by Nancy McDaniel

I’m at that age, “A Woman of a Certain Age” (Isn’t that what The French call middle age? Or is it semi-old age? I think we need a new term for us Boomers. Fifty-two can’t be middle age because that would mean I would live until 104. This is not likely, especially with the not-so-great genes I inherited. Besides, although I like Willard Scott quite a bit– even better when he was Ronald McDonald many years ago — I don’t like him well enough to live past 100 just to get a Smucker’s birthday salute. So if 52 is not middle age, then what is it? Certainly not golden age – what a dreadful term. Centrum calls it silver; they ask “isn’t it great to be silver?” I’d rather be platinum, I think. Maybe that’s it. Maybe it’s “going platinum.” Kind of like selling a lot of records. But not actually selling them, really just being old enough to have bought a lot of them — 45s and even 78s mostly)

Anyway, where was I? (Is that what they call a “senior moment”? When you forget what you were talking about? Except that I’ve done that for most of my adult life. My mind gets going in so many different directions that I get distracted. I can always tell who are my best friends because they do it too – we can follow each others’ conversation, pick up and start over again interminably. Their husbands and boyfriends and other more casual observers have no clue how we do this. Me neither. We just do. Always did.)

Does “Settled” Equal “Boring?”
Anyway… what I was saying? At this “certain age”, some might think my life might become more settled (is “settled” a synonym for boring?) I keep thinking that one of these days I may grow up and “act my age,” whatever that means. Except every time I go to a reunion and see what people my age act like, I’m glad I don’t. I mean so many of those people are really boring. And OLD!

But it really seems that the opposite has happened with me. Ever since I took “early early retirement” at age 50, my life has gotten less settled and, in fact, far more exciting. More Topsy-Turvy (now there’s another term I need to research. I remember “growing like Topsy” from Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I even named my first kitten Topsy because I knew she would grow fast. But what exactly is Topsy-Turvy anyway?)

No Sun City for This Girl
When I “retired,” it was to try to find a two-year job in a safari lodge somewhere in the African bush. Not exactly a typical retirement, eh? No golf, no shuffleboard. Not even tennis, although I started playing it again a couple of months ago, after an hiatus of about 25 years. I even remember why I like tennis so much. It’s a great way to get exercise without pain. It’s fun exercise, an oxymoron if I ever heard one. Even though my mom always instructed me to “let the boys win” (remember, I was a teen in the 60s). Now I can just say I was imprinted with that lesson, although it’s really just that I’m not as good as they are. No Sun City for me, not Del Webb’s and not even the outrageous, Put Las Vegas to Shame Sun City in South Africa.

The job in the bush in early 1998 didn’t pan out. But I busied myself with volunteer work at the zoo, and volunteer theater ushering. And I attended more theater in this wonderful theater town of Chicago than any person has a reasonable right to enjoy. And I did some travelling, especially to Africa. And I started an art business, importing art from Africa. And I started doing some freelance consumer research work.

I was busy, busy, busy. Busy having a lot of fun actually. Doing some new things and challenging myself to use the creative side of my brain much more than I did in my business career. I think I’ve actually gotten pretty interesting in my incipient dotage. I was recently talking to some people I met at a political fund-raiser and was telling them about my life and they seemed fascinated. And I thought, “Gee that sounds like an interesting person with a very cool life.” And then I realized it was ME and MY LIFE!

The only thing I didn’t do was date very much. But that was actually pretty much OK. I remember the remarkable Peace Corps ad of the 60s that showed a drinking glass with water half way up to the top. And the headline asked, “Is this glass half full or half empty? If you say half full, then you are the kind of person we want in the Peace Corps.” Anyway, I thought the glass of my life was at least half full. So I didn’t worry too much about the fact that I had no man in my life. I had lots of friends, my health (I sound like yet another vitamin commercial, don’t I?) and lots to keep me busy and challenged.

I’ve always heard that when you stop thinking about or stop looking for something, that’s when you’re the most likely to find it. That’s when the brilliant idea comes to you. That’s when you get pregnant, if you’re trying to. That’s when you meet a wonderful man, the man of your dreams. All when you don’t think about it or when you least expect it. It happened to me. Topsy-Turvy. Upside down.

The Love Connection
I met him at the end of last August. He came into my life like a whirlwind, he transformed my life into an exciting movie romance, he wove me into a web of love. I was powerless to resist. The Woman Who Planned Everything turned into Miss Spontaneity. The Make Dinners at a Normal Time Gal ate on the deck at midnight. We were amazingly good for each other. Not exactly opposites, we complimented and completed each other. He made me realize that real love, that elusive quintessential love of your life can come at any age. I believed. I glowed. I thrived. I drank from our own personal Fountain of Youth.

Then he left. Left Chicago. Left me. Yes, of course, he broke my heart. But I believe that’s what hearts are for – to experience sadness and joy, to beat impossibly fast when he is around. And sometimes to break. And always– eventually– to heal (Read “Let the Healing Begin”) And I wouldn’t have traded a minute of it for the world. Not for All the Tea in China.

So that was an Upside Down, age fifty-one, transformation. And at age 52, just recently, there was another one. Not a man this time. This time it was a place; This time it was a transformation of my soul. (Read “A Safari for My Senses”) Ever since I returned from this trip in May, my life has not been my own. I go through the motions of my previously wonderful life here. Everything is still in place, on the surface just as it was before. My house is lovely, my cats keep me company, my friends are great, my art business is doing well as we open a new show.

Bush Dreams
But all I can think is getting back into the African bush. From my deck, I gaze at one lone pale star in the city sky and I ache to see more. I look up through the branches of a city tree, but I despair that it’s not the miraculously misshapen baobab tree, the one that, according to African legend, grew that way because the “stupid” hyenas planted the seed upside down (more Topsy-Turvy, more Upside Down even in the bush). The birds feed at the feeder in my backyard are reassuring with their lovely songs. The familiar sound of Papa Cardinal always makes me look up to say hello to this remarkable red bird. But it doesn’t look like the Crimsonbreasted Shrike. And the songs I hear aren’t the ones I came to know and love in the Botswana bush.

I can’t focus. I can’t concentrate for long on anything I’m supposed to. I am having a hard time being the Woman Formerly Known As Urban Sophisticate Nancy. I feel like Bush Girl Nancy (AKA Kabusinze), Follower of Animal Tracks, Knower of Bird Calls. I need to get back to this mystical magical place.

Wilderness Heroes
I am devouring African books. First I read the remarkable “Zulu Wilderness: Shadow and Soul” by Ian Player, whom few of us know in the United States. (We are more likely to know his brother, the always-dressed-in-black pro golfer Gary Player.) But Ian Player saved the South African wilderness. He is a hero of mine, whom I long to meet someday. He lived a life of which I can only dream. He spent 40 years in the bush with an amazing Zulu tracker named Magqubu Ntombela, who became his dearest friend and to whom his book is a loving and heartfelt tribute. He learned to trust his instinct and intuition, which is the way of the Bushman and the Zulu and what most of us have lost. He founded the Wilderness Leadership School.

I also read a book called “Walk with a White Bushman” by Laurens van der Post, another white South African who was one of the few to revere and respect the Bushman, whom many other whites historically viewed as an animal and proceeded to systematically destroy. I treasure the contribution these two men have made, although I only too recently came to know of them. I wish I could climb into their lives and be a part of them.

A Life On Hold
My life seems to be in sort of a holding pattern. I am again trying to find work in the southern Africa bush. Soon. I had moved it way to the back recesses of my mind in early 1998, when the dream didn’t happen. But it’s moved to the front of my mind again. And nothing else seems to matter to me quite as much as this dream. I know this is where I belong. There is some primal (pre-birth?), pre-historical, past life pull that I feel. This white, affluent, suburban girl may belong somewhere entirely different than where she grew up. I must read “Many Lives, Many Masters.” It may help me understand what this feeling of Otherness is all about.

So now I just have to wait. Not very patiently, as that’s not something I do very well. If at all. There is a chance of a job for me in the African Bush. A three month long job, sort of a test case, a trial deal, at a safari lodge. Perfect for me. But it’s not available quite yet. Talk about Topsy-Turvy and Upside Down. So I’ll wait. What else can I do? My Body in Chicago must catch up with My Soul in Botswana. It’s time for a reunion.