What I Would Tell the Younger Me
I can see my younger self through the years: the chubby, shy teenager, the employee in a new job determinedly trying to work out how to make myself a good journalist but no less important, how to be liked. The young adult wondering if I would meet a man with whom I might make a family, and tremblingly uncertain that any man who I wanted would want me .
Then there's the woman in her 40s with a partner, a home, children, a job she cherished and yet was still beset by uncertainties, the feeling that she had not done well enough , hadn't achieved as others had or seized opportunities wisely. Nor was she much good at dealing effectively with arguments, disputes with friends preferring retreat to confrontation . And when it came to the relationship with her partner - well emotional intelligence sped out the door when they began rowing.
Oh, there was fun, laughter , happy, loving times and hi-jinks of the psyche too, but what I see is this younger self struggling with the human condition, getting into situations she had no skills to avoid nor was she very good at stepping back and understanding how she might deal better. Or how she might dare to say what she wanted without fearing being ostracised by others; dare wear the clothes she loved but had backed off for fear of being seen as making a fool of herself. So how curious to find myself now, just turned 70 and feeling so much better at life than I did then.
Realising that through those years of growing up I have gained some life skills that really do seem to make living life easier in a way that feels harmonious and rewarding. So much so that I have written my latest book The Year I Turn?: A Quirky A-Z of Ageing, describing the ways in which it seems to me there are many psychological gains in later life. And I find myself wanting to have a word or two with that younger me, to pass on a few tips I think might help and which might make the future and the ageing process look less like the law of diminishing returns, or the way writer Anthony Powell described when reflecting on ageing: “I feel I am increasingly punished for a crime I haven't committed."
Here then , young me, are the life-weathered thoughts:
1. So much is said about the way our bodies deteriorate, seemingly inevitably, as we age, that it's no surprise we fear the year when the disintegration sets in and we become less and less physically agile and able. But listen up to the health writer Jerome Burne when he points out that you can even take a late in life body that has not been much exercised, put it on a regular and reasonably demanding exercise regime, and do a great improvement job. The Archives of Internal Medicine has published research showing that taking up exercise after retirement can prolong life and greatly increase chances of living until 90. I don't know about that, but I do know that taking up pilates and yoga four times a week has given me a body that is better turned and more supple than I can ever remember and I like it better.
2. It is unnerving to find as we hit the mid-forties, more or less, that life seems suddenly full of is-this-it? questions. A sense that we have had the exciting years of finding a mate, creating a home of one's own, bringing up children, building a career, and there no longer seem to be important goals ahead. So it is that looking to some kind of excitement, frequently a sexual peccadillo, looms large. The mid-life crisis is often treated as a bit of a joke with chaps darting after office secretaries and sinking the family savings in a scarlet Ferrari; women channel their inner cougar and see only a jaded fellow who is not what he was in their life partner.
But avoid, unless you are truly miserable in your life, the tendency to jump off the cliff in pursuit of a new dream. The chances are a better solution is finding something new that you can fit into your life without upending all you have established as affairs so often do. A new skill to learn which also brings new friends; a cause to get involved in which brings a boost to your sense of self-worth, an adventurous expedition that reminds you what a fascinating world we live in. Speaking as an elder who indeed teetered on the edge at this life stage, I am so glad l didn't jump because these days the familiarity of a domestic life, a partner I know and enjoy in a new way carved from battling emotional chaos at times, the joy of sharing a grandchild, I realise how all the history that makes this possible could so easily have been jettisoned.
3. Learn to step back from the red hot fire of argument. My husband and I spent so many years kicking emotional intelligence into the long grass as we fumed and furied at each other, temperatures mounting, our ears blocked to what the other was actually saying, often over the most fundamentally unimportant things, and making ourselves miserable until we found a way to make up. Now I try to live by the wisdom of Mark Twain who, talking about the business of mind over matter put it this way: “if you don't mind, it doesn't matter".
4. Cherish your friends, treat them well try not to get into the destructive gossip game which all too easily makes us see the person being discussed differently, when our own experience of them, our own judgement is the important thing. Friends as you age are the gold standard, making life feel a good place to be, comforting and caring when you need it and, hell, a source of fun and laughter.
5. If you have rifts or a stand-off with family members try to heal these. So often there is false pride and blame that is not thought through properly at the root of the bad feelings. But as you age having a close family is better than good. I had a tricky time with my eldest son from his teens into twenties as he seemed to me to be unduly hard and keen to keep me at a distance. But I tried to build on the better times with him and then, when his wife was pregnant, they asked to rent the flat beneath ours in our flat. The result is an extended family which makes us all happy and means we have an easy-going come and go relationship.
6. Hold in mind that our fears of rejection, of not being valued, of not being good enough, envy of others who seem to have been so much more successful than we, in what they have done with life, are ways of beating ourselves up . If you can learn to step back and say you are not playing the self-critic game, life becomes far more harmonious.
7. Ignore fear of looking foolish, mutton dressed as lamb, if you wear the clothes that you have enjoyed and felt are you through the years of being a younger adult and imbibe the belief that clothes you enjoy are what you should wear; there is no God-given need to adopt mushroom coloured sweaters and sensible slacks. Watch Channel Four's wonderful programme Fabulous Fashionistas where seniors talk about their fearless flamboyant style. And rather than feeling you should not frighten the horses with your appearance, say anyone who doesn't like it needn't look.
8. Look around you at people who have moved into the silver surfer's camp and see how many do not fit the stereotype of an elderly person caricatured in the Giles cartoon of a hunched, dark clad, ultra-wrinkled cantankerous creature. In fact you can hardly pick up a paper or magazine these days without 70s, 80s and 90s even being hailed as wonderful examples of what ageing can mean. And nail to the wall of your psyche the result of a study of 72 nations that found that, universally, people talked of feeling happier than in younger years because they are so much better at controlling emotions and less prone to anger.
You may even find yourself looking forward to the bus-pass era.