This week on Refinery29, we’re filling your screens and consciousness with inspiring women over 50. Why? Because living in a culture obsessed with youth is exhausting for everyone. Ageing is a privilege, not something to dread. Welcome to Life Begins At...
Five years ago I uprooted myself from my beloved London, where I had lived for most of my life, to a remote village in the mountains of Andalusia. I packed up a few boxes of things precious to me and my work as a writer, and gave away everything else. Everything. I was fast approaching 50 and London had started to feel suffocating – like a lover who stopped making you come years ago and wants just to hug on their terms. I was single, transgender and HIV, and had stayed in London, putting up with our almost empty relationship, precisely because I was single, HIV, trans and in my late 40s; cities are where we should be, right? For those of us 'othered' by society, cities are the places to meet other 'others', to find a partner, and a community.
For years in London I'd lived and worked in zones 3 and 4, nestled in small Victorian terraces among a myriad of people. London's noisy; you never think you'll stop wanting to be out in clubs dancing, but you do, and I had ended up spending the second half of my 40s trawling Tinder and Grindr, looking for someone to have fun with, someone to finish my sentences.
Deep down I wanted a room with a view; I wanted grand vistas and wide open spaces, I wanted to be isolated and sometimes lost. I wanted to explore and feel brave again. I wanted my sentences to be completed by a landscape that silenced me and hugged me in its vastness.
London was everything in my 20s and 30s when I needed to score drugs or see great art, but now my street had become a crowded, claustrophobic place which I only ever left to shop for food or meet up with an ever-decreasing circle of friends – most of whom had long since decamped to the coast, commuting into town for work then heading out to greener or greyer pastures. Many were in relationships and looking at them made me hanker after another person who might top and tail my life; London felt less and less like a place where that might happen. I felt very alone, very aware of my singleness and that I would need to step off and take a chance on the feeling that somewhere else there was a new life I could be living.
Selling my house in London felt reckless and childish but ultimately freeing. It was the house of my dreams (I'd tell everyone), a house I'd struggled to hold onto through years of fragile career choices – I'd never had a plan but I was a teacher, for a time, and had been lucky enough to get a key worker loan and a 95% mortgage. It felt like such an achievement to be a single woman and own a house in town, even if, towards the end, that house was full of lodgers and I occupied the smallest room. It felt like security. I was a woman who was transgender and HIV positive; my house represented safety and sanctuary.
Almost without thinking I closed my eyes, took a deep breath and within three months had sold my house and, after a brief trip to the Andalusian mountains, bought a very small, old adobe schoolhouse in a seven-house village in the middle of nowhere. I'd never been to Spain before and didn't speak a word of Spanish, but as soon as I saw my house – or rather as soon as I sat on the old wall in my garden and looked across the mountains (my village sits between two ranges) – I knew that this was the next chapter.
Fewer than six months later I got on a plane and set out on an adventure for which I had absolutely no frame of reference. I had friends who had started new lives but they were usually with someone or on sabbaticals that left a door open. People told me to think long and hard about it, about being a woman, a trans woman; about being near to my hospital just in case my HIV reared up – it hadn’t, for years. People kept telling me it was silly to burn my bridges at almost 50, that it would be different if I had a companion.
I knew I could never afford to move back to London and that this was most likely a one-way trip I was making, alone. Only when I left the airport and went to the car hire stand did it hit me that not only had I never driven a left-hand car before, but that I didn't have a clue where my house was. I started to cry. I felt out of my depth in my own dreams.
I knew where the estate agent was so that's where I headed, crying for the whole journey, instantly missing Selfridges, coffee with friends, the Tate Modern. Up to the point of going, I hadn't seen this as anything more than a move and a longer commute; I hadn't stopped to think about what I was doing because, deep down, I was terrified I'd take the comfortable option of a Regency rabbit hutch in Hove. Only once in the car did I stop, breathe and realise that I'd done it: I'd changed my life, I'd stepped off. The tears were cathartic and allowed me to let go of fear and to reconnect with being alive – even crying in public, mascara smudged and eyes reddened, felt good.
Five years on, I'm still here. I came to get away and commune with nature and the landscape – which I do, daily, and it enriches my soul – but ironically my career started to thrive, and my first book came out this year. I now earn every penny from writing, and that feels miraculous.
Often, I feel at the edges of comfort. I'm learning Spanish but still feel isolated and lost in language. I am an immigrant and that carries with it a certain fragility, and I'm still single, despite my elderly neighbours endlessly trying to set me up with a succession of Spanish farmers who assure me that I'll be happy to cook for them after working in the fields. "I'm happy being single," I tell them, "I have dogs, a career I love, and olive trees to sit under."
"Madre mia!" they exclaim as they walk away, shaking their heads and chuckling. My house is full of mice, snakes and poisonous centipedes. I've had to learn to live almost off-grid, collecting and chopping wood, managing a water pump, checking gas levels. I've had to get over my fear of driving through mountain ranges. Most importantly, though, I've learned not to be self-conscious about being a single woman following a dream.