When I was 29 I was told that I was going to die. Flinty-eyed neurologists announced I had an inoperable tumour and the best that they could do was recommend I get my family counselling. I had to wean my youngest child before I went to hospital to hear this cheery news. I guess it’s clear they got it wrong! And the resultant chronic pain is worth the price.
But it was a useful process: started me re-evaluating my little world. It was like waking after sleep walking and wondering where the hell you are.
So here’s what I’ve discovered about growing older — and why I totally rejoice in it, despite the steadily sagging face and dough-ball body that greet me in the mirror every day.(N.B. I have no doubt that there are many many wiser people than me who figured this out in their youth — I guess I’m a slow learner and had to sit the practical test to knock it consciously into my head.)
- I no longer care what people think of me! There’s a rider to that: I care deeply what the people I respect and love think about me, but I’m no longer ruled by this impossible adolescent desire for universal approval and love. I can’t believe how freeing it is! Part of it, of course, comes with the discovery that a woman over a ‘certain age’ (which seems to lower every year!) is suddenly rendered invisible to the larger world. After growing up very publically in a small town, where every move and imagined move was twisted and reported, you have no idea how much I value this. And, oddly, acceptance of my invisibility has made me bolder — now able to express myself in ways I was too timid to express before. I simply don’t care if I offend the people who are ethically and morally at odds with me — now I believe the issues I speak out on are too important to be silenced by petty ego (me!)
- I’ve learned it’s okay to be angry — but not to blast individual people (though I exclude most politicians, despots and corporate mercenaries here, some of whom barely fit the pre-requisites of the term ‘human being’) My anger feeds me energy to fight for what I see as right... to write for what I see is right. I want to change the world, simple as that. And though I know I have no power to do this on my own I’m going to have a damn good try. I don’t want to be faced with my next death-bed experience and have regrets that I could have done more to pave a better future for my kids — I want to go to my deserved rest with pride that I spoke out for people who were disempowered to speak up for themselves. I gave birth to my beautiful children: it will always be my responsibility to help keep them healthy and safe. And my grandkids (if it’s meant to be, no pressure kids!)... and their grandkids too.
- I can choose my friends! I mean, really choose them. When you’re younger your friendships are defined by who you travel with through school, jobs, plunket, day care, your kids’ schools and friends... it’s only once they leave home and you are free of all these ties that you can look around and really decide who’s in or out! You can choose friends for their qualities, not merely because they are convenient at the time. I don’t mean that I don’t value the friends I’ve had during those stages of my life (some of my dearest friendships were formed during these times), but now I can exercise more control about the choices as I move forward. I think we fear that once we reach this age we’re too old to meet new friends. Not at all. Even in the last year I’ve met new friends who stimulate me, care for me, warm up my heart. Every year I make friends from among the novel course I teach. I have no doubt at all that this will go on till I die. Again, this knowledge is extremely freeing, restraining the little child who fears friendlessness that still resides in the dark corners of our head.
- By this stage of my life I’ve had to face my own inadequacies and failures and, as a result, am now far more tolerant of others. I’ve learnt that there is good in (just about) everyone, and that if we show interest and compassion it’s easy to bridge any sort of perceived gap. Leading interactions from the heart is the key. Along with this lesson is the ability to laugh at myself — and trust me, there’s a lot to laugh about!
- I’ve learnt it’s true that the older we get the wiser we get (so long as we’re consciously working towards this!) The accumulated experience of my life has opened doors to worlds I’d never have thought to enter in my youth. I’ve discovered a love for learning that I didn’t acknowledge (or take enough advantage of) during my formal school years. I love the capacity of my brain – and the wonderful magic that is creativity.
- And I’ve had to fight against the road-block of perfectionism — which saw me giving up on many things because I couldn’t master them straight away. But by doggedly sticking at writing despite the times of despondency, it has given me some level of competency now – and I’m incredibly grateful I’ve stuck at it to reach this point.
- I’ve made a pact never to lie about the important things (yeah, I know, a slight cop out to have that rider, but sometimes what good does it do to tell someone that their bum really does look big in that?!) And not only to tell the truth, but to let people know how I feel. If someone looks great, even if I don’t know them, I’ll tell them now. If someone does something I admire I’ll tell them too. And though at times it’s hugely exposing and personal to speak about the hard things in my life, I’ve learnt that by opening up I offer other’s a chance to open up too. This is really important to me and I have received enormous gifts of wellbeing in return.
- (damn it - can't get rid of this stray bullet point!!)
- I’ve decided to reclaim the word (children and prudes look away!) cunt! It’s a woman’s word, so let’s start using it with love. I mean, how amazing to tell someone they’re a ... beautiful part of women’s genitalia!! We should be celebrating it! Claiming it back from the realm of insult and owning it! It’s the place from which all life springs.
- Lastly, and most importantly, I’ve learned that nothing else matters more than love. Love of my family, love of my environment, love of all the good people in the world. Martin Luther King Jnr says: ‘In times of conflict ask yourself what is the most loving thing to do?’ I try to live by this now — imagine what a different world we’d have if those in power practised this as well. The truth is there is nothing more important than this. If we reacted to others with love at every instance, from their moment of birth, think how many of our social problems would be instantly solved. Without the love of my family I’d be nothing. My gratitude towards them knows no bounds.
Half way through writing this I had to stop and go to the funeral of a dear friend’s mother. Kathy was an inspirational woman — who spent her life empowering other women and helping them find their creative voice. Today her gorgeous granddaughters ran the service, all of them writing and speaking with such assurance. This is what we should be striving for – to empower our young women and young men to reach their full potential. That’s why I write YA fiction. Simple as that!