Saturday, December 31, 2005

Mid-term review 

Brian left me this thought in a recent comment, which has proved to be the key in unlocking my latest round of mental seizure:
“Whenever I feel a lack of direction and purpose, I like to look back to a point where I once was, compare it to the point where I am now, and then connect the two points and continue the line further to see the direction I am headed in. I haven't always liked the plotted course...”

You’ve hit the nail on the head, Brian - thanks. That picture of a continuing line expresses very succinctly the thoughts that have been bugging me lately.

Over the past few years I’ve been going through what amounts to the classic mid-life crisis. It may have lacked the outward signs - no Ferrari in the garage (although I do rather fancy one of these…), no shirts unbuttoned to the navel, no bit of fluff on the side - and it’s rarely had the urgency of a full-blown crisis; more like an ongoing mid-term review. At times intense, searching, full of expectations, doubts and fears; at times receding to a background rumble of discontent - but one way or another I was on that well trodden path of who-am-I-and-where-am-I-going questions that sound such a cliché, yet seem at the time to be the most vitally important questions to answer. It’s been going on for the past 10 years or so, through peaks and troughs of questioning and searching, and perhaps the most intense phase has coincided with the existence of this blog. So these years have seen their fair share of turmoil. Mostly introspective, mostly hidden – at least in its intensity - from just about everyone, but full of real soul-searching nonetheless, for all the outward appearance of calm.

My first 40 years followed a pretty straight line; the straight and narrow, you might almost say. Simple, straightforward, one-foot-in-front-of-the-other stuff. No great plans, no ambitions; conventional, non-controversial – and, frankly, rather dull. Then 10 years ago I began asking questions of myself, and felt for the first time the intoxicating effects of possibility – a belief in the idea that you could have dreams and bring them to fruition; that the future – mine or anybody’s – could be there for the taking – or rather, for the creating.

It was a time of a gentle – almost gentile - kind of turmoil; never any explosive change, but beginning to push the boundaries of my appallingly humdrum, mediocre existence, fuelled by a sure feeling of expectation, a feeling that something good was just around the corner; life was surely about to blossom in the most unexpected yet entirely appropriate ways. To use a well-worn cliché, I’d discover who I really was, and start living the life I was always meant to lead.

But over the last few months, something in me has changed. I didn’t notice it changing at the time, but looking back, I can see that it has. That long period of turmoil and doubt and hope seems to be drawing to an end. I entered it having followed a straight and simple track; I bounced around for a while (for example, changing jobs three times during this period) with hopes of finding a radically new, different, exciting track as my way out of the turmoil. But I can see now that the track on which I’m leaving it is essentially just a continuation of the track on which I entered it. You could plot a line right through it all and see barely a kink. And ahead now lies a steady downhill run to retirement. The trouble is, inevitable as it seems, is looks about as attractive as I’ve made the first 40 years sound.

I’d better digress a moment and explain something here, lest you get a false impression. I haven’t had what you might call a successful career, in fact I haven’t really had a career at all. I didn’t work my way up through the ranks, so I never reached that comfortable plateau from which to look forward to an easy retirement on a fat pension. I’ve changed jobs many times, always seeking that most elusive of things – a job where I really felt I belonged, where I felt I was doing the most valuable thing I was put on this Earth to do. In the course of that search I’ve moved down the hierarchy as well as up it, with the result that I’ve ended up in much the same place as any graduate just a few years out of university. But ladders never meant a great deal to me.

So anyway. That downhill run wouldn’t be with the warm glow of success behind me, so it wasn’t an attractive proposition. But then along came a chance to choose another course: I could apply for voluntary redundancy. The change – and the risks - would be huge. But I did the sums, and I think I had a fighting chance of making it work. I had the house valued, got quotes for early payment of my various pensions from my previous jobs, added up what the remaining bills for our kids’ university educations would be, and figured out that by cashing in on the equity tied up in our house and downsizing, we could just about scrape by on about half of what I’m currently earning, provided I was happy to commit to working on well beyond normal retirement age – which I am.

But as I said, the risks would be huge, and there was no time to weigh them up properly. It was a take-it-or-leave-it offer, and it expired 3 weeks ago. If I’d taken it, I’d be out of work by June, with no savings, committed to moving our lives to an unknown part of the country, and no idea how I was going to earn a living. If I’d had a dream, now would have been a good time to follow it, but I never had a dream. Ambition didn’t run in our family.

So I let the moment pass; I was too tied up in the immediate pressure of practicing for the show, anyway. And so it is that now I can see how that line from the past stretches inexorably on into the future; I can even trace its source way back in my father’s life and I sometimes fancy I can catch future echoes of it in my kids’ too.

And that, in a rather extended nutshell, is what’s been bugging me. The thought that after ten years of gestation, of hope, of expectation, I’ve ended up pretty much where I started, just 10 years older.

It doesn’t have to end here though, (although this post had better do so soon); I’m not abandoning hope just yet. I’ve learned two important lessons from all of this. One: I said I don’t have a dream, but that’s not quite true. I don’t have one in the sense of following this or that career (after all, it’s a bit late for that) or achieving some great goal – but I do have a dream about how and where I’d like to live; a simple life, close to nature, as part of a close-knit community; somewhere where I’d want to put down roots. Two: I rediscovered that belief in possibility. We could make it happen, if we so chose, if we decide that the sacrifices are worth it.

Back to current posts