Turning 50 During a Pandemic. 

Melanie Barrett

May 16, 2021

Last summer I turned 50.  I still need time to let that sink in. 

Like most people, the looming possibility of turning this milestone age had been haunting me for a decade.  After all, 50 is big.  When we are younger, we see it as ancient, the top of the hill, the inevitable plummet from adulthood to senior citizen, the end of all things meaningful.  Of course, as I moved closer and closer to this age, my ideas changed and I found myself re-evaluating my thinking about what this number could mean.  Most of the people I know are still figuring it all out at 50.  They are finally feeling at ease in their own skin and have finally determined what they really want from life.  Rather than a time of slowing down, it seems many people are revving things up and grabbing this second half with both hands. Let’s face it, 50 is the new 30, isn’t it?

As my birthday edged closer, I made plans about what I wanted to do to celebrate.  There were so many possibilities.  I thought about visiting Machu Picchu, or perhaps a working adventure on a distant coffee plantation. I considered exploring the places of my ancestors and travelling to far away continents.  I even thought about renting a vacation property and inviting all of my friends to one place.   In fact, I had a giant list of grandiose things I thought about doing to celebrate turning 50.   I was narrowing this list when the pandemic struck and suddenly my celebratory ideas were no longer possibilities.  A year later, I am approaching 51 and have yet to celebrate turning 50 in any of the ways I thought I would.

Instead, turning 50 during the pandemic broadened my horizons and opened up possibilities for me that I hadn’t anticipated.  When my spouse asked what I wanted to do for my birthday, I paused for only a moment before deciding that it was time to write.  You see, I’ve always been a writer in my soul, but there is a part of me that has been conveniently able to use a busy job and bills to pay as excuses for not sinking into my writing skin and just doing it.  So, with no real excuses, I decided to do two things.  The first was sign up for an online course to learn a little more about self publishing.   I had been looking at taking this course for a while and came to the conclusion that if a global pandemic couldn’t push me to take a risk than nothing could. The second was to sign up for a writing workshop at a local writing studio that I have been walking by every day for a few years.  The first course would serve to ignite my diminished fire, while the workshop would sustain my passion.  And so, my loving spouse shelled out the cash and I dove in head-first. 

I cannot begin to describe the excitement of meeting Alexandra Franzen and Lindsay Smith for the first time when The Tiny Book Course began.  These two women were infectious.  For seven weeks, I had the tremendous opportunity to listen and learn as they coached writers from all over the world about how to create their first tiny book and take it from concept to finished product.  

Our new school reality had just started again in the fall and I remember challenging my grade 12s to embrace the hidden opportunities that might come to them as a result of the pandemic.  I then shared with them the writing decision I had made.  “Miss, you should write a tiny book of advice for students coming into grade 9.  I swear you taught me so much when I was younger,” said one of my students to a chorus of affirmatives from the rest of the class.   Thus, my first tiny book, How to Hate High School ,and its sequel , How to Destroy Distance Learning, were born. They arrived just in time to give copies to my grade 9 students before the winter holidays.  They gobbled them up and I suddenly knew that something in my life had changed.

Not only had turning 50 made me enroll in an online course that I never would have taken, it opened up a whole new avenue as an educator.  “I love this book, Miss. Make more,” said one of my grade nines.  Around the same time, I participated in a Stay-As-Home retreat with Firefly Creative Writing.  For an entire weekend, I got to sink into the virtual company of an amazing group of writers.  Led by Kim Abrahamse and Sophia Apostol, this retreat not only nourished my soul, it boosted my confidence and inspired my writing in new ways.  I am so grateful for this weekend retreat and have solidly planted my feet at Firefly Creative Writing.  This amazing community provides me with the space I need to explore my writing life and the directions I want to take.  I can’t wait until I can physically enter the studio and meet the wonderful coaches face to face.  I am so grateful for the vision of Chris Fraser in starting Firefly and providing a place to land for all of the writers like me who are flying around out there.

So, why am I telling you all this? 

Because if you had told me this time last year that I would have started my own publishing company, be selling my own books, and be connecting online with people around the world about the ideas I have to share, I would have thought you were wrong.  If you had said that I would be doing all of this in the middle of a global pandemic, I would have laughed.  Despite my sense of optimism and desire to write, I would have allowed my fears and doubts to keep me from embarking on this new adventure and I would have stayed stuck in my own patterns.  One of the biggest frustrations of living through this pandemic is having to rethink things, find new ways of doing things, and adjusting to enormous change.  Ironically, this is also what can motivate us, inspire us, and ignite our creative spark.  While I have no idea where my writing journey will take me next, or where my adventure will eventually go, I am so excited about the possibilities and so grateful that I have been able to find purpose and focus during the pandemic. 

As we approach the end of the school year, my current grade 12s are considering all that the future has to hold.  They are aware that they are finishing high school in a way that no one anticipated and they are actively working to prepare themselves for the changes that lie ahead.  We start each day by talking about what is good, what tiny things we can hold onto to help us see beyond the fear of uncertainty.  Like them, I hope you approach your future as a new adventure, a new opportunity, a new chance to shine.  Age is a number, pandemics are a tragedy, but life continues to move forward.  Whether we stay stuck or dive into something new is a choice we have to make. 

While my 50th birthday was nothing like I had imagined, it is exactly what I needed.  (Yes, I know that this sounds a lot like a Rolling Stones song. I told you, I'm old!)  I can’t wait to see what 51 throws my way this summer.  

Take a chance with something new this year. You can never tell where it will lead.  

Thank you to The Tiny Book Course and Firefly Creative Writing for being part of this past year with me.  To learn more about these amazing people please use the links provided.  Photo credit: The Tiny Book Course.