with it time’s growth, but it does not need to carry a burden of years. Like a child, we need always and only walk beside the timeless one. And love freely, whenever the occasion arises. Big, or small. Just like a grinning cocktail waitress with a glinting nose ring, or a stranger at sunset who just so happens to be seated in front of you.