Friday, 18 November 2016

The question of hair colour...

 I have only just managed to slip in November's selection from the Year of Being Sixty Two before the end of the month.  Am I the only person who thinks a lot about her hair?

Hair colour defines us. Describe someone and it is one of the first things you will find yourself saying: the blonde woman, the dark haired man, the redhead.  Once you become grey haired you shift.   All the other hair colours say something about you, however stereotyped it may be.  Redheads are feisty and quick tempered.  Blondes are sexy and just possibly a bit dim.  Brunettes are sleek and glossy.  Grey haired people are just old.  So what do we do about the vexed question of hair?

Perhaps how you think about this is affected by whether you have been colouring your hair when you  were younger.  I have had a lifetime of colouring mine.  I lived in New Zealand when I was a teenager where the sun ensured that my light brown hair was always gently sun streaked.  By the end of a short New Zealand winter those streaks were further down my long hair but every summer they returned again.  I didn’t think about it.  I took it totally for granted.  When we came back to the UK when I was nearly eighteen it slowly dawned on me that this natural lightening just wasn’t happening any more.  I remember looking in the mirror at my eighteen year old self and deciding I wanted to be fairer again.  And so began a lifetime of hair colouring: out of a box in the many periods when I was short of money, at a salon when I had a bit more disposable income.  I have been very blonde indeed, which is a tyranny to maintain, through various shades of pale and mid blonde.  I have been all over blonde and streaky blonde.  I have been blonde with a pink streak.  And for the last twenty years or so I have been a colour which reminds me of my teenage self:  not so blonde as to be in your face but the colour I would go from a summer in the sun.  I like it.  It makes me feel like myself.

When I go to the hairdresser to have the regrowth coloured she inspects my hair and says “You have hardly any grey” and I feel as if I have been let off making a decision.  I also feel quite proud of myself.  This is a nonsense.  Where is the sense in being proud of retaining a colour I choose to change?  And what credit of any kind can I take for whether I am going grey or not?  It must be simply the luck of the genes.  My mother didn’t really go grey.  Her deep auburn hair faded over twenty years or so to a pale chestnut with just a couple of streaks of grey at the front.  And my most beautiful friend went grey in her thirties and has worn her hair stylishly cropped for years.  She looks stunning with her silver crop.  But I don’t think I would...

We don’t see much grey hair on women in the media.  Male newsreaders and actors can apparently age into grey without losing their credibility.  Nobody suggests that George Clooney should attempt to restore the glossy brown hair of his youth.  But women in the public eye don’t seem to be grey haired.   The supposed role models for older women of Helen Mirren and Judi Dench (both of whom I admire without expecting or wishing to look like them) offer us that very pale blonde which might be silver, might be blonde but is definitely not grey!   A quick look at two BBC newsreaders of a similar age, Huw Edwards and Fiona Bruce, seems to produce a classic example of the difference between men and women:  Edwards is fifty five, Bruce fifty two.  Edwards is grey haired.  Bruce has a light brown hair colour not unlike mine.  Now it may simply be that Bruce is not going grey.  Who knows?  Only she knows, and her hairdresser.  Her hair always looks great.  But she is at an age when many women would be starting to show grey.  The only grey haired woman I can think of on TV is the historian, Mary Beard, whose long grey hair is a distinctive sight on our screens.  She has been on the receiving end of much vitriol on social media for the way she looks and her hair is no doubt part of that.  She is very defiantly and visibly herself in a way which is counter to the norm and there is clearly a section of society which is not comfortable with that at all.  Women over a certain age should be invisible, sitting in a corner knitting.  I love knitting by the way but I don’t intend to be invisible ore relegated to the corner while I am doing it!

These two women, Fiona Bruce and Mary Beard, seem to me to represent two very different ways of growing older on screen.  I admire both of them.  I recognise that each is a successful professional woman in her own area and I want to see more women like both of them on our screens.  Bruce has said in the past that she would not consider plastic surgery so I do not have any sense at all that she represents women who are intent on holding back ageing at any price.  The Sky newsreader Kay Burley had £10,000 of plastic surgery on her fiftieth birthday.  Not Bruce’s style at all.  But I wonder whether she will go grey naturally on our screens in the way that Huw Edwards has?  I suspect not.

But why should I expect her to when I am busily colouring  my own hair?  It is a strange contradictory business, women and hair colour.  Many years ago I worked for a very senior man who dyed his hair.  Everybody knew and everybody thought it rather sad.  He was a pleasant man and a good boss.  On the whole his staff did not laugh at him but they did think it was a weakness, a failure of confidence somehow.  People would shake their heads, with a half smile, when it was mentioned after a drink or two in the pub.  When a man dyes his hair as he gets older we think of it as vanity.  When a woman does it we don’t think about it at all.  It is perfectly normal behaviour, not worth mentioning.  In fact it is when women go grey that it merits discussion.

So you might see why the fact that I am not yet going grey makes me feel let off the hook?  I don’t yet have to decide whether to let myself go grey.  For the moment I can just continue to do what I have been doing all my adult life, colouring my hair just as I did in my twenties and thirties.  Part of me believes that women should be allowed to age as men do and that we are oppressed by the tyranny of the whole anti ageing business of which colouring grey hair is a part.  A very large part of me likes and admires the look of those of my friends who have decided to be grey and proud.  And yet despite being a lifelong and noisy feminist I have always enjoyed colouring my hair and wearing make up when I choose and I don’t see any reason to stop that as I get older.  I came to that political consciousness in the seventies and received a fair amount of challenge from feminist friends for continuing to wear make up and heels when I wished and for not , as they saw it, joining them in rejecting the whole idea of what women were supposed to look like.  This was the era of abandoning the bra and having hairy legs.  I thought then and I think still that how I look is my affair and that it is perfectly possible to be interested in what you look like while describing yourself and living your life as a card carrying feminist.

So is this question of going grey simply a part of that conundrum where the answer is that each of us must do as we choose?  What do you do about your hair colour as you age?  Are you proudly grey or proudly the same colour you always were, natural or otherwise?  And does it matter at all or is it simply each to her (and rarely his) own?

A walking meditation

Over the summer for six weeks I had one or the other of our children's dogs while our children and their families went on holiday.  Different dogs, different temperaments but one constant: every day for around an hour I went walking with them.  I walked when it was wet, when it was windy, when it was cold.  I walked when it was so misty the view had entirely disappeared.  I walked when I was tired and when I didn't feel like it.  I admit that by the end of the summer I was quite "dogged out", love them though I do, and I have settled back into my usual pattern of two or three walks a week.  But I should also admit that at the end of that six weeks I had lost three pounds and now, eight weeks later, I have put it back on again.

So I am trying to walk every day again, not primarily for the weight control but for health and wellbeing.  Walking every day seems to be one of the best things we can do for our health.  It helps prevent the onset of diabetes, it improves heart health, it maintains mobility and even helps with depression.  We were not made to sit still.  Read about the miles the poet Wordsworth and his diarist sister Dorothy used to tramp.  Better still and closer to home, talk to your own parents and grandparents.  Five miles was a stroll.  Fifteen miles was not that unusual.  In a couple of generations we have moved from a nation of walkers to a nation dependent on the car.  I believe strongly that such a sedentary life is not good for us.  I know that again and again the simple act of putting one foot in front of another calms and energises me.  Add to that the lifting of the spirits which comes from walking in a beautiful place and walking seems a simple and powerful way of looking after myself.

So here we go. This walk takes about fifty minutes and starts at my kitchen door.  Boots on first.  I have walking boots, a trusty Scapa pair for serious walks, walking shoes for when something heavier than trainers is on the cards and two pairs of wellington boots, one for gardening in and one for walking.  The walking pair would not take you hill climbing but they are surprisingly comfortable for an hour or so's walk when it is wet or muddy.  My current pair are by Aigle.  They have a neoprene lining and they are both the most expensive and the most comfortable boots I have ever owned.  This is not a foregone conclusion.  Their predecessors were nearly as expensive and  less comfortable.  And after only a year or so they failed at a seam.

So here we go: walking socks, wellies, fleece, waterproof.  Down the path and over the stile and along the edge of the scrubby wood.  I am walking downhill today.  Living as we do half way up a hill you must choose when you come out of the door whether to walk up or down.  Down is the way I go with the dogs.  Down is for when you want the little river at the bottom of the valley or for when a battering wind would take you off your feet at the top of the hill.  Up is for sunny evenings when the huge view across the Vale of Clwyd lies peaceful in the sun.  Up is for wind and sun and large views.  Down is for shelter and trees and rushing water.

Through the gate and into the field, sticking to the edge where the footpath runs.   The field is growing its winter crop, the ground greening again.  This oak tree by the fence has the perfect fairy house in its base.  I loved these holes at the base of a tree as a child.  I used to make tiny posies in the spring and gather acorn cups in the autumn and carefully leave them by the entrance.  I was always delighted when I found they had disappeared.

Down the field, over another stile and into the lane.  Some of the leaves here are crisp, some slippery with the weather.

Even though it is November and with every fresh wind there are fewer leaves on the trees, there is still colour everywhere.

The path winds along the contour of the valley, the woods falling away down to the stream.

It feels odd coming down here without a dog.  This in particular is a walk with Flora, the black labrador.  She is a middle aged lady now and can be guaranteed these days not to slip through the fence to inspect any interesting birds or livestock and she loves the river.

Two young Highland cattle, like great shaggy teddy bears, watch me through the fence.  They are shy.  When I try to climb up nearer to take a closer picture they start and skitter and wheel away up to their mothers.

Down and down I go.  This walk feels easy in this direction!

In the bottom of the valley the little River Wheeler is rushing with water.  Again it feels strange not to have a eager labrador with her tail up watching for the stick to go into the water.

One of the old trees by the water is covered with winding ivy and with a strange fungus.  I think this may be Hairy Curtain Crust fungus but I am far from sure.  There is a similar fungus called Bleeding Broadleaf Crust and this  may be that.  You can see in the centre that there is an area showing red.  I had thought however that the Bleeding fungus grew closer to the trunk than this one which is clearly a bracket fungus.  Anyway, who knows?  Mysterious and in a strange way beautiful.

Walking back up the track is when you notice its steepness.  My challenge to myself is to climb the very steep part without stopping even though my breath is short and my heart is pumping.  Here the track levels out a little so I allow myself to stop to look over a gate and see the winter shapes of the trees beginning to emerge from the billows of leaves.  I am always amazed that the branches and twigs of trees are so differently coloured.  In the summer there is a tendency to think that all leaves are green and all branches brown.  Now you can see that there are reds and golds and oranges in the naked trees and that the browns shade from pale milky coffee to darkest molasses.

The sun is still out but the sky is beginning to bruise with raincloud as I turn off the track and back into the fields.  I wonder if I will get home before the rain comes or if I will get wet.  I try to quicken my pace but the path rises steeply here too and I am puffing as I reach the gate below our garden.

The stile is slippy under my boots.

I love the way that, as you come over the stile, the slope of the land hides the house and that it reveals itself as you come up the path.  It is still dry.  As I pull off my boots the first fat raindrops splatter on the flagstones by the door.  Exercise done for the day.  How lucky I am that this is my playground.

Friday, 28 October 2016

The year of being sixty two: the lessons of becoming an orphan

Here is the October extract from the year of being sixty two, rather late in the month!  

Eventually we all become orphans, unless we die young and leave others to cope with the mess.  It’s odd then that it should be such a surprise.  My mother’s death though was a surprise.  One day she was apparently well, if tired, coping with my father’s motor neurone disease cheerily, orchestrating a move for them into an assisted living flat with customary energy and skill.  The next day we were driving desperately behind the air ambulance that was taking her to Exeter, my father talking determinedly about how they would manage her convalescence, me with a cold pit of fear in my stomach.  A major heart attack.  She was dead in her nightie on the bed in the recovery room when we got there, her hair askew, marks on her chest and arms from where they had tried to revive her.  She looked very small and very alone and totally gone.  I heard a wail of grief and rage go up from my father’s wheelchair.

My father’s death could not have been more different.  Over three years or so Motor Neurone Disease rubbed him out, beginning with the joke about not being able to tie his shoelaces and ending in silence, immobility, helplessness, nappies.  Prometheus in chains had a luckier time of it, at least he could shake his shackles.  By the end, his face all bone, his tongue stilled, his body useless, I was desperate for it to stop.  So was he I think although he could not say.   After months and years of determined good cheer in those last days he closed his mouth against the spoon.  Enough.  Time to stop.

Gone, both of them.  Shuddering shock for one, relief and release for the other.
Is it different for everyone or the same, to finally be an orphan?  I don’t know.  I have friends who have lost their parents but we do not talk about it.  We express sympathy of course and you might allow a good friend to talk about their sadness or their relief, once maybe, twice, three times would be pushing it.  But we rush back into the world of the living, caught up again in the swirl, caught out occasionally by the impulse to ring someone who is no longer there or by the shock of seeing their handwriting.  Those who struggle to accept it provoke both sympathy and irritation.  I have a friend whose mother died soon after mine did, nearly three years ago.  She still grieves.  She bursts into tears at odd moments.  I see her hurt and I am sorry for it but I am running out of patience.  Shit happens.  Death happens.

To lose your parents is to float free, an untethered balloon.  That might be good if your relationship had been a difficult one.  You would at last be free to be yourself.  My parents were supportive, loving, non-judgemental.  They loved having a good time with good food and good conversation, children and dogs and another bottle of wine.  Being with them was generally fun.  Losing them is both dreadful and puzzling.  How am I to live well now they are gone?  Partly I seek to do as they did in living each day intensely and happily for myself.  Partly I seek to do what they did for me.  Carefully, consciously, I try to recreate for my children and grandchildren what my parents created  for me: that sense of haven.  Each family event is another weighted rope thrown out over the side of the basket, trying to tether myself again.

This is necessary because the wind blows cold when your parents are gone.  There is no one ahead of you in the line, no comforting bulk taking the edge off the wind and the snow.  “Walk behind me.  Put your feet in my footprints” Dad said as we trudged across the common in a snowstorm.  “I can’t.  I can’t.” I was maybe seven.  “It’s too far.  Your feet are too big.”  “No, look.  I’m taking baby steps.  See, can you do it now?”  We are the ones in front now.  The next round of deaths will be ours, my generation.  So how to know that, how to look that in the eye and not go mad?

Glancingly might be all we can manage.  If we look directly into the basilisk eye we may be completely incapacitated by our own mortality.  But to look glancingly, to accept that the time that is left is much less than the time which has gone, can be the opposite of incapacitating.  It can be, and for me increasingly is, energising, focussing.  What do I want to do? Are there places I want to see that need the physical capacity I have right now?  Are there things I want to do which I had better get on with?  It helps with the hugely difficult question of what time is for to know that is it limited. 

And there can be a relief too in letting go of things.  In my twenties and thirties I envied people who could ski.  I used to watch the glorious, graceful, swishing speed and think that it must be wonderful to be able to do it.  I had friends who loved ski-ing so much that they would forgo a summer holiday to do it.  And now I am sixty two and it is pretty clear that learning to ski was never important enough to me for me to make it happen. If it didn’t matter earlier it is unlikely to happen now.  Articulate that thought and many people jump in: “You could still learn.”  “If you want to ski  get out there and do it.”  They miss the point.  I haven’t done it.  I don’t intend to do it.  When there is so clearly not enough time for lots of things you can let some of them go without guilt or much regret.  Looks like I will not be ski-ing, or playing a musical instrument to a high standard or learning to scuba dive.  That’s fine.  Acceptance of that doesn’t sadden me, rather it is a relief a let it go.

But I need to think about the things that I don’t want to let go and try to protect them.  I want to travel, adventurously as well as comfortably.  I want to continue to walk distances and hills.  So what I really need for as long as I can in this next twenty, twenty five years of my life, is health and strength and energy.  So I am trying to use that sense of the briefness of life to look after myself and others so that we can make the day sing.  Do I succeed? One day at a time.

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Pinning time down

Every week at Welsh class we spend a few minutes talking about what we have been doing in the previous week. It's amazing how often I struggle to remember and yet my life is full and rewarding and happy.  Maybe it is the famous line about "happiness writes white", attributed to the French novelist Henry de Montherland, suggesting that it is easier to write about pain, suffering, conflict and struggle.  A contented life contains thousands of happy repetitions.  "These weeks keep coming round," my father in law would say happily in his nineties when he lived out his last years with us.  He was one of the happiest men I know.  Indeed he had developed a barrier against unhappiness so strong that it sometimes seemed he lived in an impermeable rainbow hued bubble.  Sometimes it drove me nuts but I would freely admit that enjoying your weekly round is a good recipe for a happy life.

So here are the highlights of the last couple of weeks, pinned down briefly on the page so you can see where time goes.

I made chutney.  I have experimented with all sorts of recipes and this is my best, loosely based on Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall's "Glutney" recipe.  It works because it is endlessly flexible and adaptable to whatever you have to hand.

You need two kilos of the fruit or vegetables you are going to chutney, ideally two different kinds.  I used courgettes and tomatoes for this chutney but you can use apples, plums, marrows, squash, whatever you have most of.  If you live in the country you not only have the gluts thrown up by your own garden to contend with but the kindness of neighbours and friends either directly passing their surplus produce around the village or surreptitiously leaving bags full of produce on your doorstep.

You also need 500g of onions, peeled and chopped.  Plums should be stoned and chopped, apples peeled and chopped.  Courgettes and tomatoes can just be chopped.  It takes ages to do it by hand but it is pleasantly meditative if you are in the right mood with something interesting to listen to on the radio.  It takes no time to do it in a food processor but I hate the noise.  Chop everything and put it in a big preserving pan.

Add 500grams of soft brown sugar, 500grams of sultanas and 750mils of cider vinegar made up to a litre with cold water.  Add about a teaspoon of chilli flakes and a teaspoon of salt.

The most important element of a chutney in terms of its final flavour is the spice bag.  I tie mine into a piece of muslin but any fine material will do.  Even the toe of a clean pair of tights works fine!  Into this put a chopped piece of root ginger, about three centimetres long, ten or so cloves, ten or so black peppercorns, a spoonful of coriander seeds, a spoonful of mustard seeds and a couple of bay leaves.

Bring it slowly to the boil, stirring to melt all the sugar and then let it simmer until the chutney is so thick that a wooden spoon dragged across the bottom of the pan leaves a distinct trail.  This takes ages.  I have seen all sorts of chutney recipes, some suggesting that the mixture will be ready in forty minutes or so.  I have never made good chutney in less than four hours so don't start it unless you have plenty of time!  If you do have time it is a lovely activity for a rainy day.  The kitchen smells warm and vinegary and there is lots of time to potter about doing other things as the chutney slowly cooks down. 

When it is thick and ready, fish out the spice bag and put the chutney into heated jars.  I sterilise mine by leaving them in a low oven for ten minutes or so.  This makes about ten jars.

What else have we done?

We went to Prague where we drank fabulous Czech beer

and visited one of the most extraordinary places I have ever seen: the ossuary at Sedlec, about an hour's journey from Prague.  This is a church within the monastery at Sedlec which contains the bones of forty thousand people, carefully arranged by a nineteenth century monk.

It sounds macabre and I see from my pictures that it looks macabre.  It is indeed strange, unsettling, disturbing and yet somehow peaceful and even beautiful.  There are simply so many bones that eventually your mind begins to see shapes rather than bodies.  There is also a profound sense that the place has been made with reverence and respect and, like many places which have been places of prayer for generations, there is an atmosphere of calm and peace.  I still can't pin down exactly how it made me feel and what it made it made me think but it was truly an extraordinary experience.

We returned to Prague and had another beer.  It seemed like the best thing to do.  Life is short.

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Valedemoses Yoga retreat

My first ever yoga retreat started in the week I turned sixty two.  I found yoga about five years ago, roughly at the same time that I gave up my frantic London job.  Probably not coincidence.  I had tried it a couple of times in my thirties and forties but it was always too slow or too hard.  I would lie there, surrounded by people apparently relaxing, my head whizzing with work and home and my juggling, plate-spinning life.  So no surprise perhaps that at the same time that I decided to step back from that life, to downsize and to spend my time and energy on different things I found a great yoga teacher and a great anchoring class.  Yoga was part of what kept me steady in the heaving seas of the last couple of years as my parents died.  I can't imagine life without it now but I am very, very new to it and very stiff.

I think the idea of a retreat emerged in January when I was musing about reflection and adventure being the themes for the year.  A yoga retreat abroad with a good friend sounded as though it could be one of those rare things which would hit reflection and adventure at the same time.  Found one at Valedemoses, booked it for September, forgot about it, sort of.

And then a couple of weeks ago it was nearly upon me.  I needed to pack light for six days in the Portuguese mountains followed by three days in Lisbon.  I like travelling light so packing was easily done into a small rucksack that would go as hand luggage and that I could manage myself in airports and on buses and trains.  It was good to have that little rucksack.  We have accumulated so much stuff.   Our house and outbuildings are drowningly full of it.   I liked the sense that all that I needed for the next ten days was on my back.

Arriving in ValedeMoses is like a more extreme version of coming home here.  There is that same sense of getting further away and higher but in Portugal everything about the experience is more extreme.  The hills are mountains, covered in pine, eucalyptus and cork trees.  Everything is higher, steeper, wilder and more remote.  Valedemoses sits on the side of a mountain, the valley falling away to what is a river in winter but now, at the end of a long dry summer, mainly just stones and dried up river bed.  My room is simple but comfortable and my window looks out over that valley.

There are around twenty of us on the retreat, ranging in age from mid twenties up to me, I think,  the oldest,  but split fairly evenly into the under and over fifties.  That's a bit of a relief.  If we had been surrounded by an entire group of flexible twenty five year olds it would have been a challenge, delightful though the girls in their twenties are.  The food for the week is vegetarian and it feels odd on that first evening that there is no wine to lubricate conversation with all these new people, but the food is good and the people friendly.  Evenings finish early here and by nine o' clock I am in my bed.  I read for a while.  It takes me a long time to go to sleep but when I do I sleep deeply until morning.

Day 1:  it is hot, over forty degrees, unseasonably and unusually hot.  I don't feel well.  My brain is fuzzy with heat.  My body feels weighed down by it.  Morning yoga starts at 8.30 and to begin with it is fine but as the day starts to warm up it is too much.  One or two other people leave the yoga room, the Shala, and I do too.  It's too hard, it's too fast, I feel rubbish and hopelessly adrift.  I go to my room and lie on the bed.  Maybe I shouldn't have come.  Never mind.  It is a beautiful place and if I lie on the bed and read for a week that won't be the end of the world.  Breakfast is delicious but I am too hot to eat much and my body feels all out of kilter with the timing of meals: breakfast at 10.30, lunch at 2.00, dinner at 7.00.  It takes a while to settle, I tell myself.  It's supposed to be different.  And then the day turns on a sixpence.  I have an hour and a half of treatments from the lovely Pete: half an hour's talk, half an hour of Tuina massage and half an hour of acupuncture.  I know I have been carrying the world on my shoulders over the last few years and they are often stiff and sore.  When he begins to massage my shoulders I feel as if he might break his thumbs on the block of wood which has taken over the base of my neck.  But by the time he has finished my head feels loose and light and I feel six inches taller.  It is amazing and I immediately book another session on Friday.  As I go to bed I think that if that massage is the one thing to come out of the retreat it will have been worth it.

Day 2: I wake knowing that my guts are not happy.  This is the Irritable Bowel Syndrome which plagues the first couple of hours of my day.  It is pretty well under control at home where I am in control of what I eat.  I am trying here to avoid the things I know set it off but that is not easy when someone else is cooking.  I am determined that I will do what I want to do and the IBS will just have to come along too.  Sure enough by nine thirty I am feeling ok again but the yoga class has been going for ages and it is another very hot day.  I decide I will do some simple stretches in my room, read and maybe go for a stroll in the shade.  The day passes away gently and hotly and I go to the late afternoon yoga session.  Today I am more comfortable with just setting my own pace, dipping in and out of what is being done, accepting that I will choose when to stop and start.  Evening, the temperature falls, the breeze comes up and food and conversation are plentiful.  Again it takes me a long time to fall asleep but the dark and the quiet are comfortable and familiar.  This is what the nights are like at home.

Day 3 onward:  And then the days fall into a rhythm.  The temperature comes down to the high twenties but with a gentle mountain breeze.  Yoga at 8.30, breakfast at 10.30, a quiet time in my room or a chat with my friend or some new friends, lunch at 2.00, maybe a walk or a swim, more yoga at 5.00, dinner at 7.00 and bed by 9.00.  One day I walk with a guide who lives in the village and a couple from Canada.  It is a beautiful place and sad to see how many houses have been deserted as people head to the cities for work.  The mountains smell of pine and eucalyptus. 

Another day we have a talk from the Spanish chef, Raul, about his recipes and his food.  The food is marvellous.  At no time do I miss meat, although I think about my more commitedly carnivore husband and sons and imagine that they would, and after that one day my IBS settles down and becomes much as it as home.  I love the colour and vibrancy of the food.

I come home determined to explore more vegetarian food although I do not intend to give up either meat or fish, just to eat less of them.  The one thing I did miss was eggs!

On the last day I have another massage, Thai this time, alongside a further Tuina massage for my shoulders.  If I could do this every week I think I might be six foot two.  We go for a swim in a huge river and finish the week with a visit to a local village and food and wine.

On the last morning we are not leaving until noon so I spend some time in the Shala by myself.  To my astonishment I find that I have done my own practice for about forty five minutes.  At home I find it close to impossible to practise on my own and invariably run out of things to do after fifteen minutes or so. 

So how was it?  I loved it.  Like many things which are rewarding it was not all easy.  Did my yoga improve?  A little.  What was the best bit?  Well it is hard to say: the company, the food, the yoga, the sense of being taken out of your life and the astonishingly good massages were all part of the experience and take any one of them out and the week would not have been the same.  Would I go again?  Yes.  I ended the week feeling as if I had been ironed out.

And ten days after coming home, have I carried anything with me into my ordinary life?  It is hard to answer this honestly because ordinary life is so different.  I do not have four hours of yoga on tap or someone cooking me delicious vegetarian food.  Ordinary life has television and wi fi and glasses of wine in it.  It has the delightful demands of the people you love.   But I am trying to hold to that sense of peace and I am trying paradoxically both to do more and to take more time to myself.  It is easy for time to pass away in looking after other people and in frittering it on the internet and on reading and television.  There is nothing wrong with any of those things but my week made me feel that I should challenge myself more, particularly physically, and look after myself more both in mind and body.  I am trying to fit more yoga into my week.  I am trying to cook more vegetarian food and if that comes out at only one more meal a week that's ok.  Most of all I am trying to nourish myself. 

And I am thinking about balance.  How do you achieve balance in your life?  I would love to talk about it with you.

Saturday, 3 September 2016

The year of being sixty two: health, strength, energy and the ageing body

Here is the September extract from the longer pieces I am writing about the experience of getting older.  I am a bit self conscious about this one.  It feels a bit "showy offy" to talk about going to the gym somehow.  It is not about that.  It is about trying to engage more with what the body can do than with what it looks like.  Easier said than done.  I love to hear what you think so please tell me!

Let’s face it, the aging body is not a pretty thing:  wrinkled knees and elbows, the saggy skin which hangs on your arms, turtle necks, veined legs.  But it is not just what the body looks like, it is also what it can do.  For the last few years of his life my father in law lived with us.  He made it to ninety five and was always remarkably, even relentlessly cheerful.  As a young man and right through middle age and beyond he had been strong.  He missed that strength when it disappeared on him as old age took hold.  He would not have said so directly.  That would have been complaining and complaining by his lights was not allowed.  It was almost a joke “If it wasn’t for my elbow” he would say “ you could push my wristwatch right the way up to my shoulder.  All my muscles have gone.”  And he was right.  His forearms remained masculine and hairy but above the elbow his arm was thin and pale, veined with blue, a mottled pipe cleaner.  

My husband too has always been strong, tall and powerful with broad shoulders and strong forearms.  At sixty five he is still strong.  He can still lift things which are immovable rocks to me with apparent ease.  I worry sometimes about how he will manage the loss of that strength, when it comes.  Will he still feel like himself?

I have never been strong.  I am on the small side.  I used to be slight but now I am blurred around the middle.  I am perhaps ten pounds or so overweight and all that weight clings determinedly around my waist with a soft bulge of stomach just below, like a kangaroo pouch.  I have decided that I will join a gym and see if I can build some muscle, not Miss Universe, weight lifting muscle, just seeing if I can gain a little more strength.  The idea makes me feel both intrigued and uncomfortable.

I go and look at a small gym which is part of a local hotel.  What wins me over is that there is nobody there.  “It’s always very quiet in the day” says the woman who shows me round.  She is old too, at least as old as I am and considerably fatter.  I had thought I would be surrounded by beautiful young and fit bodies but at the moment the little gym is entirely empty.  It’s cheap too. 

I sign up for a six week trial before I lose my nerve.  What can I wear?  My yoga clothes will have to do.  I have no shoes so I buy a pair of trainers for £6 from Tescos.  I book an induction.  I wonder if I will feel and look very stupid.

I turn up for my induction in my yoga clothes and cheap trainers, holding my glasses and my phone.  The tiny gym is empty again but it is hard to avoid looking at yourself in the mirrors which line the walls.  I don’t look silly but I do look a bit wrong.  There are illustrations on the walls, line drawings of young strong men showing how to do different exercises with weights.  You never see posters like these which use  a five foot four, sixty one year old woman in a turquoise t shirt and black yoga pants to demonstrate technique.

The trainer is late, nearly half an hour late.  I have just decided with some relief that when the clock shows three thirty I can go when she breezes in, all apology.  She is tall and slim, dressed in lycra and bouncing with energy.  She sits me down and takes me through a questionnaire.  She takes my blood pressure and talks about the importance of starting slowly and doing a little frequently rather than a lot once a week.  Then she takes me through some exercises on the exercise bike and the treadmill and gets me doing press ups and squats against the wall using a large exercise ball.  This is a bit tricky because it feels like not enough.  I try to tell her that I would like something a bit more challenging.  I am not fit.  I know I am not.  But I do live up a hill and I do walk and go to yoga.  She looks at me as if I might explode if I do too much.  

"Just take it slowly for two or three weeks and then we will look at your programme again."

So I do.  For three weeks I come three or four times a week and  gradually sneak in some exercises with light weights, carefully following the posters of the strong young men.  I used to go to a gym for a few years when I was in my thirties so it doesn't feel entirely strange.  I like it when the gym is empty so I experiment to find out when it is quietest.  I don't much like the showers and the changing rooms, not that there is anything wrong with them but I like the privacy of my shower at home.  And slowly I discover that I like working with weights.  I like feeling stronger.  I like doing another set of bicep curls or lunges.  Is it transforming my body?  No, not really.  Maybe it is a tiny bit less soft. Now here I am at the end of my six week trial needing to decide whether to continue.  

Will I carry on?   Yes I think I will.  I haven't done it for long enough for the pattern of going to become embedded in my week so I think I will commit myself to do another two months and see how I feel at the end of that.  There is so much that I want to do which needs health and strength and energy.  It is hard to shed the obsession with what you look like, living in a society which is focussed relentlessly on image.  But if I focus on what my body can do I find the idea that I am a little stronger than I was six weeks ago really pleasing.

And the second time I see the trainer she treats me less like an unexploded bomb and more like someone who would like to be fitter and stronger.  Do I still look a bit out of place?  Yes I suppose I do.  I have decided not to care.