Halfway house

halfway-down-milne-shepard-color

 

This week is – incredibly – half way through TicTacGirl’s degree course.

(Though TicTacGirl is no longer really TicTacGirl; a year and a half of an Oxford education means that she is probably now most aptly known by the Native American name of StinksOfBooks.)

HALFWAY THROUGH?? How did this happen? It seems barely a twinkling of an eye since she was gnawing at her revision notes for GCSE AllTheSubjects, and now graduation is within chomping distance.

And it occurred to me, while I was wondering about the ridiculousness of the passing of time, that maybe right now I am more or less half way through my LIFE.

I am 44 now, 45 this year; in this day and age I can reasonably expect to last till 90, I reckon, especially if I eat a bit more fruit and not just the stuff you find squished in between the mint in a Pimms and lemonade.

And there is something magical, something potent, about being halfway.

The halftime whistle, the interval curtain.

All still to play for, all still to be revealed and resolved.

The best conversations are struck sitting halfway up the stairs, like I had with my friend AngelCake the other day. It’s a liminal space, not quite here or there.

(But halfway is one thing; the middle, well that’s quite another. Middle-aged-spread, stuck in the middle with you, or indeed with myself.)

Without getting drawn into a discussion about whether I am or am not middle-aged (mainly because we all know the answer to that) – I wondered whether this might be the time to take a breather, now the half time whistle has blown, to chew on this orange and think about:

What I have learned in the first half 

I guess the one thing that many women my age talk about, the real thrill about being halfway there, is just not really caring anymore all that much about what people think about you.

I don’t mean not caring about other peoples’ feelings, but rather getting the very clear perspective that other people really really don’t care that much about your bushy eyebrows or if you have a ladder in your tights, and indeed the idea that they WOULD care is really pretty vain and self-obsessed of you. They aren’t looking at you, all those other people – they are thinking about what time the last Tube is and whether they left the straighteners on this morning.

And if, by any chance, they ARE sneering at your semi-monobrow, well what kind of person are they anyway? Petty, sneery and absolutely not worth your attention.

That is real freedom, if you can manage it.

Part of this freedom is not feeling you have to be interested, or pretend to be interested, in things that you really don’t care about.

Especially the things that you think you SHOULD care about. I will never give another thought to, inter alia, tennis, golf, almost all sport actually, anything on the financial pages, anything to do with soap operas, anything written in any woman’s magazine, what clothes/colours/lipsticks are fashionable, almost anything on the telly, and jazz.

This has freed up loads of time to do the things that I really want to do which – it turns out, now I’m half way through, now I have a bit of perspective – is mainly centred around hanging out with my friends in a variety of locations talking about things.

For example, if I was to ever see StinksOfBooks again, in the unlikely event she ever leaves the library, I might remind her of the other thing I have learned – that we are all of us Works in Progress.

I acknowledge that in my teens and twenties I was a bit snarly, a bit hard-edged. Rather intolerant with the faults of others, and even more angry even at my own flaws. Especially the ones that I couldn’t seem to change. (Sorry for those of you who had the dubious pleasure of my company back then.)

I am not quite sure what happened but as the second act unfolded, I started to get a bit softer around the edges.

My wonderfully kind sister, who will surely be sainted one of these days, always says – be kind to yourself.

Sounds simple but once you can manage it, then you can start practising with everyone else too.

You, me, that woman sneering at my monobrow, that man who left his straighteners on this morning (which is a problem because he hasn’t told his mum he uses them).

Recognising the pure and simple humanity in yourself and others, and reminding yourself of it whenever you can. Forgetting what you can, forgive the rest and just move onto tomorrow and try again.

Because the other thing, maybe the last thing for today, is that you don’t really know what’s halfway.

Another 45 years would be wonderful, but one thing you can only really feel the force of from this halfway step is – how many people didn’t make it this far.

Stop fretting about what other people think, stop being so hard on yourself and enjoy every minute and every step.

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And the floods shall prevail

severe drought in flood

 

It won’t have escaped your attention that it has been a bit rainy these last few weeks.

Obviously, grim winter weather isn’t particularly newsworthy when it only affects the horny-handed toilers of the rural ‘idyll’; but this year even Paul Daniels had to get his waders out and soon the Daily Mail was salivating with joyous schadenfreude over photos of half-submerged Range Rovers and exceedingly damp Mock-Tudor Mansions.

Because disaster is always so much MUCH more disastrous somehow when you are extremely rich and within an easy commute of London isn’t it?

Don’t get me wrong, I am not here to mock.

(Well, no more than is habitual and unavoidable, for a normal hot-blooded Englishwoman.)

On the contrary – I am here to help! As a reluctant recent* refugee to the countryside, I have plenty of tips for surviving and even enjoying everything that the extremes of winter in the British countryside can throw at you.

So here are Number6’s tips for a countryside winter:

  1. Always listen to the updated list of all the closed roads on the radio in the morning. All the way to the end, including ‘and Dry Lane is still flooded’. This will remind you that you should never have moved to the countryside in the first place.
  2. If you do insist on moving to the countryside then don’t move anywhere that is called ‘Brookside’, ‘Lake View’, ‘Snowy Bank’ or ‘I’ve Never Seen the River So High!’
  3. Or anywhere below sea level.
  4. When you first move to the country you will spend a morning walking round the nearest market town, marvelling at the shop windows full of dun-coloured country wear and wellies that cost more than a weekend break to Paris and you will say in wondering tones – who BUYS these things? And the answer to this question is all the sensible folk who know what the weather can be like and will be quietly sniggering at you in your Per Una ‘water’’proofs’.
  5. Make friends with someone with a Land Rover. Not just a 4×4 Chelsea Tractor with personalised number plates and a cartoon of two rhinos shagging on the spare tyre cover, but an actual possibly-green-underneath-all-the-mud farmer-mobile, that looks like it could take a small volley of close-range fire in an emergency (or possibly already has) and may well have Bambi’s mum, skinned and lifeless, stored in the back. You might think these look a bit, well, ugly, probably drink petrol and are a bit tricky to park. All of this will become somewhat irrelevant when 15 miles of snowy roads stands between you and the emergency dentist one January night.
  6. Ditto someone with a generator. And some water butts. And a boat. Basically you need to move in with a farmer. Offer to help them with some lambing, that will get you on their right side.
  7. Don’t make any jokes about building an ark. They are probably all building an ark round the back of the lambing barn but you, in your suspiciously clean Joules wellies, are not among the righteous, but rather shall perish on the dry land.
  8. If you do find yourself in the middle of some floods, just drive straight through them. Otherwise it’s a long way round, and you’ve got all that Waitrose ice cream in the back defrosting. Nice and fast – just put your foot right to the floor. Go on, just do it! Preferably swearing constantly throughout the process. That will help. Overtake this stranded vehicle! Surely the water won’t come up THAT high? I mean the engine is not THAT close to the ground is it? OH GOD WHAT’S THAT BURNING SMELL?
  9. Make sure you have the phone number of your friend with the Land Rover on speed dial, so s/he can come and tow you out of the flood that you have just driven through and beached your Nissan Micro on a dead sheep. You may have to offer to buy them a new water butt, or to do that lambing thing where you have to skin the dead lamb to persuade the ewe to take on an orphan lamb**. But it will be quicker than getting a garage to come and get it; there are filled with all the other city-idiots who did the same thing.
  10. Keep a snow shovel in your boot at all times. It can help to move drowned sheep out of flood water, or you can sit on it on sodden bank and think about how nice it would be to live a high-rise flat somewhere on a tube line.
  11. If you do ignore all of these, because that really is a lovely new house at a bargain price and surely the government wouldn’t let a respectable house building firm build on a flood plain or chop down a whole load of trees that would have probably absorbed quite a bit of this extra water because we don’t need trees and flood plains and well-drained soil – we need houses, right? Well just in case you might start feeling a teeny bit, well, responsible or cross with the government – don’t worry, it’s OK and definitely not your fault. Pop over to the Daily Mail website to learn how it’s all the fault of the bloody foreigners for making a massive fuss about their natural disasters and STEALING our money. All the money that should have been sent to buy Paul Daniels some more inflatable paddling pools, has instead has being frittered away instead on malaria prevention and providing safe drinking water to the 900m people around the world who don’t have access to it. You can even sign a petition about it, if you are a particular fan of the sleight-of-hand-distraction away from the real issues of environmental mismanagement by the injection of some nasty xenophobic prejudice. Now that’s magic, as poor old knee-deep in flood water Paul Daniels might say.
  12. Don’t move to the countryside.
  13. Seriously, don’t.

*I have ‘only’ been living in the countryside for 16 short years now. An absolute baby-newcomer. My wellies aren’t even muddy yet.

** I know this is a true thing because I heard Debbie talking about it on The Archers.

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Whatever love means

love means

 

Yesterday I had the rather sobering experience of chaffeuring GothicDaughter on her first Valentine’s date, complete with red-ribboned fluffy bear (named, I kid you not, ‘Fluffy’), an anxiety-inducing cinema trip and national-emergency levels of awkwardness.

I am not sure who was more nail-bitingly nervous about this whole occasion– me or the SparklyDaughter; she is always prone to worrying about many things, particularly awkward social situations and my shortcomings as a parent.

‘Shouldn’t you give her some ADVICE mummy? You know, about love and kissing and everything?’ she wrangled in a stage-whisper.

Well reader I confess I didn’t manage it, too overwhelmed as I was with the weight of the occasion.

Maybe today’s a better day to talk about what advice I should give, if only I was some sort of semi-functional parent, about how to handle the perils of Valentine’s Day and whatever love means.

But it’s hard not to talk about Valentine’s Day without sounding a. smug or b. bitter. The smug-coupled were certainly out in force yesterday, with close-ups of over-decorated cup-cakes, Instagrammed-sunsets and dimly-lit jewellery. I saw so many snaps of bottles of champagne and supermarket flowers yesterday that my merged-social-media-platform (where I live these days) looked like a funeral sponsored by Guns and Roses.

The bitter-and-twisteds were not far behind; my favourite Twitter-bitter was ‘I hope I never have a relationship with someone who thinks I will be made happy with a bracelet charm! #fake #fools #vomit’

I see her #point; I speak as a over-sharer myself – there is a undeniable undertone of showy-offness to the bouquet-heaving status updates.

Not that I mind you understand – if you can’t show off to your friends, then what frankly is the point of Facebook?

Social media has undeniably changed the face of Valentine’s Day. When I was a kid, it was about secret admirers, anonymous notes and disguised handwriting. WHO ON EARTH left that packet of Spangles in my desk?

In 2014 Valentine’s Day seems all rather intense and public; a kind of unison bar, when we all celebrate LOVE at the same time, and make sure we are all singing the same tune. And there seems to be a bit of a consensus about what this might look and sound like – flowers, chocolates, home made food or fancy restaurant meal (preferably Instagrammed to high heaven).

But I don’t think there is a consensus about what love means.

Of course we continue to prioritise the finding of The One and Only, the Soul Mate, Who Will Make Us Complete.

(This is all rather complicated by the fact that we can’t seem to meet anyone in The Real Life anymore, perhaps because we don’t really go out, perhaps because we don’t have any money or because we have forgotten how to talk to people unless we have our fingers hovering over a keyboard or perhaps because it hadn’t stopped raining since 2011. Whatever the reason, the stats tell us that more and more of us are ‘finding’ love online – 1 in 5 relationships now start on the internet and 5 million of us are registered to online dating sites according to recent surveys.)

 

But the problem with giving advice about love is this – whilst the experience of love is universally human, it is also incredibly specific to the person and their circumstances.

Of course I know what falling in love feels like, but only for me, and absolutely not for anyone else. If I asked you to name the song that summed up what you love feels like, you would name a different one from me; no two people in a thousand would name the same one love song. Ask someone what love is, or Google ‘what love means’ and see how many different answers you get.

Love defies any kind of generalisation or simplification. I have seen love drive people to acts of extreme selfishness and extraordinary unselfishness. I have seen people saved by love, and people destroyed by it. I have seen the same person ripped apart by the force of their passion, then fall into indifference surprisingly soon. In large part the way we feel and experience love depends on whether we are trying to recreate the model set by our parents, or frantically trying to avoid it.

Don’t tell me some of those aren’t ‘real’ love; who are we to judge what’s real and what is not?

I might say to GothicDaughter – keep your head, keep your dignity, don’t let love run away with you, or run away with love. But she will know that I never took my own advice and I wouldn’t change the path that love blew me along.

I guess what I might say is – don’t worry about finding ‘real’ love, whether you love someone or are IN LOVE with someone. You can waste your life away with love-semantics. It’s pointless.

If you stop trying to define ‘real’ love, you realise love is incredibly commonplace. I saw it three times on the way from Boots to the carpark today, a journey of about three minutes. Two friends tussling affectionately about who should pay for their car parking ticket; a toddler cuddle-wrestling his baby sister to try and comfort her; two young girls giggling over a selfie in M&S (weirdly, in the Per Una aisle – love really IS strange).

Love your lover like your friends, and your friends like your lover. Let love rule, and let love flow.

And next year, see if you can get some chocolates instead of a bloody teddy bear. If he REALLY loved you, he’d buy you some Green and Blacks.

And you can tell him that from me.

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Joy to the world

joy-funny-christmas-pictures

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As the Panto-villain Katie Hopkins memorably pointed out, names matter. New parents buy books of names, agonise over this crucial choice, right?

Well, not if you’re the fifth girl-child it turns out. By that time by parents had run out of ideas and frankly interest in the whole naming business.

The truth of how my name was chosen has become somewhat blurred by exaggerated teasing and guiltily fervent counterclaim, but the process seems to have involved slips of paper and no one aged over 16. A cross between the Secret Seven and a Secret Ballot.

I can only give thanks that one of my sisters didn’t extract the slip marked ‘runt of the litter’ and instead I got a perfectly serviceable, if rather commonplace, first name; the middle name, however, is a little more risky.

Joy. Joy of Joys. Glad tidings of great joy.

Calling someone after an emotion is asking for trouble; like all those chunky Willows and clumsy Graces, what if being called ‘Joy’ had backfired horribly and I had lived my life as a walking oxymoron: ‘Oh, look there goes Miserable Joy…’

Well thankfully it didn’t work out that way – I am mostly pretty cheerful, perhaps sometimes gratingly so. And this time of year I get to sing some pretty cheerful songs about my name. Glad tidings of great joy, that’s what we’re promised. But only if we believe, only if we are saved.

For those who believe in the truth of the miracle of the Christ Child, the Word made flesh, then Joy is a very straightforward thing. Believe in Him, everlasting life, boom.

Unfortunately, it seems to me that many of the Christians seem rather devoid of joy and often, frankly, pretty cross this time of year. More than a little cross that the ‘true’ ‘real’ meaning of Christmas has been lost.

Stop, Christians, stop fretting that Christmas has lost all its joy and become a debauched frenzied orgy of consumption. Take it from me, Unhappy Christians, for I know ALL about Joy. (Cause it’s like, my name, yeah?) There is still a whole lot of Joy to be found in Christmas 2013, and we all have plenty, plenty to be joyful about. This nonsensical, magical patchwork of traditions and quasi-semi-religious feeling is still stuffed full of the sheer joy of living.

First of all, obviously there is a great deal of joy to be had in taking part in a debauched frenzied orgy of consumption with your nearest and dearest. The darkest days of the year, when we need to cuddle up close and look forward to the light and the warmth that’s coming. That we hope is coming.

We search for joy in traditions that we associate with our childhood, that we make our own. We search for joy in the sharing of booze and feasting and singing with friends and telling the old old stories. The joy between us that was here before that cracking viral story about the little baby born into poverty who changed the world by being kind and giving us hope, and the joy that the nativity story carries with it in its viral way, even – strangely, magically – to those who don’t believe it.

Well it’s a great story, full of beauty and, yeah, joy. The lowest and the highest brought together, the promise of new light. I can’t promise there will be eternal life (soz) but I can promise that the world will turn, that Sun / Son will come again and before you know it we will be walking through the golden daffodils and barefoot on the hot sand and crunching through the fallen leaves and the virgin snow and watching Love Actually again even though we’ve seen it loads of times and it’s a bit rubbish it makes us feel Christmassy and we all love feeling Christmassy and we wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Joy isn’t like happiness. Joy is the kernel of the human condition, the heart of us all. Happiness can come and go, but no matter how crappy the situation, no matter how full the inns or how far you’ve travelled on that bloody donkey – go deeper and you will find human beings can find joy in any place, any time.

Christmas without Christ is not empty – and neither was Yule / Saturnalia / The Feast of Fools / Whatever they were celebrating at Avebury and Stonehenge.

Whenever people came together to sing and give and receive and eat a lot of Quality Street and drink mead or mulled wine and tell stories about the past and make plans for the future – even without the promise of eternal life, there is, always has been, joy in this one.

 

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Maybe I’m going blind

miley-cyrus-we-cant-stop-video

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The song of this summer has been, indisputably, Blurred Lines. Not so much catchy as epidemically contagious. Do I like it? That’s another question. It’s like asking if you like the cold that you caught at the beginning of the summer and can’t quite get rid of.

It is undeniably clever, and commercial – by now, Blurred Lines is more than just a song. Covered, parodied and banned, its lyrics dissected and pasted; we aren’t just humming it, we are required to have an opinion about it.

And what is my opinion of it? Well, it’s like this: everything about it – the lyrics, the video, the Student Unions bans, the furore, Miley Cyrus getting twerky with a big foam finger, the models in clingfilm underwear like shrink-wrapped cold cuts – they all make me squirm.

And what I am squirming about, I think, is the window it offers into our collective confusion about female sexuality.

If I disapprove of the song, perhaps it’s because I am prudish and uptight. I don’t think I am, though. I have no problem with nudity, even Hannah Montana’s. I don’t particularly want anyone to cover up, and I am not offended or corrupted by the sight of bared flesh. (Though it might be interesting to consider the ratio of bared female to male flesh, in that video and across the visual media.)

I definitely don’t want to return to a time when women weren’t allowed to show an ankle without causing public horror. Maybe once we were liberated from repressing our sexuality, this was the logical conclusion, like that old joke about fancy dress parties being full of women dressed as prostitutes.

And anyway isn’t it all just about free will? The young women in the clingfilm underwear, and Miley with her foam finger – are they just choosing a path that, if I wouldn’t choose it myself, I fought , marched and argued for their right to choose?

So why, then, does Blurred Lines make me feel so damn uncomfortable?

Well, first of all, it’s the – erm – ambiguity.

‘You know you want it’? That’s the least of it. The lyrics, if you can bear to listen to them, deal with the blurred lines between – what? Rape and consent? ‘Good girls’ and dirty animal instincts? What a girl REALLY wants and what she SAYS she wants? Project Unbreakable was a photo-project that showed us just how unambiguous those lyrics can be if you put them in the mouths of rapists, or the hands of their victims:

http://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2013/09/17/from-the-mouths-of-rapists-the-lyrics-of-robin-thickes-blurred-lines-and-real-life-rape/

So I have some sympathy for the Student Unions banning the song from their buildings  – dodgy lyrics sending the wrong message for a place where lines need to be pretty damned unblurred, and where no can only ever EVER mean no.

But then to be sitting on the other side of this blurry boundary-fence doesn’t feel too comfortable either. Because that’s the side that condemns Cyrus Jr for acting all slutty-like – has she no self-respect???

I don’t subscribe to that view of female sexuality that says, cover yourself up, that’s disgusting and no one will take you seriously and you will be seriously asking for it; that in-your-face expressions of female sexuality are distasteful and evidence of a lack of self-esteem. Good girls don’t, CAN’T REALLY want it; they must be, then, just looking for the ‘wrong sort of attention’, or so this side of the argument goes.

The other end of this ‘good-girls-cover-up’ continuum ends up with the niqab and the burkha and purdah, keeping women pure and far far away from the corrupting influence of men and their filthy thoughts and deeds.

So – this is what Blurred Lines tells us – your daughters, and mine.

If they are ‘good’ girls, then they MUST wanna get nasty; they’re just waiting for the right man to whose ‘pimpin’ she can’t refuse, to ‘liberate’ her. (Don’t worry though, because this is all IRONIC and all the fully clothed men in the video are happily married men so THAT’S ALRIGHT THEN.)

And when she does indeed get ‘nasty’, the world will pile in and judge her for being well, nasty and cheap.

If you think I am exaggerating, and if you have the stomach for it, go and read some of the comments about Miley’s performance at he MTV awards when she acts out what Blurred Lines has been telling young women all summer that they SHOULD be doing, if they followed their instincts.

Frigid, or slut? Times change, yet nothing changes for women caught between these two unacceptable ways of being an adult woman.

But maybe I am exaggerating this dichotomy, but it seems to me that the role models and expectations we place on this generation of young women are not so much blurred as muddied like a quagmire. We helped to liberate women from the shackles of oppression – for what? Still, still we seem to be fighting for a woman’s right not to be raped.

Is that as really as far as we’ve got?

 

 

 

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