MIDLIFE MUSINGS: ‘My only truly heroic act is enjoying the very simple pleasure of being alive’ – David Bowie*

 

It was a tough choice – to go on a walk or to take myself off to a café – and although I do like walking (it’s one of about three vaguely active things that I actually enjoy), I really love sitting in cafés and writing. For an hour or so, I can be Carrie in Sex and the City. So, on this chilly winter’s morning, I am sitting in a quiet café adorned with Moroccan cushions next to a slightly overwarm radiator with a little gentle jazz playing in the background. It is a simple, doable, inexpensive pleasure, and just enough to make me feel like I’ve had some time to myself and to indulge my passion. And, Yes, it Does involve a croissant with Real Butter. (In fact, I might just order another. Look at me – rebelling against the January diet propaganda! … although admittedly there are a few more dried apricots in the house than usual…).

I’ve noticed that a common refrain in the first unfriendly dark months of the year is ‘I just need to get this week/month/half term out of the way!’. Jaded by the New Year New You! and Just Change One Thing! and Cool Curly Kale and Kiwi Cold Cure! puffery, we are now back to eating enormous jacket potatoes with extra cheese in front of Silent Witness. OK, maybe not everyone, just people like me whose willpower isn’t very, well, powerful. (Sorry to digress but, serious question – why do we need a juicer for fruit and veg when we can just, um, eat them?)

But as we emerge out of hibernation and say hi to the snowdrops, I think there’s nothing wrong with a gently does it approach. Brilliant health professor Dr Mike Evans, who conveys important health messages via short, snappy and superb cartoons (check out www.evanshealthlab.com), advises the same. In one cartoon, he tells us, in his lazy American drawl, that ‘sometimes people just want the get through the day or week advice, and here’s what I say: just gear down and stick to the basics’. These are: sleep ‘turn off the TV and go to bed’; activity (‘go for a walk outside or whatever is your thing’; get perspective (‘write a letter or a journal’); eat (‘make a great meal’); socialise (‘social connection is so therapeutic and isolation is so insidious’); clean up your space a bit. It’s not brain surgery, but it’s something we all need reminding of. He goes on to advise that if you really have to do a task that’s a bit on the challenging side, try ‘temptation bundling – do the tough thing then bundle it with something that gives you simple pleasure’ – like go to a coffee shop, read a book, see a movie, watch some sport.

We are all busy – often too busy, and often worrying about and doing stuff for other people or for the greater good. But, as Dr Evans says, ‘sometimes we need to give ourselves a break, pause, and take a breath’.

* I know! It’s crass and unoriginal of me to choose a Bowie quote, but I just couldn’t help myself …

Jennifer Miles Davis is a writer and freelance copy-editor for organisations such as Cambridge University Press. For enquiries, email jen@jennifermilesdavis.com.

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MIDLIFE MUSINGS: ‘We’re never gonna survive … unless we get a little crazy’ – Seal

By Jennifer Miles Davis

‘No, thank you for asking, I can’t go to the Duran Duran concert. I’m stressed. I’m broke, and (sighs importantly) Way Too Busy for such extravagances. I was never really a Duranie and the O2 is miles away. And it’s on a Tuesday! I’ll pass, thank you.’ But then, there was a spare ticket needing an owner. I was in a nicer mood. Yes, sure, why not? I’ll take it.

We headed off early to take in the Elvis exhibition first. We thought we loved Elvis, until we met Beryl, a lady we got chatting to in the gift shop. She waggled her finger at us, accusing us of being too young to properly know him. She had real tears in her eyes at the memory of her seventeen-year-old self being so in love with Elvis back in the day. And that love is still there! For her, Elvis; for my friends, Duran Duran; for today’s teenagers, One Direction. Every generation has its crush, the person or band or lyric or guitar riff that spoke to us; that we just couldn’t help falling in love with.

Seal was Duran Duran’s support act. OMG swoon! His voice is deliciously velvety smooth and simultaneously rough and heartbreaking. But where has he been hiding? My latest song is about overcoming anxiety, he told us. Ah, ok. Even beautiful talented Seal has been dealing with some stuff. And look, he has overcome it.

I’m not a diehard Duranie but it turned out I knew all the songs. And Simon Le Bon can sing! The range of his voice is quite remarkable. Lovely John Taylor’s funky bass twanged out the inimitable Duran Duran sound and I was transported back to the eighties. We sang, we danced, we laughed. They snuck in some of their new tunes and we shuffled and sighed, waiting for Rio, or something. Even so, the crazy new technopop mixed with the comfortingly familiar Duran strains, alongside mesmerizing lighting and videos, sent me into a semi-trance. On one song my friend told me to listen with my eyes closed. It was beautiful. We got tearful on Save a Prayer, glancing round at an arena full of shiny phone torches (for Paris). The encore (finally!) was Rio.

Yes yes yes, that’s all very nice for you. But what’s your point? you may well ask. Well, at the risk of wheeling out the rather tiresome ‘life’s too short’ triteness, here’s the thing. The whole day was an awakening of the senses, of allowing ourselves to be swept away in visuals, feelings, music, icons and experiences, not to mention the gorgeously simple pleasure of just being with friends … and I almost missed it. Art, music, exhibitions, films, people – they make us feel, cry, smile, love, reminisce. Picasso said ‘The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls’.

Fellow midlifers, I know it’s a cliché, but we just don’t know what’s around the corner. However inviting our sofas and blankets and routines and job security and box sets are on these dark evenings, let’s not get too comfy. We must remember to punctuate life, and live! And feel! And go! And do! And occasionally be … just a little crazy. As the Duranie brothers say in What are the Chances?: ‘Any other day and you might have gone walking by/Without a second look … So, what are the chances?/We’ll never know/If we take it for granted …’

Jennifer Miles Davis is a writer and freelance copy-editor for organisations such as Cambridge University Press. For enquiries, email jen@jennifermilesdavis.com.

 

 

MIDLIFE MUSINGS: ‘Life seems but a quick succession of busy nothings’ – Jane Austen

Today this column comes to you from Starbucks. There are several reasons for this. First, my yoga class was cancelled, and I felt like doing something worthwhile with my exciting spare hour. Second, my laptop only works in Starbucks. And third, I’m only allowed to park here for an hour, so I’d better get writing. (That second one is a big fib, I just fancied coming to Starbucks, because there are lots of boring jobs waiting for me at home.)
On a recent writing course that I went on (a Guardian Masterclass with Philippa Pride), Philippa would give us seven and a half minutes to complete a writing exercise. Seven and a half minutes works, she told us, because five minutes doesn’t feel long enough to write anything, and if we had twenty minutes we’d spend the first ten minutes wondering what to write and worrying that it isn’t good enough. If you’ve only got seven and a half minutes, you get scribbling straight away.

As someone who regularly experiences overwhelm (too much work! Where did all this laundry come from! Too many children!), checking out how long it actually takes to do something can sometimes help. I’m inclined to allow a whole day for a job that might only take an hour or so. But Parkinson’s law takes over, and I’ll somehow make darned sure it takes the whole day. I’d allowed a day to write this, but right now, with the car park thingy ticking away, I could get it pretty much wrapped up by elevenses.  

The other day I spotted a useful article on overwhelm. Overwhelm (my definition – please don’t tell me it’s just me) is when you can’t achieve anything because you have too much to do, and the fact that you’re not achieving anything makes you feel that it’s all terrible, and it’s a pretty unpleasant downward spiral from there, mitigated only by writing off the day and heading to Starbucks, finding a little table for one in the corner, and perhaps sobbing quietly, or at least staring out of the window with a crazed look in your eyes, wondering where all the squirrels are (just me? Ok …).

The article, ‘Dealing with Overwhelm: with 10 Simple Steps and Lots of Tea’ (oneofmany.co.uk), suggests the following: Stop. Stop running around madly getting stressed and take a breather (I think this means: go to Starbucks). Recognise it’s ok. It’s not a failure of your very being, just that today it’s a bit much. Tomorrow you’ll be fine. Then, dump it out. Make a cup of tea (or: order a flat white), and write a long list of everything that you need to do. Include everything. Then – this is the best bit – cross most of it out. Most of it is rubbish, irrelevant, or unnecessary, at least for today. ‘Beware the baroness of busy life’, wrote Socrates. Pretend your best friend is going through the list with you. They’d probably say ‘do you really need to grout the bathroom – today?!’ The article’s author, Joanna Martin, says, ‘it’s not just about time management, it’s about energy management’. Then, delegate! (Sigh… haven’t I told you?! You don’t have to do everything yourself!) If other relatively able-bodied people live with you, they can and should be called upon to help. Bribe if necessary. Hard cash or chocolate usually works. Finally, focus on the big picture. What’s it all about, Alfie? (Where have all the squirrels gone?) ‘Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans’, said John Lennon. Ditch the other plans. Concentrate on the life stuff, the bread and butter, the all day breakfast bap, the tall skinny macchiato, the beans on toast for the children’s tea. What do you absolutely need to do today? It’s summertime, and the livin’ should be easier than this. The rest can wait until tomorrow, which, as Scarlett O’Hara points out, is another day.

MIDLIFE MUSINGS: ‘Be like a flower and turn your face to the sun’ – Kahlil Gibran

I adore May. It makes me think of frolicking barefoot in spring meadows in Laura Ashley frocks (I’ve never actually done that; I don’t actually wear frocks). It reminds me of, in days gone by, drinking pink fizz in sunny courtyards of city bars (usually at lunchtimes, and being good for nothing when I got back to the office). It brings back memories of our spring wedding, when I sent my bridesmaid into the garden to pick fresh daisies for my hair, and where children danced around the maypole for us, accompanied by a comical Captain Pugwash-esque accordion. I also love May because it is my birthday, and I like to make this last pretty much the entire month. I share this pleasure with several close friends who also have May birthdays (two of them on the very same day! The cheek of it!). All in all, I can rely on May to put me in an amazing mood, and (don’t tell the kids, mind!) I’ll say yes to pretty much anything. As Smokey Robinson sang, ‘I’ve got sunshine on a cloudy day. When it’s cold outside I’ve got the month of May.’

But even for the rest of you poor souls who do not, as I do, have the excuse to drink pink fizz most days, May is a cracking month. It is cherry blossom and birds cheeping and bank holidays; it is pottering in the garden with warm sun on our backs. It is sitting outside on a blanket instead of inside under it; and it is, after the dark nights and rainy days, feeling like the worst is over – or (even better) forgetting that it ever happened at all.

The author D. Miller wrote of May, ‘Crowds gather outside pubs, the women in their retrieved summer wardrobes, the men loosening their ties, thrusting out their hips and reminding themselves that they are married. (An early 18th-century marchioness vowed to be chaste for the whole year, but couldn’t swear to May.) It isn’t only sex that is in the air. For a few weeks, while the warmth lasts, everything is possible. This year will be better than last. You will be a better you.’

May sunshine is perfect for reflection and daydreaming, but also for digging deep and doing. You can rely on May for inspiration and creation. Try some May mindfulness: turn your face to the sun, close your eyes, and think about how you want your life to be. If there’s something new you want to try, or something you want to change, May will say, get on with it then! Do it now, while you have this spring in your step! Go buy plants! Write poems! Sand down tables! Paint pictures! Book courses! Buy festival tickets! Do what you can, while the spring juices are flowing and the May madness is naughtily egging you on. As Mark Twain said, ‘It’s spring fever … You don’t quite know what it is you do want, but it just fairly makes your heart ache, you want it so!’

MIDLIFE MUSINGS: The MLC turns 50

The midlife crisis, a theory first devised by Elliot Jacques in 1965, is almost 50. It is planning a grand party, squinting in the mirror at the lines around its eyes, and wondering where the time went. It is reflecting upon how vibrant and fresh and controversial it used to be, and recognising with horror that it has become quite dated, a little lacklustre, and even slightly ridiculed.

Jacques published his paper, ‘Death and the Midlife Crisis’, after studying a group of artists over time and discovering that the quality of their creative output deteriorated after the age of thirty-five (that’s when midlife used to be – it’s older these days). Jacques put this down to depressive anxieties owing to an awareness of one’s inevitable death on entering the second half of life. Further research led him to deduce that, happily for the artists, this phase evolved into a new era of mature creativity – but only after a painful depressive crisis.

Artists aside, the concept of the MLC appealed to a broader audience, and it swiftly slipped into general discourse and became entrenched in modern culture. That it became something of a laughing stock only proves its worth – we tease it but with a twinkle in our eye, suspecting that one day we may well come face to face with it. The emotional commotion we feel as we approach our fifties is genuine – there is simply not as much life left anymore! Seize the day! But a sudden and unexpected reaction to midlife can be very real and tricky to deal with, and those experiencing it (straight faces please!) should to be taken seriously.

Many people, their lives more or less all sorted, will float through their middle years unscathed. But some will get stuck with the MLC at a bar, to be found looking around helplessly, trying to get away. These people may experience: sudden and unexpected feelings of restlessness and boredom with the status quo, even if they have been perfectly content; the desire to do something completely different; uncharacteristic acts of compulsion; sudden questioning of past major decisions; harking back to the past and a former self; a need to feel young and attractive; daydreaming, irritability, sadness and confusion; a desire to ‘find themselves’; scrutinising their current situation and redrafting plans for the future.

What exacerbates the muddled mind during this phase is the struggle to intertwine new-found fantastical ideals with harsh reality. When faced with our own mortality and awareness that life is half over, it should be no surprise that we suddenly want to live for the moment and feel the impulse to – Quickly! While we still can! – realise our dreams. We feel a wonderful sense of euphoria as our new hobby or project formulates in our minds, and become obsessive about it, madly researching, desperate to crack on with plans and purchases. And then we remember. We have a job to hold down, a mortgage to pay, children to take care of, a marriage to nurture. For a while – and this can last for years – we stomp around like grumpy children who can’t have their way, before (hopefully) calming down and working through the process of reevaluation and (sigh) compromise.

It may not feel like it, but our MLC is (or at least is best viewed as) a highly valuable and positive phenomenon. If by assessing our past and rewriting the next chapter of our personal story the outcome is that we are truer to ourselves, we will be better able to pursue our (notwithstanding hopelessly unrealistic) hopes and dreams, and ultimately be happier and nicer people to be around.

The MLC may be feeling mocked, jaded and unloved, but it needn’t. It has a long and optimistic future ahead. Looking for inspiration, the MLC steps away from the mirror and has a poke around for advice. One website suggests that a balanced, nutritious meal plan along with plenty of sleep and rest might help. MLC casts a derisory glance at it and smirks. ‘Sod that!’ it thinks, ‘I’m off to Glasto in a campervan’.

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