Gifts in skin


Last week we visited a gorgeous pub, doubling as a village shop, in a tiny village in Hampshire. The food was excellent, the atmosphere perfect, the fire warm. The waitresses were very good and very young. Between mouthfuls of beef and mushroom pie (in red wine sauce – yum), I stared at them furtively. They were so thin, they moved at such speed, they had such long legs, they stood for hours behind the bar and serving at tables and didn’t seem tired. It just…fascinated me.

Now before you get the hump because you’re older than me and you’re thinking grumpily, For goodness sake Debs! remember, it’s all relative. I shared a mirror in a Ladies recently with a twenty-something who was complaining to her friend about her grey hairs and ‘wrinkles’. Did I want to stab her with my pointy comb and shout “DON’T BE RIDICULOUS!”? Of course I did. But to her, these were real signs of ageing, perhaps something shed’d never thought about before. So, instead, I combed my fringe over my wrinkles and smiled at her sympathetically. She froze. I smiled at the mirror instead. There was spinach in my teeth.

Young people fascinate me – their boundless energy, their shiny hair, the way their teeth have no gaps for random food parcels. And their skin! It’s just so smooth and elastic. Sometimes I want to reach out and touch it. (Obviously I don’t. That would be weird). Also they’re often funny and witty because their brains are younger.There is just something so energising about being with them. Was I once like that?

‘Age is just a number. You’re as old as you feel.’ These are some of the things people say, don’t they, to feel better about growing older. And to a certain extent they are true. I suppose they are trying to say that whatever your body does – sags, aches, changes shape – your spirit doesn’t have to. Do you ever have that thing where you’re walking down a road and suddenly you get an unexplained weakness? So you really want to limp because you have this random jabbing pain but you don’t want anyone to think there’s anything wrong with you. So you keep walking normally, waving at your neighbour and smiling manically, until you’re around the corner. Then you double up in pain, planning your funeral, when just as suddenly, it goes. If you do that and have a good laugh about it after, you’re young where it counts.

There are older people in my life too, two of whom I help care for. Sometimes I look at them sitting in their chairs, or being winched into a wheelchair, or waiting for us to serve them food. And I think, ‘How can you bear it? How can you stand being so dependent on others, so passive?’ It’s like being a visitor in your own life.

I have this theory – if we refuse to learn life’s lessons when we’re young, they’ll be forced on us when we’re older. The people I care for are patient and grateful. They enjoy going out and sharing a joke and rolling their eyes at each other (well, one of them does). We took them to the end of the road to watch the Bonfire Procession. They oohed and aahed and ate chips, laughing when we spilled ketchup. I think they learned their lessons well.

Thankfully, God – who is the oldest young, and youngest old person I’ve ever met – brings a range of kind, wise, funny spirits into my life wrapped up in all kinds of skin. Some of my favourite people are quite a bit older and younger than me. The best line manager I ever had was almost thirty years my junior. One of the people who makes me laugh most is 88. I need them. I need them all. The most precious things in my life, and probably in yours, are gifts in skin. Make sure they know…

A Prayer

God keep me curious and hopeful and trusting and kind. I would like to be a bit wiser and to listen to my life. Thank you for the people who bring so much to me especially those wrapped in surprise parcels – skin that has nothing to do with their insides.

Also, please help me to stop staring at young people. I don’t think they like it.

Amen

How do you age?


I know this sounds a bit  barmy but I think ageing has little to do with age. When you look in the mirror, who are you expecting to see? A child, a teenager, a young person making your way in the world? In other words, how old are you on the inside? I know children who are older than me. I once said to an eight year old, “Do you think trees can talk?” He regarded me with disdain , and replied, “I don’t think that’s a sensible question, do you Mrs Jenkins?” My lips twitched. Eight on the outside, fifty-eight inside. Actually I was reading an article recently,  documenting some research from Canada which shows that trees do communicate. So there you go, now-not-so-young William Double-Barrelled-Surname! Hope you are reading this…

I am finding the whole process of ageing faintly terrifying but also interesting. Some people give you the impression of eternal youth, not by the way they look, but by the way they laugh or hug trees or twinkle at you. Others are earth-wise and sceptical at the age of six. Is age a personality-thing as well as a years-thing? How to embrace the inside-age when it’s at odds with the outside one? Is ‘growing old gracefully’ even worth doing?

When I look in the mirror, I obviously don’t expect to see this: –wp-1469377186241.jpg

Or this: –wp-1471625046490.jpg

Or this: –wp-1469377242783.jpg

But I do expect to see something like this: –wp-1469377261705.jpg

What I actually see is this: –wp-1469392036387.jpg

And that’s on a good day. It’s usually more like this :-

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Who is this version of me? She has my mother’s eyes, my father’s smile and hands like my grandmother. She uses an electric toothbrush, and wears sensible shoes. She no longer has much interest in partying  or shopping. She says to herself, like a character in a Barbara Pym novel, “The old blue velvet will have to do.” Except for old blue velvet, read ‘print frock with red wine on hem’. A Friday night treat is a book and a glass of Chardonnay. She reads obituaries. And yet…and yet. She spends all day with children. Many of her friends are younger than her. She still laughs at pooh and wee jokes.  People who take themselves too seriously bore her. She sniffs books. No, she inhales them…this explains why her nostrils are so large.
When I’m in someone else’s classroom and the teacher roars, “SIT DOWN!” to this day, I’m scrambling for a chair before a last-minute recovery and a self-conscious , “Ahem…yes! Sit down!” to the children in the room. I’ve been teaching for over 30 years but Miss Ainscoe with her mean little eyes and roary voice “Deborah! SIT DOWN!” is forever etched on my eight year old inside self. While my fifty-something outside self tries to remember that the things I say and the atmosphere I create in my classroom can, for some children, last a lifetime.

Does life, or our response to it, age us? I’ve had my share of ups and downs but I know people who have lived through unimaginable tragedy or cruelty at the hands of others and still have a hopeful, trusting view of things. They have not soured, they do not hate. They are ageing well. wp-1469387964249.jpg

Hopefully you and I will be a bit like our garden gate – a bit battered, a bit lurching but still standing, still hopeful we can offer something unique to the world.  And in our own way, perhaps, still beautiful (on a good day).

Forgive me if this post is a bit odd. It’s just that I want to explore the ageing thing, but no one will talk about it! (Is this the new taboo?) My mates say, ‘Stop it! You’ve nothing to moan about.’ Older friends say ‘Oh for goodness sake – just you wait!’ As for the young ones, they mumble things like, ‘You still  look great!’ while glancing with thinly disguised horror at my bat – wing arms. But this all misses the point. It’s not how others see you. It’s how you see yourself. And how you come to terms with the growing chasm between your inside and outside self.

So please tell me, how do you age?

Postscript – There are some insightful comments from readers below.  Please do read, and add your own thoughts if you wish. And thank you 🙂

Hills and giving thanks on All Hallows Eve


We’re climbing the Malvern Hills,  and I’m wheezing like a catfish. I briefly consider whether dropping dead on a narrow path between trees in sight of the summit, is a good way to go. An action exit, so to speak, in pursuit of something beautiful. But decide against it. There are few walkers up here and we might be left for days. Or eaten by foxes.

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The views are incredible. The Malvern Hills rise, sheer and spine-like, from the Severn Valley in the counties of Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Gloucestershire. Eight miles long, from the highest summit you can see parts of thirteen counties, the Bristol Channel and the cathedrals of Worcester, Gloucester and Hereford. The hills are known for their spring water, made famous by the area’s holy wells and later through the spa town of Great Malvern which clings, crab-like, to the side of the hills. Aldwyn, the monk who originally founded the Benedictine community and priory in 1085 because of its  remoteness, would rend his cassock if he could see the old town grown up around it now. Though he might be pleased that the holy wells originally thought to bring health and healing as early as the twelfth century, developed into a spa town in Victorian times later becoming the first bottled water plant in the world. Today the town is  beautiful, even in the rain.

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It occurs to me that I could do with those healing properties now as I lurch, with bursting lungs up the steep incline towards the summit (not THE summit, I hasten to add, but the nearest one). My husband is positively bounding compared to me. The problem, when you have asthma, is you never know quite what’s going to trigger it. And, unwisely, I’d left my inhaler in the car. I briefly consider the problems the Air Ambulance Service might have landing on the scrubby slopes ahead of us, to say nothing of the headline in the Malvern Gazette- Asthmatic Londoner Loses Lung Function on Lower Levels #ourglorioushills

My husband stops and watches me critically. “Do you want to go back? Perhaps we should…”

I consider his question. I would like very much to go back, to correct those earlier years where I smoked for a while, drank too much and lived in beautiful but freezing, damp old places which did my lungs in. I would like to have lived wisely and well and looked after those vital body parts you need more than ever when you’re older – eyes, skin, lungs. Well, all of it is quite useful really, especially at work or ordering an Indian Takeaway, (JENKINS! cough, cough, J-E-N-K…No, I can’t say it louder! Cough, cough!).    But it’s too late for all that. The eagle has landed, so to speak. What to make of what’s left?

I look longingly at the view which is becoming more impressive by the step. As we rise, the Severn Valley unrolls and the town begins to hunch its shoulders beyond the trees. Having got this far, it would such a shame to miss the big view from  the top. My breathing’s not too bad, I decide. And I never know these days whether I’m being a tiny bit neurotic. I once told my doctor after a particularly bad winter that I was worried I’d forgotten how to breathe. A capable type with a distractingly large bosom, the sort you can’t take your eyes off even when reliably heterosexual, she gave me a long, measured look.

“You may have forgotten, Mrs Jenkins,” she said, “But your lungs won’t have. I would advise you to live your life and let them get on with it.”

Well this is my life, so I figure as long as I rest often, I should be alright. After all it’s not much further. After some persuasion, we continue. And after several breaks, no coughing fits and a near collision with a cyclist (A CYCLIST!! I want his lungs), we arrive at the top of the hill. And it’s breathtaking.

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We sit for a while enjoying our victory. On the way down I reflect that in my younger days it never occurred to me I’d get something like asthma. But then there are lots of good things I never thought I’d get to do either – live abroad, rebuild a house, raise socially acceptable children (this is a miracle in itself – God is good). And so many people live with far, far worse.

So tonight, on All Hallows Eve, I’m celebrating goodness. I don’t celebrate Halloween though I’m happy to give out sweets to the neighbouring kids who do. I didn’t encourage my own kids to dress up etc. (there were sometimes alternative parties at church) though when teenagers, I didn’t stop them if they wanted to. In Turkey, we gave out sweets to children celebrating the Muslim festivals to be friendly and culturally relevant, and I don’t see this as too different. In my opinion it’s just not worth offending and upsetting people over. It doesn’t help with the negative press believers sometimes experience. But this is just my personal view.

Tomorrow is All Saints Day when they pray for the dead in Orthodox churches. Protestants generally regard all Christians as saints and if they keep All Saints Day they use it to remember all Christians past and present. So I’m remembering Aldwyn and the Benedictines for starting a monastery in a beautiful place, my grandparents who started our family long ago in India, my parents. I’m giving thanks for my husband and my children and my cat (who sleeps with his paws crossed so is definitely a believer).  And for all my family and friends, who mean so much to me, whatever they believe about life, God and Halloween.

I’m also thankful for hilltop views and autumn leaves and Ventolin. For holidays and small children and good doctors (whatever the size of their bosoms). For quiet water and sunsets and tiny little cakes with cream in.

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And that God, wiser and more far seeing than we can ever imagine, somehow uses the random yuck that life flings at us, to make the small things sweeter. Like breathing.

Who and what are you grateful for, this All Hallows Eve?

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How to Age and the Joy of Nasal Flushing


I’m trying to decide how to age. Not on the outside – I have little choice about that and am coming to terms with veiny hands and neck wrinkles like the skin of a T Rex – but on the inside, where it counts. After all that’s the only part I can control. Like when you’re going  to an outdoor thing you can’t avoid, and there’s the likelihood of rain (happens a lot in the UK) so you think, “Well, at least I can splash in wellies and wear my new hat…” That.

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Growing older – and this is something everyone does every day of their lives, whatever their age – is a challenge. Yesterday, when viewed from the safer, more considered position of today will seem different from the way it did, and in a few years, even more so; the way I think of it will be coloured by the stuff in-between, like travel or hernias. I watched The Fault in Our Stars with my daughter recently and wondered if growing old is the way Hazel Grace describes falling in love.  A bit like falling asleep; slowly then all at once.  I hope not. I would prefer it to be more like waking up. All at once and then slowly.

Ageing cat, in denial

Ageing cat, in denial

I’ve been ill for a while with colds and asthma which seem to have got worse as I’ve got older. Panting my way through the house, I notice a schoolgirl pacing down our road at speed, probably late for the train. I have a stab of envy. Not for her hair – thick, long – nor her skin – glowing – but for her lungs  Does she even know how lucky she is to have them? Probably not. Not long after the steroids are working and I’m up and on with life, I won’t think much about mine either. We are only grateful in retrospect.

When you’re young you know about the ageing thing but deep down you don’t really think it will happen to you. You study and party and examine the world. You meet someone, have children and bring them up, teach them to be kind and to eat with their mouths closed. They grow up and leave home, and if they can work and cook and keep clean, you are happy. You think – Thank you God, or I didn’t do that bad! There’s a gratitude, an obscure sense of accomplishment. Then, all of a sudden, you notice younger people treating you differently – with respect or contempt or more likely a mixture of both and it hits you. They look at you the way you look at an old house – a certain charm, a solidity. But you wouldn’t trust the roof joists. New ones would be better.

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I do not want to become that older person that responds with defensive irritation; by looking down at you because you are young. I do not want to say when you think of new ways of doing things, “That won’t work” or roll my eyes and make for the door. I don’t want to be that patronising older person who says things like, “Been there, done that!” or “I wouldn’t if I were you!” or “You’ll find as you get older…” I want to give advice humbly and with respect, to treat you the way I would a contemporary, the way I want to be treated. There’ll be days when I’m rubbish at this. There’ll be days when you are.

It’s great being young. You have energy and ideas and a body that works. You have time to make a difference. But being older has its gains – you get pleasure from the small. A bad hair day is funny not shameful. Your heart rate still soars (sometimes alarmingly) at sex, but also at sunsets or a path through trees. (Maybe yours does this already? You are the lucky ones.)

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My consultant recommended nasal flushing. The pack was huge – a long bottle-like thing with a hole at the top and a tube. I baulked,  “Just read the instructions,” he said, “And try it.” I read them, all 31 pages. In very small print. It’s an American product and very effective for reasons I won’t go into, but I suspected it would be, because of the testimonials. They were my favourite part –  “I want to thank you for improving the health and life of my whole family…My wife suffered from horrible allergies, but now finds that doing a nasal rinse stops the reaction and gives her a break…My daughter, who is 5, can’t wait until she can do a nasal rinse too. She actually asks us every day…I just want to thank you for a wonderful product. It has truly changed my life…” And best of all – “I have been using your product on a regular basis for over two years. The improvement in my ability to breathe is just remarkable. Thank you for providing a great product. You have a loyal customer.”

The truth is, life can be scary, with or without blocked sinuses, whatever age you are. It helps if you believe in others, and are grateful and trust that there is Goodness at the heart of the universe. Testimonials are good too – whether in diaries or to friends or on the back of packets advertising nasal flushing. They make you realise how far you’ve come.

So now that you know about the ageing thing, if you think I could help you, ask me, and I’ll encourage and give advice as humbly as I can. Forgive me if I sometimes raise an eyebrow or look at you archly. It’s a mixture of impatience and regret. I am trying to get it right but I have moments. And I know I need you, for the laughs and the hopeless optimism.  To know again that, at any age, anything is possible.

Perhaps after all, we’ll do it well, the ageing thing – A bit like waking up – all at once and then slowly…

And the improvement in our ability to breathe will be remarkable

 

So, how’s the ageing thing for you?