40 things I did the year I turned 40

I just turned 42. I spent the day in Sapa, up high in the Hoàng Liên Son Mountains of northwest Vietnam. As we sat down to eat and drink rice wine (AKA “happy water”) with the hardworking Black Hmong family hosting us in their homestay, after planting rice in the green hill terraces you see in travel guidebooks, I wondered how I got to be so lucky.

My life post-40 is so different to what it was pre-40. My thirties were full of highs, and way more lows. So I thought I’d share some of the big and small things I did the year I turned forty in a deliberate effort to change course.

rice planting in Sapa Vietnam

The rice paddies at Mama Mu’s homestay, Sapa. Note the buffalo and the family planting rice.

  1. Saw the year in with an after-party swim with friends at dawn. An owl winked at us from a perch between branches.
  2. Celebrated 12 years of ‘flying solo’ (with its many moments of romantic potential, missed connections, heart-heaviness; as well as its total independence and undeniable character-building).
  3. Mourned the end of my ‘happy family’ fantasy. Decided to turn to Option B: Travel.
  4. Lived in other people’s houses, giving their pets and homes TLC while they were away. I stoked fires, gazed into glossy animal eyes and slept with furry bodies breathing beside me.
  5. Went on a facilitated sacred mushroom journey. The fabled Heroic Dose took me on a (thankfully) beautiful trip that nourished me for months after.

    sacred magic mushroom journey

    Artwork by Burakerk / Pixabay.

  6. Got down and dirty at AfrikaBurn (the African version of Burning Man) after a seven-year break.
  7. Subsequently lost my heart on a sparkly dancefloor under a big, starry sky 😉
    Saw the sun rise just after watching a huge wooden artwork burn in the African desert, being held by a beautiful young foreigner dressed in a Zebra suit. (Ten months later, I was being held by another older foreigner while watching the sun set over the sea on a Thai island *wink*)

    afrikaburn 2018

    The sunrise burn at AfrikaBurn 2018 (unfortunately I didn’t make a note of whose pic this is…).

  8. Admired an epic halo form around the moon with special people. Twice.
  9. Completed my TEFL training to teach English as a Foreign Language.
  10. Renewed both of my (long-expired) passports.
  11. Had an Enneagram reading tell me I’m likely a type 4 (Individualist – sensitive, introspective), not a 1, as previously believed. (Makes much sense, TBH.)
  12. Had an astrologist tell me, “This isn’t as bad as it gets. Hold on for 44.” *gulp*
  13. Worked with my old boss and mentor; repaired some (somewhat) burnt bridges.
  14. Shared a sunset beach ritual with my identical twin sister (to claim what we wished for, and let go of what no longer serves us). We later dined at the place the World Restaurant Awards voted Best Restaurant in the World for 2019.

    paternoster beach

    Paternoster on the Cape West Coast, where we stayed for our shared birthday xxxx.

  15. Danced around a pole. Poorly.
  16. Left my country’s borders for the first time in nine years. (Ended up visiting five in that year.)
  17. Met the male cat that lives in the rocks beneath the Greek Parthenon (meaning “unmarried women’s apartments”, ha!) on the Athens Acropolis. Fast, feisty fella.
  18. Took a writing retreat on Lesbos, the Greek island the poetess and ‘tenth muse’ Sappho was from.

    flamingo bar skala eressos lesbos

    Flamingo Beach Bar, at the lesbian-friendly Skala Eressos beach on Lesbos, the island the poetess Sappho came from.

  19. Attended my first gay wedding as part of the (one) groom’s party – a special honour.
  20. Packed up the apartment where I’d worked and lived alone for five years.
  21. Marie Kondoed my home and got rid of most of my possessions. Not the books, though. Hell no.
  22. Moved to a new continent – experienced the culture shock that is SouthEast Asia.

    som tum salad

    My first meal in Thailand. Unfortunately, and embarrassingly, I couldn’t stomach the overly fishy Som Tum salad with raw prawns.

  23. Faced a financial reckoning. Filed years’ worth of tax returns (finally!).
  24. Started paying off debts accumulated during my feast-or-famine freelance years.
  25. Changed careers, temporarily. Started back at the bottom with others fresh out of uni/college.
  26. Started working with children.

    monk day Thailand

    Monks’ Day at the farming school where I taught.

  27. Became a foreigner in a foreign land. Twice.
  28. Lived in neighbourhoods where few speak English; lost language as a daily tool.
  29. Tried many weird foods for the first time. (Fried silkworm pupa, crispy crickets, pigs’ intestines, chicken-blood soup, to name a few…)

    Khanom chin and chicken feet Thailand

    Khanom chin noodle soup with chicken feet and chicken blood (the dark jelly bits). It was made by my favourite student’s grandmother, so I didn’t have the heart to decline the offer.

  30. Spent my first Christmas away from home. Worked on the day. (Which, in Thailand schools, means wearing red, posing for pics, watching a lot of Christmas-themed shows put on by the students, making kids make Christmas cards and sing along to English carols.)
  31. Walked with elephants at a sanctuary.NOTE: Never ride elephants, and do your research to find out which sanctuaries are really what they claim to be. I went with Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, which is an ethical and sustainable eco-tourism project started by Chiang Mai locals and the Karen hill-tribes. But I still have mixed feelings about the experience/sanctuary vis-a-vis responsible tourism and the elephant issue in Thailand. In my mind, my money went towards supporting the tribes who look after the elephants in their care. I realise it may not be as simple as this.
  32. Walked into my first NYE party on my own, not knowing anyone there.
  33. Went sailing for the first time, around Thailand’s beautiful islands.

    Phang Nga Bay northeast of Phuket

    Buying prawns off of a longtail from the yacht … near where the James Bond film was filmed, Phang Nga Bay northeast of Phuket.

  34. Savoured the holiday romance of my dreams. Ooh. La. La!
  35. Started learning (the basics of) two new languages.
  36. Got onto the back of a motorbike for the first time. Got into a tuk-tuk for the first time.
  37. Navigated the art of using a squat toilet. Note: navigated, not mastered.
  38. Marvelled at the joys of walking alone at night, safely, for the first time in my life.
  39. Took myself less seriously by becoming the buffoon you sometimes have to be when teaching without the aid of a shared language.
  40. Moved into my first houseshare, the day I turned 41.

    Three Anchor Bay in Cape Town.

    Stormy seas on my 40th birthday, Three Anchor Bay in Cape Town.

A personal essay on the healing power of gardens, inspired by centenarian author Diana Athill

Athill

For years, my dear friend Rayne has urged me to read the memoirs of Diana Athill, the 100-year-old former literary editor and writer who penned her first memoir at 83.

As the MD of a company that provides catering for old-age homes, and the South African representative for the Eden Alternative, an international non-profit dedicated to changing the way elders are cared for, ageing with dignity is something Rayne is passionate about.

I resisted, and I’m not really sure why (likely owing to some deep-seated ageism or denial of my own mortality). But last year, when I was house- and pet-sitting for Rayne and his partner, I saw his collection of her books in his study, and felt ready.

As I’m facing 40 – single, childless, and not too happy about the state of my personal life – I’m desperate to hear stories of older women who’ve lived full lives despite never being married, nor experiencing motherhood.

So, somewhat reluctantly, I picked up Somewhere Towards the End (Granta), Athill’s Costa-prize-winning account of ageing.

I read it in almost one sitting. (Well, sitting’s not the right word, TBH. I was sun-tanning, butt naked, in a secluded spot in the garden.)

What I read gave me some hope. I appreciated Athill’s frank and upbeat way with words, and her love of earthly pleasures, late into life. Her thoughts on the importance of gardens, and gardening, inspired me to write this personal essay for the Bulbophile magazine…

A GARDEN (NOT) OF ONE’S OWN

In 1929, Virginia Woolf said women needed spaces of their own from which to write. Thankfully, the world has changed, and many women do. But in these urbanised, stressful times, having access to a garden is a luxury that should be appreciated.

It needn’t be your own. I’ve realised this recently. As I’m facing 40 as a single, childless woman, it’s been a year of contemplation, most of which has happened in a garden friends have ‘loaned’ to me, when I’ve looked after their pets while they travel.

Aptly named Shalimar, like the famous Lahor gardens, the garden is large, private, forest-like. It’s high on the slopes of a narrow valley, with views of the mountains across. I’ve relished the refuge it has provided, and the opportunity it has given me to be completely alone in nature, safe.

Shalimar gardens

One weekend, I sunbathed and read a memoir by former publisher Diana Athill, in which she says a garden a relative let her tend was a source of immense pleasure later on in her life as a single woman.

There’s much to be said for the generosity of those happy to share their gardens. When you’re feeling stuck, a garden gives you ‘time out of time’. Gazing over living greenery lets your mind drift, segueing with the rhythms of nature – the dash of a squirrel there, the dart of a bird there. Away from city noises, you become attuned to the tweeps of sociable birds, the cries of the geese who’ve taken over the owl house… it’s a surround-sound start to each day.

Indulging my senses and exploring the garden’s features has eased my anxiety. I’ve sat with my back to the trunk of a large pine and inhaled the scent of its needles; touched translucent leaves; sampled the tastes of the herb garden; watched the sun shine through the fluffy bottle brush.

My imagination has been revived by little details: the fantasy world of a gnarled tree stump; the colourful inside of a granadilla a bird had feasted upon; the potent plumes of a spunky caterpillar. I’ve been charmed by a row of nasturtiums rising optimistically despite being dwarfed by the pines, and bushes of proudly South African pincushions, arranged like a gospel choir.

succulents

Moving within a living ecosystem, like a figurine in a terrarium, has given me perspective. One calm Sunday, one of the dogs killed a squirrel. The flowers I was admiring last week have since wilted in the extreme drought we’re having; but the succulents live on, strong. And it’s roaring with rain as I write. Just yesterday, we evacuated as a mountain fire burned dangerously close. I thought the garden would be razed to the ground. But it lives. As do the little duck chicks I’m watching follow their mother.

Marvelling at the brutality and beauty of if all, in one garden, tells me not to be too sentimental about life’s passages. This garden – this life – is only ever ours on loan.

pine tree and lemon tree

To sample Athill’s writing, read her short UK Guardian article on the pleasure of gardening here.