It’s quite spooky how often I will post a blog about something & then this will develop even further in the following days…

Since writing last night, a further last minute invitation arrived in my inbox.  My friend needs someone to step in & run the Race for Life with her tomorrow (well, walk – she’s had suspected chicken pox; I am not fit enough yet – although plan to run next year is going smoothly).  So in a couple of hours, I’ll be winging my way to the Big Smoke, complete with trainers & a sports bra – not my usual packing for an overnight trip!  I feel honoured that my friend asked me & proud that I am able to simply go.  Tomorrow I will race for life – that of others, but part of me will also be racing for this life of my own.

Since last Thursday, I have been on three impromptu nights out.  By impromptu, I mean arranged that afternoon; by nights out, I mean an evening that could end up involving dancing rather than your average night at a pub or similar (two of three did end up with dancing; one didn’t due to last train times, but it could have easily ended up that way).  This is something of a bumper week – although my social life is pretty active, these sorts of nights out are few & far between nowadays.

All three nights have been really good fun; probably because of their relative rarity, they don’t feel mundane in the way that regular events can feel.  I’ve enjoyed seeing old friends & having a dance.  The feelings that have most struck me about all three nights, though, are spontaneity & freedom.  The two, I suppose, go hand-in-hand.  One of useful outcome of all my navel gazing is that I’ve become quite adept at being able to specifically name feelings, & over the past few years I’ve come to recognise freedom as absolutely central to what makes me feel happy.  Whenever I get a ‘buzz’ from doing something, an underlying emotion is often – so often – a sense that I am completely free.  This freedom should not be interpreted as simply selfishness; two of my greatest joys are the freedom to be able to do different voluntary activities & the freedom to see a lot of my niece & nephew.  This week, however, the buzz of freedom has been about just being able to say yes to random nights out & to be able to go with the flow.  I can make choices based purely on my own desires, without feeling beholden to considering someone else in the equation: this freedom gives me a thrill every time I experience it.

Of course, though, things are rarely as so straightforward or clear cut.  During these nights out, I have spent time with some of my favourite couples.  Seeing people happy & in love throws up all the flip-sides to my love of freedom.  As I watch them together, I often find myself engaged in an internal dialogue: will I ever achieve that happy medium between love & freedom?  I don’t know is the only answer.  Maybe I will; maybe I won’t.  But I do know that until I find someone worth compromising for, I will not sacrifice an ounce of my freedom. 

7 Signs of Ageing

According to a well-known beauty manufacturer, there are seven signs of ageing.  These supposedly are: the look of fine lines & wrinkles, rough texture, the appearance of prominent pores & age spots, uneven skin tone, surface dullness & dryness.

Over the last few weeks, I have identified a number of signs indicating that I am ageing.  Not all of these signs are new developments, but they are all certainly things that have only emerged in the last few years (I turned 28 last week & I can say for sure that none of these would have featured on a list the week after my 18th birthday!).  So here are my alternative seven signs of ageing:

1) You & a friend discuss whether to get the bottle of wine or just two glasses. 

While on holiday, I met up with an old uni friend & we went for dinner.  We both wanted white wine.  And we genuinely debated whether ordering two glasses warranted purchasing the whole bottle.  In the end, we did buy the bottle, but only after consideration.  Clearly the days of ‘buy two glasses get the rest of the bottle free’ are no longer such an allure.

2) Fruit & nut is considered a reasonable choice of chocolate bar. 

As a child, fruit & nut seemed an outrage: why ruin chocolate with other stuff?  Especially vaguely ‘healthy’ things?  Then lo, twenty years on, I find myself thinking ‘Umm, fruit & nut – yummy’.  When & why did this happen?!

3) Going to see the Dutch tulip fields sounds like a lovely mini-break option. 

My grandparents once went on a trip to see the tulips in bloom in the Netherlands.  At the time, this seemed liked the most ridiculous holiday I had ever heard.  The Netherlands?!  On holiday?! (to be said in a Peter Kay ‘Garlic bread?’ tone).  By my mid-teens, the Netherlands seemed far more alluring – well, Amsterdam came calling – but still the tulip fields remained off my holiday radar.  Then the other week I found myself in all seriousness uttering the phrase: ‘I’d really like to see the Dutch tulip fields in bloom’.  The implications of this are profound: I am clearly now more interested in gardening & flowers than sex & drugs.

4) You know your own underwear limitations.

Some time ago, my friend & I vowed that we would give up trying to haul our breasts into strapless bras.  We were in ‘French Connection’ in Birmingham’s Bull Ring at the time.  The ‘hoik wriggle’ move every few minutes, we decided, was a) a pain & b) simply not alluring.  So sufficient have I been in my resolve to ban strapless bras, my brain now simply edits out any items requiring anything other than a standard bra before I even enter the changing room.  The saddest part of all this is that I don’t even miss such skimpy tops, halterneck & boob tube-esque numbers.

5) Social arrangements regularly involve breakfast & always require a diary.

I’m not exactly sure when exactly this moment occurred, but at some point in the last couple of years, breakfast has suddenly become a reasonable time of day to meet up with people.  Hangovers &/or new boyfriends no longer rule any time before 12pm on a Saturday or Sunday out of the equation for when to get together.

Around the same time as ‘breakfast = feasible time for socialising’ occurred, the diary phenomena also emerged.  Even with closest friends, diaries are required to figure out when the next meeting can be arranged.  If you haven’t got your diary with you then you dare not make any definite plans.  Want to meet up on a weekday evening?  A slot about three weeks later can usually be found.  Want to meet up on a weekend?  This requires around three months of planning – & even then it’s likely to be for breakfast.

6) The only current hits you know are familiar thanks to secondary activities.

Despite vowing to never be like our parents & become totally unfamiliar with the music charts, it seems that after a certain point, we only know current songs because we have heard them through some secondary means.  Ie, we stop saying ‘Oh yes, I heard it on MTV/Top of the Pops/the Chart Show’ & start saying ‘Oh, I think I’ve heard this in the gym/at my exercise class/in a shop/in the dentist’s chair’. 

7) ‘Last time around’ includes clothing you can remember wearing.

This moment was truly frightening.  Topshop, Saturday afternoon: I spy some oversize shirts.  First thought: ‘Ooo, they’re lovely.  I could wear them with leggings’.  Second thought: ‘Oh ****, I wore them with leggings circa 1990’.  Third thought: ‘Oh **** & double ****, no-one else within a five-metre radius of me was even born in 1990’.

On the bright side, I dug out my 1990 oversize shirt (complete with ruffle, just like some of the Topshop new season collection).  I have changed the buttons & it’s ready to wear. 

Advantage *1 of ageing: you no longer have to always buy vintage, you can just dig it out of the back of your own wardrobe.

Bridget Jones v Superwoman

I will: ‘Purge flat of all extraneous matter…Eat more pulses…Get up straight away when wake up in mornings…Put photographs in photograph albums’.    

This list reads so much like my own to-do list at any given moment that I laughed out loud.  The examples are not actually my own, but from the New Year’s resolutions list in Bridget Jones’s Diary, which I recently bought from a charity shop.  I hadn’t read this in years & had forgotten how funny & identifiable it is.  I think I abandoned my love of Bridget when the second film came out as I get so annoyed by media debates about her & what she represents.  It always seemed clear to me that she is not an icon to whom we all aspire or want to emulate; on the contrary, women seem to identify with her because she is like all our weaknesses, foibles & neuroses in one condensed package – all the things we think but never dare to admit because we are too busy trying to be modern, successful superwomen with perfect lives. 

On Saturday, I went for breakfast with a friend (an event with more overtones of Sex & the City than Bridget Jones).  At one point, my friend mentioned a comment her boyfriend had made, asking her why she beats herself up so much over most of the things that she does.  At the time I didn’t think much of it, but afterwards it struck me that this comment rang so true with a number of my recent blog posts: I am clearly not alone in pressurising myself about many (or indeed all) aspects of my life. 

The socio-cultural factors behind this enormous pressure to be some kind of superwoman are manifold.  I also know that my quest to create a life of my own adds a further pressure.  I spend a lot of time – perhaps too much – thinking about life & what I want to achieve, how I want to live etc.  Most of the time the effects of all this ruminating are wholly positive, helping me to achieve my best, fulfil my potential & live a happier & more authentic life.  But it is a very fine line between aspiring to my best life & aspiring to a perfect life. 

Perfect is impossible.  It doesn’t exist & striving for perfection only leaves me disappointed & feeling like a failure.  As my four-year old nephew once lamented, ‘It’s hard to be good all the time’, & when I don’t live up to my own admittedly high standards & expectations, my sense of self-worth takes a real bruising.  Like on Saturday: I had a really lovely evening with some friends that I hadn’t seen in a long time & ended up drinking a bit too much wine.  The remorse & even guilt that I am left with because I drank more than I would have ideally liked is totally disproportionate to the event in question.  I feel I have let myself down.  Down from what?  Being perfect, I suppose.     

But at least, unlike Bridget Jones, I already have all my photographs in albums.

For my birthday last year, some friends – a married couple – bought me a book of patterns for making knitted cakes.  At the time, I oohed & aahed over the yummy looking creations but doubted my own skills in being able to produce such items.  I just didn’t feel that I was good enough at knitting to even have a go.

Fast forward twelve months, et voila!  The photographs show the two pieces of chocolate gateau that I have made for their forthcoming birthdays, complete with the tea & coffee cups I’ve picked up to accompany them (I’m also including a box of fancy teabags & some freshly ground coffee beans, although I’m tempted to keep the latter – their aroma is lovely every time I open my cupboard!). 

While I’m over the moon with the results of the cakes, what pleases me most is their symbolism.  They represent a huge leap forward in terms of my crafting skills, the product of many happy hours working both on them & earlier, simpler projects.  They represent a creativity that I had longed for but never realised I was capable of.  They represent so much change in my life: from a time when I felt lost & empty & desperate to just live in a different way to a time when I can make things for people & they like & use & enjoy them (admittedly there is perhaps little use for knitted cakes, but I hope they’ll make them smile!).

…..

Last week, during the Race for Life, I watched the runners & joggers passing our motley group of walkers with slight envy.  Although I enjoyed the camarderie of our venture, I felt saddened by the thought that I could no way have run the 10km even if I had wanted to.  Looking through a chest of old photographs trying to find the image of my dad & Uncle Paul running in the early 1980s (the image that I wore on my t-shirt at the race), I also felt saddened by the various photographs of me over the last ten years or so.  What struck me about them all was that each one showed a time when I was engaged in some kind of battle with my body.  Since leaving school, I have almost constantly been trying to lose weight or trying to get fit or both.  And I have never succeeded.  Sure, I have achieved my goals on many occasions: hit a certain weight; run a certain distance in a certain time etc.  But I have never felt the way that I want to feel about my body. 

I want to feel strong.  I don’t mean body-builder strong, I mean strong in the way that lower weight boxers look when skipping.  This realisation – strength not skinny – was a revelation to me, explaining why getting thinner had always been a disappointment, not delivering the feeling that I had expected.  I’m sure there are many pop-psychology explanations as to what drives this desire, some of which stem from my experience of being a woman in late C20th & early C21st century Western society, some of which arise from more specifically personal experiences.  One thing is for certain: despite this realisation (which struck me on a rainy night on a train arriving into Manchester Piccadilly during the early days after my breakdwon), I have never really done anything about it.  There have been a few half-hearted exercise classes, a few weights sessions in a gym, but nothing consistent or committed.  In all honesty, I am scared that I can’t do it.  I am scared that I don’t have the mental strength to develop the kind of physical strength that I long for. 

But, ironically enough, cake has inspired me to think about fitness.  I am looking at the two parcels a few feet away from me, parcels containing the knitted gateau.  Twelve months ago, I didn’t think I could knit cakes.  Now I can.  I did it.  In twelve months time, I am going to run the Race for Life.  I can do it.  I will do it.

Yesterday was my birthday. I was 28. I had a really special weekend & a lovely time on the day itself too. Yet when a friend asked me this evening ‘What did you do for your birthday?’, I said ‘Oh nothing really’. Why? Well, I’ve just written a really long & elaborate response to this: about how I always feel the pressure to ‘do’ something for my birthday (Not had a mammoth night out or a weekend away or spent tons of cash on some pre-packaged experience? What kind of loser are you?); the way I feel I need to prove my popularity & self worth by organising some kind of social event (‘Look, I do have friends!’); my general ambivalence towards the occasion (the tension between wanting to celebrate in some way but not to make a fuss or place demands upon others); the absolute loveliness of the previous three days & the various things that have stood out from that time (a day trip to somewhere I’ve always wanted to visit, a meal with my parents, visits from friends & family who live nearby, many lovely cards & gifts, many other moments of connection). Then I deleted the lot. On purpose. The post lost the spirit of my birthday. I didn’t organise or plan any of things that happened – they were all spontaneous or last minute decisions. In contrast, the post felt contrived. It didn’t capture the simplicity, the beauty, the love, the authenticity that I have been feeling. I have truly had a birthday of my own.