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 🙂

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Waiting for Dad


The old man leans on the gate at the edge of the park. It is heavier than he remembers but then so are most things. Like his own stomach and the bag of weekly shopping. He sighs. If only he had taken better care of himself when the whole damn thing had started – the ageing, weakening, sagging thing. He could be like Malcolm next door, still running at the age of 75 despite the inconvenience of bow legs, and piles.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe gate swings open and they amble in. Tilda runs ahead, pigtails bobbing.

“Look, Grandad! Look!” She’s crouching by a clump of bluebells, strokes velvet leaves with fat fingers.

He and Renee look at each other, smile. She leans on him slightly as they walk. He feels the weight of her, fragile and bird-light. Tilda looks up and grins at them, a scatter of freckles and missing teeth.

“They’re beautiful! Be careful not to damage them now!” calls Renee.

“I won’t!” shouts Tilda and darts away on dimpled legs.

Trees curve above them, the path winds, dappled and fringed with blossom or water. Memory floats ahead to the bridge, the river, the view of the church. So when they get there, calling for Tilda, his yearning to see it and to be there looking down on pleated water, his wife at his side, is free of pain and he can just enjoy it. He puts his arm round her ignoring the stab of agony through his right shoulder and whispers in her ear. She smiles.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe colours in the woodland garden are pastel – white, pink, lemon. The path snakes out of sight beneath trees where they sat with their own children not long ago – picnics and cricket and Hide-and-Seek. There’s even a glimpse of Ellie’s blue jacket between trees and the sound of her counting, while the others run for it when her eyes close.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA“Do you remember those days?”

Renee smiles and squeezes his arm. “As if it was yesterday!” she says, “And it’s lovely to look back. But we have to keep going remember, to look forward.” He nods though he can’t help wondering what on earth there is to look forward to.

Today is a beautiful day though, he thinks, admiring the smell of sun on earth and shadows on grass.  Tilda hides behind bushes, jumps from stumps. He marvels at her speed, her agility. He loves looking after her while her parents work.

“Catch me Grandad!” Her voice echoes, bounces off trees, “Catch me! Quick!”

On the way back there are azaleas and cherry blossom, Renee’s favourite. She points out the house they’d planned to retire in. They laugh. They both know the old brick semi with its white fence and square of lawn was all they ever wanted really. That and her prize-winning angel cake.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA“Come on, Tilda!” he calls, as they reach the water again, “Stay near us! Time to take Granny home…”

The clouds have gathered and there’s a chill in the air. As they stroll back, the trees lean in, blocking out the sky. He shivers. At the bridge he hunts for familiar, for safe – the view of the church, railings, folded light on water.

They follow the path, heave at the gate, pass the pub. Soon they near the graveyard with its spring flowers and drift of blossom.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA“Oh! Look! Can we walk through? It’s so beautiful!” cries Renee pulling his arm.

“Alright,” he replies though he’d rather not.

The trees clasp hands in lacy sleeves. On the graves there are bluebells and tulips. It certainly is beautiful here, he thinks. No wonder she loves it…

“Dad. Are you…are you alright?” Ellie’s voice is gentle. Time tumbles. He feels unsteady, looks at her, confused, then down at the hand in his and sees smooth fingers between his knobbly ones.

“Ellie?” he says.

She gives him a squeeze. “You’ve been miles away, haven’t you?” she says, “You’re probably tired after the walk.”

She fills watering cans, tidies the grave. He just stands there, watching. Until he realises that the tennis ball in his throat has swollen and burst and made his face wet. Then he moves away. He does not want his daughter to see him upset.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen she’s finished they make their way home. They pass the church as the bells begin to ring. The door is open and the nave is filled with lemon coloured light. He pauses. There are shadowy people in there, some kneeling, some sitting, all so still. Of course his eyesight is not what it used to be but he fancies he can see her in her usual place at the front, head bowed. Behind her on the pew, a perfect cuboid of greaseproof paper for after-service coffee. He blinks and she disappears. He hopes the God-man whose love she so trusted, is keeping her safe somewhere…

“Dad?” enquires Ellie, “Shall we…? The boys are coming and Tilda will  be home from Jake’s and desperate to see you.”

He nods. They walk slowly, listening to birds and bells across quiet streets.

They arrive at the house at last, Ellie exclaiming at the sight of Tilda’s car in the drive. His son-in-law is in the front garden. His grandsons are on the way. In the hall there’s the smell of tea, and angel cake. And as he hears squeals and a pounding on the stairs, he decides that God has many ways of bringing back life. If we let him, if we listen…

He leans on his stick smiling, allows himself to be engulfed. Then he’s led into the sitting room for tea.IMAG0058

Tea and Other Transforming Things


I refuse to believe you get fussier as you get older  more experienced (we’ve banned the “o” word in our house due to occasional bouts of melancholy). I mean it’s true that answering the question, “Can I get you a cup of tea?” is slightly long-winded these days  – “Yes please, quite strong, but not too strong. If you pour water over the teabag, go in search of milk and spoon, then squeeze the bag hard, adding about 50 ml of milk, that should be fine!” And in response to bewildered looks from colleagues, “Er, thanks!” But…this only signifies a developed appreciation for the little things in life, having accepted long ago that the bigger things, however promising, are unlikely to bring the transformational delight once anticipated.

It’s the same with mugs. At school, while younger colleagues are grabbing any receptacle likely to restrain a few mouthfuls of caffeine from lolloping unpleasantly down their leggings, I’m usually scrutinising the cupboard for just the right mug. It has to be large, of pleasant appearance – none of this World’s Best Teacher with picture of a fat teddy  for me – and preferably with gently sloping sides so you don’t surprise yourself with scalding tea across the face while swigging wildly during playtime arbitrations. (It’s so much better if you can squint down the length of your nose while delivering a lecture, to see what’s coming.)

I'm actually quite fond of this one. A child bought it for me because they'd run out of Best Teacher ones. I said "What is they'd had Second Best Teacher ones? He said that would've been fine as actually his Reception teacher had been the favourite

I’m actually quite fond of this one. A child bought it for me because they’d run out of Best Teacher mugs. I said “What if they’d had Second Best Teacher ones?” He said that would’ve been fine because actually the Reception teacher had been his favourite.

At home it’s different. I have three mugs, one for each part of the day. In the morning, I use the pale blue with the flowers on. It’s just the right size, shape and soothing colour for groggy-eyed school days. On non-school, it’s not really big enough so  I have a second one. For the afternoon, the most important cuppa of the day, I use the robin mug. Now this mug has a special place in my heart as it was given me by a child after we’d completed a topic on birds. I told the class about our robin and how he visits us every year and sits on the washing line or the log pile, his bright eyes and slab of red somehow comforting against grey skies and sadness. (I loved that class as they were gripped by my stories.) At Christmas I received the mug from a child who said it would remind me of my robin. Maybe his mother is a serious tea drinker for it’s actually the perfect mug for a 4 o’clock-ish cup of tea. Shortly after, I have to start on the decaff but this mug is great for the final cup of hard stuff – not too big, dainty, made of fine china, the handle just the right size for a fattening finger, and a tiny lip at the top for the occasional slurper.

Morning mug

Morning mug

My evening mug was demoted that Christmas from the afternoon. It’s a pleasant shape for tired fingers and has a pretty apple design. What I like most are the tiny apple leaves on the inside of the lip. Very tasteful.

So you don’t get fussier as you get ol more experienced, you just care differently. Gone are the days when you wanted fame and fortune, or a day with George Clooney, or a body like Mrs Clooney. You’re not particularly interested in status or exotic holidays or expensive jewellery. These things may have mattered once but they don’t now. The fact that you are healthy-ish and alive, and can (mostly) remember what you went into rooms for, you have a life-work balance and your children are independent and sane and able to run their lives without you – these things give great pleasure. As do sunsets and trees and a square or two of Green and Black’s chocolate.

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Will there be tea and bone china in heaven? My daughter tells me I once promised her there’d be ball-pools in heaven and if she finds there aren’t, she’ll never forgive me. Well, I think God, who invented tea and ball-pools, would not set eternity in our hearts for no reason. It must be a pretty great place to be. And I believe that, for Sheila and Norita and my grand-parents, and maybe David Bowie and Alan Rickman (who knows?) and for others I have loved, unlike life’s big things, this thing did in fact bring the transformational delight they were anticipating. The biggest adventure of all.

Of course one still wants adventure here. I don’t want to give the impression that I’m settling for a dull life without the excitement of new things. Which is why I’m making a momentous decision: I’m chucking the morning and evening mugs. I want the robin mug all the time really.

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Happy Old Year and the Little Painted House


At what point do you stop saying Happy Christmas and start saying Happy New Year? I’m never quite sure. After all, the Twelve Days of Christmas start on Christmas Day so perhaps we shouldn’t say Happy New Year until 5th January, when incidentally, you’re  supposed to take down your decorations and NOT BEFORE (but who does that? Honestly. We’re practically feeding them to the cat by the 2nd.) I was thinking this on the way out today when I saw someone I know, and ended up shouting “Happy Chr-ew Year!” which sounded impressively nautical to me. Except that this person is not in the sea-going profession. I pulled my hat down and scuttled into an alleyway, pretending I was a confused person ( which I sort of am half the time).20151204_214653.jpgWhen people ask about my Christmas, I never quite know what to say, because there can be a kind of code to these things, can’t there? Apart from the obligatory “Lovely thank you…”, you could basically select from the following: – Nice and quiet (a bit boring ), Lots of fun and games (Never got to read my book), Wonderful to see the grand-kids (But thank goodness they don’t live with us). The other question I always love is, “So what did you do?” One day I swear I’m going to say, “Marked my Science books, skinny dipped in the Thames, then painted the back bedroom.” Of course it’s still worth asking because there’s always a mild frisson of excitement when someone says, “Went swimming” or “Climbed Snowdon” or  “Had roast halibut”. But let’s be honest, the real question is, “I know you opened presents, had or didn’t have stockings, did or didn’t go to church and ate turkey, but WHICH ORDER DID YOU DO THEM IN??” Why are we bothered? What does it matter? Is it merely the desire for a fascinating glimpse into others’ lives?  Or are we trying to measure up to some Christmas ideal we’re actually not sure about. As if the peace and quiet/fun and games/grand-children will at some point become a perfect experience, without the tiniest hitch, as long as we do it all in the right order.

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Bucks Fizz while cooking – the only way to do it…

And now for the New Year, full of things that have never been. Always a mixed blessing, with some stuff from the past year I’d rather forget, plenty I should have dealt with better, and a few I’d love to live again. But they’re gone, finit, bitirdi…How to welcome the new while making peace with the old?

My favourite present this Christmas so far, is a little painted house bought by my daughter. It’s tall and narrow and covered with tiny windows. I’ve put it half way along the passage that leads from the front to the back of our house and I keep walking past, and loving it. An odd choice for a favourite perhaps, when compared to money and perfume and books, which I also love by the way. But the house is special, because at the back, there’s space for a candle and when you light it and turn it round, it looks magical. With the blind up and the night behind. Like a beacon. A strip of stone leaking light into darkness.

If we’re not careful we spend so much time feeling afraid. The past reproaches, the future threatens. The present can be ruined by both. If you have faith (and you probably do if you’ve visited the blog before), you’ll believe there’s a heartbeat at the core of the universe,  a Light punching holes in darkness and, in the distance, a city on a hill. There’s something comforting about pinpricks of light – the 2015 memories you cherish, the moments that lifted you at Christmas, the things you’re looking forward to. They are more precious when viewed alongside the darker things. I could turn the light on, put the blind down – I would see better if there was no darkness at all. But this way, the light from the little house makes my way unique, and beautiful.

So Happy Old Year. Peace and strength to you as you look back, and look forward, and look up. Towards the Light.

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Bad Wrapping and the Gift of Hope


Sad fact – people have no inclination to open presents I’ve wrapped. This is because, instead of tantalising hints at treasure within, they give off an aura of utter tat, fallen from the back of a lorry or bought at a White Elephant stall. I tell myself it’s because I’m a “rip it off” person. My husband, on the other hand, is brilliant. Sizing the wrapping to be cut with a practised eye,  he can scissor a line through paper straight as an arrow (without cutting the tablecloth) and coax the lumpiest of shapes into  perfect hospital corners. He’s not much good at ribbons and bows. If there are any to be applied (and I can’t promise there will be), I’m quite good at that. But as for the basics, forget it. We have refined the process to factory-like precision. He wraps. I write eccentric labels and do pretty bits (stick on bows) and everyone is happy.

Which would you rather open? This one?

Which would you rather open? This?

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Or this? (I rest my case)

Or this one? (wrapped by an artistic friend)

Or even this? (painted and wrapped by a friend)

This morning we did the Christmas Food Shop. Observing others, it fascinates me how different we are.  Some trolleys were full of alcohol and little else, some with meat. There was one lady with a trolley crammed with just potatoes. I wanted to say, “A-scuse me! Are you having a potato printing party? ” But it seemed a bit nosy to say the least, so I contented myself with imagining a baked potato jamboree at hers, with Santa hats. There was a shaky old lady trying to read labels on jars of pickled onions and a teenager trying to help. “Sulphur dioxide. Are you alright with that? What about onions? You alright with them?” It made her laugh as she thanked him for his trouble.

After we’d stowed our bags in the car, there was an incident. From the queue waiting for spaces, a Mercedes suddenly swerved around the car at the front and roared straight into a just-vacated space. The young lady, whose space it should have been, started tooting furiously. She got out, strode over to the three young men getting out of the car, and shouted, “Oi! You were behind me!”

“No we weren’t!” replied the driver, “We were in FRONT of you. Anyway we’d been waiting f****** ages!”

The young lady, understandably, wasn’t happy. She called them a name, loudly. I won’t repeat it but it begins with a W. And has seven letters (in the plural). The young men strode off, laughing. I do not like this word but you could see her point of view.

What happened next was interesting. Four or five people, including my husband, indicated that they were about to go and she could have their space, even pulling out before they’d taken the trolley back etc. so she could park. She immediately reverted to the pleasant, gentle looking person she had previously seemed, and thanked us all profusely. We were outraged, but nobody wanted to pick a fight with three, er, unpleasant youths. But this was something we could do.

Christmas brings out the best and worst in us – my physical laziness (because that’s what it is. I spend ages thinking of eccentric greetings for labels), the kindness of strangers, impatience, selfishness, solidarity towards the wronged. But random kindness give us hope. It reminds me of the story told on Sunday…

Four candles were burning on the advent wreath. The room was still and ever so quietly they began to talk to each other.  The first candle sighed, “My name is Peace. But people don’t recognise my value and won’t allow me into their lives.” Gradually the candle’s light got smaller and weaker until finally it went out.

The second candle trembled in a draught from the window. “My name is Faith,” she whispered, “But I feel as though I’m not needed. People don’t believe anything any more unless they can touch it and hold it in their hands.” And slowly the candle flickered and died.

The third candle whispered, “My name is Love. I no longer have the strength to keep burning. The world has become so selfish and uncaring.  People only think about what’s best for them.” And with a  sputter and a sigh, its light went out

At that moment, a child came into the room. He stopped and looked at the candles, puzzled. “You should be burning!” he cried, “You should be alight. We need you!”

Then the fourth candle spoke. “Do not be afraid,” she said, “As long as I’m on fire, I will always give the other candles light and life. My name is Hope.”

And with a small piece of wood, the child took the light from the candle of hope and used it to light the way to peace, faith and love again…wpid-20141130_114837.jpg

A big thank you if you have clicked on the link and read a blog post this year.

Wishing you a peaceful Christmas and a hopeful 2016…

Prayer, Advent and Latin Verbs


Call me sad but I loved Latin verbs. At an all-girls school, stuffed with hormones and self-obsession (I levelled out but have recently declined again – for obvious reasons), Latin verbs were immensely comforting. Like the shipping forecast , there was a predictability, a rhythmic quality to the conjugations that soothed you, suspended time and made you acutely aware of the moment. To this day if I start reciting, “amo, amas, amat…” my senses are filled with memory – the smell of wax on polished wood, pink blotting paper. and on the floor, clean squares of sunshine where dust motes dance a late, lazy waltz. Miss Everley, with her pointy shoes and ever-present smell of patchouli, would be proud of me.

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The word advent is Latin for arrival. The verb, advenire, to arrive, is one of my favourites because the -ire verb endings (fourth conjugation) were the friendliest ones. Look, this may sound odd, but try it. Try saying it out loud : – advenio, advenis, advenit, advenimus, advenitis, advenitunt.  See what I mean? Don’t you feel soothed and generally more benevolent towards the world? This is probably because when you got to the second person plural you couldn’t resist saying “advenitits” and this made you giggle inanely. It was, of course, the real reason we favoured it. But I can assure you Miss Everley would have had none of it, striding over to you, eyes like gimlets and breathing close-range patchouli flavoured threats at you. This was so unpleasant that, if you had a compulsion to say “advenitits” you had to whisper it in order to stay alive. Of course, if the rest of your class had noticed this compulsion and hatched a plot to hold their breath at the second person plural, you were stuffed anyway. Sigh.

For me, advent is like Latin verbs. There’s comfort in the routine  – making the cake, decorating the house. When I think of advents past, my senses are filled with cinnamon, snow and the smell of oranges. When the children were small we lived abroad, in a country that didn’t celebrate Christmas, so we used to make biscuits in the shape of holly or angels to hang on the tree. We made crackers  and filled bowls with oranges. It was very cold and there was often snow, which my husband had to shovel off the roof to stop it leaking. We missed family and friends but those makeshift festivities were among my best ever. We sang carols and met up with other ex-pats who taught us their advent routines – gingerbread houses (Norway), sweets in shoes (German), glogg (Sweden).  Of course I romanticise it – there were illnesses, breakdowns in the snow. The apartment never seemed to get warm. But they were happy times.

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This year we can light candles, go to church, sing carols. We’ll put out the Christmas cushions and the nativity scene. We’ll remember, as you will, that there are many celebrating the season with tents for homes and empty stomachs. And we’ll give thanks, as you will, to God or life or both (depending on which combination you believe in) that we have warmth and light and loved ones, to help us through the winter months. Then we’ll turn on the News and remember, as you might, that we could have done more for  others – filled a Christmas box, given money, donated at work. There’s so much need, we can become immune to it.

At times, I feel overwhelmed by the tide of evil sweeping the world – not just the terrorists and the wars and the starving children, but the selfish thoughts, the angry words, the jockeying for position that goes on in my own life, and maybe in yours. All this can drive us to despair. That’s why I’ve started using the Lord’s Prayer. it was brought to my attention recently in the News. Apart from praying it at church, I rarely prayed it. I know there’s been some controversy lately and maybe the cinema isn’t the best place for it. But in the car, or on Break Duty or  cooking, really is. It’s such a great prayer and seems to cover all the bases, all the things that are wrong with the world, and with me. Jesus  thought of it but it could equally be prayed by anyone seeking after truth, after God, whoever they conceive him (or her) to be. There’s a rhythm, a soothing quality to it that’s immensely comforting. Like Advent or Latin verbs.

And I can’t explain it, but when I pray, things happen. Good things.

 

 

 

 

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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The Unexpected Cost of Celebration


It was the biggest summer since we’d grown sunflowers from seed. I’d got a new job, my daughter got great exam  results and two days later she was going to be a bridesmaid for the first time. These things in themselves would have had me doing an Eric and Ernie style dance up the garden. But to turn joyful celebration  into heart-stopping excitement, the wedding was my son’s. To a wonderful girl. From a lovely family. In a village church, in Sussex.

For non-U.K. dwellers these were two comedians who did this great happy dance…

On the last day of term, I drove away from the primary school I’d worked at for twenty eight years (apart from a spell abroad) with a bootful of presents, and cards saying things like, “You were my best teacher ever. Apart from Miss Young who could yodel.” I remember driving past people slouching along the pavement, feeling sorry for them because they didn’t have a son getting married this summer. (I was careful to choose those too young to have sons at all, lest I bestow my pity on the undeserving, although of course these days you can never be sure.) Basically I was so full of anticipation and excitement that I was even dreading  the summer’s end before it had begun.

And it was an amazing summer. My daughter did so well in her A’ Levels. So did her boyfriend. We even managed to squeeze in a quick celebration lunch for her, with bubbly, and balloons (and a traditional home made banner) before packing the car and heading off to Sussex for the  wedding weekend.

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The wedding day was perfect. Everyone arrived on time. The church looked amazing. The service was wonderful. The bride and groom and bridesmaids and Best Man and ushers looked stylish, gracious and poised. I didn’t cry during my reading from 1 John, although I had a wobbly moment when I looked at the bride and groom during the phrase, “And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.” My husband gave me this verse at our wedding twenty nine years ago so I thought it might be appropriate to give them a meaningful look at this point – not soppy, but warm, serene (I’d practised in the mirror). This may have been a mistake. Just as my cheekbones stretched into the planned gracious smile, I was aware that, a) It looked like a drunken leer, b) Tears were pricking at the back of my eyes. I thought briefly of the cost of Estee Lauder mascara. And recovered.

The Reception, food, speeches, evening – all were fabulous. I knew it would go fast. So I’d already decided I was going to concentrate really hard on each moment and not think ahead to the next one, to slow time down.

In fact the whole experience taught me a lot: –

1.  Family weddings are a gift from God, but they’re going to be emotional. Accept it.

2. Young men in suits can intensify hot flushes, even when you’re old enough to remember them in nappies.

3, You don’t often get all your favourite people in the world in one room for hours on end. Make the most of it.

4. After the wedding, there’s only a limited period of time in which you should relive it, a) on Facebook b) with your wedding hat  c) with your friends, who may tire of your anecdote-laden photos.

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5. Excitement is all well and good but it can be as stressful as disaster, as in an OFSTED visit or, say, locking your house keys in the car while leaving a pan of figs on to boil. In a foreign country. (I would never do that though).

I’d do it again in a heartbeat, but it’s worth mentioning that during the exciting run-up to the wedding, I hardly slept, I lived on Strepsils and Paracetamol, I had the No Teeth Dream and the Forgot to Get Dressed Before Work Dream more times than I’d care to mention. God, if you believe in Him – and I absolutely do, even at the dentist and on the M25 – didn’t mean for us to live on highs all the time. It’s great when life’s a whirlwind, packed with exciting experiences but it can make us crazy. We also need large chunks of the mundane, the everyday. It calms us, slows us, gives things shape and structure. A different kind of gift.

I enjoyed every minute of this summer, but I’m not mourning its demise as much as I thought I would. It’s time to take up other things, like reading. And eating (now that I’m not on a wedding diet).

And there’s still a fair bit of excitement out there. I mean, you should see our tomato plants…

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“And we know and rely on the love God has for us.” 1 John 4:16

 

 

 

 

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?

 

 

Advent, sheep and a kiss from a stranger


It’s been a strange week.

I’m on my way home from work after what is called a challenging day. It’s a fitting end really; that is to say, there is darkness, traffic, and rain-galloping cats and dogs. And the lower lid of my right eye keeps doing this thing where it moves without my help. Like being flicked with an invisible finger. I sit in a queue, head thrown back listening to Eddie Mair who would actually be a best friend in real life on account of being Scottish and soothing and always finding ways to put things in perspective (well, he is a newsreader.) There’s a tiny scrap of sky on the right that’s still light. I watch it, fascinated – just a narrow shred, but somehow trnasformative. I crane my neck a bit and find myself staring into the eyes of a man in a car alongside (he shouldn’t be there really, there are chevrons). Now I know when my face is in thinking mode, I look a bit glum. When I was young my teachers were always saying, infuriatingly, Cheer up Deborah, it may never happen! I used to walk around smiling – which is the only way they’d leave me alone – but frankly it just scared people and after a while it hurt, so I gave up. Anyway, I quickly look away, like you do, just in case the person thinks you’re staring at them. Then I look back to see it he’s looked away, and, if I’m honest, because he has a nice face even though he’s breaking the law, and he’s still looking at me, And I’m about to look away again but, quick as a flash, he blows me a kiss! Honestly! A man half my age and me, a married woman, with dark roots. And tics.

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Anyway, I can’t help smiling, mainly because it’s so ridiculous but also because of his cheeky grin and the fact that he reminds me of someone I might once have taught. He gives me a thumbs-up and immediately powers off, lurching in front of me. Probably a ruse I think, or a dare, or an alcohol induced joke. But I’m smiling into the darkness and my mood is thinning. I look up. The wedge of light has gone, but although I am a deflated balloon, I lift a little. But then there is commotion behind me on account of the traffic in front having gone and several drivers leaning on horns. I gesture apologetically and they gesture back. One or two are, er, quite negative. Oh well, perhaps they had a bad day…

The next day we deliver sheep for Advent. It works like this. We go round the village shops and ask if they would host a sheep. I have a spiel which I’ve practised in front of the mirror – Hello, I wonder if you can help me. I’m from the Baptist Church and hopefully this.plan will benefit both of us (wave sheep). We were wondering if you would like to host one of our sheep during the run-up to Christmas. This should bring families with young children into your shop to look for them (and hopefully spend some money?) so they can bring their names to our Messy Church Christmas Carols and win a prize. 

The first shop keeper looks sceptical, until the sheep-waving part. Oh my goodness!They’re gorgeous! she says, wanting a cuddle (with the sheep, obviously). The next one was a bit frowny. How much does it cost? Free? You mean there’s no money involved? She looks amazed. One lady runs excitedly around her shop trying a sheep in different positions. What do you think? Here? Or here? No, how about here?! My husband has shop-keepers asking to host one. It’s extraordinary. And I suppose it all goes to show – everyone is a child at heart.

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The next day I get a copy of a letter to my GP from a consultant allergist. Now I’ve had a few of these lately from various consultants and they all start in the same distinctive way –

Dear Dr ______, Thank you for sending me this 52 year old primary teacher. She describes a 13 year history of asthma…

Now this is probably some kind of Hippocratic tradition, but I always wonder. Are they really saying – Thank you so much for sending me this 52 years old primary teacher whose nasal polyps are so fascinating and unusual that my medical curiosity is finally satisfied?

Or is it sarcastic? – Well, thanks a bunch for sending me this 52 year old primary teacher. Just what I’ve always wanted – an overanxious hypochondriac with so many questions I can’t blow my own nose without her asking how long it will take and if it’ll hurt. 

What irritates me most is I had to nag my doctor endlessly to refer me for my allergies. It should say – Dear Dr. ______, Please pass on my thanks to your patient, a persistent, polyp-ridden primary teacher who looks far younger than her 52 years…

And there’ll be another one soon. He’s referring me to a Nose Specialist. Did you know they even existed? Are there Toe Specialists as well and Armpit ones?

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A surreal week.

And on top of all that it’s advent. The shops are alight and there’s an advent candle at church and we’re planning carol services and nativity plays, and writing cards and buying presents and getting the tree down from the loft….And In the middle of it all, there are these signposts. But sometimes I forget to notice them. I have to be watchful and remember to breathe, and look out of windows at the sky, and forgive people and read things that inspire me to be kind, like the bible and Winnie- the- Pooh.

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The signposts are often small. Like a sheep, or a child or a letter that makes you smile, Or a kiss from a stranger They wake you up, the flick of an invisible finger pointing to life, to Christmas, to the ancient magic; we’re never alone…

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