Regrets

different flavours ice creams on the waffle cone

If I had my life to live over…
I’d dare to make more mistakes next time.
I’d relax. I would limber up.
I would be sillier than I have been this trip.
I would take more chances.
I would climb more mountains
and swim more rivers.
I would eat more ice cream and less beans…
If I had to do it again, I would
travel lighter than I have…
I would start barefoot earlier in the spring
and stay that way later into the fall (autumn).
I would go to more dances.
I would ride more merry-go-rounds.
I would pick more daisies…

Just sometimes, don’t you come across a poem or a poster that stops you in your tracks? That happened to me, lately, in the most unlikely setting (an Anglian Water team event in Ipswich, actually, where I happened to be a guest speaker).

Once I’d got past the cheese-y typography of this A4 sheet in their wellbeing zone, it really got me thinking about my life. (Whew. Deep stuff.) And it touched so many nerves, with me. First off, silliness. I definitely haven’t been silly enough. I’ve worried about what people would think if I skipped down the street (which I do sometimes think of doing), and I really wish I hadn’t bowed to crowd-sourced opinion lately about a grey felt hat with wolf ears, which got shouted down by my friends. (I might check out Etsy to see if it’s still available, actually.) I think the reason most of us like hanging out with kids is that we get to be silly without people staring – but it probably would make the world a happier place if we all relaxed (see Line Three) and let loose.

The barefoot thing definitely resonates. It’s only in the last 18 months that I’ve discovered the joys of going barefoot, with its wonderful earthing and grounding power. I’ll never get back all those years I spent walking beside my barefoot husband (as ever, the pioneer), my feet encased in sandals or trainers when I could’ve enjoyed toe liberation and the pleasure of foot dew-baths. Not long ago, we walked seven miles over Beachy Head barefoot. We were definitely the only tourists walking barefoot around the walls of Dubrovnik, recently, beautifully smooth, warm stone underfoot. Better late than never, but I do definitely regret the ‘shoe years’. (There’s a lot on that list that relates to not worrying about what other people think of us, actually. One of the reasons I love my husband is that he really doesn’t give a damn what other people think – and I need to learn from him, there.)

I only properly climbed a mountain a few years ago – and had never realised how triumphant it feels at the top (well, it was a foothill of the Himalayas, but it was still a mountain-top), having overcome a) my fear of heights and b) the overwhelming urge to turn round and go back down because it was just so, so hard, and scary, and my thighs were screaming so loudly in protest I was pretty sure they could hear them in Pakistan. Interestingly, my reward – apart from the view – was that something happened exponentially to my fitness on that one climb with the result that I find it so much easier to climb hills and even walk up escalators out of choice, now. So: another thing on that list which I totally agree with. More mountains.

Part of that poster’s message is about being more daring. Not just doing the same-old-same-old, but taking some risks. Trying different things. Travelling to places new. I was a bit of a scaredy-cat, as a young woman. Not so much, now – and life’s so much richer, as a result. I’ve a way to go before I voluntarily abseil down a cliff, but I can see that possibly, just possibly, I could rise to that challenge – and I can also envision the elation afterwards.

But most importantly, it’s about not having regrets. I often see people quoted, late in life, saying: ‘It’s not the things I did that I regret. It’s the things that I didn’t do.’ On a travel level, if I don’t get to Rajasthan, I’m really going to regret that. (Note to self: start researching that trip, and stop worrying about dying in a collision with a sacred cow on a road between Udaipur and Jodhpur.)

I’ve got a friend who’s basically been on a diet for all the years I’ve known her. For all that time, her weight has see-sawed – and she’s never knowingly enjoyed a guilt-free meal, at least not one I’ve shared with her. And I think she’s really beginning to regret it, since she’s fundamentally the same size as when we first met, but hasn’t ever allowed herself truly to enjoy food.

Food! Sustenance! Potentially the source of so much joy…! And I certainly don’t want to be someone who feels bad about having a generous slice of cake or a celebratory glass of champagne, and allowing myself small pleasures. (On which note: the ‘I would eat more ice cream’ line is pretty redundant, in my case. My ice cream quotient’s right up there, frankly, and I don’t regret a single lick.)

Above all, it’s about not having regrets about spending time with the people who matter to us, too. Small (daisy chain-loving) children, who become teenagers before you know it, and then drift away to university or get married and/or have babies, so that the only time you really can be sure of seeing them is when they come home for Christmas or to retrieve possessions from what was once your garage but is now a free storage unit, because at least it means you’ll see them when they do.

Friends, far and near. One of my big regrets is that recently, a team of my friends got together to cook for another mutual friend who was very sick, spending an hour over lunch with her in turn while feeding her delicious food. I was too busy to join the rota (I really was, but I should have juggled something). Well, the friend died. We’ll never get that time together, and that’s a regret which will always be a nagging, dull ache. (Another note to self: book that trip to Hay-on-Wye to catch-up with a really good, really old mate who I’ve been promising to visit for a decade, now. And haven’t got round to it.)

The bottom line is that in a world of social media and obsession with ‘likes’ and ghastly news on the TV and doom and gloom in newspapers, when everyone’s walking down the road looking at their phones and there are so very many small distractions to gobble up our days, I think we need to remind ourselves constantly what really and truly matters in life. For me, those few lines really made me check in with myself – and I’ve printed it out for my office wall, to act as a daily nudge in the direction of what really matters. Merry-go-rounds, daisies and all.

I reckon we probably all need to think about the things we’d put on a list like that of our own. I wonder: what would yours say…? And more importantly, what are you going to do about it, starting right now…?

Why You Should Channel ‘Young-Old’

decorative script writing of "forever young at heart" in white on black

One of the most inspiring features I’ve read recently was an interview with Ali McGraw in the Telegraph. Actually, if I’m really honest, what was really compelling was how brightly the very brilliant whites of her eyes shone. Here was the visibly lined face of an 80-year-old but by God did she look as if she was having fun.

This is how I want to be, I said to myself tearing it out to stick somewhere. I wrote a year ago about hoping to find the grace to embrace ageing with acceptance and dollops of humour. The big 5-0 is no longer a gazillion miles off. It’s an age when many ‘getting old’ statistics begin and yet for a good many of us, who are more aware of exercise and eating well, we might –who knows- only be half-way through our lives. I know everyone feels 27 on the inside but many of us feel younger on the outside too.

It’s certainly how the Dutch man, 69-year-old Emile Ratelband felt. In 2018, Ratelband told a court in Arnhem in the Netherlands that he did not feel ‘comfortable’ with his official chronological age, which did not reflect his emotional state – and was preventing him from finding work, or love online. Doctors had told him that his body was that of a 45-year-old and he wanted to change his date of birth accordingly. Ratelband compared his quest to be identified as younger with that of people who wish to be identified as transgender – implying that age should be fluid.

It’s an anecdote that the journalist, former head of the Downing Street policy unit who sits in the House of Lords, Camilla Cavendish recounts in the opening chapter of her (must-read book), Extra Time which she wrote to challenge our notions of ageing. Its title, Extra Time will of course be familiar to football fans, a point in a match when there is “everything still to play for”. It is also a period when many ‘elderly’ are just getting their second wind.

In 2017, Cavendish reported that entrepreneurs are more likely to employ people over 50 in UK start ups than the under 50s. In the US, 55-65 year olds are 65 per cent more likely to start a business than 20-34 year olds. “It’s not old age that gets longer, it’s middle age, “Cavendish insists…”we need to stop lumping everyone from 60 to 100 together and accept it’s normal to be vibrant and capable in your 70s.”

There is, as Professor Marting Green, CEO of Care England says in her book, “ a casualness of ageism, people say things they would never say if the word “old” was replaced by gay or black.” Language clearly matters.

Her book is also a thoughtful exploration of what different countries are doing to build a world of extra time. She meets many “rebels against fate” who are refusing to dress demurely, stop work or be carted off to care homes. By 2020, for the first time in history, there will be more people on the planet who are over 65 than who are under 5: that’s more grandparents than grandchildren.

Japan, she reports is the one of the few countries that has begun to effectively address the ageing population. But even more than that, it has identified that some of us are what the Japanese call “Young-old at 80” while others are “old-old at 65”. But what sort of mindset does it take to be a young old?

For anyone interested in outlier communities in the world, where people live far longer than average they may want to watch Dan Buettner’s TED talk on how to live to 100 plus. Buettner is an explorer, author and founder of the company, Blue Zones which specialises in understanding longevity and what makes for a meaningful life. Okinawa at the Southern end of Japan is one of the world’s blue zones which has the highest rates of centenarians. Central to Okinawans’s way of living is Ikigai, a Japanese word which translates as “reason for being”. It is quite literally your purpose, the reason you get out of bed every morning, the thing that puts a spring in your step. It is a fusion of the practical and spiritual which connects work, family, duty and passion.

When half of all 75-year-olds acknowledge that TV is their main form of company in Britain, something has gone disastrously wrong says Cavendish. So how to put this right?

Finding this sense of purpose will naturally differ for all of us: learning new skills, taking up a language or an instrument, a foot out of our comfort zone, caring for grandchildren or elderly parents, giving back to our communities or blossoming in a new career.

Many retired people have a sense of falling off a cliff floundering to find themselves, even if they initially welcomed more leisure time. People who have climbed every ladder in life presented, bravely meeting challenges along the way, suddenly find themselves with no more rungs to climb and no compass. Their biggest fear is not being relevant.

What else helps you be more young-old? Regular exercise, enough sleep and (ideally) a plant based diet are recognised as a boon for cognitive health but so too is nurturing social contacts – our community is key – and challenging your brain.

One of the most interesting sets ups that Cavendish comes across is the age diverse, cross-class village in the Netherlands where older people are not socially isolated. At the Humanitas Deventer retirement home, six students live with 160 elderly people aged between 79 and 100. They receive rent free accommodation in return for spending 30 hours a month with the residents: helping with chores, giving computer lessons or just making conversation.

The elderly residents come to life hearing about the students’ exams and relationships; they especially love dissecting the events the morning after. This is a place where real relationships are forged, not a token activity such as when school children come to visit to sing a song, but where deeper friendships which develop over time. The more time that Cavendish spends here, the more she reflects that if you aren’t treated as old- as somehow apart from everyone else – you probably won’t feel as old.

It’s a choice to be young-old. A choice which hopefully comes with many pleasing consequences. Ali McGraw chose that path with a later life filled with Pilates, yoga, rescue animals and community work. What else do we need to remember? That age does not define us but it is our very personal set of passions, dislikes, interests and network of complex human relationships which do.

Owning The Room

Golden three tiered stage with lights and confetti

If you’d told me as a young woman that one day, I would be able to stand in front of an audience of 14,500 women, deliver a keynote speech and love every single minute of the experience, I’d have laughed in your face.

Public speaking? I’d honestly rather have run a 10k – in the opposite direction (away from that podium), at that point. And anyone who knows me, knows how much I hate running… Like most people, I found the idea of standing in front of any kind of audience heart-stoppingly terrifying. I was that creature with palpitations, clammy hands, a lump in my throat, suffering stage fright at having to stand up in front of any kind of audience beyond my nearest and dearest. Read More…

On Not Giving A Damn What People Think

on-not-giving-a-damn-what-people-think

I grew up with a grandmother who cared a lot about what people thought of her. She was a wonderful woman – incredibly generous, pillar of the various communities where she lived, from India to Malaya to New York and finally, the Cotswolds. But in all the years I knew her, I don’t think she ever truly relaxed – to the point I’m not sure I actually did know the ‘real’ her. Read More…

Why We Need To Stop Worrying!

seize the day

‘The things we worry about are mostly the things that never happen”

Who doesn’t like a life maxim? Admittedly the myriad ways exhorting us to Carpe Diem on Instagram can get a little nauseating. You won’t catch me adding ‘#blessed’ to a post any time soon, but generally, my guilty pleasure is  positive nuggets and the wisdom they impart. It was however, the above choice words from the the writer Lucia Van der Post which really made me sit up and think. They are the words which have had the most profound impact on how I live my life on a day to day basis.

I’d never really thought of the pointlessness of my worrying before. I ran through all the things I spent my life worrying about, the various different outcomes to the many “problems” I felt I had (NB, I use the word “problems” loosely here).  Even when there was nothing to worry about, I would be worrying about not worrying. I KNOW!! Read More…