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  • Writer's pictureKate Halfpenny

The enduring optimism of petrol station guy

The man in front of me at the petrol station on Christmas Eve took his sweet time. He’d pulled up on a motorised scooter, grabbed a large chocolate Oak milk and the local paper, then settled in for a yarn with the bloke at the register.

One talked about his twin granddaughters in Tassie, the other about his houseboat. I wasn’t exactly shuffling on the spot, but I would have loved them to move it along a bit.

But register guy was having none of that. He kept up the easy chat until his customer – who was wearing ironed black jeans, Asics runners and a stonking gold watch – was ready to scoot off again. He gave me a twinkle on the way out: “Merry Christmas, girlie.”

Then it was my turn for a chat and the subject was the man on the motorised scooter: “He’s 99. Still grows all his own veggies and does his housework. Has looked after his wife for 30 years, since she first got dementia.”

The other day, said the man at the register, his sprightly elderly customer had asked what time he knocked off. He wanted a favour. To be driven to the bank – to withdraw $50,000 in cash. To buy a racehorse. A yearling. Register guy: “I asked if he knew the horse wouldn’t race for at least two years. He was pretty surprised I was even suggesting he might not be around to see it run. He reckons he’s got plenty of time up his sleeve.”

No offence to Pip who gave me the sexy amphibian sandals or to my dad for the golf top, but the encounter with the almost-centenarian was my favourite Christmas present. And definitely the best gift I could have going into this next year, with its message of authentic optimism and adventure. The message that instead of planning so carefully for what happens as we age – retirement, ill-health, loss – we should just live as if we’re going to do it forever.

Stop thinking about mortality, sensible as that may be. Treat everything like you’re just getting started.

For mine, we increasingly spend our lives being concerned with how things seem to be. Keeping up appearances. Having what stamps us as belonging to a particular social set or gives gravitas – yes, that includes my 12 sets of artfully mismatched French flax linen – while simultaneously getting rid of anything that’s “triggering” or “toxic”, whether that be friends or jobs.

What’s it all for? As time goes by, I feel I know less and am frantic to fill gaps in my knowledge, practical, intellectual and spiritual. I still don’t know how to change a tyre, am terrified of how quickly a sewing machine pedal can get away from you and if I’m honest, I still don’t know what I believe about what happens when we die.

But one thing I know as we head into 2023 is life isn’t linear. It splits inevitably into relationships and phases and addresses that feel endless at the time but don’t last. Falling in love with the cadet reporter at the next desk. Pushing a pram around, dazed. Wearing heels. Driving a Kia Carnival. Choosing tiles. Planting a Manchurian pear. Kissing a grandmother’s lifeless forehead. Packing a kid’s stuff into a Barina. Taking off a wedding ring.

So, right now, I’m feeling like the effort we put into perfecting our own appearance and those of our homes for others to admire is a waste of time. Things change. People change. The world changes.

And that’s where the good stuff is.

I want to concentrate on doing just that, learning, keeping up with a strong current, taking risks, feeling immortal rather than immaculate.

My bet is the new racehorse owner has never wondered if he’s enough, should cut the carbs or buy a valance. He’s making plans for when he’s 101.

Yes, I’m going to stalk him at the servo. My new guru. My unlikely 2023 lighthouse.

Happy New Year all. Hope it surprises you.

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