Plunging In To 50
By Christine Heenan
Sea water doesn’t freeze at 32 degrees like fresh water, so can remain liquid while even colder, and the Southern Ocean in Antarctica is often colder than any other body of water humans normally encounter. These little facts from our naturalist guide were chilling to contemplate — literally — as I stood freezing in a bikini top and borrowed boxers in the mud room of the National Geographic Explorer, near the front of the line with my best friend Lynn as we prepared to walk out of the ship, onto a platform, and then plunge into the icy waters off Antarctica.
I love to swim, especially in the ocean, and as a New Englander I swim in water many Floridians wouldn’t dip a toe in. But still. The Antarctic? Really?
Really. Lynn and I met 27 years ago, at ages 22 and 23, logging too-long hours at a management consulting firm where we’d both gone to work right out of college. Staring at slide presentations and crunching numbers at the office til 2 AM, we’d do cartwheels in the hallways to keep ourselves awake and amused, punch drunk from too much data and too little sleep. We were both hard working and good humored and independent, and became friends as well as colleagues.
In March of 1992, seven months after she turned 25 and two months before I did, we took a three-week adventure vacation to Australia. 25 years later, our “Thelma and Louise, Australia” tour remains one of my most memorable vacations ever. We were fueled by fun and fearlessness in a country that could adopt “fun and fearless” as its motto: we snorkeled in the Great Barrier Reef, rode horses bareback in Brisbane, climbed Ayers Rock, drove our four-wheel drive jeep through rivers thick with estuarian crocodiles, bungee jumped in the Daintree Rainforest. We kept a shared journal, taking turns capturing our various escapades, laughing aloud and reading to each other as we wrote. We had a blast.
Five years later, as I was cutting up chicken nuggets for my two-year-old and battling fatigue and morning sickness with my second pregnancy, I’d often relive various aspects of our trip in my mind, reminding myself that I was once young and worldly and brave, while no longer feeling I was any of those things. Lynn was still single and traveling the world, and we no longer worked together nor lived near one another, so our visits were reduced to once or twice a year, almost always including a December visit to join me and my growing family in picking out and decorating our Christmas tree. I remember distinctly the year Lynn brought with her a dozen beautiful woven basket ornaments she had gotten us while trekking in Nepal. I looked at those mysterious red baskets on our tree and thought: I used to travel and hike and explore. I loved my family and home, and wasn’t looking to trade places, but I did feel wistful for the adventurer in me I feared I’d lost.
Fast forward twenty more years, to January of 2017. Lynn has turned 50 in August, I am staring down 50 six months from now, in May. We’d decided a few years back that we’d celebrate our 50th birthdays by reprising our adventure from a quarter century before by joining a NatGeo expedition to Antarctica. Why Antarctica? When we’d planned it, we assumed it would be our seventh continent: I’d already been to five and she’d been to six, so touching down on our final unexplored continent seemed a fun and fitting way to welcome 50 (as it happens, I’ve yet to go to Africa, so I still have one to go).
The 12-day trip has been remarkable in a number of ways, but mostly as a reinforcer of three important life lessons:
First, nothing connects you to your essential self like getting out of your element.
On this trip to the bottom of the world I have been largely disconnected from the Internet, and in a part of the world wholly different than anywhere I have ever been. The result? Vivid and memorable dreams, thought provoking conversations, and lots of self-exploration. It’s hard to get that at home. It just is.
Second, true friendships don’t fade.
Women’s lives have distinct chapters, and each chapter can tax you and fortify you in different ways. Families and careers can immerse you in ways that leave too little time to nurture friendships, but when you come up for air, your true friends will be there, and you won’t have missed a beat. My life and Lynn’s have flipped since the days of her Nepalese trekking — I am now an empty nester with a job requiring lots of travel, and she runs her growing non-profit alongside raising Kyra and Eliot, 8 and 6, with her husband Brian. Remarkably, we once again live in the same area, but weeks and occasionally months can pass without us managing in person, unhurried time. Yet from the minute we connected at the Miami airport for our flight to Buenos Aires, we were the same closely connected adventure-seeking duo we’d been a quarter century before, tasting Malbec and taking tango lessons during our 24 hours in Buenos Aires, and doing polar yoga and penguin filled treks aboard a ship full of naturalists, expedition leaders, and fascinating fellow passengers on our expedition. If anything, the intervening years and their ups and downs have only deepened our friendship, even though there were years we saw very little of each other. True friendships don’t fade.
And the final lesson: age really is a mindset.
We’ve met people on this trip in their eighties who say they are doing Antarctica now since it would likely be harder “once they get old.” One morning over breakfast, an expedition leader named Jimmy was telling us about his 93-year-old grandfather, who was teaching himself to Skype so he could keep up with his world traveling, deep diving, shark tagging grandson. It led to a discussion about what keeps people young, and another guide named Katie said there is a Hindu word that translates roughly to “beginner’s mindset” — the notion of approaching life as new and unexplored, and adopting the humility and eagerness of a beginner even as you gain years and mastery. I love that notion: beginner’s mindset.
As I sat there shivering on the platform, I noticed that behind us in line were Marylin and Larry, a couple from Dallas we’d met on our first day. Marylin was 70, and Larry 67. She’d had some trouble with sea sickness on the route out across the Drake’s Passage, but it kept her down for less than a day, and here they were, bathing suit clad, ready to jump in with the rest of us crazies. Age is a mindset.
When our turn came, Lynn and I clasped hands, smiled for the cameras, and jumped in. It seems a fitting way to face 50: plunging in with a smile, seasoned, but also a beginner.
Christine Heenan is founder and president of the Clarendon Group, a strategic communications firm, and is a member of the Creative Council at Burson-Marsteller, the global public relations firm. She served as Senior Communications Advisor for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and is an advisor to Harvard University, where she served as Vice President for Public Affairs & Communications from 2008 to 2015. Heenan served in the Clinton Administration as senior policy analyst on the White House Domestic Policy Council staff and focused on health care policy, health reform, and women’s issues. She taught communications and public policy at both Brown and Harvard, where she continues to lecture. She has served on a number of boards focused on child development, education, and economic policy. She and her family live in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.