A year ago I was sitting at O’Hare airport waiting to board American Airlines flight #54 to Manchester, England. A riotous storm had just barreled through town so a timely takeoff was unlikely. In order for the airline to claim an on-time departure, we boarded and left the gate at the designated time but sat on the runway for two hours where we were offered granola bars as a distraction before embarking on the eight hour flight.
My mistake was thinking I could be distracted or even relax enough to catch some sleep during the overnight flight. If I had made this trip before or was sharing this adventure with a friend, I might have succeeded. But since I was traveling alone to a foreign country to spend a week with strangers, I felt like I was leaping off a cliff.
Now I have leapt enough times to know I will grow wings on the way to what looks like certain death. I have even written a book about it. (If you are interested in Read It and Leap, email me and I’ll tell you how to get a copy.)
Still, this trip was different.
This was one of those trips that define a life. There was my life before the hiking trip with poet David Whyte and my life after. So in some ways, I was facing the imminent death of life as I knew it. As I flew east into the light throughout the night, I couldn’t close my eyes for fear I might miss the instructions on how to navigate the afterlife.
For most people a European vacation might have happened much earlier in life and involved a backpack and Eurorail pass instead of a two checked bags and a carry on. But I’m a firm believer in reinventing your life at any age and traveling light, despite the checked bags. When the planets align and give you a sign and you happen to have a current passport, you are duty bound to heed the call of the wild.
Instead of attending my high school reunion, I boarded a plane and headed to Melmerby Manor, where twenty members of my new tribe awaited my arrival as if they had been waiting thirty years for our reunion.
Like most true adventures, I really had no idea what was in store for us for the next seven days. I knew there would be hiking. I just hadn’t anticipated five hours of intense hiking in breathtaking locales each day.
I knew there would be poetry. I just didn’t know how incredible it would be to hear it from the source in the land of his ancestors.
I thought there might be rain but was delighted to discover it was sunny every day and stayed light until almost 11pm.
I figured there would be interesting food. I just hadn’t expected the world’s best organic bakery to provide our midday meals and sack lunches for the hikes. Or that sustenance could come as much from conversation while making the evening meals as from the meals themselves.
I knew I would make new friends. I just had no idea how meaningful these bonds would become since opportunities to make new friends aren’t always as prevalent at midlife as they are when we are younger.
One of the great lines in David’s poem Learning to Walk speaks to the fact that at midlife we are “present enough to know true friends when we meet them” and “mature enough to keep them for a lifetime.”
Six of these new friends have agreed to help me write a book about our experience in The Lake District. On one particular hike we lost our way, therefore dubbing ourselves The Lost Ladies of Cumbria. Of course, we eventually found our way back to the rest of the group. In the process we discovered so many parallels between getting lost on the hike and getting lost at midlife, we decided to collect them along with our stories for anyone who might dare to follow in our footsteps.
We all met again this April at the Whidbey Institute on Whidbey Island near Seattle where David hosted a reunion weekend for those who had been on any of his tours over the years. We spent five days getting reacquainted and plotting and planning what is to become The Lost Ladies of Cumbria book, blog, and guides to just about everything. In a very short time, these women have become an essential part of my life.
When you take an educated leap, not only do you grow the wings I mentioned earlier, but you also gain a sense of self that may have become dormant in your everyday life.
For example, who would know I love to travel when my daily commute is five minutes from door to office and an hour to visit friends and family on the weekend?
Who would suspect I’m really quite funny when my day job is advising students on such serious matters as what to be when they grow up and overseeing the daily operations of a new satellite campus?
Who would guess that walking and writing are as essential to my well-being as eating and sleeping?
Who would know that inside you, just like me, there lies “some wild risk about to break again on the world”* given the slightest opportunity?
If you are reading this, I’m counting on you to leap when that opportunity arises.
And then you must tell us about it.
This is how the Midlife MacGyver Movement begins!
*From Learning to Walk by David Whyte.
I recently read a book by Steven Pressfield called Do The Work that suggests we start before we’re ready. Start what, you ask? Well, anything. Writing a blog, for example.
I must admit that after a year of playing around with the idea of a blog, researching blogs, reading other people’s blogs, and doing everything but writing my own blog, I’m still not sure I can deliver an exciting, insightful, or adventurous read on a regular basis.
And yet, starting the blog was exactly what I needed to do to catapult myself out of the middle of things that don’t matter so much and land right in the midst of things that do.
Most of us are in the middle of something. Whether it be the middle of a thought, the middle of a sentence, the middle of a meeting, the middle of the year, the middle of an exercise program, or the middle of a midlife crisis, we really don’t like to be interrupted. Especially to attend to new projects requiring immense effort or the corralling of creative forces that could quite possibly matter even more than whatever we’re in the middle of.
Before opening my eyes in the morning I consider the possibility of something new. But then I step out of bed and am assaulted by fifteen things that ought to be done before going to the office, all equally pressing.
I convince myself there will be sufficient energy left over at the end of the day to fuel the new project. Sadly, the results are the same as when I expect snow peas to be left over from yesterday’s chicken with mixed vegetables. Energy and snow peas are in limited supply. Fatigue and baby corn, however, are endless.
And yet some things insist on finding their way.
Like the “overnight success” that follows forty years of perfecting a craft, one fine day our work will arrive fully formed on the scene after being imagined into existence in the odd moments between meetings, transporting people here and there, advising students, consoling friends, getting groceries, sorting laundry, and planning an escape.
Of course that day will arrive when we least expect it but in a moment when we are fully capable of meeting it and ushering it into the world. The key is not to hesitate.
There are just too many things to frighten the life out of us. Not because we haven’t experienced these things but because at this point in our lives, we have. We’re acutely aware of what we have to lose.
Strangely enough these are not the things that we might have been afraid of losing at an earlier age – money, sex appeal, a partner, our looks, the corner office. We can survive hits to our ego. The things we fear losing now have to do with our soul’s significance.
What if the dream we’ve been nurturing for all these years turns out to be a dud, a flop, failure, fiasco? What then?
When we’re younger we can blame our mistakes on inexperience, cockiness, or immaturity. We also believe we have time to recover.
But what happens if we fail at forty-four or fifty-five or sixty-seven? Shouldn’t we know better? How do we recover from mistakes at midlife?
My thought is that we simply begin again. Steven Pressfield’s is that we start before we’re ready. Buddha’s is that life is suffering. Yoda’s is there is no try, just do.
So whatever it might be that you’re hankering to breathe life into, perhaps today is the day to do so. In my experience sooner is better than later, given the snow pea situation.
Just don’t wait until you’re ready.
We both know that for this particular passion, you’re already as ready as you’ll ever be.
Anyone can be bold and adventurous at 9, 19, even 29.
Being bold and adventurous at 39, 49, 59, and beyond demands a different battle cry. I don’t know about you, but at this point in my life I need more than a tweet to get me out of my seat and on the road to revolution.
It’s a daring plan, of course, to simply be yourself, live life on your own terms, follow your dreams, and live an unconventional life. I know. It’s been my life’s mission.
That’s how I learned that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. The unspoken societal opposition to our personal declaration of independence goes something like this: Be yourself … as long as it’s not too different, unconventional, creepy, quirky, weird, or utterly inexplicable to potential employers.
So the natural reaction is to veer away from the edge where you keep a safe enough distance from your dreams that you think they are still within reach. But unless you venture back out to the edge on a consistent basis, the safety net becomes more like a maximum security prison and you discover you’ve given the keys to any number of jailors.
Of course, you may not realize this until something or someone makes you to feel old or obsolete. You may not have noticed before because everyone else was doing the same thing and you may have gotten really good at it. Furthermore, you may have been compensated exceptionally well for it.
But sooner or later the grumbling starts. The call of the wild cannot be silenced. This is when you find yourself cruising the self-help or travel sections of your favorite bookstore, or if it’s out of business, your iPhone, iPad, Nook, or Kindle bookstore.
There you discover success books and blog posts written by those who are living large in a global community. Yes, they will help you remember what it is that sparks your curiosity, lights a fire in your belly, and makes you do things others might consider ridiculous.
And while these rising stars will remind you of things you have forgotten and long to reclaim, they may not be able to help you negotiate your current reality, simply because they cannot yet imagine a life that deviates from the dream.
Who would want to imagine a world where one might need to know how to handle a hotflash while wearing a turtleneck, how to manage a midlife meltdown without alienating everyone you know, how to gracefully give up your job to the more affordable intern you trained as your assistant, what to call something besides “thingy” when you can no longer remember the word for everyday items such as spatula or doorknob, or what to do when an aging parent shows up for lunch without pants?
No, in order to perpetuate the dream, these things are better left unsaid.
Enter Midlife MacGyver where all you really need to revolutionize your midlife experience is duct tape and a Swiss Army knife.
If you are of a certain age, I don’t even need to explain. But in case you never had the opportunity or desire to watch the American action-adventure television series, allow me to explain. Angus MacGyver was a secret agent who could work his way out of any situation. He preferred peaceful resolutions to skirmishes which meant he didn’t carry a gun. He was smart, optimistic, easy-going and very resourceful. He was able to solve complex problems simply by using everyday items he found wherever he happened to be. Duct tape and a Swiss Army knife were perpetually present.
To join the Midlife MacGyver Movement , you are going to need these same skills. You will also need to have your senses about you. Specifically, a sense of adventure, a sense of humor, a sense of self, a sense of compassion, a sense of community, a sense of humility, and a sense of grace and gratitude.
Shall we start the revolution then?
Shall we speak of unspeakable adventures?
Shall we reclaim our fierce potential with honor and a healthy dose of humor?
If so, I will meet you at the edge.