* a quote from Gerald Murphy (see end)
Jimmy Buffet did “A Pirate Looks at Forty” but a lot of us, including Jimmy, are now looking at a much bigger number, and it generates a certain degree of self-reflection.
My high school class of 350+ people recently celebrated our 50th reunion. Of that number, 63 are dead. This is the time in our lives where if you don’t realize you are fortunate to still be here, you are probably oblivious to a lot of other things, as well.
I wasn’t able to attend the reunion, but I’ve been talking with a few of us, via email and FB and sometimes even phone, so I’ve heard some of the stories and seen some of the pictures. In many ways we haven’t changed. I still see the 18 year-olds behind the thicker faces, accented with the lines we’ve earned, now framed in grayer hair. I’m sure that, physical limitations notwithstanding, most of us still feel like we’re about 25.
But we’re not 25, and those intervening years are the ones I was thinking of today.
There have been several classmate updates that have been disturbing and hard to get out of my head. They’ve reminded me how important it is not to put off the things you want to do until you “have the time and money.” Because you might end up with neither.
I was talking with an acquaintance recently about traveling. She is making trips here and there, driving and flying to places she has always wanted to see, now that she “has the time and the money.” When questioned why my husband and I didn’t travel these days, I answered that we had done a lot of traveling in our years together, and we weren’t in a position to do so right now. Whereupon she archly informed me that “we planned for our retirement.” But her husband isn’t well enough to join her on these jaunts, so what was planned? They planned for the money portion, and just assumed they’d both be healthy older people, I guess.
I didn’t plan for retirement. Frankly, I didn’t expect to live to be old enough to do so! If I’d known, I might have socked away some extra funds for travel and all those good things, but here’s the deal: I LIVED LARGE. I lived every minute of my life as if I wouldn’t grow old. I traveled for decades. If I wanted to see a country and couldn’t afford a vacation, I just moved there, and stayed a year, or more. I did what I could to see as much of life and our planet as possible. And I have no regrets.
I did things that scared me, because I knew I’d regret it if I said “no.” Much of my early adult life was a series of spontaneous adventures that might not even be possible in the dangerous world we live in today. Some of the most unlikely choices turned into the most memorable experiences. And, often the scariest adventures brought the most reward.
You have to be willing to take the risk, and be able to say “yes” in the brief moment you get to consider it all.
“Yes, I will take the job,” which can’t be described in much detail because it involves international diplomacy, a (friendly) Middle Eastern country, and constant travel. A job which, while exhausting and demanding enough to wear me out after a couple years, amounted to experiences I’d never imagined. Kings, sultans, queens, world leaders using aliases, secretive meetings in Geneva; it was like a movie script and provided a wealth of knowledge no amount of money or the toniest university could provide.
“Yes, I will help you sail a 35′ boat from Venice to Istanbul in January.” It was an offer I’d never had before, and at 49 was unlikely to have again. And, for every day of icy decks, storms on the Aegean which stranded us in port, and even the Force 9 gale on the Marmara Sea which sank 3 fishing boats around us– it was still one of the best things I’ve ever done.
So, now that I am “old” I have already seen the places I wanted to see. With a few exceptions, I have done most of the things I ever wanted to do. Without compromising my integrity — or my virtue! — I did it all by the skin of my teeth. I would have been an illegal alien in Monaco, so I sang songs in a fancy private club whose owner was connected. I didn’t speak the language well enough to get a job in Slovenija, but I wrote a column for the newspaper — which was evidently translated well enough that the readers laughed in the right places. When I was in between jobs in Charleston, I worked on films and TV shows, in any capacity I could, sometimes even in front of the camera.
I also lived my adventures on my own terms which was, and is, important.
Until my 40s, I was attractive enough to turn a few heads here and there, but I came of age in an era where women were fighting to be recognized for substance and skills, so I never took that easier route. It didn’t feel genuine. And while it’s very likely that looks came into play for the singing and the diplomatic jobs, I couldn’t have done either on looks alone. I’m pretty sure few of us could — even when we were young and cute!
I was brought up by hardy Scandinavians who believed you could do anything you put your mind to, and that as long as you carried your own weight, and took care of your responsibilities, it wasn’t important to acquire a lot of “stuff” or show off your accomplishments. So, it wasn’t at the top of my list to have a ginormous house or win an Academy Award.
Instead, I set out to see the world and learn as much as I could about everything along the way! And I did it all when I was young enough to enjoy it to the fullest. But even in my late forties I worked on a farm in Italy, slinging bales of hay, milking sheep, working non-stop all day every day. It saved my life! I called it “therapy with sheep,” and it was like a year and a half long physical “boot camp.”
“Can you do this?” “I don’t know, but I’ll try” has pretty much been the mantra of my life.
Maybe it was growing up in Maine. My son’s father was a blue-water sailor and after sailing out of Maine for 4 years, and then getting to know my Maine friends in Las Vegas, he determined he would always want Mainers on a crew, “because they are reliable and no-nonsense.” There aren’t many drama queens in Maine. If you throw us a knife and tell us to cut a line, we’ll do it and ask questions later.
Maybe it was growing up on the coast and getting a taste of the exotic, watching the boats come in and looking up the places where they were from. Maybe it was just the simple desire to not settle. I never wanted to be the person who woke up one morning when her kids were grown and wished she’d chosen a different path. So I took all the different paths I could!
And I am very content in my 60s to write about what I’ve seen and done. I don’t need more adventures. I’m very content living in the middle of the ACE Basin surrounded by swamp, listening to the frogs in my back yard and thrilling to the sight of a painted bunting, or a group of deer under the trees.
So, for me, living well is just living. Thrilling to the little beauties of daily life, being thankful for having had a fabulous one, and being thankful to be alive long enough to reflect. And part of living well is knowing that I’ve done everything I could to have an interesting, fulfilling life, without leaving the bucket list until it was too late to do it.
Not everyone is built to jump on the boat to Jamaica at the drop of a hat, but what I would advise any young person is to grab the opportunities that grab you. Don’t pass up the chance to do something you really want to do because it doesn’t look like the sensible choice. If you really want it, and you can do it without hurting someone else, or leaving someone in the lurch, grab it! Go! Even if it doesn’t turn out like you expect, at least you won’t be left wishing you’d done it. And it’ll probably be a great story!
* The Murphys, Gerald and Sara, were Americans of privilege who, in the 1920s rejected what was expected of them, moved to France, and became some of the first bohemians. Their homes in Paris and Antibes became centers of hospitality, and of a circle of creative friends including Cole Porter, Ernest Hemingway, Stravinsky and many others, and their friendship with F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald became the (somewhat controversial) basis of “Tender is the Night.” I’ve always chosen to abide by the adage, rather than worry what others saw or thought about me.