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MIDLIFE MUSINGS: “You’ll laugh so hard your lashes will curl all by themselves” – Felicia in Priscilla Queen of the Desert

Recently I stepped out of my comfort zone and into an audition. It was for a part in The Dunmow Players’ upcoming Priscilla Queen of the Desert. I figured, as I’ve never been on stage before, my debut performance may as well be in a completely outrageous and spectacular show such as this, wearing vivid costumes and being surrounded by drag queens and frankly quite filthy jokes (seriously, the title of this column is pretty much the only quote I could use!). Well, I’m 50 now. I can do what I want.

Even as part of the chorus I’ll get to wear some stunning costumes and sing anthems from the ‘80s. But the part I chose to audition for isn’t at all glamorous – she’s Shirley, a jaded, cranky waitress with a mullet (oh joy!) who’s lamenting her tired romance and reminiscing about a time when she was having more fun. “I want to go where the people dance!” she croons. So, armed with decades of watching Neighbours under my belt and a bit of singing practise in the bath, I went in there and sang my best Dame Edna meets Bonny Tyler, was told to try again but this time without smiling, and the next morning was offered the part. I can’t tell you how good it felt and how brilliant is to be part of this theatre group – it’s really put a spring in my step. “You don’t stop laughing because you grow older. You grow older because you stop laughing”, said Maurice Chevalier.

In popular psychology terms the expression ‘comfort zone’ is also bit of a relic of the ‘80s, but, like us mid-lifers, just because it’s a bit dated doesn’t mean it’s (we’re) not still relevant. While staying within our comfort zone keeps us safe and minimises stress, when we do bravely creep out of it we create just enough anxiety to get our blood pumping a bit faster and the synapses in our brain to light up a bit brighter – we’re not sure what’s going to happen or how we’re going to react, so we’re on high alert. A little anxiety can help us perform at our peak, make us more creative and – totally the best bit – keep us young, too.

As children, we’re natural risk-takers. But as we get older and learn to fear failure, we start holding ourselves back and attempting fewer new things. Furthermore, according to a Huffpost article, ‘6 reasons to step outside our comfort zone’, this means that comfort zones shrink – things we were doing only ten years ago can now seem daunting. But – and here’s the good news – if we keep pushing against it and taking deep breaths and going for it, we open ourselves up to greater fulfilment and improved wellbeing as we age – embracing new challenges keeps us mentally sharper, too.

So, ok, singing in front of a panel of six for a local am-dram may not be quite on the same level as skydiving or trekking through the Himalayas, but it was enough to quicken my heart rate a little, and that is just the start of it – apparently I now have to actually perform on stage as well. Actually, I can’t wait. As Charles Dickens said, “To a young heart, everything is fun”.

 

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MY MOMENTOUS MAY MIDLIFE MUSINGS: “If you haven’t grown up by age 50, you don’t have to” – Anon

My friends, this month I shall be fifty. As Dandy Dan says in Bugsy Malone, “Ok gang. This is the big one.” Yes Boss. It’s the big Five Oh. On 5th May, I shall be officially Older and Wiser. I’ll have it all sorted. If you see me and think I appear to have an air of natural authority and wisdom, that’s why. I may start walking around local towns and villages of a Sunday, perhaps wearing a fedora, wellies, and something purple and flowy, while imparting advice and wisdom indiscriminately to a grateful younger generation. You know, to give something back.

The trouble is, it’s probably a little optimistic to call this ‘midlife’ now. So I may have to rename this column in acknowledgement of my new-found insight and serenity. Perhaps I should start calling my column Wise Wonderings to reflect this prestigious achievement. Or Momentary Musings (if I can get my ideas down before I forget them, although Momentary Mumblings would probably be more appropriate).

Truth be told, I’m not sure how to mark this significant juncture. Last year I had big plans brewing, but what happened was that life sort of went on – quite rudely – as if everything was normal, and I ended up being too busy to organise it. So as it stands right now I have no plans at all. At this rate I’ll end up watching reruns of Friends and drinking cheap fizz all on my own (which doesn’t actually sound too bad, thinking about it. Perhaps hot chocolate would be better though).

So all I have to say is, here we are, doing life, and at any point – 50, 42, 66, 28 – we can take a snapshot and think, this is what I’m doing at the moment, and this is how I am at the moment, and it is what it is. Take it or leave it baby. Whatever age we are, we can stand at the top of our sunny, daisy-laden hill and look behind us at the incredible view that is our past, and squint forwards at a perhaps hazy view that is our future, and check out all the paths and brambles and barbed wire fences and cornfields and oak trees and trickling springs and work out which path we fancy taking.

And so I shall sit atop the comfort of my hillock for a while, in my purple flowy dress, holding on to my hat, and take stock, before tentatively continuing along a path which I can only hope will be the really long way down, winding around new lakes and brambles and barbed wire fences and cornfields and oak trees and trickling springs and new adventures. As Agatha Christie said, ‘I have enjoyed greatly the second blooming … suddenly you find – at the age of 50, say – that a whole new life has opened before you’.

jen@jennifermilesdavis.com

MIDLIFE MUSINGS: “To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan and not quite enough time” ― Leonard Bernstein

By Jennifer Miles Davis
 

As someone who gets a little overenthusiastic about things, is quite spontaneous, and not all that good at saying no, I have managed to get myself into a pickle. I have too much to do and my head is spinning. I know we’re all busy, and I’m not trying to win the who’s busiest competition, but suddenly, Everything needs to be done immediately, or at least yesterday.

It’s not supposed to be like this. I imagine my day to start with a little light yoga and some muesli, before waving the cheeky but loveable children off to school with a spring in their step (preferably deep in discussion about how there should be more investment in the arts). Then I’d spritz and flurry a duster around my already quite clean and tidy house, before making myself a delicious coffee with freshly ground beans, taking it into my minimalist-with-a-little-homely-clutter office, responding wittily to a few essential emails, and then settling down to work on one of my rewarding and meaningful but modestly-paid projects.

At a Mental Health First Aid training course delivered by Mind that I recently attended (which taught us how to respond to and help people who are having a mental health crisis, just as we would if they needed physical first aid), they used the analogy of the stress bucket. We all have stuff to do and things to worry about and families to feed and money to earn, and stress is a normal part of everyday life – in fact we wouldn’t get very far without it. But if we have too much going on, our bucket overflows, which means trouble. As stress is the foremost cause of mental ill-health, it’s essential to be aware of our trigger points and take action before things go horribly wrong. Stress can, among other things, make us irritable, aggressive, impatient, depressed, overburdened, or anxious. It can lead to an inability to concentrate, a tendency to avoid certain situations or people, over- or under-eating, or self-medicating with drugs or alcohol. All of which of course can result in health issues, insomnia, fatigue, relationship problems, and an inability to cope with the everyday stuff. And so the cycle goes on, which ain’t pretty. 

Knowing that our stress bucket will overflow at times, being mindful of and prepared for what might tip us over the edge, and working out how to prevent it in the first place, is powerful. It’s taking back control when you feel that things are controlling you. The Mind website says: “Looking after wellbeing – developing emotional resilience – is the ability to adapt and bounce back when something difficult happens in your life.” Ways of keeping a lid on the stress bucket could be as simple as going out for a cuppa with a friend, getting out for some fresh air, or watching a film – anything that gets the heart rate down and the endorphins up.

Certain types of stress, such as a looming deadline, ensures we get the job done and keeps us productive. It’s helpful to identify which elements in our stress bucket are useful to us, and out of the non-helpful ones, which we can resolve and which we just have to put up with. Mentally or even physically categorising our stress factors helps put them into perspective and reduce our anxiety around them. Perhaps we could empty them into cute little colour-coordinated stress buckets, with labels on. Then we can go from thinking ‘AAARGH I’VE TOO MUCH TO DO!!!’ to thinking ‘ok well that’s a work thing so I’ll tackle that in the morning, that’s something I can’t change so I’ll just roll with it baby, and that thing there is really annoying me but I need to talk to x first. So for now, the best thing I can do is watch some trashy telly and have a beer’. 

They say that it isn’t about what life throws at you but about how you deal with it, and it seems that the more you get the more you can handle. Research by Professor Seery at UCLA, cited in Psychology Today, discovered that people who had experienced adversity in their lifetime reported better mental health and well-being than those who had experienced none. I guess we’re more able to recognise and appreciate the good times when we’ve had been put through the bad. So, breathe, embrace, prioritise, and plough on. You can do this! As Seery says, “In moderation, whatever does not kill us may indeed make us stronger”.
Thank you for your messages – keep them coming! Contact me on jen@jennifermilesdavis.com or comment below.  

MIDLIFE MUSINGS: “You’re just a kid, you don’t have the faintest idea what you’re talkin’ about” – Sean in Good Will Hunting

By Jennifer Miles Davis

Recently I found myself in the tediously familiar position of defending my daughter. Because she doodles. If I were to use emoticons in this column there would be a lot of rolling eyes. Doodling, it seems, is synonymous with laziness, daydreaming and not paying attention. How dare students disrespectfully draw pictures while scintillating and absorbing lessons are being taught?!

I distinctly remember her very first parents’ evening at secondary school, where the heinous crime of doodling was mentioned by pretty much every subject teacher. “I’m guessing she likes art!” quipped the maths teacher. (Eye roll.) Over the years, having been brainwashed that doodling is bad, she reined it in. But occasionally the compulsion would overcome her and cartoons would mysteriously appear in the margins of books. In the end, sadly, the problem was driven underground, which came to light when a secret notebook full of doodles was discovered in her blazer pocket. 

So there we were, discussing my daughter’s future*, when the teacher leaned across the desk intently to deliver some solemn news. “I’ve noticed that sometimes she doodles in class,” he said. He sat back, nodding gravely, and a little smugly. Shocked and mortified, we looked at our daughter, who had bowed her head in shame. He then dispensed another crushing blow. “I’ve also received reports about the same thing. From another teacher.” What could we say? Caught doodling not once but twice! How mortifying! Why can’t she be like normal sixth formers, and slope off during break to smoke weed, for goodness sakes?

For forever, doodling has been thought of as an idle and mindless activity and a distraction from the Real Work of learning. But – who’da thought it? Research has shown that doodling helps the brain to process information – particularly that imparted through talking (e.g., teaching). In a psychological experiment published in Applied Cognitive Psychology, Professor Jackie Andrade from Plymouth University discovered that doodling while listening increases attention and memory by almost 30 percent. The theory behind this is that it is mindless enough not to cause “cognitive overload” but just stimulating enough to prevent daydreaming, which is detrimental to concentration because the mind wanders off too far and uses up too much of the brain’s processing power until before you know it … Ooh! Squirrel!

This is exactly how one student responded when questioned about doodling in class. “It keeps me in the room and helps me to concentrate,” she said. “Otherwise I would lose focus.” Jesse Prinz, a philosophy professor at City University in New York, says doodling keeps people in a state of “pure listening”. “Doodling helps hit that sweet spot between listening too much and listening too little,” he told HuffPost. “It keeps you in a state where your mind can’t wander, and your mind also can’t reflect or think more deeply about what you’re hearing.” 

As Sunni Brown, leader of “The Doodle Revolution – a global campaign for visual literacy”, says in her TED talk, “the doodle has never been the nemesis of intellectual thought. In reality, it is one of its greatest allies.”

So there, Mr Teacher, how do you like them apples?
* This is a completely fabricated version of events.

Contact me: jen@jennifermilesdavis.com

 

 

MIDLIFE MUSINGS: “Life itself is the most wonderful fairy tale” – Hans Christian Andersen

By Jennifer Miles Davis

In around 1850, a handsome Danish sailor set sail for England on a flour boat. They docked in Bristol, and on his meanderings he met a pretty local girl with a twinkle in her eye. Smitten, he jumped ship and married her. They were my great great grandparents.

Being a sixteenth Danish may well be why I love Danish pastries, and could explain why I am equally smitten with the philosophy of hygge, the Danish art of being cosy. Hygge (sort of pronounced ‘huurgga’), is essentially the philosophy of snuggling up in front of a fire with candles, blankets, and a good book. (I’m pretty sure I invented that.) It also involves making good, heartwarming food to eat with family; having friends over for mulled wine; or going for a wintery walk wrapped in coats and scarves and ending up in a country pub. It is, then, simple, wholesome, nourishing, and warming.

It is thought, perhaps romantically, that hygge might be the origin of the English word ‘hug’ – now obsolete meaning of ‘hug’ is “to cherish oneself; to keep or make oneself snug”. In Denmark, hygge is so embedded within the culture that the language itself is peppered with it. “You hear hygge being talked about all the time,” says Meik Wiking, CEO of The Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen. “We talk about hygge things coming up that we’re looking forward to; we point out when something hygge is happening right now; then we like to talk about what a great ‘hyggelit’ (hygge-like) time we’ve had afterwards.” I reckon Wiking must have a very hyggelit life, being in charge of happiness research in the happiest country in the world.

Fundamental to the design of Hygge-ness is the lighting. Hygge is an antidote to the cold, dark winter; a survival strategy that stems from the need to overcome the dearth of natural light from October to March. But rather than overcompensating with bright shiny sun-replacements, The Danes go for the low, gentle glow of candles and firelight, enhanced by strategically placed lamps creating soothing pools of light. Brightness levels approaching a sunset is “your hygge sweet spot”, says Wiking in his book The Little Book of Hygge.

But hygge is more than just lighting a few candles and putting a scarf on – it is an artform – a way of being – that penetrates the Danish culture. Danes are less materialistic the other nations and appreciate the simple things in life. They place importance on looking after themselves and each other, which leads to better mental health and greater life satisfaction. “Allowing ourselves some hygge time to boost our own wellbeing leaves us better placed to contribute and help others,” explains Dr Mark Williamson, Director of Action for Happiness.

Well, I don’t need any encouragement. I love the romance of winter, and will be embracing it for as long as possible. As Lewis Carroll wrote in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, “I wonder if the snow loves the trees and fields, that it kisses them so gently? And then it covers them up snug, you know, with a white quilt; and perhaps it says, ‘Go to sleep, darlings, till the summer comes again’.” So, my friends, come on over, take a seat by the fire, here’s a glass of something warming and spicy, and here’s to a Hyggelit New Year!


Email: jen@jennifermilesdavis.com

MIDLIFE MUSINGS: “Life is full of misery, loneliness, and suffering – and it’s all over much too soon” – Woody Allen

December 2016

 

Sometimes it seems that everything is chugging along quite nicely and everyone is reasonably happy, there is even food in the fridge and the promise of a weekend away coming up, and you are managing the everyday pressures of life really quite admirably, and even getting the laundry done as well, and then out of the blue everything changes. I don’t mean a life-changing disaster, but lots of smaller, irritating, unnecessary, upsetting glitches hitting you all at once, and then – bam – there you are, a confounded, hurt, troubled insomniac, wondering if there’s an all night gin bar close to hand.

 

My dad has always joked that he’d like to live on a hill with just a goat for company, and sometimes I know exactly what he means. When I’m feeling emotionally overwhelmed I naturally retreat into hermitness for a while ­– a well-practiced self-preservation technique. The hope is that I emerge having reevaluated my priorities and identified exactly what is important and on who and what to focus my energy.

 

I was slightly perturbed but not surprised to read that we experience a peak in loneliness in our fifties. There is no research to explain exactly why, but my best guess would be that we are crazy busy with children and/or careers and the associated social stuff in our thirties and forties. Perhaps as we slide surreptitiously into the second half of our lives, with our children (hopefully) conveniently well on their way to independence, we become more discerning – realizing that we are jaded by our thirty-year-long careers and that, actually, we no longer relate to the people we’ve been hanging out with all this time.

 

But however attractive hermitness sometimes seems, we are essentially social beings, and a pang of loneliness is proof that our innate search for connection is intact. In caveman days, we needed something to make us reach out and be with other people, so that we were less likely to be eaten by wolves. And loneliness literally hurts – brain studies show that the same areas in the brain light up when you experience social pain as when you experience actual physical pain, just as it does when someone says or does something hurtful. According to psychologist Maike Luhmann, that pang of loneliness is a “biological warning system” that has evolved over millennia, alerting us to potentially dangerous levels of isolation.

 

Loneliness is often mentioned around Christmastime, and naturally we will all be taking care of each other. But loneliness can hit the unlikeliest of people at different times, whether or not they have families or live alone, or seem happy or not. Introverts genuinely enjoy being alone, as Mark Twain said, “The worst loneliness is to not be comfortable with yourself.” Others may look as if they’re having an amazing life but they may be fundamentally lonely among a sea of people. As Bob Dylan sang, Loneliness/Got a mind of its own/The more people around/The more you feel alone. We can’t invite everyone round for Christmas dinner, but it doesn’t hurt to bear this in mind, smile at a stranger, and just be kind.

MIDLIFE MUSINGS: “All I can do is be me, whoever that is” – Bob Dylan

November 2016

I may have mentioned a few times that one of my more infuriating qualities – if only to myself – is procrastination, and the reason I thought I’d mention this at the top is because I have just noticed that I have less than an hour to write my column before I head off to work in my new job.

But that’s ok, procrastination sits snugly within the basket of traits that make up my Jen-ness, alongside comfort eating, enjoying (a little too much, it could be argued) the Californication box sets I recently found on the telly, and quoting Bob Dylan (see below) not because it’s particularly relevant but because he’s just won the Nobel Prize for Literature and I think he’s very cool. I also have a tendency to take on new projects in an “oh look, there’s a squirrel!” kind of way (no, that wasn’t a Dylan quote), conveniently overlooking the fact that I have plenty of unfinished projects on the go already. I also hate saying no, for fear of letting people down, and am indecisive because I’m in a long-running mental dilemma over what I want vis-à-vis what’s best for everyone else.

These endearing/irritating, traits were brought to my attention recently by way of a personality profiling workshop. Having taken a tentative step in a different direction career-wise, I thought it would be fun to see if I am in fact suited to it. The workshop, run by Hazel Wright of Clarity4D, was organised through Pop Connect. The method used is along the same lines as other profilers in that it’s broadly based on the introvert–extrovert and thinking–feeling spectrums, but rather than identifying as one specific type you are given a range of ‘colours’ in varying degrees. “Whatever colors you have in your mind, I’ll show them to you and you’ll see them shine”, as Dylan sang.

Green (introverted–feeling), is easy-going and nurturing. Greens like to ‘check in’, to ask how you are, possibly with their heads tilted slightly to one side. They do sympathetic nods, and most likely will have just made you a cake. Yellows (extroverted–feeling) are really enthusiastic! because everything’s brilliant!, except when it’s amazing! and there’s always Prosecco in their fridge. Blues (introverted–thinking) are to be found writing lists and inventing time machines, and may forget to talk to you, and they will notice when IKEA don’t provide the correct number of knöbskrews. They are your go-to people for when the computer goes funny. Reds (extroverted–thinking) are busy running several countries at once and being magnetic and hilarious, and more than a little sexy and terrifying in equal measure.

What’s interesting about the Clarity4D method is that it’s fluid (which is like, so right-on these days). Not only can you be a combination of varying degrees of colours, but this itself can vary according to which way the wind is blowin’. You can be red hot at work but then make a delicious Sunday roast and cuddle up with the family wearing a green woolly hat and yoga pants. Or you can rein in your shiny and chaotic yellowness when you’re, say, a surgeon because you need to be serious, conscientious and methodical (blue), and ideally not drinking Prosecco. I’m mainly green and yellow but will quite comfortably pop on my blue hat for work, and very occasionally dare to be just the tiniest bit red. “I’m inconsistent, even to myself”, says Dylan. Although it’s tempting to identify as one particular personality type, we each have a peculiar combination of characteristics which are always a-changin’. Furthermore, we can, once we’ve worked out which version of us we want to be today, embellish the desirable ones and disown the disagreeable ones; hire or fire accordingly. As Dylan put it, “Be groovy or leave, man”.