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The birthday I never expected to have

Yesterday was my birthday. My 56th birthday. And this is a big deal, even though it doesn’t have a zero at the end. Here’s why. Warning: this is going to get weird. But I can’t not write this post, for some reason.

There have been times in my life when I have known something. Something I had no way of knowing. Something I had no business knowing. And – most of the time – something I haven’t wanted to know.

Let me give you an example. One of the clearest examples from my life. One day, when I was at boarding school, our temporary matron walked past me and I knew she was about to die. Imminently. The certainty of her death settled over me like a thick, heavy, black blanket. Just a few hours later, an announcement was made that she had indeed died.

This is one example. There have been others – usually less dramatic than this, but still very unsettling. There is something very uncomfortable about saying something to a person that you think is obvious and well-known, only to have the person look at you in horror and/or mortification and gasp, “How could you possibly know that?”

Some people talk about being ‘a sensitive’. In the charismatic/pentecostal church the term is ‘word of knowledge’ and it is regarded as one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. There may be other terms in other faiths. I don’t know. I haven’t researched it. I don’t want to know. I recognise that you might be reading this thinking, I know what this is, and I could explain. Please don’t. I don’t want to know. It’s no gift at all.

Some people have identified this trait in me, and have encouraged me to develop it. After the death of the matron, I became quite hysterical, repeating over and over that I had known it was going to happen. Most of the girls just shrugged it off as attention-seeking on my part. There was, however, a pair of sisters at the school who practised some alternative belief system. I think it was spiritualism, but I couldn’t say for sure after all these years. They were overcome with excitement at the discovery of my ‘psychic ability’ and wanted more than anything to mentor me as I developed it. I didn’t want to develop it. I didn’t want a closer relationship with the sisters, who made me feel uncomfortable at a fundamental level. Years later, I would say ‘they made my spirit itch’. I didn’t want to know when random people were about to die.

About 10 years ago, I went to an osteopath, expecting to have my skeleton realigned. The very first words the man said to me when he walked into the waiting room were, “Oh good. You’re a sensitive.” He was appalled that I had no interest in discussing my aura or my chakras or any other invisible/intangible thing, and just wanted him to sort my back out. He kept trying to steer the conversation in that direction, until I snapped at him that I was paying £1 per minute of his time, and I’d like to choose how that time was spent. He more or less asked me never to come back. As if there was any danger that I would.

So… that’s the context.

One of the things I have known, is that I wouldn’t live past 55. I attended my father’s funeral in 1998. He had taken his own life at the age of 57. It wasn’t his first attempt. During his wake, I became aware of a certainty that I wouldn’t even live to see 57. And the knowledge felt old and familiar, even comfortable, like a pair of well-worn shoes. As if it had always been there, but I was just looking straight at it for the first time. 55. That was it. That number was as clear in my mind as if it had been posted on a billboard. That was all I was getting. The knowledge didn’t scare me. It was just…there.

Until yesterday, I had only shared that information with two people.

The first was a young man we fostered for a while. Things were beginning to go pear-shaped and we were having one of many arguments. He made a comment about not living to a ripe old age, and I snapped out my certainty that I wouldn’t see my 56th birthday.

The second was much more recently. I was speaking to one of my oldest, dearest friends who knows me and my baggage well, and who also happens to be a doctor. I was discussing my chronic pain condition with her, and raised the possibility that this would be what finished me off, since I knew I wouldn’t see my 56th birthday, and that day was closing in apace.

I had never told another living soul. Not my husband, not my kids, not my Mom. Yesterday I did tell Mr Namasi. But you’re the fourth person to know this weird secret I’ve been keeping.

As you can imagine, as I neared 55, any condition that arose (including my bouts of depression and the attendant suicidal thoughts) would have me wondering whether this was the thing that would do me in. A cluster of cells in my breast? Oh, perhaps I’m going to die of breast cancer. Post menopausal bleeding? Ah, perhaps it will be cervical cancer. Unspeakable chest pain? Hmm… perhaps it will be a heart attack. And not in any hypochondriac way, either. There was always an element of academic interest, like watching something under a microscope and being interested in the developments.

And then I turned 56.

And the thing that I knew – the bedrock, familiar truth that has always been there – turns out not to be real after all.

It raises a delicious uncertainty. I have now entered into a period of life I never foresaw. I can plan a trip to South Africa for my mother’s 80th next December. I can start thinking about Mr Namasi’s 60th birthday. I might live to have grandchildren, after all. I might get to be mother of the groom. Maybe even twice! I might get to share my husband’s retirement years with him.

And perhaps some of the other things I know are also not true. Perhaps I have unwrapped the ‘gift’ and found an empty box.

I’m in uncharted waters. The next landmark comes on 1 June 2020, when I become older than my Dad ever lived to be.

Will you keep me company as I find out how that feels?

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Learning. Always learning.

Teeny tiny circular needle

During my previous life as a learning solutions designer, I was an avid proponent of the concept of lifelong and lifewide learning. I have always believed that learning is more about attitude than age. If I had a Pound for every time someone told me they were too old to learn this or that thing, I could have retired to the coast on the proceeds. Okay, that might be a slight exaggeration.  Nevertheless, I now get to become living proof of my claims.

This is a (non-exhaustive) list of things I have recently learnt to do:

  • My son’s girlfriend arranged for someone to come and help me with my band saw, which I wasn’t mastering. One simple adjustment made all the difference. When the weather warms up enough for me to be able to survive some time in the workshop, I’ll be practising that new skill.
  • I decided to have a crack at knitting my first pair of socks, which involved
    Turning my first heel
    • my first attempt at knitting with teeny tiny circular needs,
    • and my first turned heel.
  • I knitted a waistcoat which called for a 3-needle cast off. I had never even heard of that before, but YouTube is your friend. I will be doing it again. It’s the business for shoulder seams, and for closing the toe of a sock.
  • I recently acquired a pyropen and a soldering iron. My attempts are still very amateurish, but it’s enjoyable.

I have various bits and bobs in my craft studio at the moment, which are going to push the boundaries of what I already know how to do. In my workshop, there are some acquisitions which are going to find their way onto the band saw, and possibly under the pyropen.

I have some silver coffee spoons circa 1933, given to my grandmother for her 21st birthday. I would very much like to do something with them, since we don’t use those teeny tiny coffee cups that were favoured by my grandparents’ generation, and therefore have no use for the teeny tiny (there’s a lot of teeny tiny in this post, isn’t there?) spoons that went with them. I have explored a few avenues, but so far, haven’t found one that feels right. That future learning opportunity is on hold for now.

Three needle cast off

At the turn of the year, I invited people to sign up to learn a new craft in 2018, and I have a few ladies coming to me for knitting lessons at this point, with a view to moving on to other things in due course. Most enquiries have come from women of roughly my own vintage, and their progress has been excellent. Because they want to learn.

There are so many studies that indicate that mental activity is good for preventing or slowing the decline of various forms of dementia. Here are some quotes from Dementia Care, a UK based charity (similar information is available from any number of related sites):

Think of it this way: the brain is like a muscle; it needs regular workouts. Keeping your mind active will help you feel more alert and happier. The brain is made up of thousands of nerve cells with connections between them. Mentally stimulating activities strengthen these cells and the connections between them, and may even create new nerve cells.

Now could be the perfect time to take up a new hobby or interest. Perhaps something you’ve been meaning to try for ages – learning to sing, paint or play bowls.

Maybe you can no longer go rock-climbing but that’s no reason to give up on enjoying life. Try something new. It will not only set you new physical and mental challenges but it will also give you the opportunity to develop as a person and could lead to new social circles.

Remember, it’s never too late to try something new.

To pick up on that last line, this the foundation stone of the University of the Third Age, which covers a literal A-Z (art to zoology) of topics.

So I’d like to encourage you: if you’re of my generation (or older), please don’t write yourself off as too old to learn a new skill. In ten years’ time, you’ll wish you’d started now. I offer 1:1 and group crafting sessions, and I know there are many others on offer. What have you got to lose?

I sincerely hope that when I die, I will be in the middle of some new undertaking. And – with all my heart – I wish you the same. I said as much in my 21st birthday speech, and I remain unchanged on that point 34 years later.

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On being fifty-plus

A bit of introspection today.

Yesterday, an article popped up in my feed in one of my social media spaces. One of those ones that you know has been selected for you based on an algorithm. This one was all about fashion mistakes that middle aged women make, that make them look older. I was proud of my middle aged sisterhood for responding by flipping the article the collective bird in the comments section.

But it set me thinking.

Once we hit this patch on life’s journey, we’re constantly being given hints and tips on looking younger, slimmer, more attractive. Now, I understand that on a purely instinctual level, men are more likely to be attracted to women who are (or appear to be) of reproductive age. It’s that whole hard-coded drive to procreate. Attracting a mate is in the very DNA of living things.

But for those of us whose reproductive years are behind us, surely there are more important things to do than pretend to still be young enough to gestate?

Use our cosmetics (tested on animals) to make yourself look younger and more attractive to men!

Ugh.

I’m not suggesting that we neglect our skin care regimes and abdicate stewardship of bodies and faces. But surely we can move on from this notion that old=ugly? My skin is pretty good, but it is unmistakably the skin of a woman in her mid 50s. And why is that a bad thing? I am a woman in her mid 50s. My skin has housed me all that time. It has stretched as I grew up or got larger through pregnancy or gluttony. It has also (albeit less frequently and less dramatically) shrunk, after childbirth or due to diet-and-exercise. It bears the marks of the story of my life so far. A scar on my cheek from a close encounter of the painful kind with a steering wheel. Another across my brow bone, where said brow bone once made a bid for freedom and tried to forge a new life for itself on the outside of my skin. Stretch marks like laddered tights all over my hips where growing babies tested the limits of its capacity to stretch. Inevitably, for a woman who grew up in a sunny country in the days before people cared about sunblock, I have a few of the clusters of melanin referred to as age spots. I’m carrying far too much weight, and for the sake of my health, I should shed it. But my skin soldiers on, housing all the excess me and taking it in its stride.

You’ve got to respect that. Come on.

Stop wearing that. It ages you. Wear this. It makes you look younger.

But I’m not younger. And why is that a bad thing? I’ve had almost 55 years of doing stuff. There’s no way all that stuff could have fitted into a shorter period of time. 12 years at school, almost 30 years of marriage, a master’s degree, a career spanning 25 years, two adult sons. Races run, songs sung, awards received, conferences attended (and addressed), loss, grief, joy, achievement, triumph, defeat. I’ve acquired skills and knowledge. I’ve been places and done things.

Judging by the attitudes of my peers, it takes this long to find the sodthat button and push it with an unrepentant, if slightly arthritic forefinger.

These days, I spend most of my days dressed in overalls and safety boots. I’m usually covered in sawdust and/or paint. Quite often my face is obscured by safety goggles and a dust mask. Does my bum look big in that? Probably. Because it is big in that… and every other thing I wear. Does it age me? Almost certainly, because the sawdust will emphasise my wrinkles. I’m sure the appearance police would have a conniption.

It’s all about outward appearances. We’re obsessed. How old do you look? How slim do you look? Wear blocks of colour to look taller. Wear vertical stripes to look slimmer. Wear lilac eye shadow to look younger.

Surely it should be less about looking and more about being and doing?

So your outfit makes you look young, but you treat people like dirt? Is that okay? You have a tight tush but you’ve never helped anyone out of a tight spot. Is that cool? Your skin looks like that of a woman 15 years younger, but your cosmetics are wrecking the planet. Is that good?

I believe Roald Dahl said it very well (in The Twits):

“A person who has good thoughts cannot ever be ugly. You can have a wonky nose and a crooked mouth and a double chin and stick-out teeth, but if you have good thoughts they will shine out of your face like sunbeams and you will always look lovely.”

Gaggle of middle aged women (I’m in white)

So yeah. See that gaggle of middle aged women over there? You think they look faintly ridiculous in their inappropriate outfits. You wonder if they realise that you and your friends are laughing at them. You wonder if they realise that their confidence is misplaced, after all they lost their power to turn heads at least a decade ago.

Well, eat your heart out. They’ve earned their stripes. They don’t care that men aren’t drooling over them (in fact they feel quite liberated by that fact). It’s taken them fifty-plus years to reach this point and they’re going to rock it. Hard.

Women’s magazines are full of advice for them.

They don’t give a rat’s ass.

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Crown anniversaries

On 28 May this year, Mr Namasi and I celebrated our ‘crown’ anniversary: 28 years of marriage. More than half a lifetime.

Today, here I am, at 5:30 in the morning, headed for Heathrow airport with my husband (he’s driving, obviously) to collect my Mom, who’s coming for a visit.

Seventeen years ago, on this very day: 17 June, I was headed for Heathrow with two little boys to start a new life in the UK. I wasn’t driving on that occasion, either. I left that to the pilot. I’m generous like that.

So much has changed since we arrived:

I got ink

My sons have grown up. The elder one works as a duty manager at a well known hotel chain. The younger one is on the management team of an independent sporting goods business.

I have changed. I called time on my previous career and became your friendly Upsycho. I got ink. Yup. Having said I never would.

Some things haven’t changed. Mr Namasi is still my rock and safe place. My Mom is still my Mom. I don’t get to see her very often these days, living as we do on two different continents, so I might be a bit quiet while she’s here. Gotta make the most of having her here and all that.

Take care of yourselves in the meantime. There’s a lot of ugliness about at the moment. Let’s rebel against it. 

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Scars and the tales they tell

I recently acquired three Ercol red dot children’s chairs. They had been bought new by a family with two sons (no-one is quite sure why three chairs for two boys) who are now men with families of their own.

Both parents have subsequently died and the sons are busy disposing of their parents’ belongings. The chairs formed an integral part of their childhood memories, and the plan was the sand them down, restore them and use them in their own homes. But their own children have outgrown kiddy chairs, and with full time jobs, homes to run, families to raise and lives to lead, finding the time was proving too difficult. So they decided to sell the chairs to someone who would take the time to restore them.

That someone proved to be me.

The chairs show clear signs of having survived the childhoods of two rambunctious boys and their various friends. Presumably the grandchildren used them, too, when they went to visit. There are scratches in the wood, some of which probably deserve the word ‘gouges’; the points of the various bits are chipped; they are long overdue for an oiling. Everything you would expect from a piece of furniture half a century (or so) old.

So there I stood, sandpaper in hand, with a decision to make: before I apply lashings of nourishing and preserving oil, do I sand the beautiful elm wood right down until it is blemish free and perfect…and ever so slightly differently shaped from the original? Or do I sand away the worst of the damage, to leave some of the history while removing the risk of splinters for the next little person to sit in the chairs?

I went with column B. The chairs have had their own story. I hope their stories will continue for several decades yet. I don’t know how each of the scratches and chips was caused, but I do know that each one has been part of the journey. If you want a blemish-free piece of furniture, you buy a new one. If you want a piece of history, you want it have evidence of said history.

Or so I think, anyway.

It put me in mind of an incident that happened when my niece was a little girl. She was in my Mom’s bedroom as my Mom was getting dressed and she asked with a gasp of pure admiration, “Granny, how did you get those pretty finsil (silver) lines on your bum?” Said niece is now a gown woman in her thirties. She almost certainly has ‘pretty finsil lines’ of her own, and no doubt she hates them as much as my mother hated hers back then. We’re raised with the idea that we’re to go through life’s storms without collecting evidence of the battles we’ve won (or at least survived). Those stretch marks which bear evidence to the fact that we carried the next generation within ourselves for a time. Those wrinkles that declare that we have been around since before the current norm was the norm…and we’re still standing.

More recently: my son was features on the front page of an ice hockey match programme for this weekend. I WhatsApped a copy to my family abroad. Both my mother and my sister – who haven’t seen my son in years (such is the reality of living on different continents) remarked on the scar in the middle of my son’s forehead. They remember that scar. They remember how he got it: flying at mach 1 into a doorpost. They have seen it featured in every single photograph of my son for the past 20 years and change since he acquired it. It’s part of him. It’s part of his story. They know how it epitomises the no-holds-barred approach my son still has to life – that he lives at full tilt, with no sense of self-preservation, and saves nothing for the swim back (if you can name the movie from which that reference is drawn, you get extra brownie points).

Vintage is in. You only need to look at an events calendar, or a TV schedule to see how sought after it is. We want things with a past, a history. We want things that look as if they have a tale to tell. Perhaps it’s time to adopt the same attitude towards ourselves?

Anyhoo, before I wax too philosophical, let me end this particular anecdote with before and after pictures. The chairs have been uploaded to my Folksy shop.

Before

Sanded and oiled

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The statute of limitations on new ventures

There seems to be a bit of a preconceived notion about when it is the proper time to do certain things in life: You attend school from this age to that age. You get married before X age. You started your family before Y age. You learn new hobbies or start new sports by such and such a stage of life. You stop wearing your hair long and your skirts short by this point…

But why?

Okay, I can understand the instinctive drive to procreate before a woman reaches menopause. I get that one. It’s primal. Not so sure about the others, though.

Eve Fletcher

I recently saw an episode of Homes Under the Hammer where the developer who bought and transformed the property was a retiree in his 80s. There are countless stories of people in their 70s, 80s and 90s going back to university…and some even to primary school. A few days ago, a friend of mine ran her first 89km (55 mile) Comrades Marathon in the year she turns 50. There are viral videos of dancers in their 80s and 90s (example). And Bette Burke-Nash is still working as a flight attendant at 80. And Eve Fletcher was still surfing in her 80s.

So here I am, in my 50s, embarking on a new chapter in my life, and honing my skills with power tools. In 10 years’ time, maybe my arthritis will have become so bad that I won’t be able to do the things I can do now. So I’d best get on with it, hadn’t I?

Some years ago, my mother in law and I went shopping for a pair of shoes for her to wear to a major family function. One of the several reasons for the shindig was her 75th birthday. She shied away from a lovely pair because they were rather expensive and needlessly good quality. After all, she was only going to be around for another five years or so – why go to the expense of shoes built to last any longer than that? Well, I’m here to tell you that she has outlasted those shoes. She turned 90 earlier this year. Her faithful feet more than deserved the good shoes.

I once read a meme that said “I wish I were as fat now as I was when I first thought I was fat.” You might want to read that one again. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

Got it?

Do you know that I spent the six years from age 16 to age 22 stuck indoors when the family went to the beach because I was ‘too fat’ (at a UK size 10/US size 6)? All that wasted time, for a girl who lists among her favourite sights, sounds and smells all manner of beach-related things. What an eejit!

Now I know that too fat and too old aren’t quite the same thing. But they’re not a million miles apart. They’re both matters of perception.

Let’s look at it this way: right now you think you’re too old to do X thing. In ten years time you’ll think, “Dammit I’m too old to do that thing now. I wish I’d started ten years ago.”

So the hell with the statute of limitations. Give it a whirl. You’ll never be this young again. Go. Sign up for that salsa class. Go skydiving. Learn a new language. Teach yourself to play the guitar. Have a go at being a full time artist/poet/upcycler.

Let’s grow old disgracefully!