Only recently I was thinking about my life and the decisions I had made to get to where I am now. Last year I turned 50 and this year I retire from my medical career, so it's not surprising I may be doing a little reflecting. Which got me thinking about what each decade of my life had meant for me, and where this decade will take me.
Obviously the first 2 decades were for growing up. I left home at 17 to go to university and never looked back.
In my 20s I finished my university degree and began working, but I was still trying to decide exactly where my career path would take me. I travelled overseas for 2 years (one day these adventures will all wind up on the blog) and on a beach in Dahab Egypt, whilst teaching a young bedouin girl with only one eye how to make friendship bracelets, I decided that a career in public health/3rd world medicine was what I'd like to do. Since most people working in this field back then were obstetricians or paediatricians, when I returned to Australia I began that path - in my case paediatrics.
So my 20s were about working out who I was and who I wanted to be.
At some point I turned 30, and had the sudden realisation that here I was, single, with no financial security. It was time to let go of the fairy tale dream of meet a man, settle down, buy a house, have children, live happily ever after. Sure that might still happen, but tying my financial security to a relationship suddenly seemed a bit foolhardy. Pragmatism rearing its head, within 2 weeks of my 30th birthday I'd bought a house!!
My 30s was the decade of career, although there were many dips in that journey. I did a Masters in Public Health, which got my thinking all muddled up and made passing an individualistic Paediatric Fellowship exam rather difficult. I got through the theory exams fine, and then barely failed my clinicals, but by then I was seeing a new path emerging so I gave the Paediatrics away and began my new career in Aboriginal Health. This turned out to be the right choice: just the right mixture of interesting medicine and public health, and "third world" at times too. Even better, it was paid well. It still irks me that so few Australian doctors care enough to work in Aboriginal Health, somehow thinking it's "too hard" for them. It's not hard, and it's incredibly rewarding, and I don't regret one moment of my time working with and for the first peoples of Australia.
My 30s also saw me working further on setting up my financial future, through investments and tax minimisation, and accumulating wealth. Sadly, no man in shining armour turned up either!
By the time I hit 40 I had moved to Geraldton WA and settled in to my job working for an Aboriginal Medical Service. I had also bought a beach house and I think I would characterise my 40s as a decade of nesting. Settling in to a place, renovating, caringly nurturing a garden. Building both my spiritual and material wealth, finding a balance between work and leisure, enjoying great friendships, eating healthy food and exercising regularly, and beginning to travel more extensively. Also finding my inner ski goddess!!
My 50s will be about dancing. I have borrowed this idea from a book by Michael Katakis: A Thousand Shards of Glass, which is a book of essays on the decline of America and American people into an uncaring plutocracy with little compassion for anyone but the self interest of the mega wealthy. It is a deeply critical look at the failure of Americans to protest against the rising interests of big corporations, the war mongering, and complete lack of moral ethics. I see huge similarities with our current government in Australia, but am hopeful that we will rise up as decent Australians and do something about it. Or else we are doomed.
".... our obsession with our devices now allows us to make even more lists, and these devices are with us at all times, and they do not, as many insist, connect us to the world as much as distance us from it. We move from screen to screen, rarely seeing life take place in the spaces between. Escalating convenience has been a very profitable lie but with a very high cost. Increasingly, we are leaving little room in our lives for chance itself to sweep us off our feet. Step by step we are stripping away the small, beautiful things, replacing them not with each other but with illusions of control and efficiency, while in actuality we are simply becoming more frazzled, with a constant and nagging feeling that something has been left undone. Something has. We have forgotten to dance…..
….. The dance, of course, is a metaphor for letting life in. For being more thoughtful and kind, more generous and, finally, free of implacable ideologies that close the mind and harden the heart. it is so much more fun to be engaged in the world rather than to constantly be afraid of it. Are there dangers? Of course there are, but the greatest danger is sitting out the dance and coming to the end of one's life only to discover that the finite and precious time has been spent in denial and fear. "
This obsession with wealth creation and consumerism is such a con. Having time to stop and appreciate the poetry in life, the small things like a perfectly formed flower or a child's open smile, an act of kindness by a stranger, is what keeps my faith in the good of mankind. Refusing to watch TV and it's relentless tide of violence, mayhem and negative propaganda helps as well. And not believing that I have to tie myself to some employment wagon that sees me working until I'm 70 is another.
I think I've always rebelled from the social norms of our society, particularly those that judge a woman who isn't in a relationship, or who doesn't have children, as somehow lacking fulfilment. I'm single because I never met a man who was willing to question those norms too, who didn't want to control me, or set me up as a mother figure. It's meant that at 50 my early financial preparation, and no kids to financially drain me, has set me up with enough money that I no longer have to be tied to regular employment and can begin to pursue my dreams and flirt with serendipity. Yes, I have always had an above average income as well, and I am not apologetic for that as I worked my arse off to get that degree, but I have also assiduously saved and reduced debt, I drive a car that is 20 years old, and I don't go on mindlessly extravagant holidays. My extravagant holidays are always mindful!!
It's an incredibly empowering feeling, to know that I am about to opt out of the 9 to 5 employment circus and start playing by chance. Yes dance with what opportunities are out there. Give up that "doctor" nametag and explore other possibilities. It's probably one of the most exciting things I've ever done.
I am often gobsmacked by the kickback I get from many friends and acquaintances about my plan to retire early. Remember my choices have never been conventional anyway, so why would this choice be any less so. But those who have slavishly followed the social norms and find themselves (oh don't look so surprised!) enslaved for the next 20 years in a financial catchup to support their retirement from 67 or 70, have no right to be angry with me. They've had society's approval for their life decisions all those years, I never have. And exactly how am I letting society down? And do I care?
Thankfully I have many friends, and all my family, who have been incredibly supportive of my decisions, right through my life, and I am grateful for that.
I may still have over five months till I fully retire but I've been dancing, in my own quiet way, for a long time. Only I'm ready now to dance with the lights on, bright red lipstick and a devil may care attitude. No one's gonna stop me now...