MIDLIFE MUSINGS: “My own brain is the most unaccountable of machinery – always buzzing, humming, soaring roaring diving, and then buried in mud. And why? What’s this passion for?” – Virginia Woolf

October 2016

 

So, I’ve been for a couple of jogs. They were sort of mainly walks with running shoes on. I’m not following a strict regime or a motivational app. I don’t even listen to music. This is my version of mindfulness – listening to my breathing (for which read, rasping), waving to cows, and pausing in a field for yogic stretches. Once I actually hugged a tree, in pure relief, having told myself that I had to keep running ‘til I’d reached it. I do have a Fitbit, but it makes siren noises when my heart rate reaches two squillion or so, which apparently is a bit high.

After one jog I felt so amazing that I was driven to re-read the technical bits of Ruby Wax’s book Sane New World on brain chemicals. It’s fascinating! Exercise releases endorphins which are famous for reducing pain and stress. But they also, with the aid of dopamine, induce a euphoric feeling – similar to that produced by morphine – known as ‘runner’s high’. Pretty cool that I got runner’s high just by wobbling along the lane for half an hour. That’s why exercise is said to be the most effective treatment for depression.

There’s more! For example, when we kiss, our brain releases a heady cocktail of dopamine, oxytocin and serotonin. Wow! Serotonin, the happy shiny one, is a natural feel-good chemical. Dopamine, the bad boy, stimulates the same area of the brain as heroin and cocaine, and produces euphoria and addictive behaviour. And oxytocin, the love drug, fosters feelings of affection and nurturing. Wax says you can tell who has plenty of oxytocin because “in the queue of life they’re always at the back taking care of others”.

The thing is, feelings are not separate from the brain, they are determined by it. Feel free to roll your eyes and go ‘duh – obvs’, but I honestly think that we don’t always get that, and it is key to kicking the stigma of mental illness into touch. As Wax says, “I’ll say it again. Mental illness is a physical illness. Let us shout it from the rooftops until everyone gets the message; depression has nothing to do with having a bad day or being sad.”

I may sound like a born again neuroscientist (well, I’ve read a book!), but I think they should teach this in schools. To understand how the brain works is to understand how physical and chemical processes in the brain determine how we think and feel, and therefore how we can adjust that if it’s not quite firing properly. In basic terms, when neurotransmitters pass across the synapses repeatedly, the synapses change shape to make the process more efficient. This is the reason I can remember that six sixes are thirty six, all my friends’ home phone numbers from when we were 14, and how to ask for a kilo of strawberries in French. Explain to children what happens to their brains when they learn times tables and they might just think it’s ‘awesome’ enough to actually do it.

What’s more awesome is, we can determine which synapses to strengthen and which ones to let shrivel away – accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative, as the song goes. “I consider that a brain is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose” – Arthur Conan Doyle.

 

I’m available for writing and editing jobs. Contact me on jen@jennifermilesdavis.com.

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MIDLIFE MUSINGS: “If I could not walk far and fast, I think I should just explode and perish” – Charles Dickens

By Jennifer Miles Davis

Yes, yes, I know I wrote last month about the benefits of a technology-free holiday. You weren’t expecting me to stick to it, were you?! The irony was not lost on my greatest critics, the children, who reproached me at every opportunity when they spotted me sloping off to the wifi area of the campsite with my laptop under my arm. It’s for my Writing! I would respond, bumptiously. And Important Emails! And Designing! (For the new Dunmow Players Youth Theatre – see ad opposite!) Which is ultimately for YOUR BENEFIT! Anyway, I argued, I’m doing something I enjoy, which surely is allowed on holiday? (Huff. Secretly checks Facebook.)

In any case, there was plenty of time for the usual holiday stuff, including one of my favourite activities – daydreaming. I am a self-confessed staring into space junkie. That’s why I love train journeys and deckchairs, and any other daydreaming opportunities such as staring at tall trees. In one of my more enthusiastic daydreams, during which I was as usual contemplating my inconceivable beyond midlife-ness and the state of my health and wellbeing, I thought perhaps I should try combining my predilection for daydreaming with exercising – “All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking”, as Nietzsche tells us. Many great writers such as Stephen King head out for a walk every day before writing. This thought process led me to sign up for some out-of-character and rather ambitious exercisey-type things, aka running.

I think it’s the lure of the September ‘new term’ feel that has got the better of me. I’m not one to take things too seriously but I concede that it makes sense to get out more for a walk and maybe even a light jog, or perhaps a little skip if I’m feeling frisky. In truth this is partly prompted by the fact that in a recent quiz I found I have the same physique as an Olympic rugby sevens player, which would be impressive if I had even half the muscles to go with it.

Aside from the physical fitness aspects, it is well documented that exposure to natural environments has untold benefits to our mental health – and regular walks in fields or by the sea can go a long way towards reducing negative emotions and keeping depression at bay. (Don’t say this out loud, but even looking at nature through windows can reduce stress, enhance recovery from an illness, and improve mood.).

Furthermore, recent research published in the Body Image Journal suggests that regular encounters with the natural world also enhances self-esteem and produces a more positive appreciation of the body and one’s body image. This could be because when we get out and look up at the sky and towards the horizon, we feel a connectedness to nature, comprehend where we fit in as part of a larger ecosystem, and feel more fulfilled and rounded (no pun intended) and generally at one with the world.

So with that in mind, off I go. If you see me wandering about aimlessly, take pity, I could well be lost. As Ellen DeGeneres said: “My grandmother starting walking five miles a day when she was sixty. She’s ninety-seven now, and we don’t know where the heck she is”.

 

Midlife Musings is just for fun. In real life I copyedit academic journals and books, and write copy for brochures and websites. For further information email jen@jennifermilesdavis.com. Previous Midlife Musings can be found at jennifermilesdavis.wordpress.com.

 

 

MIDLIFE MUSINGS: “Boredom always precedes a period of great creativity” – Robert M Pirsig

 

OK, so that’s done. Another school year successfully completed – check. Time to file away the school books, stow away the uniforms, load up the car and head off to a campsite in the sun. This will be our third year of camping in France for our family holiday. (Actually ‘glamping’. This year our ‘tent’ has a bathroom.) We’d better make the most of it – Europe might not let us in next year.

A key item on the packing list is CHARGERS! Yes, it’s in capital letters, with an exclamation mark. Apparently we’ll need chargers for five mobiles, an iPad, three DSs, a PSP, a PS Vita, and probably several miscellaneous gadgets that I don’t even know about. We even have a special CHARGERS! bag for the car including the extra wire that plugs into the (what used to be a) cigarette lighter. All the little charger wires like to have their own summer dance party and get all tangled up minutes after we’ve set off. Usually, someone needs a charger to be untangled exactly at the moment when I’ve got a portable kitchen worktop on my knees and am halfway through making ‘baguettes three ways’ for lunch on the go.

But, something doesn’t quite feel right about this. I can’t quite put my finger on it. Ah yes – I know. WE’RE ON A FAMILY HOLIDAY! So, we shouldn’t really be playing on gadgets at all! There is beautiful scenery to look at and conversations to have. And maybe a singalong. (Of course, I’ll need my phone … for emergencies, checking bookings etc…)

The problem is we get a little twitchy about the idea that people might be bored on long car journeys and during the endlessly flowing days of summer. These days, our children’s time is so highly structured that they aren’t used to shuffling around wondering what to do. Having six weeks of freedom on their hands is unfamiliar and slightly daunting, and it’s all too easy to turn to electronic gadgets, television, and the seemingly endless YouTube videos of Stampy doing Minecraft. But shuffle and moan they must, because only then will they come up with their own crazy ideas of what they want to do – not just that day, but maybe even for life. Psychoanalyst Adam Phillips wrote in his book On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored: Psychoanalytic Essays on the Unexamined Life (fab title – must get it) that “the capacity to be bored can be a developmental achievement for the child”. Dr Teresa Belton, visiting fellow at the University of East Anglia with a focus on the connection between boredom and imagination, says that boredom is crucial for developing “internal stimulus” which then allows true creativity.

I am nostalgic for the hot summers of the late 1970s, when I pegged cardboard tabs to the back wheel of my bike so that it would sound like a motorbike when I cycled up and down the lane. That’s when I wasn’t riding an imaginary horse and talking like a cowboy and pretending to chew gum (I wasn’t allowed real gum), or sitting with my feet in a bucket of cold water in the garden reading Famous Five books, or taking the dog for a really long walk and getting just a little bit lost. There were no gadgets, and I was never bored.

So being bored leads to creativity. Give a child time to think and they’ll naturally come up with something, and that something could well shape their future. Meera Syal apparently spent hours of her childhood staring out of the window across fields and woods and eventually started writing, and Ed Sheeran’s parents banned television so he used to while away his time in his room strumming his guitar. As Keith Richards said “give me a guitar, give me a piano, give me a broom and string, I wouldn’t get bored anywhere”.

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MIDLIFE MUSINGS: “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” – Albert Einstein

If we look a little smug and relieved over here, please indulge us. Our first family GCSE mission has been accomplished, and there is a certain amount of deserved euphoria in the house. High five everyone! Group hug! Go us! It involved much proper hard work, chatting about history (actually properly fascinating! Who knew?!), bonding with Dad over trigonometry, and playing the piano. I didn’t force her to play the piano, you understand. I’m not quite that ‘Tiger Mom’. No, she chose the exam period to learn the theme music of The Imitation Game. (If only there was a GCSE in teach yourself piano via YouTube tutorials…) So, one down, two to go. Probably, we’ll be more relaxed for child two. Possibly, by child three, we won’t even realise it’s that time again and accidentally go on holiday.

I was interested to read recently that personality, intelligence and achievement may not be hereditary, as commonly thought, but due to parenting and environmental factors – in other words, nurture not nature. This is a little disconcerting when I recall how often I popped the kids in front of the telly when they were little, when I probably should have been doing alphabet puzzles. It also means that we can no longer blame Mad Aunt Ethel for our child’s propensity to daydream and doodle in maths lessons.

The reason for this current line of thinking is because after sixteen years of research on Human Genome Project, geneticists have yet to find any specific DNA variants that influence our psychology. While genes clearly influence physical traits such as wonky noses and dimples, there is no evidence that they determine how clever, funny or happy we are. Psychologist Oliver James, in his book Not In Your Genes, says that “the crucial ingredient that passes down the generations is not genes but patterns of nurture”.

TV guilt aside, there are upsides. For a start, you can genuinely say to your children, “you can achieve whatever you want to achieve!”, without secretly thinking “except astrophysics, because we have a genetic weakness in that area”. If your child is struggling with something and you say “Oh yes I was rubbish at that too”, they may think it’s their destiny to fail at it. This research lets genetics off the hook. If it’s assumed that every child has the potential to do well then it’s more likely that they will.

James’s book goes on to investigate how our behaviour has been influenced by our own childhood experiences, and that of our parents, and so on. To understand the main factors driving our personality, he suggests picturing our parents’ and grandparents’ lives when they were young. This gives us an insight into the deeply entrenched personality traits that have been passed down the generations, and suddenly all will become clear why we have a fondness for/aversion to overwork/cleanliness/milking cows/hugging.

Although we don’t necessarily exhibit the exact idiosyncrasies to which we were exposed as children, we are likely to be influenced by them in some way, even if by rejecting them. Gina Ford, author of Contented Little Baby, who advocates strict routines to get babies to sleep on their own, slept in her mother’s bed until the age of 11. On the other hand, Penelope Leach, who encourages lots of cuddling in The Essential First Year was modelling her positive experiences from her mother but rejecting those of her not so cuddly father. As Oscar Wilde said, “Children begin by loving their parents; as they grow older they judge them; sometimes they forgive them.”

While none of this is rocket science and in fact inconclusive, it is somewhat liberating. If our children are unhindered by genetics then so are we. We too can achieve whatever we want if we just put our minds to it. And if that makes us happy and fulfilled, then, as Japanese writer Shinichi Suzuki sums up, “Children learn to smile from their parents”.

Thank you for your emails! You can contact me on jen@jennifermilesdavis.com.

MIDLIFE MUSINGS: ‘Do not quench your inspiration and your imagination’ – Vincent Van Gogh

By Jennifer Miles Davis

Last month I promised a review of the Ruby Wax books on the brain and mindfulness, but I haven’t had time to read them. I have GCSEs, you see. I’m doing art coursework and making revision plans and TRYING NOT TO BE STRESSED! Okay, so it’s not my revision, and they’re not my exams, but I am a little on edge, while my firstborn sways from doing genuine hard work to procrastinating, and from being a little too chilled to being ridiculously overwhelmed.

The trouble is, I flunked them the first time around, thirty-three years ago, when they were still called O-levels. Because no matter how much you try to make up for it later – which I did with all sorts of random qualifications – it sort of haunts you. You can have a double PhD in astrophysics (I don’t, in case you were wondering), but you can’t help thinking you’re a bit of a fraud because you only got one O-level. So, NO PRESSURE BUT IF YOU FAIL IT WILL RUIN YOUR LIFE!

Fellow parents of teenagers, for goodness sake don’t look to this column for advice. It all seems a bit arbitrary – a delicate balance of encouragement without nagging, supporting without overbearing, letting them take responsibility without letting them screw it up. They will come to you for help and then hate you for helping. They will tell you to leave them alone when they crave support. They will have it all under control until around 10pm on a Sunday evening when suddenly there is a meltdown and all is lost and they may as well abandon all career aspirations because it is all going horribly wrong.

I am trying to keep things on track while allowing said teen enough thinking/downtime and trying not to say WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!?!?! in a sharpish voice when she plays the piano (so now she has time for piano practise!) or Minecraft with her brothers between revision sessions (if only there were a GCSE in building Minecraft worlds …). Because according to Andreas von der Heydt (no idea who he is – I found it on LinkedIn), you have to schedule a ‘thinking hour’ into your day. This doesn’t have to be sitting cross-legged looking up to the sky with your finger on your chin. It could be ‘hiking in the mountains or playing the piano’, he says. There aren’t a huge number of mountains around here, but you get the picture. Apparently, the likes of Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates apparently go off for ‘think weeks’, ‘which consist of walking, meditation, reading, and healthy eating’. Well, good for them, but some of us, OMG IS THAT THE DATE? We have exams to revise for.

We’re focusing on art this week because, well, it’s due in on Friday. I have found it, let’s say, ‘rather amusing’ trying to motivate a creative spirit who loathes art. Art GCSE is like any subject in that it is essentially about sticking to the curriculum and doing what the examiners deem acceptable – pretty much the polar opposite of actually being creative. Colouring, but within the lines. I think they should say, ok once a week for three years we’ll show you a cool technique, and for the rest of the time just go and create stuff. Paint using bananas. Sculpt with tippex bottles. Tattoo your Granny. Photograph a bunny inside a teapot. Whatever you fancy.

Over Easter, we had it in the bag. In a rare moment of inspiration, enthused by The Danish Girl, our creative genius did some research on the artist Gerda Wegener and some sketches emulating her long-limbed, art deco style. She incorporated the transgender element by painting her little brother as a girl, which was hilarious. She created a pretty decent portfolio of work. We did a high fives. Art project – check.

Not so, it seems. A few days later she was on the floor next to a muddle of art paraphernalia, head in hands. Feedback was that in order to achieve a good grade she has to come up with some more sketches and pretend she’d done those first but that she’d discarded them in favour of her chosen theme. No, it doesn’t really make sense to me, either. But OK, deep breath. We are playing by the rules, remember. I’ll make a cup of tea, I said. I think there’s some cake left. Let’s see if can’t come up with some uninspirational ideas.

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MIDLIFE MUSINGS: ‘For oft, when on my couch I lie/ In vacant or in pensive mood,/ They flash upon that inward eye/ Which is the bliss of solitude;/ And then my heart with pleasure fills,/ And dances with the daffodils.’ – Daffodils by William Wordsworth

I can’t write in the office. It feels too much like work, and I go all researchy, thinking I should back up my ideas with scientific evidence and include a bibliography. In the office I have two screens (for when I’m doing my proper job), ideal for when I need lots of windows open at the same time, but too distracting if I just want to … muse.

So I’ve moved to what we call the big room, where the view is a little prettier, especially if I don’t look too far to the mess at the bottom of the garden. For the benefit of the person who suggested (prompted by my monthly cry of ‘what shall I write about?!’) that I talk about springtime and fluffy bunnies, the view from here is of happy daffodils, pretty primroses (which appear unannounced, by magic) and, yes, a real life fluffy bunny.

Perfect for musing. Although there’s something appealing about getting serious and going all academic and researchy. It’s all part of my midlife ‘what responsible, fulfilling, grown-up thing shall I do in the next phase of my life?’ thing. I fancy being like Dr Pamela Stephenson-Connolly, the comedian who retrained as a psychiatrist. This is in the hope that I will one day be respected and taken seriously [insert scientific evidence for theory that youngest in family is never taken seriously; therefore never takes herself seriously; therefore people never take her seriously].

Similarly, I have a new-found respect for Ruby Wax. I found her a little scary as a comedian, but I am now really quite impressed. Driven by a need for scientific answers on why she’s always suffered with depression, she took herself off to Oxford to study psychotherapy. Her subsequent books (see bibliography) on how the brain works, depression, and mindfulness, make hilarious and accessible what is so often a bit complicated or just plain gloomy.

Honestly, I’ve always been a little sceptical about the whole mindfulness thing and have sort of avoided it. I suspect that it is basically what we used to call sitting down and having a nice cup of tea in the old fashioned way, by which I mean actually sitting down and relaxing and perhaps staring out of the window at the daffodils. But over time we’ve evolved to perceive that as being plain idle. Instead, we squeeze so much into our schedules that we don’t even stop for coffee – we grab a grande skinny macchiato at the drivethrough to drink in the car on the way to the gym, at 5.30am before work. As Ruby explains, ‘You could say that multi-tasking has driven us mad; like leaving too many windows open on your computer, eventually it will crash.’

Ruby’s argument is that of all the different ways of treating depression, including medication and talking therapies, the regular and long-term practice of mindfulness is scientifically proven to be the most effective. Which is a pretty incredible claim. I’ll delve more deeply and let you know. Then maybe I’ll head off to university and do a masters in Psycobabble, and write papers with abstracts and footnotes and references and everything. Although, it looks like I won’t be alone, as Ruby observes, ‘many women like myself choose to study therapy when they meet the wild surf of menopause; the hormones dry up and they realize the chances are low they’re ever going to be hit on again, so they find themselves wanting to care for other people or starting a rest home for stray cats.’ Or bunnies, perhaps. Sigh …

 Bibliography

Wax, Ruby. 2013. Sane New World: Taming the Mind. Hodder & Stoughton Ltd.

Wax, Ruby. 2016. A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled. Penguin Books.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MIDLIFE MUSINGS: “Whatever you do today, don’t be ‘you lite’” – Vassos on the Chris Evans Breakfast Show

By Jennifer Miles Davis

I’ve been the queen of self-doubt lately. I tried to write something profound and witty and brilliant for this column two days ago and it just wasn’t happening. Even sitting in cool, bohemian Coffee Corner my main thoughts were, another month, another café, another column. Do I actually have anything to say? Is it time I knocked this on the head? Would you even miss me? Would you, dear reader…?

It’s been the same with jobs that I might apply for and that novel I am trying to write. I’m not even looking for a job, but when a cool one crops up I get excited for about three seconds before realising that they are probably looking for a dynamic and vibrant twenty-two-year-old, with boundless enthusiasm and energy to work late and schmooze clients until the early hours (yes, that was me, in the distant past). These days, with school runs to attend to and general midlifeyness going on, just the thought of it has me reaching for the Horlicks.

I don’t have that excuse with the writing, though. There is no age limit there, so it’s purely self-sabotaging thoughts topped with my usual dollop of procrastination that hinder me. On (another! I know!) recent Guardian Masterclass, ‘How to Structure your Novel’, I was reassured a little by writer and course leader Ed Docx. Self-sabotaging thought no. 1: I’m not ‘creative’ enough to write. Response: writing is twenty percent creativity (even I have that much), thirty percent structure, and fifty percent stamina. So if you wanna write, you can write, it’s just … blooming hard work. Ok, point taken. Just crack on! Self-sabotaging thought no. 2: what if it’s rubbish? Response: chances are it will be rubbish, until around the fifth draft. Just go with it. Self-sabotaging thought no. 3: it’s been done before; I am essentially a plagiarist. Response: however similar to other stories the basic idea is, every story is unique to us, and only we can write what is in our imagination, in our style, with our authentic characters. Ed went on to demonstrate the protagonist in a novel needs a strong supporting cast to bring out his or her different character traits.

I realise I’m going on (again) about my course, but there is a point, and here’s my clumsy link. All this talk about authenticity and character got me thinking about our own true, real life characters. If we can design characters for a novel, we can do the same for ourselves. I am not suggesting that we create an entirely new, false persona – quite the opposite, in fact. Life can sometimes lead us to water down our authentic selves, or edit ourselves beyond recognition to suit different situations. I think we need to remind ourselves of our most authentic character traits, and ditch the ones that no longer suit us. (For me, the self doubt thing is just annoying for everyone. It can go.).

Jack Kerouac said, “I saw that my life was a vast glowing empty page and I could do anything I wanted.” Practicalities aside (sigh – school run, remember!), let’s – just for a second – indulge in what a fantastic notion that is, that we can be the (self-assured, delightful, exuberant, inspired!) hero in our own life story; that we can cherry-pick our character traits and design a strong supportive cast and scenes – those amazing friends, that cosy cottage, that wonderful soulmate – that bring out the best in us – the true ‘us’ in us. However unrealistic this utopia may be, allowing ourselves to daydream helps us to recognise how we want to be, and maybe some bits will sneak through into how we actually are, so that we become more ‘Xtreme’ rather than ‘Lite’ versions of us, as Vassos put it. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” And, I think, one worth aspiring to.