A new start after 60: my divorce felt mortally wounding – then I walked the Camino de Santiago | Life and style
“What I thought was going to be the best year of my life turned out to really suck,” says Belinda Isley.
It had started so promisingly: she and her husband had retired early (Isley worked in marketing for the state of Idaho, where they lived, and for the local university; she also worked as an artist and had a sideline in property development). Their son was at college and they had downsized, giving them more financial freedom. The couple travelled to Costa Rica and celebrated her 60th birthday with a wine-tasting trip. Then Isley’s mother died.
“It wasn’t unexpected, but it was sudden,” she says. Grieving for her mother and dealing with probate were emotionally gruelling. Then, three months later, she faced another shock. “One morning, I’d made a latte for my husband. I gave it to him and he just kind of casually said he thought we should be divorced. I thought he was joking, because he was my best friend and we just had life by the tail.”
Isley was “mortally wounded” – angry, sad and shocked. Eventually, though, she rallied. “I got to the point where I said: OK, you have two choices here. You can be really bitter and angry and live the rest of your life like that, or you can look really hard and, difficult as it may be, find whatever gift there is in this scenario.”
That marked the start of a second act full of adventure. Isley began by fostering newborn kittens that needed to be fed every three hours, which she found to be a positive way to avoid the introspection inherent in relationship breakdown. “If you focus your light outward to help people, it’s a really healing experience.”
She reconnected with two old friends and went on walking adventures with one of them; they walked the Camino de Santiago and crossed England coast to coast, from St Bees to Robin Hood’s Bay. The walks were far from easy, but the experience was transformative – spiritual, even. “When you get into nature, you get in touch with another world. It resets your body compass and your mindset,” she says.
Back in the US, on the lookout for financial security, Isley learned from a friend of a friend about her experience working as a house director, or “house mom”, in a college sorority. She decided to apply for such a role, taking up her first position at 64. She is now based at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Anything from 32 to 86 girls live in the “fairly grand” sorority house; there are chefs, gardeners and handymen to oversee. Her property-developing experience was invaluable. “I’m not afraid of houses; I know when something goes wrong and what you have to do.”
House mom is a full-on, live-in role in term time. “I pretty much manage everything and make sure that the girls are happy and safe and that the house runs and doesn’t fall apart. I always tell people it’s a lot of fun until it isn’t.
“As happy as you think college-aged girls should be, there’s a lot going on in the world they can’t get away from,” she says. Campuses have become a target for violent attacks. Last year, Isley had to deal with a man convicted of violent crimes against women breaking into the sorority house: “That was pretty scary.” Life was easier, she thinks, when she was their age. “When I was in college, being shot in the student union was not on the list of things to worry about.”
Inevitably, there are personal crises and tragedies. “We have had really incredibly sad things happen,” she says. “I find myself absorbing this, which is not healthy.”
What is it like, at nearly 69, to live with women on the verge of adulthood? “They’re fun to be around; they keep you young,” Isley says. “Their energy is just great.” They offer on-tap IT support and dared her to dye her hair (“I said: ‘You give me that dye, I’ll do it’ – I dyed my hair pink!”). She marvels at how clever yet lacking in common sense the students can be. She recalls a letter returned as undeliverable that was addressed using only the recipient’s Instagram handle (“You’ve gotten all the way to college and you don’t know how to address a letter?!”).
Mainly, though, she admires their resilience. “For everything they’re experiencing, these girls are brave, they’re optimistic, they’re up for the challenge,” she says.
Isley’s unflappable openness and warmth shine through on our video call; I am not surprised by a tribute that she forwards from one of her earliest charges, saying what a huge impact Isley had and how thankful she is for Isley’s influence on her life.
What can they learn from each other at such different life stages? Isley says the girls show her that “it’s important to work hard, but also to make time for fun. Be kind, be of service, don’t take yourself so seriously – and a party is always a good idea.”
In return, she teaches them tenacity: “There’s always a way to work through any problem.” Plus, as someone who can turn her hand to most DIY, Isley shows them: “A woman is perfectly capable of anything.”