This week I was walking home and met a couple of cats. The first sauntered across the pavement, arched its back, yowled and invited me to fuss it. I can’t help but feel honoured when a cat deigns to talk to me so I stopped and stroked it but within seconds it got bored and wandered off to find someone else. Later, when I reached the golf course at the back of our house, a second cat darted out of the long grass and wound itself round my feet.
At the moment I have no animals of my own but there was a time when I had rather a lot. There were cats, dogs, chickens, geese, goats, and from time to time some lambs and pigs. We had a bit of land and in the morning I would lead the two goats down to the tangled woods where they would browse contentedly all day amongst the brambles. In the evening I would bring them back to their shed and lock them up for the night. That was the general plan but sometimes life didn’t go smoothly and I’d get distracted and forget to collect them. Then I’d wake up in the small hours and lie there feeling guilty. Goats hate getting cold and wet, so eventually my conscience would propel me out in my dressing gown; across the dark field and through the gate by the stream. There, Gwyneth and Mirabel would appear from amongst the shadowy, crowded trees, full of curiosity. What inevitably followed was a merry dance as I attempted to attach them to my rope and they did their best to trip me up.
Life’s a bit different twenty years on. Not only do I have no animals, but the children have grown up, and I live in a city. Several times recently I’ve crept out in the dark in my dressing gown but this has been for entirely urban reasons. The garage in our last house didn’t lock properly and as there had been a spate of petty burglaries we used to drive the car down the back alley and park it across the garage door to block it off. A few times we forgot and had to go out late at night to do it. Each time as I walked along the alley back to the house I’d remember the goats and be grateful that I no longer had to get involved in a moonlit rope dance. All I had to do was park my car, lock it and go back to my nice warm bed.
My joy at no longer having to do this, makes me wonder why I did it in the first place. I liked the idea of keeping animals and raising our own meat in an idyllic country setting. But the cold, muddy reality was a challenge. It did create a rich mine of family memories which we all relive when we get together, but I do wonder if I might have been more ‘me’ if I’d done something else.
Often life doesn’t allow us to have free choice, but there are mixed difficulties in even getting to the starting point of knowing what we want. It’s all too easy to get stuck in a role that bends us out of shape. Sometimes we’re not honest with ourselves. We might aim for a fantasy lifestyle, or make choices that are driven by how we want others to see us. I look back at the goat days and wonder whether I knew myself at all. It’s only been in recent years that I’ve started to remember what I love and to explore what I really want. The treats have played an unexpected part in this. They’ve been experiments in identity.
Some of the things I’ve done have forced me to confront the truth that I’m not brave, sporty or good at sewing. I never was and I may as well accept now that it’s unlikely to change. Other treats have reinforced that I love films, cooking, walking by the sea, and travel. I’ve also discovered a few new pleasures—jazz, live music, birds, industrial history and urban landscapes.
I hope I’ll never stop trying new things. But maybe with age I’m getting better at choosing the kinds of things that I like. It’s also worth remembering that it wouldn’t be real if life was all perfect—we need challenges, wrong turns and changes of heart. They write the novels of our lives and make us who we are. I talked last time about my favourite words—kitten, elastic and home. Every list has a counter-list and I’ve only just started to wonder what my least favourite word might be. I think that a strong contender has to be ‘regret’. The goats were frustrating and exhausting but on balance, I don’t want regrets and I’m glad to have had these experiences—it’s just the way things turned out. Nonetheless in the spirit of getting to know myself better, I’m going to hang onto the thought that these days I much prefer a backstreet city alley to a dark, slippery field.
And that issue of exploring who we are brings me to another in the chain interview series. This time, Maria Leaf, talks about her life in drama. Click here to read about her inspiring work and her mid-life treat.