Recalling Who You Are: Feeling The Tingle Of Midlife Restlessness

By Blog and Photos by Gail Gates

“What would you be glad you did–even if you failed?”

–Brene Brown

Have you ever discovered something about yourself while unintentionally eavesdropping?  Or, in the wisdom of cosmic timing, is it an accident to receive what is needed when it is needed? I don’t think so, but then I tend to like the woo-woo moments in life.  On this day, as the scent of coffee permeated the air, I was given an unexpected gift of perspective.

The coffee shop itself was typical…people sipping latte this, or cappuccino that, while hunched over their diversion of choice.  I sat at a small corner table that wobbled each time I jotted notes for an upcoming speaking engagement.  Write, wobble. Write, wobble.  It was a tempo that felt comfortable.  In time a group of older ladies claimed a table next to mine.  They were a happy, slightly rowdy, bunch.  One or two navigated with canes, some held shopping bags, and all carried retail-therapy grins.

As much as I tried to stay attentive to my work, I felt drawn to these women.  One, in particular, fascinated me. Despite her quiet demeanor, she had the whiff of secrets upon her.  She seemed lit from within, the fire barely contained in her beige sweater and matching polyester pants.

From what I could discern through snippets of conversation, she was a soon-to-be-retired librarian.  It was noisy in the coffee shop, and I found it easy to believe she would place a practiced finger to her lips to let out an impressive, “Shhhhhhhh!”  But she didn’t.  Instead, she waited her turn for an audience by sipping on her cardboard cup of too-hot coffee.  When her thin voice broke the cacophony of voices, I stopped to listen.

“One day,” she said, “I realized half my life was over, and I hadn’t done a darn thing that was exciting.”  Gray-haired heads swiveled in her direction and then nodded in a knowing way.  She looked into each of their faces before resuming.

“Midlife caused a crossroad to appear,” she said. “I hadn’t expected it, but once there it was impossible to ignore.  If I stayed on my present path—the one with security via my public servant job—it would have been easy to ride out the next twenty years in the comfort of mundane duties. After that I could retire with fairly decent benefits.”

She paused as if the memory nipped at her.  The women at the table remained silent, waiting for more.  Most looked down, some stared off in the distance.  With a deep intake of breath the librarian continued.

“’Make it to retirement safely’ was what others advised.  But somehow, at midlife, ‘safe and mundane’ stabbed with a thousand knives of doubt.  Was it possible to die from tedium?  Did I really want to find out?”  Once again the women at the table nodded in unison.

How rusty are your dreams“In a burst of clarity, I knew it was time to try another route. No more straight and narrow,” she said.  “I wanted a Master’s degree, so why not get one in Germany?  It would be a grand adventure.  New relationships, new cultures, new vistas and new—well—new everything!  As soon as I received word I had been accepted, I quit my job, put my furniture into storage, and was gone.”

This is great, I thought.  I sipped my iced tea while waiting to hear more about her life in Germany.  The woman, however, left that chapter unspoken.  No matter.  My imagination was filling in the gaps. She had dared to move and live and taste.  How many of us can say that?  I snapped back to the present as she continued her story.

“All too soon it was time to come home.  I had my degree and a new perspective.  No more settling!  Or so I thought.  I returned to a deep and dividing recession.  ‘Reaganomics,’ she said with a dismissive shrug.”

The women around her collectively rolled their eyes and grimaced.  Apparently they had been there, done that.

“Jobs were scarce and, for a middle-aged woman, virtually nonexistent.  With my savings depleted I had to find something, anything, for work.  And that’s how I eventually landed the job as a librarian.  It took me decades to rebuild my nest egg,” she said. “A lot of people, too many who are friends, reminded me that I had been a fool to run off to Europe. What, at my age, had I been thinking?”

The women at her table seemed uncomfortable.  Was it because they had been the naysayers, or was it because they too had once dreamed of escaping?

“But you know what?” she said.  “Even though I never used my Masters degree I would do it again in a heartbeat.”

The gleam in her eyes danced with ungodly joy.

I closed my notebook, gathered my purse, and walked past the table.  It was hard not to give her a hug.  What a gift her story had been.  Midlife. The supposed halfway mark before death.  It is natural to take stock of where we are and, more importantly where we had wanted to be.

As I started to drive the same road home I thought, the librarian clad in beige had the courage to act when midlife restlessness arrived. I stopped for a red light at an intersection.

Did I?

Where will your tingle take you

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