A lesson from nature: shed old burdens as you hit 50
I turned 50 last week and although I’ve had an entire week to get used to the idea, I’m still surprised to see the words “I” and “50” in the same sentence. I like to think that I’m not bothered by ageing, but this birthday has set me back on my heels: how did I get to be halfway to a hundred? I feel like the plague victim in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, who exclaims, as he is carted off to the burial grounds: “I’m not dead yet! I think I’ll go for a walk this afternoon.” At 50, I’m not dead yet – 50 is the new 30, so they say – although there are mornings when my lower back feels closer to 80 than to 50.
Turning 50, if you believe the popular media, often entails a whole series of midlife (er, late midlife?) crises and insights: we look at our lives and wonder “is this it?” Somehow, asking that question at 50 packs more of a wallop than asking it at 30: at 30, if you don’t like the answer to the question, there is more time to effect change. At 50? There’s still time but the clock ticks ever louder. You’re aware that the boulder you’ve shoved to the top of the hill is balanced only momentarily; it will soon begin its slow rumble down the other side.
So yes, this past week, the question “is this it?” has come to the fore, with occasional digressions into mundane, but still pressing issues like what I should cook for dinner, why do all the clothes need washing at once, and who has to get to which football practice and when?
I didn’t expect the universe to send me a lovely typed note with answers to my questions (this isn’t it; everyone likes spaghetti; wear dirty socks; younger son Sunday at 6pm); in fact, at my ripe age, I am comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity. You will understand why I was surprised, then, when six days into my sixth decade, the universe sent me a metaphor, in the form of a shell-encrusted hawksbill turtle.
Early in the morning on Saadiyat Beach, a friend and I saw a turtle, one flipper visible above the water as if it were waving to us. We convinced the lifeguard that something was amiss (turtles don’t usually wave hello) and he waded out to bring the turtle to shore. The turtle’s body was crusted over with barnacles and shells, including one about the size of a child’s fist. The shells were effectively capsizing the turtle as it swam; the lifeguard said that if the barnacles weren’t removed, the turtle would eventually drown from the extra weight. The intrepid turtle-saver began gently peeling off the barnacles and as the chunks fell away, bits of turtle-shell began to shine through, in the same way that new skin gleams from underneath a scab.
Hawksbills, as most of us who live here know, are a critically endangered species; there are only a few thousand nesting females left in the world. Saadiyat is meant to be a protected environment for the turtles, but I’d never seen one here before: turtles like solitude and quiet, which puts them at odds with the constant beachfront construction. Every few minutes, the lifeguard dipped the turtle into the water and each time, the turtle started to swim, more easily now, because the worst of the barnacle crust had been removed.
Isn’t that what happens to us as we swim through our lives? If we don’t pay attention, we become weighed down by habits, ideas and relationships that don’t serve us, and may even threaten to capsize us. I’m not sure who or what plays the role of lifeguard in this metaphor I’m constructing – perhaps each of us finds our own – but the message seemed clear: by 50 (which is about the length of a hawksbill’s lifespan), it’s time to peel away old growth or risk foundering.
The lifeguard pulled off the worst of the turtle’s barnacles but said he couldn’t simply let the turtle return to the water. Barnacle growth signifies that the turtle is ill and needs to be seen by a veterinarian before it can be released into the wild, so sick turtles found on Saadiyat are taken to the Dubai Turtle Rehabilitation Project at the Burj Al Arab. Yes: a turtle spa.
And that means, of course, that if I follow this turtle metaphor to its conclusion, the universe thinks I should have a spa day as well, to ensure that I swim barnacle free for many decades to come.
Deborah Lindsay Williams is a professor of literature at NYU Abu Dhabi