yesSometimes when she reaches the sanctuary of her hotel room after 24 hours on duty, Suzanne Watkins finds herself laughing uncontrollably. This has happened in South Korea, Guam, Japan, and Ireland, all since last November when she, on her 60th birthday, passed her flight attendant training.
“I knew that the only way I could explore the world economically was to get paid to fly,” he says. “And I knew I had to do it at 60, because I didn’t want to do it at 70.”
Watkins works long distances on short notice, with an ad hoc schedule. Her lifestyle would horrify some, but she says she feels “more at peace with myself when I’m a stranger in a strange land and I’m wandering.”
So he gave up his rented apartment, downsized, and compressed everything he owns into a 5-foot-by-10-foot storage unit. “And that’s all I have,” she says. “It’s exciting, not knowing where I’m going, what I’m going to do.” She stays with friends and family when she’s not on the road.
After Watkins and her husband divorced in 2008, she always knew where she was going. She raised her daughter, then 14, and her son, eight, as a single mother in Sebastopol, California. “Financially, I turned around. I had three minimum wage jobs.” These included working in a toy store and planning trips for non-profit school organizations.
Life settled into a necessary pattern. “You drive to the office, you sit in front of a computer all day, you go home, you sleep, and you do it again.”
Watkins was still in this mode in 2018, when she was taken to the emergency room with a life-threatening sepsis infection. “They had to remove half of her intestines. It made me realize that I am mortal,” she says. “Sometimes that’s what it takes.”
After the surgery, Watkins recovered at home and, for the first time in a decade, his relentless work rate ground to a halt. “I saw things that I had never seen before in my own house: I noticed the lamp on the ceiling or the birds outside. I’ve never taken the time.”
One day, in this state of mind, I was listening to the radio. Entrepreneur Chip Conley talked about his new project: Modern Academy for the Elderly, which bills itself as a “midlife wisdom school,” in Baja California, Mexico. Watkins applied for a scholarship. “As a single mom, it was the only way she could do it.”
She was still wearing her post-op colostomy bag when she went to the MEA campus in February 2018 for a week of “transformation workshops and active listening…I felt like I was taking a deep breath for the first time, and then just letting it out,” Watkins says. .
He had had an unsettled and anxious childhood. She loved flipping through National Geographic magazine, which was always on the coffee table, but her parents were “not travelers by any means, shape or form,” though the family moved a dozen times. Watkins asked for brochures about places but never went, and he drew airplanes. In college, he studied geography. Once he arrived at Modern Elder Academy, he realized that he needed to find a job that involved travel.
When the pandemic closed the skies in 2020, Watkins read about flight attendants being laid off. Contrary to intuition, his own plans grew wings. She applied to be a flight attendant and graduated after five weeks of training.
“I don’t want to have any regrets on my deathbed. So I wake up every morning and I’m like, ‘If today was my last day, would I be okay?’ and I’m like, ‘Yes.'”
Before his illness, he says, “I was complacent. And complacency and old age, it doesn’t work. It is not uplifting. I think it’s important as an older adult to keep pushing boundaries. Don’t think of your life linearly.” She opens her hands. “Think of it as continuing to develop. And you can have surprises and joy.”
Her children also appreciate her differently. “I think they saw me as fearful, not a risk taker, when they were younger. Now they have seen me go through many transformations. I can finally be a role model for them to show that it is okay to follow your heart.”