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The unexpected joy of not ticking boxes
and tomorrow's WRITING FOR FUN AND SANITY
In last Saturday’s writing session we wrote about how we feel about getting older. There were people from thirty something to sixty something on the call, so it was great to have different perspectives.
For some in their late thirties and early forties there was a sadness at life boxes not ticked. We talked about how until forty there is a clear ladder of progress we are meant to climb - career, partnership, marriage, children, house buying etc - and when you get to forty and are not on that ladder it can feel like being in no man’s land.
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I felt like this in lockdown.
I had always felt ambivalent about single. Sometimes I felt like a ashamed for not being in a relationship because that’s what most people around me were doing.
But at the same time the freedom I had, the people I met, the travelling I could do, the work I loved all made me largely happy with my life.
In lockdown that changed. Never had I ever regretted my life the way I did, living alone with nobody on the sofa with me, nobody to cook meals with, nobody to share the fear of what was happening, the bills etc. I looked back at everyone I had ever gone out with and would, in a heartbeat, have had any of them back with me. (I’m not for a second suggesting they would have been up for that!)
That song ‘You might need somebody’ kept going around in my head. My aloneness felt like a symptom of my arrogance, selfishness, weakness and immaturity.
I made my bed so I would lie in it. Alone!
In between lockdowns a friend got unexpectedly pregnant after a fling. She was my age and going to keep the baby. I burst into tears when I hung up the phone. I properly sobbed. I have never felt the urge for children but now she was pregnant it felt like I was being left even more alone.*
I felt like I had lived my life all wrong.
And society was kind of confirming that - while family units had each other, single people were quite fu*ked. A socially distanced walk was better than nothing but I needed to be hugged and held. I didn’t realise how much I needed that to feel human.
At one point I started to hug a tree. I called him Dave.
Anyway. I see now that as well as going through a global emergency which was hard for everyone in different ways**, I was probably going through a period of grief for the life I did not choose, the things I did not (and do not) have. As well as feelings of shame and self-recrimination, there was also for me confusion: why hadn’t I done all those ‘right’ things?
Now that the world has opened up again and I am back in my life, able to hug friends, travel and meet lovers, I can see that I didn’t do them because they weren’t right for me.
British journalist Christina Patterson wrote a lovely book called The Art of Not Falling Apart, about getting through cancer and redundancy in her forties. She writes about the shame of having to put her mother as her next of kin on all the hospital forms because she didn’t have a significant other in her life, the years of going to other people’s weddings and feeling like a child compared to her friends’ grown up lives.
She spent years on crap dates, moaning to friends about the guys who told her that they didn’t want to be meet again because they were waiting for someone special (!!) only for a therapist to say something controversial: he didn’t think she actually wanted to meet anyone.
In an article in the Guardian she writes: ‘I was shocked. I was really shocked. What do you mean, I don’t want to meet someone? What about all the dating? The bloody awful dating? What about all that sheer, exhausting, humiliating effort? But the more I thought about it, the more I realised he was probably right. The fact is that I often ran away because I was bored. When I’m on my own, I’m never, ever bored.’
Until that point Patterson hadn’t seen how much she liked her life the way it was - and I wonder if a lot of us single people are like that. We are so brainwashed by society to think that the couple and family unit is The Answer, that we don’t allow ourselves to see that often we are actually pretty good the way we are.
With all this talk of missing the boat, I don’t think many of us actually ask ourselves honestly - did I actually want to catch that boat? Are there other boats? Do I need to get on any boat or are things pretty good right here? Do I want to wait a few more years before catching the boat?
Just because you are forty and single doesn’t mean you’ll be fifty and single. Just because you are forty and married with children doesn’t mean that you’ll be married at 50. Nothing is forever. Patterson fell in love for the first time at 51.
On our workshop there were people with grandchildren and long marriages and divorces. A variety of lives lived. Boxes that were ticked were sometimes unticked.
The people in their sixties were had different fears to the thirty somethings. There were fears of dying alone but also the fears of caring for a sick partner. There were fears of being invisible and irrelevant. Of not being listened to anymore.
However there were also unexpected flourishings, late in life love affairs, studies and travel.
There can be a liberation in getting older and no longer giving a sh*t if you are living up to societal expectations.
My favourite people to follow online are over sixty. Iris Apfel is 102 and has just brought out a new range of rugs! They are washable and gorgeous! Then there is Norma Kamali - what a woman! She met the love of her life when she was 65, has just signed up for a new lease for her fashion HQ aged 77 and does yoga everyday.
It helps to be conscious about who we look at and who we compare ourselves too.
In the last few years I have made friends living different kinds of lives - friends who are single, older, living in communities, friends who don’t have children or whose children are now adults, friends living in open relationships…
I have one friend who lives in a cave in the Californian desert. She does! Literally a cave! She used to work for glossy magazines like Vogue and now she’s gone completely off-grid. I don’t want to follow her into the cave but I love that she is doing that. I love that that is a possibility.
Last year I interviewed Anne Boden who started a bank in her fifties. She never got married or had children and I asked her about it. She said she wished women didn’t spend so much time thinking about all that stuff. She said she believes in enjoying what you do have rather than thinking of what you don’t have. What an eminently sensible approach.
I also interviewed Cindy Gallop who is a lifelong singleton in her sixties, she doesn’t want a relationship and wants to die alone. She has a string of younger lovers - many of whom she has known for years. She says: ‘I am deliberately public about this, not to try to convince others to do as I do, but because I believe everyone should be free to design the relationship — or non-relationship — model that works for them.’
This week 62-year-old British TV percent Carol Vorderman talked recently about her five ‘special friends’. Woohoo, Carol good on you!
I rejoice every time I read these stories or speak to these people. It makes me excited about what is possible.
This isn’t to say that getting married is wrong, anymore than being single or having five ‘special friends’ is.
Nothing is perfect. Every way of life has its joys and its challenges. Its ups and downs.
But if life has not gone the way you thought it might, perhaps it’s time to see that not as a failure but an opportunity.
Whatever age we are.
THINGS I’M READING WATCHING BUYING ETC
Before I tell you anything else, let me tell you this. It will change your life more than any self-help book. More than international travel or finding God. I am, of course, talking about a heated blanket. This new invention (is it new? Or just new to me) should win a Nobel Prize for services to humanity. In case you have not heard of them, they are blankets you plug in and wrap around you while they emit loving heat, like a hug, telling you everything will be ok. It is a joy. Never one to do things half way I also ordered an old fashioned electric blanket too - the one that goes under your sheets - so I now go to bed between two warm blankets, heating myself up like a toasted sandwich! I wake as oozy and happy as melted cheese.
Finally, I can get into my bedroom and say THIS IS WHERE THE MAGIC HAPPENS!!
WHAT I’M READING
Speaking of not ticking boxes, I liked this article by Anna Wharton about her family of two. It reminded me of this piece she wrote ages about about why she won’t tell her daughter she is pretty. (Spoiler - she wants to praise her daughter for other things so that she does not grow up thinking that her looks are the most important thing about her).
I haven’t read this yet either - it’s about how men need to be mindful of their friends, inspired by the Banshees of Inisherin.
Book wise, this week I read Love and Choice by Lucy Fry. It’s about how monogamy and family life is so much the norm many of us don’t realise we have a choice to do things another way. Lucy is a psychotherapist and a clear, concise writer. She got married young and has since explored other ways of living and interviews people about their experiences. Really helpful.
WHAT I’M WATCHING
Speaking of Banshees, if you haven’t seen the movie about two friends falling out on an Irish island, please, please do. It’s sweeping up Oscar nominations and it’s beautiful, funny, sad, dark and violent. And the acting is brilliant.
I went to see it with mum and afterwards we googled a young actor in it that we didn’t recognise. He plays a local lad who hangs out with Colin Farrell and whose face would break your heart.
Turns out the actor’s name is Barry Keoghan and in real life his mum died from a heroin overdose when he was 12-years-old. He spent 7 years in foster care and lived in 13 different foster homes. In 2010 Barry responded to a casting ad in Dublin shop window and now, aged 30, he is nominated for an Oscar. What a story. Apparently he learned his craft watching old movies and nature documentaries - he said that animals reveal so much without saying anything (isn’t that clever and true?).
In this old interview with him from the Guardian is that he puts his success down to his brother who encouraged him. The article says that Eric “never took the piss out of me. Because where I’m from, to do acting is not heard of. Being one of the lads and all, you don’t just go, ‘Oh, I want to be an actor’. They’d laugh and joke about it. Not in a mean way, but like taking the piss. But once you get the seal of approval from your brother, you just know.”
It reminded me of the importance of supporting people in their dreams, even when we don’t understand them. All it takes is one person who believes in you.
Happy Valley - My sis reckons the hype is not warranted but I am still liking it. Only thing: the pharmacist character is confusing me - is he in over his head or a criminal mastermind?!
The actor who plays the policewoman’s former husband is called Derek Riddell. He was in a show called The Missing where (SPOILER ALERT) he played a man who kills someone with a drill. His kids go to the same school as my cousin’s kids and apparently his nickname at the school gate is ‘driller killer’. Just a bit of insider North London / Hollywood gossip there.
Ok, that’s it for now.
If you want to join us for WRITING FOR FUN AND SANITY this Saturday (28 Jan) please sign up here. We’d love to see you. A reminder that there is no reading out loud and this is for all humans, not just for writers. We scribble about our thoughts, feelings and to-do lists and have a chat. But if you don’t want to chat you can listen to us. That’s fine. Camera on or off.
We’ll then be back on 11, 18, 25 February. I’ll put those tickets up for sale soon.
And here are the questions we asked ourselves in last week’s workshop, in case you’d like to think about them:
How do I feel about getting older?
What do I fear? What do I look forward to?
If I was on my deathbed, what would I want to say to the person I am right now?
Thanks, as ever, for reading.
Love and heated blankets,
*I didn’t make it all about me when my friend told me about her pregnancy, just being honest here.
**I am not remotely saying that me being single in lockdown and singing You Might Need Somebody while sobbing alone on the sofa is anything close to the nightmare that so many people went through during covid.
Thanks for reading Help Me! Newsletter ! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.