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Why Midlife Rites Of Passage Are Important and What We Can Learn from Them

For centuries, Rites Of Passage have been used to to celebrate milestones and act as place markers for both endings and new beginnings. So why, in our culture, are they so conspicuously absent from the second half of our lives?

I set off on my ‘golden gap’ adventure, knowing that I was looking for something, but unsure what that something was or where I would find it. Now, here I am, two and a half months in, sitting in a little hilltop town in Croatia, pondering if I am any closer to uncovering those answers that I set out to find.

It’s funny how things unfold if you let them. In the lead up to this trip, I daydreamed about the romantic notion of embracing my inner gypsy and just taking off on a whim and a prayer. Then I proceeded to make a cup of tea and spend the next seven hours researching and spread sheeting, to satisfy my very ‘un-gypsy’ like obsession with planning. You see, I am to planning, as Federer is to tennis. My life until now has been meticulously scripted with little or no room for ad-libbing. But increasingly, I have been itching to move out from behind the safety of my precisely penned lines and bust out some freestyle life moves.

And it seems that the universe has been listening. I was not ‘scheduled’ to come to Croatia this week, but in a desperate attempt to squeeze a few more days out of my European visa (and not wanting to feature in an episode of Banged Up Abroad), I decided to reroute my trip. I looked at a map, picked a town just over the Slovenian border, found a hotel and booked a bus ticket for the following day (very spontaneous and un-me) … but lo and behold it has proven to be a wonderful surprise. The hilltop town of Motovun is serene and stunning and has not only solved my visa dilemma, but also provided me with some much-needed downtime to write, reflect and regroup. I am not quite ready to go completely cold (itinerary) turkey, but I am keen to experiment with incorporating a few more free style moves into both my travel and life repertoire. 

Lesson One : LET GO (or at least loosen my grip) …. Trust in the timing of the universe to take me on an awesome adventure  (and then google the aforementioned adventure to determine the best route)…. #babysteps

This travelling alone thing has opened my eyes and my mind in other ways I could never have imagined. Most notably to the fact that (both literally and metaphorically) … “there is more than one way.” The first half of my life has followed a well-worn and predictable path. School followed by university, career, marriage, kids and divorce. A path that unfolded more by default than design, navigated using societal compass points rather than consciously piloting my own direction. I was so focussed on navigating this first half of my journey that I neglected to think about what would come next. Maybe I misplaced the memo that warned of my impending parental redundancy. Or maybe I skimmed over it and filed it away under “C” for confronting or “T” for too hard. However it happened, I find myself here, knocking on the door of fifty, without any idea of which path to take now. Tradition would suggest that I should be winding down not up, but I just can’t accept that my greatest successes are behind me. I am officially free, to do what I want, and yet I feel simultaneously liberated, elated and alarmed because not only do I not know what that is, but I don’t know where to start looking. For the past two decades ‘my why’ has been my family, but as that role transitions into a more part time position, I have been left feeling decidedly ‘whyless.’ And I don’t think that I am alone. I have observed that a state of “whylessness” seems widespread in women around my age and stage. All these smart, savvy, switched on women, who have been curiously caught off guard, having not acknowledged far less prepared for this next stage of life, which thanks to the longevity revolution may well last for another four decades.

I need to untangle myself from a life whose foundations have been built on expectations, appearances and other people’s measures of success and muster the courage to redefine what it means to be and to rediscover my “why.” There will be the inevitable raised eyebrows, furtive glances and murmurings of a midlife crisis, but Iwon’t apologise for wanting to squeeze every last ounce of possibility and opportunity out of my life. To want for anything less would be the real definition of a crisis.

Lesson Two: The three C’s – Don’t compare. Be courageous. Stay curious.

Having said all that … I should point out that I am the girl who would be voted least likely to engage in any new age, woo-woo journeys of self-discovery… And when did searching for your passion even become a thing? I don’t recall having to brainstorm it as a child. At around age eight, I remember telling my Mum; “When I grow up, I want to be a ballerina, a flute teacher and have one hundred babies” … in that order. In my idealistic and innocent mind, this was an entirely plausible goal and my talent (or lack thereof) as a flautist or ballerina was of little or no consequence. Anything was possible, time was infinite and I believed that I could be or do whatever it was that my heart desired. I wasn’t completely naïve however, as I also recall that it was my intention to; “build another house on top of your house mummy” … presumably so that she could help care for the one hundred babies, while I was off juggling my commitments to the Royal Ballet and the Conservatorium of Music. Curiously, there was no mention of a father figure, and nor did I ever picture my hundred babies growing into surly, attitude laden teenagers. Funny that. 

As time marched on and life unfolded, the long list of dreams from my youth got filed away, ready to resume, when the time was right. Until one day, I woke up and realised that ‘the right time’ never came or if it did, I missed it. What happened to that life I was destined for? The one I always thought I’d have time to make happen. It’s a mysterious phenomenon, how time both speeds up and counts down simultaneously as we age. This tug-of war with time has sparked a newfound sense of urgency for me around unearthing that elusive thing that will light my fire for the next fifty years and plotting a storyline that I can look forward to.

So …what better way to start these new chapters than with an adventure of a lifetime? An adventure that has already opened my eyes to a whole new world of opportunities and pushed me so far out of my comfort zone, that I doubt that I will ever find my way back there. I am ready to embrace the uncertainty and dare to reimagine who I might yet become. OK …. so maybe I missed the boat on those additional 98 babies and the professional ballerina gig … but the rest is fair game. The right time is now and in the end, I suspect that I will only regret the chances I didn’t take

Lesson 3: “It’s never too late to start anything, except maybe being a ballerina.” – Wendy Liebman

I am aware that it’s not ‘the norm’ for a fifty-year-old woman to take off on a six-month, solo adventure, gallivanting around the world … and while a part of me feels all Helen Reddy … “watch me roar” …, another part of me feels like I should pull my head in and do something sensible and ‘adulty.’ As a mum, my self-worth and value feels inextricably linked to how well I’ve supported the people I love and how consistently I have put other people’s needs before my own. Over the years, I have gradually come to correlate servitude with success. So, pushing myself up the pecking order feels about as natural as twerking. But, if a generation of over indulged teenagers can justify needing a year to regroup and recover from the grind and drudgery of a few years of study (with a support crew tending to their every need), then … HELLO PEOPLE … surely we can demonstrate a more a dire need for some time out. After twenty plus years of juggling parenting, partnering, careers and caring, surely we’ve earned our own rite of passage to reflect, reboot and regroup in preparation for the start of a new chapter. 

For centuries, Rites Of Passage, like gap years, graduations, twenty-firsts and weddings have been used to mark the transition from one stage of life to another. To celebrate milestones and act as place markers for both endings and new beginnings. So why, in our culture, are they all so squished into the first half of our lives and so conspicuously absent from the second? Maybe it’s because the unspoken inference is that there is not much to celebrate after 50. Or is it self-fulfilling? If we don’t make time to consciously acknowledge and celebrate milestones and transitions, then by virtue of that, we have nothing to celebrate! So it might seem extravagant, but my golden gap adventure is more than just a holiday. It’s a rite of passage, marking my transition from full time to part time parenting and celebrating my own golden jubilee. 

Lesson 4Acknowledge endings and celebrate new beginnings

As extravagant as it might seem, my golden gap rite of passage is giving me the space to reflect … both backwards and forwards. To clear the clutter and rediscover what it means to be me. I have always loved to write, but only recently did I realise just how valuable it was for me as a tool of self-discovery. As I write, I become both the therapist and the patient. I see things from new perspectives, almost objectively as though I am looking through a different lens or a new set of eyes. Words give a voice to my thoughts. They bring them to life and deliver clarity through the clutter. They support me to download my thoughts and clear space in my mind. Through writing, I am able to muster all the fragments of memories that are flitting around in my head, using words to securely corral them into a story for safekeeping. I can see a power in stories beyond entertainment or information. They let us weave together memories of where we’ve come from, give meaning to who we are and provide clarity around where we’re going. 

I am certain that stories need to be a part of “my why.” I want to embrace my love of writing, give a voice to all the untold stories inside me and encourage other women reimagine a second half via their own stories that fill them with passion and purpose. We all have stories to tell and we can all learn from each other’s. My story is both uniquely mine, but also echoes of a million other stories. The details might be different but the themes remain the same. And that is another magical thing about stories. They make us realise that we are not alone. They connect us. Maybe, the stories that I share will resonate with others who will be able to weave a few threads into their own stories or extract a little piece of advice or inspiration that resonates and plants a seed of an idea that might grow into something amazing

Lesson 5:  Our stories are the custodians of our memories. Our stories matter. 

And so here I am, approaching the halfway point of my ‘golden gap’ and feeling a mashup of mixed emotions. I always thought that it was the ‘unknown’ that I was scared of, but on reflection I think that I was more afraid of ‘the known’ coming to an end. A part of me is still pining for the familiarity and security that has warmed my world for the past twenty years and a part of me feels liberated and excited by the infinite possibilities of all the ‘unknowns’ that lie ahead. I have given up searching for answers. I am content sitting amongst my questions, that are opening doors in my mind to rooms I didn’t know existed. I am gradually edging my way back into the driver’s seat … pen poised, ready to start writing the second half of my story. I’ve only got myself to blame if it’s a boring one.

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