Archive of ‘Life’ category

‘Only yesterday I was thirty one’

You can always tell the age of a woman by the state of her elbows and of her neck. Or so my mother told me.

Old necks turn to turkey flesh and pucker. Elbows take on the look of sphincters, those muscle bound orifices that are best left concealed.

I do not make a habit of studying women’s necks and elbows but the thought remains embedded in my brain as if it is yet another aspect of being alive that we must overcome: cover your neck and elbows so that no one else will notice, the fact of my ageing.

More and more we read about it, not just the stuff on the surface, the stuff underneath, the creaks in muscles especially those that form part of your back and hips, the ones that help you to stand upright, to walk and to run.

The cracking of your bowels and the occasional reflux from your gut that tells you even down there, where the food is received and expelled, things no longer work so well.

My mother told me, you can always tell the women who’ve spent too long in the sun. Their skin turns to gravel, pocked and pitted like the stones on a riverbed but not so smooth.

My mother told me about her sister who wrote from Holland about a prolapse. As a child I imagined my aunt’s insides running out through the hole below. I could see my aunt on the dance floor, her insides trailing from under her ball gown, like so many red jewels.

It happens when you get older, my mother told me. And when you have children, too many children like her, your stomach muscles lose their elasticity and you need to wear girdles or supports to keep them in place, otherwise you flop all over the place like so much custard.

My mother told me, the worst part of growing old was the invisibility. People do not look up when you shuffle into a room. People do not offer a smile of admiration when you wear a new dress or perfume, when you spread lipstick across your lips the way she did when she was still a young woman able to command attention.

You slip back into the place of childhood, into that place where you might stand longest in the queue because the person serving has not noticed you standing there huddled over in your thick coat to keep warm.

The greyness of your hair merges with the colour of the sky on a winter’s day, which becomes a type of Ground hog day when it slows itself into a predictable routine.

And nothing new happens from one minute to the next save the tedium of getting dressed each morning, of showering with assistance and of getting yourself to meals in the retirement village where you can no longer have conversations because you and all the people around you repeat things again and again as if you had not already said them because those in the dining room together with you are too hard of hearing, and too lacking in short term memory to be able to chat.

My mother told me you slip out of the spotlight and even your children begin to forget you, other than as an obligation that they must honour once a year on Mother’s Day and if you’re lucky on your birthday, but hardly ever at Christmas anymore because they are too busy tending to their own lot.

Look at you in the mirror there. No longer smooth skinned and full of life.

And when you meet someone for the first time in ages, the thought goes through their mind as fast as it goes through yours: You’ve aged.

As if it were a crime. A crime of indecency, an insult to others, but most of all to yourself.

As Joan Didion writes:

‘I have watched tears flood the eyes of grown women, loved women, women of talent and accomplishment, for no reason other than that a small child in the room, more often than not an adored niece or nephew, has just described them as ‘wrinkly’, or asked how old they are.

‘When we are asked this question we are always undone by its innocence, somehow shamed by the clear bell-like tones in which it is asked. What shames us is this: the answer we give is never innocent. The answer we give is unclear, evasive, even guilty … there must be a mistake: only yesterday I was in my fifties, my forties, only yesterday I was thirty-one.’



A crowning of my own

I read online about spoon theory, this idea that every morning when we wake we have a number of spoons full of energy for the day and most of us don’t even think about it. We simply get up and go about our business oblivious to the notion that every activity we undertake requires a number of spoons of energy.

We assume we’ll have enough for every part of the day until we can collapse at night.

For people with chronic illness, people who suffer from all manner of ailments that reduce the number of spoons in their possession it can be especially difficult.

They need to be aware of their reserves of energy. They need to calculate how many spoons it will take to get dressed for instance, how many to prepare and eat breakfast and so on throughout the day.

It’s even more dreadful for someone who once had unbounded energy to suddenly find themselves in this depleted position.

For most of us our energy levels taper off as we age. I’m lucky I still tend towards the energetic, though I notice I’m not as fast with the housework as I once was, and there are tasks I’d have undertaken, like ironing or cooking that I have to drag my feet towards. Once I’m into them it’s fine, but there are other things I’d rather be doing or so I reason, and these once easily scratched off jobs take longer if at all.

The older I get the more I’m struck by the amount of information out there in the world that calls for my attention. It throws me back to the days when I was young and took pleasure in dragging out one of the encyclopaedias from my father’s library to look through the various items and events listed in alphabetical order.

You could read about obscure animals in the encyclopaedia, the mating habits of orang-utans, the life cycle of the dung beetle, the reasons why moths are attracted to light. You could read about famous people, about Boadicea, and any number of saints. You could read about the reason why water flows down plugholes in different directions, clock wise or anti clockwise depending on which part of the globe you stand in. You could learn any number of things and as randomly as you liked depending on which letters of the alphabet you selected.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica was my bible. I used it for homework. I used it for pleasure.

One day I noticed some pages had come unstuck and were about to fall out. This in the days when I collected poetry, and the snippets of poems I had in my possession became my treasures. I pored over them at night for company.

On page 7027 of Volume ten, I came across John Drinkwater’s ‘The Crowning of Dreaming John’. I eased out the loose pages and filed them away for posterity.

The poem tells the story of John of Grafton who took seven days and seven nights to travel through the back lanes of England to see ‘ A king put on his crown’.

John brought with him a shilling, a whole silver shilling. ‘But when he came to Westminster They wouldn’t let him in.’

You’d have thought he’d be bitter, our John, but no, instead he smiled at the crowds of people, turned, ‘whistled and was gone’.

That evening after he had walked for twenty five more miles, through ‘the twisting roads of England back into the Warwick lanes,’ he stopped to rest.

The accompanying illustration showed an old man stick and swag in hand settled against the bough of an elm, his eyes focused upwards.

As he rested ‘the spirits of trees and pools and meadows, mountain and windy waterfall, …clouds and skies and rivers, leaves and shadows and rain and sun’ descended from on high.

They came with ‘a sound of singing and chiming music’ and bore ‘aloft a flashing crown.’

So although Dreaming John had travelled to London his trip was not in vain for ‘in a summer evening, along the scented clover’  Dreaming John of Grafton held ‘ a crowning of his own.’

The story captured my imagination to the point when I read the words over and again and slide my eyes across the old fashioned images, I spill over with joy and sorrow. This old man so unlike anyone I had ever known became an example for me of hope over adversity.

Now to find ideas and images, I use Google and Google offers so much more but I sometimes cop that strange overwhelmed feeling I once had as a child when I met Dreaming John and first discovered the meaning of the word infinity.

The idea that numbers go on and on and on. That there is no end to time, as far as I knew when I was a girl. Things can be endless.

This in contrast to the fact of limits and the ideas of death and the awareness that hits me more and more as each day passes that there is only so much you can do in one lifetime.

Maybe I need to conserve my spoons full, though most of me reckons to hell with it, spill my spoons, spend my money, live life to the full and when the time comes and I’ve nothing left, find another way to survive until I’m dead.

Or have a crowning of my own.

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