Words are not enough

Well here I am in the first week of my six months long service leave. I’ve made quite a few grand promises (to myself and others) about the things I was planning to do whilst on leave, but when I booked the time off, I had no idea that I would actually be at home full-time, every single day.

My plan was to swim regularly at the pool, pick up some more exercise classes, and meet friends for coffee. Some of these have been put on hold or are happening virtually, but I’m not complaining. I feel lucky to have a comfortable home and a loving husband. So many people are under so much strain and I really feel for them.

Being stuck at home means that some of the other things I was planning to tackle are simply unavoidable. I’ve got no real excuse for not writing more, and I can’t really worm my way out of weeding the horribly overgrown garden. Nor can I avoid sorting through all the paperwork that’s accumulated in my office. There’s old teaching material, tax returns from the last 12 years and hundreds of old photos. It could realistically take me six months just to sort through all these accumulated memories.

I hate sorting through old photos. It makes me unbearably sad to see people (and pets) I’ve loved and lost. Even photos of my children make me feel teary. They look so sweet and innocent and I can’t bear the idea of them being hurt by anyone.

I’m often regarded as unsentimental by my family. Little do they know that this is often just a cover for being overwhelmed with emotion.

My mother (who would have been 91 today) was a master at not showing her emotions but those who knew her realised that this was just a way of covering up feelings that she couldn’t express or deal with very well. Things often went unsaid but we always knew that she cared about us. The fact that she loved us was evident in the food she made, the neatly made bed with a vase of freshly picked flowers, the little note that arrived in the mail just when you were feeling all alone. She would often arrive and do all your ironing, even though she hated ironing.

So in these trying times, perhaps we should use this time to let people know that we care about them. You don’t necessarily need to use words.

Things have changed

I was seventeen and living in a tiny basement flat in London when Britain joined the European Economic Community in 1973.

My flat was located below a rather grand house in Regents Park, only one block away from London Zoo. At night I could hear strange sounds. Lions roaring, monkeys chattering. The couple who owned the house walked their dog on Primrose Hill on Sunday afternoons and invited me to join them for a pre-dinner drink every now and then. We would sit around awkwardly discussing our respective weeks. The husband wore a three piece suit every day and worked in the city. On Sundays, he affected a black polo neck jumper and slacks.

I was graciously allowed to live in their basement for a very reasonable rent in exchange for some light baby-sitting duties, which suited me just fine. I always felt rather like a country hick in their presence, coming from the colonies and having no experience of the world.

Picture of Margaret at 17
My passport photo

I’d arrived in London with one ten-pound travellers’ cheque and big dreams of a new life away from my home in Perth, West Australia, then a fairly small provincial city. I travelled to England on a huge Italian cruise ship, the Galileo Galilei, setting off from the port of Fremantle with my best friend Helena, a pretty and outgoing blonde woman, a couple of years my senior. It may sound like I was rather brave setting out to travel halfway across the world at that young age, but in those days young people often left home before they were 20. I was eager to escape the confines of my small city. I wanted adventure and a bigger, more interesting life.

The good ship Galileo Galilei

The sea journey took three weeks stopping in Cape Town, Majorca and Malta, and finally berthing in Genoa. From there we travelled by train through Italy, Austria, Germany and Holland, and then across to Folkstone on the ferry. A couple of English boys explained that in the UK being ‘knocked up’ meant being woken up in the morning, rather than getting pregnant. We realised that things might be a little different in our adopted country.

As soon as we arrived, we set about finding work.

Employment was easy to find, so all we had to do was survive until we got our first pay cheque.  My mother had secretly packed my yellow sea trunk with supplies of tuna and tinned fruit. There was even a jar of my favourite pickled onions. I was grateful for them in the weeks between starting work as a photographic printer and getting paid. At my first job interview I was informed that juniors (people under 18) were paid less than seniors, so I lied about my age and said I was 19 instead of 17. I looked a lot older than I was, so everyone believed me. It only became a problem when birthdays came around, people wondered why I never turned 21. By the time I actually did turn 21, I was back in Sydney raising my beautiful baby daughter.

I soon learnt that there were certain things that you did and didn’t talk about.

In Australia, it would be unthinkable to ask someone who they voted for. To this day, I would not know who my mother voted for in any election. You could take a wild guess based on someone’s attitudes to social issues, but you would never ask someone outright. It was quite different in the UK, people would not only ask you directly, they also didn’t seem to worry about not bothering to turn up to vote. In Australia, voting is compulsory and always has been, and people take the right to vote very seriously, so 40 years later, when I heard about the whole Brexit saga being brought about by people not bothering to vote, I kind of thought it served them right.

In 1973 I was quite affronted that Britain had chosen to join the Common Market rather than maintaining their strong economic ties with the Commonwealth. In Australia, there were lots of concerns about what we would do with all our sugar. At the time, Australia was a major food supplier to the UK so when they joined the Common Market it effectively closed the British market to many Australian exports, including sugar.

The UK had previously applied to join the EEC in 1963 and 1967 but were refused because the French President, Charles de Gaulle was suspicious about their intentions.

There was never any love lost between the British and the French.

It was rumoured that he feared that English would suddenly become the common language of the community.

In January of 1974 I turned 18, just in time to vote in a general election. I was amazed to find that I was allowed to vote, despite not being a British citizen. Being from a Commonwealth country was still kind of special and Australians and New Zealanders had a privileged status. We had our own queue at the airport and were fast-tracked through immigration along with the locals. We weren’t required to line up in the ‘alien’ queue with all the other non-British people.

I was eager to use my vote and remember being quite interested in the views of a political group who advocated that should Britain retain close ties with “the colonies”. Fortunately, I didn’t vote for the political party that I later discovered was The National Front, a bunch of violent neo-Nazi sympathisers. I still cringe when I think about how naïve I was, but it did give me an understanding of how easily neo-nationalism can lead to darker things. I still hate the mindless flag waving and jingoism that occurs on Australia Day. For me it’s a mere step away from the skinheads and bovver boys smashing windows and painting racist slogans on the sides of buildings.

A poster for the National Front who reached the height of their popularity in the mid-1970s

In the 47 years since Britain joined the European Economic Community, I’ve returned to Australia, gotten married, raised three children, had three careers and travelled the world. I like to think that I’m older and wiser, but I also like to think that I’m still up for new adventures. It’s interesting to reflect on how my history has shaped my views of the world and my place in it. It’s taken a lifetime to get over feeling like I’m not quite cultured enough to hang out with rich people. It’s made me fiercely independent, (sometimes foolishly so), and careful with money (you never know when you might suddenly need to leave the country), but most of all it tells me that when one door closes, another one often opens.

So good luck with brexit Britain. If you need some sugar, just let us know.

Work-life balance

During the week I stepped into the lift at work and heard one man say to his colleague “how are you today?”.

“Wednesday” his co-worker replied. 

I’m assuming that this meant the he was glad that it was Wednesday and that he’d made it that far through the week. It was shorthand for thank goodness we’ve arrived at Wednesday but I’ll be a lot more cheerful when it’s Friday. Bring it on!

It made me think about an article I read ages ago about IT help desks. The guy said that when they re-set people’s passwords they always used the day of the week as a temporary password unless it was Wednesday. They never used Wednesday because people invariably couldn’t spell it and they would keep ringing them back to complain that their password re-set hadn’t worked. That made me laugh.

Anyway back to work. Things are a little bit difficult at work at the moment. We’re in a state of suspended animation whilst we are in the throes of a re-structure and I think quite a few people are pondering their future and what work means to them.

Like many older workers I’m in the happy position of having choices. I appreciate that is not the case for everyone and sometimes I feel a bit guilty about the fact that I can choose what work to do and how long I want to work for. But then I remember that I’ve been working for about 45 years now (not always being paid, but working nevertheless) so I’m allowed to slow down, make time for my hobbies and creative pursuits and just enjoy life.

Today I’ve had a sleep in, been for a swim and finished reading a novel I’ve been trying to get through for ages (it was really good). I’m feeling very relaxed and happy but I’m trying not to sound smug. 

My neighbour came over for a visit earlier. She’s a busy mum with a full time job and two small children, one of whom is a 16 month old ball of energy. She said she’d love to have time to read or just have a little time to herself. I remember feeling like that when I had small children. I was studying part-time at Uni when my children were small and most of my course notes were consumed in the brief interlude when they were glued to the morning television shows.

God bless you Humphrey B Bear. I would never have gained an Arts degree without your help!

My neighbour said that her job is very demanding and that she often works at night to keep up with the workload. It seemed wrong to me until I thought about how many times I came home from work, cooked the dinner, bathed the kids, read stories and then sat down at my computer to finish assignments or mark essays. My husband would see the light on in my study in the wee small hours and wander in to enquire if I was ever coming to bed. 

So I guess we all do the hard yards to make a career for ourselves and look after our families, but in hindsight I sometimes wish I’d made more time for my family and for myself. As the old saying goes… No-one ever lies on their deathbed thinking “I wish I’d stayed longer at work”. 

Euphemisms

I was reading an article on what to wear on long plane trips and the writer suggested that women should avoid wearing gym pants or tights as they felt that displaying your “fine china” could potentially offend other travellers.

I had never heard lady bits referred to as fine china before and this made me laugh quite a lot, but I do agree that sometimes you can see rather more than you would like to see when you’re standing in a queue at the supermarket.

It also got me wondering about why there are so many euphemisms for female body parts, and also whether fine china is merely rhyming slang for vagina or whether it means that some bits of your body should be valued as one would value fine china.

I found this article by Guardian journalist Annalisa Barbieri where she lists the many names that people have invented to talk to their daughters about their bodies. My favourite euphemism is also sparkly bits.

But back to the gym pants in public question. We’ve just been out for lunch and the beautiful young waitress was indeed wearing gym clothes. It surprised me a little but I have to say that she looked fabulous (she was tiny). I’ve also noticed that when I started going to my Saturday morning exercise classes several years ago I used to wear a skirt over my leggings but now I don’t bother. I just wander down the street in my gym gear along with all the other middle-aged women. To be honest I’m probably older than middle-aged, I’m heading into old lady territory, but I still don’t care. Perhaps its because I’m getting older that I don’t care as much or maybe because it’s so normal now that one doesn’t even think twice. Or maybe its because older women feel invisible most of the time, so they think no-one will notice.

Either way, I don’t think I’d be up for wearing my gym gear on a plane. I’d feel a bit exposed and uncomfortable and I don’t think it would be a kind thing to do to my fellow travellers. I’ll be monitoring what other people are wearing though, and looking out for any displays of fine china!

Do you have any favourite or funny euphemisms to share? Feel free to chime in with your comments.

Finding work you love

In a recent post I talked about contemplating my future and a few people have asked me what the outcome was. Did I get the job I was after or otherwise find a way to reinvent myself?

It’s really gratifying that people care enough to ask, however the answer is no on both counts. I didn’t get chosen for the new role I was after, and I haven’t quite gotten around to reinventing myself, but I have begun to think that I’m pretty fortunate to have a choice about what I do for work.

It’s occurred to me that expecting to do something you love when you’re at work is a very middle class preoccupation. It’s very strange that we think that work should be fulfilling when in some countries it’s enough to come home from work safe and unharmed. So many people work are forced to do jobs that are physically dangerous, or so stressful that they live in a state of constant fear. I’m thinking about people who work in hot or cold environments and people who are bullied on a daily basis.

Then there are people who have to stack shelves or work on production lines; not to mention people who have to put up with angry or disgruntled customers. How appalling to have to face that every day. By contrast, my job is heaven.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think it’s foolish to think about doing meaningful work, after all most people would like to live a meaningful life. I was not really surprised to find that a short course run by the School of Life called ‘finding work you love’ is fully booked, so clearly I’m not the only person pondering this. This video from the Book of Life also confirms that many people are interested in doing something worthwhile and interesting with their lives.

Options and advice

Given those caveats, I do enjoy reading books about finding out what you were ‘born to do’. One piece of advice is to write down everything you’ve ever enjoyed doing and then see if you can think of a way to make a living out of one or more of those activities. In my case those activities would be reading, writing, cooking, eating, talking and watching movies. Clearly, there are some opportunities here if I was willing to consider cooking on a large scale, becoming a movie critic, or writing that elusive book. Actually, there’s nothing stopping me from doing any of those things. Oh  and I forgot swimming, but I can’t quite see myself as an Olympic swimmer. It’s a tiny bit late for that.

Another piece of advice I quite like is to work out what sort of things you like doing (and with whom) and try to incorporate that into the job you already have. I’ve been doing this lately in my job and it’s working quite well. I like working with like-minded people so I’ve been putting up my hand to work on projects that interest me with people I like.

The best advice I’ve read is to keep your day job and be open to new opportunities and trying new things. It’s a good idea to spend more time doing the activities you really like doing and less time doing things that don’t bring you any joy.

Working out what you enjoy doing is easy. They’re the things that you do without resentment and you choose to do first. They’re the projects that you start doing and lose track of time. They’re the projects that you take the time to polish and get just right. They’re the things that make you feel strangely proud when you’ve finished. Where you know that you put in the extra effort but it doesn’t matter if anyone else knows or cares.

These are the things that you should spend more time doing. Pretty simple really.

 

What are friends for?

emily gould

Emily Gould at the Brooklyn book festival

 

In a previous post I mentioned a book by Emily Gould that I was planning to read called Friendship, so I thought I’d report back and say that I did read this book and it was quite different to what I expected, but very enjoyable.

Written for a target audience of thirty-somethings, it explores the friendship between two women who are caught up in their own lives and in trying to make their way in the world. They are trying to work out what they really want and what they really stand for. Ultimately it’s about the choices we all make and how much we truly value our friendships.

It’s both funny and sad in places, and it made me think a lot about my friends and whether or not I’ve been a good friend. I’m sure that I’ve probably failed on a few occasions, but the lovely thing about real friends is that forgive you when you fail and they accept you for who you are.

My friends are incredibly important to me, so if any of you are reading this blog, this message is for you. Thanks for being part of my life.

I’m not sure how this post fits with the general theme of this blog, but they say that if you want to improve your writing, you should read well-written books and this book certainly fits into that category. It’s a nice read.