Updated: Jan 6
Yours truly turns the big 40 this year. As one of my statistically inclined colleagues put it at his 40th, 'half way there!'
I've never been one to celebrate birthdays and in fact have no recollection of ever having a birthday party.
But I remember musing once in my 30s (when turning 40 seemed like an abstract construct) that I will mark my 40th with a huge party.
There would be no half measures either : I'd hire out the iconic Wylies Baths in Coogee with it's gorgeous rock pool, have a DJ or band or string quartet (or maybe all three), a shiny dance floor with lights, delicious canapes, free flowing champers and cocktail, and invite all the wonderful humans I have come across in my life.
Alas, then I was a strategist in a bank with ample cashflow to afford such dreams but now that I have decided to become a writer, cashflow has become the abstract construct!
Besides the above was fantastical musings. For a highly introverted person such as myself, the idea of hosting an event that is 'all about me' ... and where I need to engage and entertain all the guests ... for hours on end ... is about as nightmarish as things can get.
I nonetheless think that it is important to stop, take stock and celebrate our lives - and milestone birthdays provide a great opportunity to do so.
This is especially true now given how tumultuous the last few years have been....
Since 2020, things have never been the same
Yes, there was the global pandemic (and we'll get to that) but just prior, I went through another rather life affirming moment; At the end of 2019, I went through a redundancy at work.
For someone who identified so strongly with the job I did, it felt as if an aspect of my identity got taken away from me.
The redundancy itself wasn't surprising or indeed unwanted - I had very deliberately taken on a new job, knowing that it was one of those jobs that gets chopped every three years or so (good old corporate life).
I knew that by the time this new job would end up on the chopping block, I would have completed ten years in the company and not only have long service leave but also the prospect of a redundancy payout to leave with. And that was my exit plan (and yes, I do plan for the long term).
As it happened, I really loved my new job, had a ball doing it and even delivered some Australian first initiatives in the banking. Even so, by the time the redundancy came through, I was well and truly ready to leave corporate life.
I am also however someone who took the career trip seriously (maybe a little too seriously) and take enormous pride in performing at the highest level. So the notion of "being redundant", hit the ego hard.
The three month long process that followed the redundancy gave me plenty of time to reflect and work through this feeling. It made me realise how fraught it was to based one's identity on something that we fundamentally did not control - a job.
It's not the 'job' that gives one meaning I finally realised - rather it's the work that we do ...
Perhaps this realisation is what finally got me to turn my 'work' into a 'job' that I not only love but can also control.
And yes, getting the payout at the end did make up for the whole thing too ;-) Was a wonderful feeling to be able to take the money and run!
One way ticket out of Australia
I had long fantasied about buying a one way ticket out of Australia - and to travel slowly to every corner of our planet.
As soon as the redundancy payout was confirmed, I set about feverishly planning an around the world itinerary. Whilst I had an itch to get away as soon as I could manage, for some reason I decided to spend the summer in Australia and depart at the end of March 2020.
And then there was COVID
I remember a friend texting me in early March asking me if I was still going ahead with my travels given COVID.
'What's COVID?', I replied ...
The following days and weeks were spent scrambling to find a country to get away to.
As soon as I had settled on one, it would be followed by some travel restriction or border closure announcement. It felt like I was playing a game of whack-a-mole as countries in Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas systematically shut down.
The final nail in my travelling coffin came with Australia's unprecedented move to stop their citizens from leaving (or indeed returning to) the country.
And that was it - I was stuck here.
The news was especially devastating as my first stop had been to a two month long meditation retreat in Tuscany. I had been learning and practicing meditation for years and having done smaller retreats before, was yearning to do a much longer one that would allow me to explore the practice more deeply. This particular retreat had been perfect for that.
But even the retreat in Tuscany had to be cancelled as international travel became impossible. However, the organisers were able to make arrangements so that the teaching would continue virtually.
I decided then to make the most of things and take the opportunity to go on a solo and silent 60 day meditation retreat - following the teachings online.
All I needed was a secluded hut in the middle of a forest (within mobile range) that I could bunker down in.
As it happened, I had just met a bloke that I kind-of, sort-of liked earlier in the year - who little did I know, had volunteered in building such a hut!
Dazza, Bello and the meditation hut
Darren and my paths crossed in January 2020 whilst I was on a road-trip visiting 'hippy' communities along the east coast of Australia with a dear friend. Thankfully she is quite the extrovert and on meeting Darren invited him along to spend the day with us in Dorrigo. She also made sure we had exchanged numbers by the end of the trip ... Thanks V!
From then on Darren and I had stayed in touch but come March, said our goodbyes as I was determined to go ahead with my trip.
We had left it up to fate to see if we'd ever meet again - perhaps on the road or when/if I returned to Australia at some point...
After my travels plans had evaporated, I shared my wish to continue the retreat here with Darren - he came to the rescue.
Darren had been living in the Mid North Coast of NSW for about a decade by then. He was half an hour away from the historic town of Bellingen that the hippies had settled in during the 60s and 70s. It remains a soulful place to this day, with a vibrant creative and Buddhist community. Being an artist, seeker and existentialist himself, Darren had found his 'tribe' here.
He put me in touch with a lovely couple who had a few years earlier rallied the community to construct a purpose-built meditation hut to support long term retreats. The hut was nestled within the woods in their property which was right next to the State forests in Brierfield. It was secluded and had an endless bush scape. There was running bore water, an outdoor shower, no electricity but a gas powered stove and fridge in a small kitchen. It was perfection.
The collective retreat
Just then things started escalating in Sydney with COVID cases multiplying by the day. State border restrictions started coming into place, and talk began of stopping city folks from travelling to regional Australia.
Everything seemed so uncertain and after having my travel wings clipped, I was fearful of being locked down in Sydney.
"It's now or never", I thought one morning, and packed up my car and drove North. I managed to leave Sydney just before travel restrictions came into place.
My hosts were understandably nervous about hosting someone during a once in a lifetime pandemic ... but on meeting me and seeing how uber prepared I was for every eventuality, they kindly let their cabin to me.
So began 60 days of exploration into the nature of mind, consciousness and reality.
One day when I feel ready, I will write and share more about the experiences and learning from the retreat. Needless to say, I came out of the retreat with a greater understanding of life. I also had the realisation that there was much more left to discover ... there are many more long term retreats I need to embark on in this lifetime.
My retreat ended just as NSW (and perhaps the rest of the country) came out of the first COVID lockdown. I remember driving up to Bellingen and sitting, blinking in the sun with a coffee and a mushroom pie. I looked around and saw that others were pretty much doing the same thing. It was the first day since lockdown restrictions had been eased.
It seemed like we had all emerged from a collective retreat.
The birth of 'Project Willow'
The idea of returning directly back to Sydney after 60 days of complete seclusion felt overwhelming so I was more than happy to accept Darren's invitation to stay on in his rustic little cottage, nestled at the edge of the woods and the beautiful Valla Beach.
One afternoon during a walk along the South Valla Beach, we conceived of 'Project Willow' and in weeks that followed, I wrote the first draft of our picture book, Willow the Wonderer.
A few months on and we were starting our own independent publishing house, with an innovative business model that would help creatives earn a living from their craft. All this 'innovation' work was right up my alley and I soon became immersed in it.
But then life threw in another spanner in the works.
The health scare
I had developed a persistent cough over the years which, at Darren's insistence, I finally got looked at in early 2021. It turned out that I had an egg sized nodule embedded within my left thyroid!
All the worse case scenarios rushed through my head and before I knew it, biopsies and specialist appointments took over my life.
All this had come out of the blue: We had no family history of thyroid nodules (or even cancer at that stage), I've always had a clean lifestyle, exercised regularly and for the past few years had also quit alcohol, transitioned to a plant-based diet and meditated regularly.
The doctors couldn't point to any obvious cause as to why I'd developed the nodule, let alone how it grew to be so big.
'It's just one of those random things that happens to us in life,' they said.
Thankfully the nodule was found to be benign but I still needed a major surgery (hemi thyroidectomy) to get rid of the nodule. The surgery came with the risk of developing underactive thyroids and needing hormone supplements for the rest of my life.
I reluctantly joined the public hospital waiting list.
At the insistence of another friend who had suffered the consequences of underactive thyroids, I decided to do one last search for alternative treatments.
Google results took me to an obscure discussion forum where I came across the details of a surgeon who had just relocated from the US and brought a novel treatment for thyroid nodules along with her. Called Radio Frequency Ablation (RFA), the procedure removes the need for thyroidectomy and hence associated complications.
Within the next few weeks, I became the first Australian to receive the RFA treatment for thyroid nodules. I am glad to report that it worked as the nodule had shrunk considerably without impacting the thyroid function.
A fragile life
At the time the thyroid episode transpired, I had started tossing the idea of getting back into a corporate role so I would have some income coming in (earning any return from writing and publishing is hard yards).
But when the thyroid nodule was first discovered, the first thoughts to cross my mind was, 'if this is cancerous and I die from it, then I'd have spent most of this life working...'
Life is fragile. We never really know how much of it we've left.
The thyroid episode brought this home for me.
We've all heard of the old adage to 'live everyday like it's your last' but how often do we do that?
Why do we wait? And what are we waiting for?
The pragmatic banker inside me says, 'well you need money to do just about everything'.
That is true, we all need to find some means to meet our survival needs ... But if there is one thing I've come to realise, it's that if you pair back your life to the basic necessities, you can get by on very little and not even notice anything is missing. This is liberating for it means that we may not need nearly as much money as we may think
(P.S. this does not constitute financial advice ;-)
2023 is going to be a year long celebration of life
With that backdrop I cannot help but feel that 2023 is the time to take the bull by its horns. My 40th 'birthday' is not going to be about the one party - rather it is going to be a year long celebration of life. After all, who knows how many, if any, milestones birthdays are left for me.
Sure I would like to treat myself to a nice gelato cake and dinner on the day but I'd also like to spend the whole year doing things I love.
There will be the highlights of course:
Writing the third Willow the Wonderer picture book. We've worked out the storyline so I'll be spending the next few weeks writing out the first draft - and it will be epic :)
A mini meditation retreat as I have not gone on one since 2020.
1-2 hiking trips to places I've longed to see
Doing our best to relocate to a warmer climate for winter.
Most importantly, it's how I approach the every day that really matters
Enjoying and appreciating the companionship and creative partnership with Darren, for it does feel like fate brought us together
Spending quality time with my family and friends who bring so much meaning and support in life
Taking time out to walk, have a workout and swim in the sun - every single day
Eating well and sticking with my 80/20 diet (80% plant-based wholefoods and 20% treats ;-)
And continuing the work on build up Wise As Stories so Darren and I can earn our creative and financial freedom
2023 is going to be a year long celebration of life - and if it all goes well, I may just do it all over again next year!
Happy new year everyone!