Waking Up to Midlife
Waking Up to Midlife

Are you sure you want to do this?” he had asked.

“Not sure but I would like to try,” I had replied, oh-so-casually but confidently.

“This”—was the dawn climb up Mount Batur. Arun had done this a year ago. He was fit, athletic and always up for a physical challenge. I on the other hand, was the spouse with a contrarian view of life, whose idea of a perfect holiday was to  laze by the pool in the shade with a book in hand.

“What was I thinking?”  I mutter into the darkness as climbers walk past us, clear and strong in their intent to get to the summit in time for the sunrise.

In the run up to turning 50 this year, Anu and I had embarked on this trip to Bali hoping for some alone time; just us girls, away from work and home, savoring the precious days before our big 5-0 birthdays.

The majestic and still smoking Mount Batur volcano located on the mystical island of Bali, was both, an invitation and a challenge, to prove that we were ready for physical challenges, regardless of our preference for creature comforts. And so we found ourselves in a minivan, with six others having been picked up at 2 a.m. for the sunrise trek.

In the first 30 minutes, the rest of our group races ahead, single-mindedly following the tour guide, their flashlights steady, their footsteps stable and sure as they lithely climb the incline, silhouetted against a sky full of stars that looks like an umbrella lit up from the inside. Very soon the stream of fellow walkers dries up. We are not just the slowest but also the last ones on the trail.

Wasn’t I walking at a good pace? Yes, it had felt a little warm and I had taken off my jacket. Of course, I had spent a few minutes on a couple of rocks to rest. I had also paused every now and then to take a sip of water. How did all this add up to make us the last two tourists heading up the mountain?

Well, this isn’t a race anyway, I thought.

The gray hair and wrinkles tell a story; of goals and pursuits, dreams and demons, journeys and detours. They don’t tell the whole story though. There is no solitary signpost to indicate the tiny shift that has happened; the fundamental change about  who I am and how I define myself.

Everyone else is in their twenties (except the tour guide—but, he does climb this everyday).

It’s better to tread carefully, speed is not everything.

No point rushing ahead only to get breathless.

Slow and steady, that’s the best way.

The path is uneven. I stumble often. Overgrown grass brushes against my face on the narrow trail. The incline is steep at places. I wait for Anu to turn the corner. I give her a hand to help her up.

“You go ahead,” she says. “I will take longer.” “I want to climb the mountain with you. It’s not a race.” I repeat.

Perched on a ledge we look back at the distance we have covered. The lights of the village flicker in the distance. Is that an ocean that has surfaced in the valley? In the soft light, the smooth surface glows like a layer of foam.

We look up at the mountain, not intimidated by the fact that the summit is 1717 meters above sea level. We are about half the way up.

We are the only ones who have stopped —to observe the path we have taken, paused to appreciate the view, prepared to move ahead.

It looks a lot like midlife.

Midlife—it’s not the age that is of significance, it’s the pace. Everything seems to speed up and slow down at the same time, like a slow motion movie frame that heightens every emotion before it speeds up to its original pace.

Each day seems loaded with moments that demand attention and seek introspection.

Did the sun not rise each day of the almost five decades that I have spent on the planet? Why do I feel the need to stop and admire it now?

The gray hair and wrinkles tell a story; of goals and pursuits, dreams and demons, journeys and detours. They don’t tell the whole story though. There is no solitary signpost to indicate the tiny shift that has happened; the fundamental change about  who I am and how I define myself.

The younger me would have fretted over others who raced ahead on the mountain. Had I not wasted precious energy over promotions of undeserving colleagues, unexpected prosperity of peers, uneventful lives of friends? Why not me, I had wondered often. After completing my Ph.D., I had struggled to get my green card, my ticket to a job in America, not knowing that I would be surrendering it in a few years upon my return to India.

The middle-aged me is peaceful not only with the successes of others but with my own failures. Accepting my limitations is something I do more gracefully now. I don’t want to save the world and be the best at everything. I just want to be the best “me,” doing what I can within the realm of what is possible.

I know now that a whole universe of infinite future scenarios, way beyond my imagination, may still be available to me. This unfamiliar tendency to accept people and possibilities, the willingness to acknowledge my ignorance, is liberating. And it has taken only 50 years to get here!

The tour guide comes downhill looking for us—“Hurry, the sun will rise over the hill,” he admonishes. The sky is tinged pink with anticipation. In the faint but ever increasing light I comprehend that the sea of foam is a layer of clouds. We silently power through the last 50 meters of a steep gravelly slope to the top. The summit is buzzing with life. Couples and families occupy every available vantage point. Professional photographers point their cameras to the sky. Amateurs point their phones towards themselves. A tall woman balances on one leg in a grand yoga pose on a narrow ledge. Vendors sell Coca Cola and Snickers bars and offer to take our picture.

There is a bright yellow spot on the horizon. Has the sun risen already? Are we late?

A tiny red spot, like a blood stain, appears in the carpet of clouds. Cameras get ready. The stain grows into an angry rash. It pushes through the veil of the clouds, a red-hot glowing crystal. The sphere gets bigger and impossibly bright, revealing itself like a jewel harvested from the milky ocean of clouds. Within a few seconds the sun rises completely, assisted by an invisible hand and merges with the golden horizon in one glorious blaze. We cannot look at it anymore.

This unforgettable trek has been worth every step and stumble; the climb symbolic of life itself. It has demanded every bit of strength, stamina and commitment to complete the course. The path has been as revealing as the destination. The company has made the journey worthwhile. Movement is necessary. Speed is not essential. Each journey, like each life, is unique.

I know this stuff. Some I have been taught, some I have learnt the hard way. To make sense of it all takes time. How long you ask?

The time it takes to appreciate one spectacular sunrise.

To her great surprise, Ranjani Rao has found that midlife offers a unique lens to discover magic in the mundane.  

Ranjani Rao is a scientist by training, writer by avocation, originally from Mumbai, and a former resident of USA, who now lives in Singapore with her family. Ranjani Rao is the author of Rewriting My...