A new start after 60 years: “I trained as a flight attendant – it’s the only way to explore the world” | life and style
SSometimes, when she reaches the sanctuary of her hotel room after 24 hours on duty, Suzanne Watkins finds herself laughing uncontrollably. It’s happened in South Korea, Guam, Japan and Ireland – all since last November when, on her 60th birthday, she graduated as a flight attendant. .
“I knew the only way to explore the world economically was to get paid to fly,” she says. “And I knew I had to do it at 60, because I didn’t want to do it at 70.”
Watkins works long-distance, short-term, on an ad-hoc schedule. The lifestyle would horrify some, but she says she feels “more at peace with myself when I’m a stranger in a foreign land and wander around”.
So she gave up her rented apartment, downsized, and put everything she owned in a 5-by-10-foot storage unit. “And that’s all I have,” she said. “It’s exciting not knowing where I’m going, what I’m going to do.” She stays with her friends and family when she is not traveling.
After Watkins and her husband divorced in 2008, she always knew where she was going. She raised their then 14-year-old daughter and eight-year-old son as a single mother in Sebastopol, California. “Economically, I struggled. I had three minimum wage jobs. These included working at a toy store and planning trips for non-profit school organizations.
Life has settled into a necessary pattern. “You drive to the office, you sit at a computer all day, you come home, you sleep, and you do it again.”
Watkins was still in that mode in 2018, when she was rushed to the ER with a life-threatening septicaemic infection. “They had to remove half of my intestines. It made me realize that I am mortal,” she says. “Sometimes that’s what it takes.”
After the operation, Watkins recovered at home and, for the first time in a decade, his relentless work rate was put on hold. “I saw things I had never seen in my house before – noticing the lamp on the ceiling or the birds outside. I had never taken the time.
One day, in this state of mind, she was listening to the radio. Entrepreneur Chip Conley was talking about his new project: Academy of Modern Elders, which is billed as a “midlife wisdom school,” in Baja California, Mexico. Watkins applied for a scholarship. “As a single mom, it was the only way I could do it.”
She was still carrying her post-op colostomy bag when she visited the MEA campus in February 2018 for a week of “transformation and active listening workshops…I felt like take a big, deep breath for the first time and then just let it out,” says Watkins.
She had a restless and anxious childhood. She liked to leaf through National Geographic magazine, which was always on the coffee table, but her parents “were by no means travelers”, although the family had moved a dozen times. Watkins sent for brochures about places but never went and drew pictures of airplanes. At university, she studied geography. Once she arrived at Modern Elder Academy, she realized she needed to find a job that involved travel.
When the pandemic shut down the skies in 2020, Watkins read that flight attendants were laid off. Unexpectedly, his own plans took off. She applied to become 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 say, ‘If today was my last day, would I be okay?’, and I say, ‘Yes’.
Before her illness, she says, “I was complacent. And complacency and old age – it doesn’t work. It’s not uplifting. I think it’s important as an older adult to keep pushing the boundaries. Don’t think of your life in a linear fashion. She opens her hands. “Think of it as continuing to unfold. And you can have surprises and joy.
His children also appreciate him differently. “I think they saw me as someone who was scared, not a risk taker, when they were younger. Now they’ve seen me go through a lot of transformations. I can finally be a role model for them and show them that it’s okay to follow your heart.