Being content

I have been thinking of late about how I have changed as I have aged, in a good way.  One of the things I notice is that I no longer seem afraid of contentment.  When I was younger, I felt that contentment was like stasis – a kind of death.  I know that sounds weird, but maybe I was weird.  I was always after the buzz, addicted to work, never satisfied with what I had achieved.  It’s not that I was after buying stuff or acquiring goods (more on that later).  I have always lived a fairly simple life, which is probably one reason I was drawn to becoming a Quaker as a young adult.  But I wasn’t content with me.

I don’t know when it happened, but somehow I have become content.  Maybe it came upon me slowly, but I think the process of retirement has had something to do with it.  I now feel OK about myself, about what I have achieved, about where I live, about who I am with, and about saying no to work that doesn’t fire me with enthusiasm.  My work these days is more often than not looking after grandchildren – unpaid, very rewarding work.  I am lucky.  Some of my friends have little pension and so must continue paid work in perpetuity.

If you look at the research on happiness, you find that having enough money to live on is important, but a 2010 study suggests that beyond a certain point money doesn’t make you any happier. Later studies are conflicted, however (https://www.theguardian.com/money/2016/jan/07/can-money-buy-happiness).  Does this mean we have lost the ability to be content with what we have?  I wonder.

One role that having more money does play in happiness (same Guardian article!) is that being generous makes us happy, releasing endorphins in the brain to give us the same natural high as exercise (though not necessarily the other health benefits associated with getting off the couch).  Still better, if we use our money to benefit others and build relationships at the same time (as in taking someone out for coffee), this has an even bigger impact on our wellbeing than simply giving our money away.

If you look at the adverts on TV you’d be forgiven for thinking you really should be changing your car, rushing out to buy the latest gadget, or indulging in some very sad online betting to make you happier.  So why are we lied to, to make us think we need to buy more and more and keep it all to ourselves?  Well, that’s free market capitalism for you I guess.  The truth is, that when we behave generously to others, and especially when we do so in ways that promote emotional bonding at the same time, we feel happier.  It figures, given the research I think I have previously referred to in this blog, concerning older age and well-being.  We live longer and more healthily if we are socially engaged and helping others.  No surprise there, then.

I spend a lot of time these days feeling grateful for what I have – focussing on my glass half full or more, rather than what I don’t have.  Practising gratitude definitely improves happiness and wellbeing (https://science.howstuffworks.com/life/inside-the-mind/emotions/gratitude-and-happiness1.htm). One way to do this is to keep a gratitude diary and simply jot three things down every day for which you are thankful.  I tend to do it at the start of my meditation.  Other people I have heard write down things for which they are grateful (an example might be someone smiled at me on the bus) and put them in a jar, to be pulled out and read every now and then.  Or, mindful of how important relationships are, you could tell people what you are grateful for – especially if it’s about them!  There are lots of ways to develop our gratitude muscles.

So should we all be more content with our lot?  Well no, that’s not what I am saying here.  I would never suggest for example that someone who is subject to twenty-first century slavery should be grateful for their situation.

Maslow famously described what he called his ‘hierarchy of needs’.  In short, you need food and shelter before you can start thinking about anything else – hotly followed by physical and emotional (and financial) security.  Only once these needs have been fulfilled can we afford, according to Maslow (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maslow%27s_hierarchy_of_needs#Physiological_needs) to focus on all that pro-social behaviour, bonding and belonging.  And only once we know we belong can we develop sufficient self-esteem to move forward to what he calls self-actualization, which roughly translates as fulfilling our potential.

I am content, because I do have enough of everything.  I don’t seek to have more than enough.  I look for things to be grateful for, and take an almost childish pleasure in the simple things of life – like the sun shining, a wonderful view, the smell of coffee, a good film on TV, and above all my family for whom I am deeply grateful and whom I love.  A lot.

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Lost and found

I turned sixty-six recently.  All the sixes.  Clickety-click.  Did I feel any different on June 12th 2018 from how I did on June 11th 2018?  Not really.  But when I compare how I feel now to how I remember feeling when I turned sixty, there is a marked difference.

I was on a walking holiday in Scotland when I turned sixty-six.  It was exactly two years since I was on a walking holiday on the Pembrokeshire Coast Path.  Then, we were aiming for about eight miles a day, but one day we accidentally did eleven.  It happened to be the day when I rang the surgery in agony, to find that the x-ray on my right hip confirmed the suspected arthritis.  Since then, I have never been in as much pain as I was that day.  I put it down to the fact that I have strategically used diet and exercise to manage my condition.  Specifically:

  • I’ve cut down from an eight-mile target to a five-mile target, with occasional forays into longer distances but never, ever over eight miles.
  • I aim for somewhere around 80,000 to 90,000 steps a week, spreading this out so that I aim to make 10,000 on each of at least five days.
  • I always use my walking poles to take some of the strain.
  • I do yoga at least twice a week.
  • I dance.
  • I gave up alcohol on January 1st I have drunk twice since, keeping to one or two glasses of champagne.  I now see myself as a non-drinker who rarely makes an exception – not a moderator (which often seems to lead people to revert to whatever their previous pattern was).
  • I became pescatarian in the spring of 2017, re-introducing at the same time into my diet more healthy fats, nuts and seeds (I had been avoiding these to lose weight).
  • I have lost weight, due to the above! I now have a BMI of 23.4, in the normal range – reduced from around 26.7, overweight.  My waist size is also (despite being a straight up and down body shape) within safe limits, which it most definitely was not two years ago!

So, I guess you could say I have lost some things, and gained others.

But – and this is a big but – I did find myself recently on our walking holiday feeling the pain in my hip, both during and after walking up some hills on Skye and in the Trossachs.  It was, and always is, lovely to get up high, but I paid for it.  I didn’t reach for the pain killers, but that’s because I tend to be rather stoical on these matters.  I read Ivan Illich’s Limits to Medicine at an impressionable age.  The fact is, that I know I overdid it on holiday, while my husband would have loved a longer all-day walk.  He knows he will have to do the next mountain without me, in all probability.  Not only was my hip bothering me, but my Morton’s Neuroma started playing up due to new boots.  And that was without climbing any actual mountains.  The last time I climbed a real mountain (see my blog post from September 2017, Climb every mountain), I got a laryngeal spasm and felt dizzy for much of it – not a smart move.  I feel sad to think I might never climb a mountain again, though I might try a smallish one like Cnicht in Snowdonia.  The feeling of being on top of the world is – well, like being on top of the world.  It is a huge loss, to know I will never, in all probability, again climb either Table Mountain in South Africa, or Ben Lomond in New Zealand (on both of which I had a laryngeal spasm).  Only walkers will truly understand this particular loss, I suspect.

But in a way, I digress.  My body may be falling apart, but what bothers me more is my brain going down the swanny.  I have always been bad with names.  As someone who has done a lot of teaching, this has been tricky over the years.  Find me out of context, and I might just look at you rather blankly.  I have been known to call my own daughter by the cat’s name.  My dad was similar, though I swear he did it just to wind me up.  He routinely called each boyfriend by the name of the one I had been dating two weeks previously; his way of undermining his daughter’s burgeoning womanhood.

So yes, names are not my strong point.  But I pride myself on a stereotypically female brain – I know where I have put things, whereas hubby knows how to get from A to B.  Different kinds of spatial memory, one could argue.  But this holiday, I had to admit that I am getting far worse on knowing where I have put things.  Obviously this bothers me.  I named this blog series Ramblings in a rather tongue-in-cheek fashion, aware of the potential seriousness of memory problems and in no way wishing to poke fun at people who have dementia.  I wanted to challenge discriminatory and oppressive narratives about old women who ‘ramble on’.  I also wanted to document my own process of ageing.

What happened this holiday was a series of lost and found events.  First, there was the spoon.  We set off from home nice and early in the morning to drive to Scotland from our home near Manchester, and so I took my breakfast with me, which was muesli.  I ate it in the car once hubby took over on the driving.  I carefully washed up the spoon, but when we got to our cottage on Skye on the third night after two nights in a hotel in the Trossachs, it was nowhere to be found.  It turned up in the cutlery drawer there on the last day.  I have no memory of how this happened.

The other lost and found was rather more expensive.  I took my fleece off when trying on some clothes in a shop.  I thought I put it back on, but then we went out for lunch and I might have taken it off there.  When I realised it was missing, I had to go and buy a new one (a very fetching green).  On the last day, as I was packing things in the boot, I found a tote back with my old fleece in it.  I remembered putting it in there, but not why or when.

So, I have a nice new fleece that I didn’t really need, both of the lost items have turned up, no harm done.  On our return journey when hubby was struggling to remember the words for things (something that happens a lot with me – my favourite word is ‘jobbins’, which drives said husband crazy), I was on fire, recalling the correct word for almost everything.  I confess I felt a bit smug.

When I was at university about a million years ago, we thought that once you got to adulthood it was all downhill in terms of brain cells (neurones).  We lose a lot of them every day, and in those days we thought we couldn’t make new ones.  That ‘fact’ has now been usurped by new facts, as is the way of science.  We now know that we can make new brain cells at any age – but it is a case of use it or lose it.  One of the best ways to make new ones is something I already do – learning dance steps!1

But how do I know what is normal, in terms of my loss of capacity for remembering where I put things or indeed the names for things?  Well, I found a useful web resource that spells this out at https://www.helpguide.org/articles/alzheimers-dementia-aging/age-related-memory-loss.htm

Here’s what they say:

‘The following types of memory lapses are normal among older adults and generally are not considered warning signs of dementia:

  • Occasionally forgetting where you left things you use regularly, such as glasses or keys.
  • Forgetting names of acquaintances or blocking one memory with a similar one, such as calling a grandson by your son’s name.
  • Occasionally forgetting an appointment or walking into a room and forgetting why you entered.
  • Becoming easily distracted or having trouble remembering what you’ve just read, or the details of a conversation.
  • Not quite being able to retrieve information you have “on the tip of your tongue.”’

Dementia, on the other hand is characterised by:  ‘a persistent, disabling decline in two or more intellectual abilities such as memory, language, judgment, and abstract thinking.’

They offer a really handy little table, which I am reproducing here in its entirety:

 

Normal age-related memory changes Symptoms that may indicate dementia
Able to function independently and pursue normal activities, despite occasional memory lapses Difficulty performing simple tasks (paying bills, dressing appropriately, washing up); forgetting how to do things you’ve done many times
Able to recall and describe incidents of forgetfulness Unable to recall or describe specific instances where memory loss caused problems
May pause to remember directions, but doesn’t get lost in familiar places Gets lost or disoriented even in familiar places; unable to follow directions
Occasional difficulty finding the right word, but no trouble holding a conversation Words are frequently forgotten, misused, or garbled; Repeats phrases and stories in same conversation
Judgment and decision-making ability the same as always Trouble making choices; May show poor judgment or behave in socially inappropriate ways

 

Now my husband might say I sometimes behave in socially inappropriate ways, but perhaps less so since I knocked the grog on the head.  Ditto getting lost, though I know he gets slightly annoyed at my lack of spatial memory at times (‘which way did you say I turn here?’).  I clearly am able to recall and describe specific instances where memory loss has caused a problem, and I still seem able to dress myself – though today I forgot I was going to be splashing bleach around in the house my son and his friends have just vacated, resulting in some not very fetching light brown patches on my dark brown trousers.

I do tend to forget words, but then I have always done that.  So long as I don’t forget the word ‘jobbins’ I guess I’ll be OK, though I might need to duck occasionally.  I guess I am just getting old(er).  Maybe I will just have to get used to losing things.  And then finding them again.  Maybe.

 

1 Rehfeld, K., Müller, P., Aye, N., Schmicker, M., Milos Dordevic, M., Jörn Kaufmann, J., Hökelmann, A. & Müller, N.G. (2017).  Dancing or Fitness Sport? The effects of two training programs on hippocampal plasticity and balance abilities in healthy seniors.  Frontiers in human neuroscience. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2017.00305. Available online:  https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnhum.2017.00305/full

Ageism and racism

The other day, I was walking along by the bus station and about to enter the shopping centre in our local town, when I saw two women chatting to each other, each wearing a salwar kameez and speaking a language I don’t know.  Fair enough.

What shocked me, was that immediately behind them was a silver-haired tall man, probably in his fifties and definitely younger than me, who began making a flailing gesture that would make the puppeteers of Team America proud, whilst uttering a strange non-linguistic sound which I will attempt to reproduce as ‘ohohyeahyeahohwohwoh’, though it really had far less coherence than this.

Reader, I nearly leaped on him and took him down.

This shrinking (literally) daughter-of-Violet.

A Quaker.  Peace lover.

Here’s the sequence of events that ensued:

  1. I shouted (loudly enough to wake any poor homeless person that might have been napping nearby): ‘Excuse me! Are you being racist?????!!!!!!!’
  2. He stopped, turned round, and smiled at me expecting this to be a joke, I guess.
  3. I caught up with him (I had quickened my step).
  4. I eye-balled him.
  5. I balled at him, in close proximity, swearing profusely.
  6. At some point, I told him he was a disgrace to Englishness.
  7. I followed him into the shopping centre, because I was going anyway – at which point it occurred to me I could get a pic of him in case I felt like pasting it all over social media (I have not, I’m glad to say – sanity prevailed).
  8. I got told off by a lovely young mixed-race security man.
  9. I apologised. Racist man seemed to be enjoying me getting told off, and so hung around.
  10. I told security man why I had taken the pic.
  11. Racist man then proceeded to lump the security man together with the South Asian women, referring to them all as ‘them’.
  12. I asked him what he meant by ‘them’.
  13. He said: ‘coloureds’.
  14. I told him his language was right out of the sixties – still shouting.
  15. He then said one of the men he hangs with is ‘as black as the ace of spades’.
  16. I sarcastically told him I bet he’s the exception in your world, mate.
  17. Security man, who had been even tempered and very professional throughout but by now was alerting his mate upstairs through his microphone, couldn’t quite suppress a little teeny chuckle.
  18. I held up my hands and said ‘I hold up my hands, I shouldn’t have sworn at you. I was very angry, but that was wrong.’
  19. Racist man said ‘Well we’re quits then’ and held out his hand to shake mine.
  20. I kept my hands by my side and said ‘No, we’re not.’
  21. He tried to shake security man’s hand, who also kept his hands by his side.
  22. Racist man, seeing security back-up arriving, asked if he could go to the loo.
  23. He went.
  24. Security man thanked me and said he wished there were more people like me.
  25. I once more apologised for being loud and profane.

So – why have I gone to such lengths to recall all of this and lay myself bare?  I was out of order, there’s no two ways about it.  I definitely was not being my calm, peaceful Quaker self that I like to think I am.  Oops. Note to self:  meditate more.  Don’t get so angry with people.  After all, they also have a divine spark in them – even racist man probably has some endearing qualities, and deserves to be listened to and understood.

The reason, though, that I have exposed myself like this is that I am sick and tired (there I go again, getting all angry) of being lumped together with people like racist man, just because I am old.  In a week, I will be 66 years of age, and I am told that it is because of people like me that we are coming out of the EU, because we are all racist bigots.  I am told that it is because we had free education and houses didn’t cost as much in our day, that young people today are struggling.  No it isn’t.  It’s because the fat cat bankers took what they could and ran off with it.  OK, I’m being simplistic.  But when I was buying my first house with my then partner five weeks after having my first baby, we were so poor we slept on blankets on the floor.  Life was hard.  I feel for the young today, but their troubles are just different.  And I didn’t cause them just because I am now old and I made some smart choices, plodded along in safe jobs rather than making a quick buck, and paid into a reliable pension plan.

And neither am I a racist.

And neither did I vote Brexit.

So there.

In fact, that applies to most of my friends, who are largely old lefties, like me.

But I must meditate more.

I really must meditate more.

 

You should go and love yourself

Despite the provocative title cribbed from a Justin Bieber hit, this really isn’t an invitation to go take a metaphorical hike.  In fact, quite the contrary.

The other day in my daily meditation, I asked my usual question (a typical Quaker question):  ‘What does love require of me?’

The answer that came back to me surprised me:  ‘Love thy neighbour as thyself.’

But there’s the rub. That means I have to love myself in the first place, but what does loving yourself mean?  And how do we do it?  Surely when Jesus allegedly said the words (Matthew 22, verse 39) he was not suggesting that we should be narcissistic.  

Still in meditation, I realised that I could only get to an approximation of loving myself, since I am me and my previous experience of love has been when there is another person involved.  I have known no greater love than for my babies, for whom I would lay down my life without question if needs be. And so, I found myself thinking about my past self as if that self had been one of my babies.  This way, I could get closer to an understanding of self-love. I could feel compassion, empathy and – yes, love, for that little girl that once was. And then I moved it on a bit, to the me of very recent times who has at times done things I am not proud of.  Could I feel compassion for her, and move into a state of forgiveness, acceptance and love?

It’s an ongoing project, but I am beginning to understand this self-love thing.  What’s more, I now know it is crucial to learning to love my fellow human-being. Unless I can forgive myself, feel compassion and empathy for myself in all my human frailty and imperfection, how can I do that for others?  I will still love my babies (who are now all grown) and my grand-babies, but I know that I need to be able to love even those who are unkind to me or upset me or anger me if I am to follow the promptings of my heart. That’s a harder lesson, but at least I can now see a path towards it.

So, not because I think I am super smart or super pretty or super anything, but simply because I am human, I really should go and love myself.  And so should you.

Be still and … ACTS!

No, that is not a typo.

I have recently been reinstating an old habit of daily meditation.  It has taken a great number of years to get back into this habit, formed when I was in my late teens but broken when I had my children.  When you are the mother of small children, most self-care goes out of the window.  In my opinion, showering and putting on fresh underwear is a cause for celebration and a huge pat on the back.

I had my last child more than 22 years ago.  I have few excuses for my tardiness in re-establishing this habit.

 

Recently, I downloaded a free app on my phone that helps people to keep track of new habits they are trying to develop. I began inputting loads of stuff that I felt I should be doing daily, and then my lovely husband reminded me I have enough shoulds in my life.  So I deleted most of them, pairing it down to just three that I feel really sustain me.  These are my keepers.  They will be different for everyone, but for me meditation is essential in allowing me to be the best possible version of myself.

I want to share something about my meditation practice, because this has been such a big part of my life for about 47 years, even if I have not always practised daily.  My approach to meditation has developed over the years, having been influenced by Hindu, Spiritualist, Buddhist and Quaker practice, not to mention certain psychotherapeutic approaches including Psychosynthesis, Mindfulness and Hypnotherapy.  I guess what I do could be considered a bit of a mish-mash, but what intrigues me is that there are some core practices that one can find in all of these traditions.

I sometimes begin with the phrase ‘Be Still, and know that I am God’ (Psalm 46:10), as I focus initially on my breathing.  This allows me to settle into the state of meditation.  It is a kind of ‘centring down’ into oneself – a kind of coming home.

The other phrase I sometimes find myself using is ‘Thy will, not mine, be done’ (Luke 22:42).  I like this because it reminds me that my own little ego is of no importance; what my true Self desires is to be aligned with God’s will.

Now, let me pause there.  This language might well put a few people off, and who could blame you?  Organised religion has been responsible for a lot of bloodshed, especially when aligned to power whether power of the state or of sex – and let’s not beat about the bush here, when I say sex I mean men.  It goes without saying that I know some lovely, peace-loving men, and that there some truly principled people who run countries or serve in the parliaments for those countries.  But history suggests that powerful men sometimes use organised religion to justify horrific acts.

Another objection to the two phrases above might be that it is very Christo-centric.  That is true, and the reason is that that is the tradition I was brought up in.  It is what I know.  If I had been brought up Hindu or Buddhist I would no doubt have referenced texts (and used language) from those religions.  Ultimately, I know of no religion that does not require of us that we subjugate personal will for something better than that, and neither do I know of any religion that denies the importance of contemplative practices.

So, having got that out of the way I know there is another objection, and this is a big one – science and religion are sometimes deemed not to mix, because they work on different principles – and science tends to trump religion because of its claim to objectivity. Note, I did not say truth.  As an ex-scientist, I can say with some confidence that science does not deal in certainty but in probability.  Moreover, any good scientist will tell you that what we believe today is very different from what our fore-fathers and mothers believed four hundred years ago.  Science works on disproving the beliefs of yesterday.  ‘Truth’ is fragile.

For me, the problematic word is God, but I choose to use it as a short-had for what I mean – which is not a person with a long beard who lives in some place ‘up there’ called heaven.  As a Quaker I do believe, however, in what I have experienced, and every time I enter the stillness I find a deep sense of peace and of a power that is both a part of me and goes beyond me – that connects me to all living things.

When I am wondering what to do about something that is troubling me, I ask the typically Quaker question of that place within (the inner Light, or ‘that of God’ within each of us):  ‘What does Love require of me?’  If God is Love, then I might as well ask ‘What does God require of me?’  The name is mere semantics.  It is a short form for what I know.  It isn’t theory.  I have no idea whether we live beyond this life or not.  But I do know God; I have felt God’s power.  Saying that in such a public place is a bit like coming out!

So much for the Be Still bit of the title of this blog.  Now for the ACTS!

Anyone who ever took Anglican Confirmation classes  (and a surprising number of British Quakers did, including me) will know that ACTS stands for the following aspects of prayer:

  • Adoration
  • Confession
  • Thanksgiving
  • Supplication

The supplication bit is deliberately put last.

As a Quaker, I have often struggled with the idea of worship.  We have a weekly meeting for worship, and we also have a monthly meeting for worship for business. Worship is a word we bandy about, but I struggle to understand what we mean by it, especially if like me you are a Quaker who does not believe in God as a person.  What are we worshipping?  Who exactly are we adoring, in the first part of the acronym I cite above?

I have recently had a bit of an epiphany about this, and it is through my renewed habit of daily meditation that the lightbulb has been switched on.  I feel a deep sense of inner peace when I am in meditation, which sometimes can feel like a oneness with all living things.  I have come to realise that this state is essential to my well-being – without it, I am out of sorts, out of kilter, denying my true self-expression. Adoration – or worship – is the acknowledgement of the necessity of this state, for me.  It is the bliss I feel when I truly let go into both being still, and surrendering my will to that of the Divine.

Ah, confession.  Who to?  What about?  Well, I don’t really confess to anyone other than myself, at least not initially.  But I do believe that having an honest appraisal of my shortcomings is a very useful way to assure my continued growth as a human being.  One of my biggest challenges lies in my relationships with those people who are closest to me.  It is an irony of life that we tend to show our worst sides to the very people who love us most. Or is it just me?  When I spend time admitting this fact to myself, it sometimes does lead to an apology to someone. Other times, it just leads to me being a better human being for a while.  Until that pesky ego takes over again, and needs to be put in its place.

Thanksgiving, or gratitude, actually appears to be good for you (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3010965/pdf/PE_7_11_18.pdf), though like all things the evidence is not entirely straightforward.  I have taken to using my meditation practice in part to internally list and really fully feel, in an embodied sense, my gratitude for three things each day.  Sometimes, more than three things readily spring to mind and at other times it can be like really digging deep to find something.  But it is a wonderful exercise, and I thoroughly recommend it.

Supplication, as I said, is deliberately left to last.  And here we must especially remember the injunction:  ‘Thy will, not mine, be done.’  I confess (here I go again!) I find it hard when I hear people wanting to be the one to win something, or to have the sun come out for their wedding (It rained on mine and we are still happily married, 25 years later), or to be the one person who miraculously escapes the Grim Reaper after a terminal diagnosis.  I might sound harsh here, but I can’t see why one bride should have sun when this probably means another will have rain, or why that particular person should be singled out to avoid death when everyone else will die, or why that person should win, leaving everyone else to lose.  Such selfish desires are understandable; I too have been known to pray for a miracle for someone who is gravely ill.  But when we unpick it all, it makes no sense at all within an understanding of our interconnectedness and equal value as human beings.  And so, if I ask for anything it is most likely that I will simply do what Quakers call ‘holding someone in the Light’.  In meditation I am conscious of a strong light behind my eyes, which is always coloured and sometimes seems to pulse, moving away as it gets bigger, then beginning all over again as a small, near light. I suspect that what I am seeing is activity in what the Hindus call the ‘third eye’.  So it is easy for me to offer up my prayer of holding someone in the Light, allowing the forces of Light and Love to do their work, whatever that might be.

This has been a different kind of blog for me.  As I said earlier, it is a bit like ‘coming out’; showing my true colours.  Not everyone that will see this blog and knows me, knows what I think about spiritual and religious matters.  My fear on writing this is that some might think me a bit weird.  But in the last year I have found myself getting braver about who I really am.  In any case, my thoughts and beliefs are – like science – provisional.  Tomorrow, and next year, and in five years, who knows where I will sit with any of this?  It will all depend on what I experience in the meantime – and on being open to seeing what lies in my path.

So, what are your ‘keepers’?  In other words, what habits would you like to keep or introduce into your life that sustain you and help you to be the best version of yourself?  I would be interested to know.  As always, please do comment on this blog, and not just on Facebook where I know most people see the alerts.

A happy new year

 

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I have, like many of us do at this time of year, been looking back on 2017.  To be honest, there were some real highs, and some real lows.

The biggest lows were saying good-bye to my daughter and her little brood, as they returned to the land they love that just happens to be across the world from me, and saying good-bye to my brother, who died a few months later.  Actually, the good-bye there continues as we will be scattering his ashes at sea in February, close to his birthday.

The highs?  Well, among these were that my lovely husband and I celebrated 25 years of marriage, and we also travelled to South Africa to celebrate my oldest stepson’s wedding.

So, what can we learn from this?  Well, whatever you hope for in 2018, if you are desperately clinging to some idea of a superior being dishing out goodies just for you there is a high chance you will be sorely disappointed.  It just doesn’t work like that.  None of us, so far as I can see, is the chosen one who will for some reason get more than our fair share.  We will all get some goodies, and some challenges.  The question is, how do we meet those challenges, and do we use them as opportunities to make us stronger or do we crumple, feeling angry and let down that our prayers for goodies (and only goodies) were not answered?

You see, it all depends on whether we have an internal locus of control (these people know that whether life is good or not is up to them – they make opportunities for themselves, and tend to see their glass as half full, or more), or an external locus of control (these people look for solutions to life’s problems outside of themselves, and thus tend to be disappointed, seeing their glass as half empty or worse).

I thought I had an internal locus of control, but I now realise that I tended to be one of those people who at the stroke of midnight offered up a silent prayer, like a needy child shouting ‘Me! Me!’ – hoping to be the recipient of special goodies in the coming year.  What was different in 2017?  Well, I gave up alcohol and joined a movement called One Year No Beer, which was set up and is led by the wonderful Ruari Fairbairns and Andy Ramage.  The whole tone of their movement is about setting challenges for yourself, and building that sense of agency that tells you that you are the master or mistress of your own fate.  To say it has been life changing would be an understatement.

In 2017, I did not drink alcohol either to comfort myself or to celebrate.  I finished the first draft of my novel, completed a plank challenge which ended up in me being able to hold a plank for five minutes (!), and I changed my diet to become pescatarian.  My arthritis is no worse than it was a year ago, and a lot better than it was 18 months ago in terms of pain levels.  I can’t say whether or not my lifestyle changes are responsible for this, but I am pleased with how I am managing this chronic and usually degenerative condition.

So, what for 2018?  Well, around forty years ago I took part in a Fundamentals of Psychosynthesis at the Mill Hill Institute in London.  That too was life changing. I recall one particular exercise we did, which encouraged us to consider ourselves as having body, intellect, emotions and spirit, then asking our higher selves (through a meditative process) whether all four of these were getting equal attention.  It was as a result of this exercise that I went back to study as I felt then that my intellect wasn’t getting as much attention as it should.

I did a quick version of this exercise for myself recently, and came up with my goals for 2018.  These are not ‘resolutions’ to be broken before the month is out, but commitments to myself.  So, for the sake of accountability here they are:

  1. I will get the garden straight. This is a massive undertaking I might add, but it will both provide some regular exercise (body and emotions, since exercise has a positive effect on mental state) and feed me spiritually, as this is the place where I feel closest to my Dad who died in 1998.
  2. I will continue with my Quaker practice, feeding my spirit.
  3. I will complete the re-writes on my novel, and submit it to either an agent and / or publisher. This, of course, will feel my intellect.
  4. I will take really good care of my body – warming up before attacking the garden, not lifting anything too heavy despite the temptation to do so, and going back to the exercises for my chronic rotator cuff injury (left shoulder).
  5. I will continue with yoga and pilates at the gym, and my gym programme. I will also carry on dancing and performing whenever I can, with the community contemporary dance group to which I belong – Ad Hoc Dance, which is celebrating 25 years this year under the Artistic Direction of the wonderful Ruth Jones.  And I will carry on hill walking with my hubby and alone.  I think I have enough for my body!
  6. I will focus on fun. I have a lot of fun playing with grandchildren, but I also want some adult fun every now and then, and in particular I love to dance, so dance I will, even when all I can get to is a Zumba class!

There you go.  I will check in every now and then, to see how I am doing with this lot!

How will you take care of your body, emotions, intellect and spirit this year?  How will you make sure you have a happy 2018, whatever life throws at you?

In retrospect, I’m moving forward

This is one of the times of year when I used to do a review of my life and look forward to the coming year, making aspirational plans.  The other time when I might do this was my birthday, which is in June, conveniently just six months away.

However, since retirement two years ago I have begun to see my life differently.  I no longer strive to achieve in the same way, though I do see myself continuing to grow and change.  I just don’t put the same pressure on myself. I have no-one to impress, no-one to please other than myself and those people I love dearly.

So it might come as a surprise to know that at the start of 2017, I made a change in my life that turned out to be far bigger than I thought it would be.  I decided to take a break from alcohol; not because I felt I had a problem, but because at the age of 65 and with various health problems associated with ageing I felt it no longer made sense to drink as much as I did.  I didn’t drink mid-week, but I did tend to drink more than the recommended limit at week-ends.

I began, as I have more than once before, with Dry January.  It wasn’t easy to take a break from alcohol so soon after the over-indulgence of Christmas, but I had done it before so at least I knew what to expect.  Just one week in, I wrote in my Dry January Journal:  ‘I keep finding that a smile creeps over my face, for no good reason.’  Already, I found to my surprise that my reflux had improved, and in the first week I lost two and a half pounds in weight.  By three weeks in, I had made the decision never to go back to drinking every week-end, just because it is the week-end.  I decided that I wanted to become a rare or occasional drinker; an aspiration that I still hold for some time in the future. I was in a different mind-set this time.  And before the month was up I had found a Facebook group to help me carry on; One Year No Beer (OYNB).

At the end of the month, I gave this feedback to Dry January:

‘I have done DJ before, but I think I have always felt a bit deprived, and I could not wait for February 1st to come.  This year is different.  It seems a light bulb has gone on in my head, and instead of thinking about giving up something I have begun to see it as a freedom – alcohol free!’

Once I had achieved the month though, it felt hard to carry on.  I had to find my motivation, so I listed my reasons for remaining Alcohol Free.  My body continued to change, chucking out toxins around seven weeks into not drinking in the form of a spot on my chin.  The weight fell off me, but my sleep was rubbish.  It was anything but an easy ride.  But I stuck at it.

One of the things that I have become aware of during this time is the way that alcohol is peddled as both a necessary part of having a good time, and an essential way to make a bad time seem better.  The industry has done a very good job of brainwashing us all into thinking this is true, whereas in fact alcohol kills true connection with other people, takes us away from fully experiencing the joy and wonder of now, and magnifies our negative emotions.

One of the mantras I have developed for myself, which seems far more accurate than the dominant narrative is:  Alcohol never made anything better.  During this year, I have said a tearful farewell to my daughter and her little brood as they returned to the other side of the world, grieved the loss of my brother, celebrated my oldest stepson’s wedding, my own 65th birthday and our silver wedding anniversary, climbed Table Mountain in South Africa, and generally been far more present than I was the previous year for anything and everything, good and bad.  I have not got caught up in the bad times, and I have been able to savour the good times.  I decided to go pescatarian a few months into the year, and it feels so good to be eating a diet I feel is right for me.  I have lost a bit of weight (not that much; I didn’t need to lose all that much), I have more energy, occasionally I still sleep badly but I don’t stress about it, and I generally feel better in myself.  I no longer have night sweats, my digestion has improved no end, I don’t get breathless doing ordinary tasks, and I am calmer.  I am told I am a nicer person to live with. Oh, and I completed the first draft of my debut novel.

As the founders of OYNB, Andy Ramage and Ruari Fairbairns have noted, if there was a pill that could give you all of this, we would all be popping it!  All I had to do, was stop pouring poison into my body.  In retrospect, drinking alcohol was a ludicrous thing to do when I was doing so many other good things for my body and soul.  And so, I stopped doing it.  And I started moving forward –gently, and with compassion for self and others.

I don’t judge those who continue to drink.  How could I?  I did it for decades, and there were even times when I genuinely enjoyed it, though far less often than I told myself was the case.  In this world of ours where the powerful can stand in judgement on others – and harm them – because of their sexuality, religion or any number of other characteristics, I strongly believe that we each should feel at liberty to make the choice that is right for us (provided we are not harming others), and to do so free from fear.

And so, I will be lifting a glass of bubbly alcohol-free wine at midnight on December 31st.  And I will be moving forward into 2018 with hope and an open mind.  Who knows what the next year might bring?

Living the life I choose

I hate the injunction to ‘live your dreams’.  I do, thank you – at night.

I also get a bit exercised by these memes one finds on social media, telling us that we can do or be whatever we wish.  No, we can’t.  Sorry, love, but that is just a falsity.  If you go through life thinking you can be or do whatever you want, you are setting yourself up for failure and a life of misery.  I personally failed to get into Cambridge to read medicine as a thirty-something lone parent.  I suspect there was some snobbery involved there, but it was just as well, really – I already had enough on my plate! More recently, I failed to get into the Hallé choir – I was nervous as hell, but in truth I simply am not a good enough singer.  I was gutted at the time about both of these failures, but I have got over it.  If anything, they were instructive about what is, and is not, worth pursuing.   I have had plenty of other successes in my life.

Of course, there are people for whom the idea that you can be or do whatever you want seems to be true. They tend to have been born into privilege, and go through life with an air of entitlement.  What’s more, they can make massive mistakes, even losing thousands or millions of pounds in the process, but because they have the buffer of daddy’s money they end up sunny side up, laughing their heads off.  The current president of the United States of America is a case in point.

But what of those mere mortals who constitute the vast majority of the Western (already privileged) world?  Actually, those brackets should not be there.  Let’s not ignore them.  There are a lot of people in the world, for whom the dream is to have clean water, adequate shelter, and enough food to feed their crying children.  The idea of living one’s dreams is a first world obsession.  But, it needs to be addressed.

So, once we have done what we can to help the mother in some far off village to feed her children, and with due humility and thankfulness for our privileged lives, what then?  If not living our dreams, what is the alternative?

Well, the first thing is contained in the previous paragraph.  There is a lot to be said for a bit of old-fashioned counting of blessings.  Apparently, this can have huge health benefits (https://www.healthline.com/health/depression/giving-thanks#1).

But then what if you do want to progress a life goal?  Well, one of the things I always told my kids was to follow their passion, because passion is something you feel in your guts, and it is accompanied by wakeful action – not, ahem, sleep and passivity.

Some of you might know that on January 1st, 2017 I gave up alcohol.  Not an easy task, and there have been plenty of occasions when I might have given up sobriety.  But I am a stubborn old bird, and so despite facing several celebrations and two major periods of sadness I have not touched a drop.  What has helped me to stay the course so far?  I made a decision.  I did not then make excuses, as if there was someone else in control of my decision, and someone else to please.  It is my decision, and mine alone.  If I change my mind, I am responsible for that.  It isn’t as if I have no choice in the matter – you know the scenario; you hear it everywhere.  ‘I couldn’t go on that diet / stop drinking (insert any lifestyle change here) because we had to go out for a meal / there was a wedding / someone died (insert any number of excuses here)’.  It is all lies.  Lies to oneself, to avoid actually making a decision and meaning it.

I can’t say that sobriety is a passion of mine, but it is a commitment.  For now, at least.  It is associated with action and choice.  With being awake.  It is definitely not a dream.

And you know what?  It has woken me up to just how grateful I am for each and every day on this wonderful planet of ours.

Let’s not muck that up, eh?

 

 

Sex

 

I hesitated before writing about this topic. For a start, I did not want some smutty fella doing a search for the topic and possibly using a photograph of me to – well, you know.  Eeeuuuwwww!

In addition, I did not want to have to reveal my own position on sex in older age, though I am sure the very fact that I am writing about it might make some of you wonder.  So I will say it now.  I am not about to tell you anything about my own sex life or lack thereof.  Sorry if that disappoints.  You are perfectly at liberty to stop reading right away.

So why is this topic important?

Well, for a start-off, I am sure there are still lots of ageist attitudes out there about older people and sex.  We should not really be doing it, and if we must – well, per-leeeeeaaaaase!  Just don’t talk about it.  These ageist attitudes can then get internalised, and as older people we can feel a bit guilty if we are ‘doing it’.

Of course, these assumptions that sex is just for the young can be useful to some older women.  For some women, it is a relief to be free of having to respond sexually to a partner.  The reasons for this are legion: some women might find sex uncomfortable or even painful, for example due to a prolapse; others might no longer find their partner attractive, but not wish to split up; still others might feel tired or depressed; and for some women, sex has always been distressing due either to negative messages about sex during their formative years, or due to abusive experiences.  About a third of women over forty report low or no sexual desire according to one American study (http://www.amjmed.com/article/S0002-9343(11)00655-3/fulltext) and I would be the last person to suggest that those women are in some way abnormal, or should change to fit some kind of imposed norm.

However, there is a growing body of research about older people and sex which suggests that quite a lot of us are still having sex.  A longitudinal (1971 to 2000) Swedish study of 1506 people (946 of whom were women) showed that the proportion of 70-year-olds having sexual intercourse increased over this period in both married and unmarried people, and for both men and women.  Not only that, but those from later birth cohorts reported less sexual dysfunction and higher rates of sexual satisfaction.  In short, we are luckier than our mothers in how many of us seem to have a happy, healthy sex life (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2483873/).

Staggeringly, having regular sex is not uniformly good news.  A recent American study suggests that it might just put older men at risk of a heart attack, whereas it has the opposite effect for women in that it can help keep blood pressure at a healthy level (https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/09/160906084835.htm).

So, what are the risks for women, of sexual activity in older age?  Well, it depends who you do it with, and under what circumstances.  Older women might think less often than younger women about the risks of STDs including HIV and Hepatitis C.  Many older women might forget to take the usual precautions to ensure their safety, including insistence on using a condom.  They might think that since they cannot get pregnant, there is no need.  But given the good news that more of us are having sex, we can assume that more of us are also having more than one sexual partner in our lifetimes – who probably has also had more than one …

Alcohol plays a big part in putting older women at risk sexually, whether it is in forgetting (or not caring) about condoms, or not being on our guard enough to protect us from situations in which rapes can occur.  Some older women are lonely, making them more vulnerable.  Others are disabled and dependent on others for care.  None of us, whether old or young, gay or straight, woman of colour or ‘white’, disabled or able-bodied, is immune to the risk of sexual assault. I don’t want to be a downer or scare my sisters out there, but we all need to be vigilant.  And being out of your head on alcohol or drugs is not going to help you to do that.

I have found very little from my cursory searches that focussed on lesbian, bisexual or transgender older women and sex.  However, one study found that lesbians are more likely to orgasm during sexual activity than heterosexual women (https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10508-017-0939-z). However, they also found that women who orgasm frequently were more likely to have oral sex, have sex that lasts longer, be happy in their relationships and be able to ask for what they want in bed.

Q.E.D.

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Climb every mountain?

I struggle sometimes.  Well, I struggle a fair  bit actually.  One of the things I struggle with is finding that happy balance we need as we get older, between giving up on physical activity and going for it in ways that might just cause a heart attack, injury or worse.
Let me give an example.  I write this while I am on holiday in South Africa.  A beautiful country, by the way, which I would not have visited had it not been for my oldest stepson falling in love with and marrying a lovely South African woman.  We came over for the wedding.  While staying in Cape Town, my husband and I agreed we wanted to walk up Table Mountain.  The last mountain I walked up was Ben Lomond in Queenstown, New Zealand in February 2016 – so roughly 19 months ago.  On that occasion, I got a laryngeal spasm, for the second time in roughly a week (the previous occasion being on a fairly steep but familiar hill, Queenstown Hill, when I was still recovering from a virus).  My first experience of a laryngeal spasm was a couple of years before this, walking up a very familiar hill in the UK which I had previously taken in my stride (pardon the pun).  On that first occasion, we were walking with some particularly fit friends.  I was embarrassed to be lagging behind, and so I pushed myself.  Nearing the top I got breathless and thought at first it was an asthma attack, but I found myself making a very scary rasping noise, unable to talk without sounding as if I might be breathing my last.  I know, I know, I am being dramatic.  My inhaler didn’t touch it, and my GP later diagnosed the incident as a laryngeal spasm.  
So, having now a history of laryngeal spasms when exerting myself on hills, and knowing I had not trained for this mountain hike, I was a little apprehensive about Table Mountain.  I made sure my husband knew where to find my inhaler in my backpack should I find it impossible to talk,  and warned him I would be taking it easy.  But let me tell you, the Platterklip Gorge is steep, with almost no relief from the constant climb.  

I took rests, drank water and ate frequent small amounts of chocolate.  However, I knew that if I was ever to reach the top I must get going as soon as possible after each brief rest.  My husband and I were the oldest people climbing that day.   The young people we passed were all very sweet, telling us we were doing well and bless them, openly amazed that such an old woman would even attempt such a climb.  
But sure enough, I spotted the early signs of a laryngeal spasm as I found myself clearing my throat repeatedly and swallowing frequently.  When I stopped, I was suddenly aware that my breathing had got a whole lot worse and when I tried to talk my voice had that familiar sound of someone with a very nasty throat condition.  By now we were about an hour and a half from the top, but the way down looked even more treacherous than the way ahead.  And so I went on, cross and embarrassed that I was holding us both up.
As I continued, I was also aware that I felt dizzy (especially if I looked round!), and after a while all four limbs began shaking.  But the views were to die for (I hoped I wouldn’t!), and eventually as we entered the gorge about 45 minutes from the top we encountered some welcome shade.  Here, I sat and ate one of my two sandwiches.  It tasted like the food of the gods.  
Finally, we reached the top.  I felt elated, high fived my husband, and we wandered around the top marvelling at the 365 degree views.  It had taken us two and a half hours to get there (including a stupid half hour detour).  Average time, in fact, though my hubby admitted later he could have shaved half an hour off that if he hadn’t been with me.  It was one of those peak experiences that I will never forget.
I wonder what my doctor would say?  Would he say I was foolish to attempt it, given how manifestly unfit I was, and my age?  Or would he secretly want to high five me?  My arthritic hip was painful for days afterwards and still has not fully recovered more than a week later.  It gets caught and clicks, painfully.  Have I made my arthritis worse?  Was I close to having a heart attack or stroke, given that my BP was probably through the roof?  Where is the advice for people my age who want to get fitter?  
Where is the line between a failure to accept the limitations of ageing, and giving up?  I am not yet ready to put on my slippers and watch daytime TV.  I want to live.  I want to have adventures while I can.  Should I worry, or just carry on doing crazy things?
I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I suspect I will keep on keeping on.  I am currently planning how I might get more used to hills and train to walk up to Scafell Pike next year, maybe doing the Yorkshire Three Peaks in one week (not one day, and not even consecutive days, in order to give my hip a break).  I am not daft (though my family might disagree with me).
I would love to hear your comments below.

Are you over 60, fit and healthy, or battling against physical limitations?

Do you find yourself wondering how to strike the balance between doing yourself harm through exercise, and doing yourself harm by not exercising?

Do you have specialist knowledge that might be useful to people in my situation?
Looking forward to hearing from you!