Well, It’s Not 42…

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This is my fiftieth post on treatsandmore and I’m having a little celebration. It’s tempting to write about the problems of shopping for fish, cryptic crosswords, lucky knickers, eating in the dark, or other fripperies but I’ve done all of those, so today in honour of the occasion, I’m going to think about something quite different. Nothing too taxing, just that straightforward little question—what is the meaning of life?

Oddly, I’m not sure that I’ve given this matter much thought before. I’ve been aware of it, of course, but only tangentially, despite the fact that it affects us all. Without a purpose we’re merely existing and waiting for death. The ticklish problem lies in working out what that purpose might be.

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If we weren’t blessed with free will, then it would be easy. We’d simply be like animals and get on with it. Penguins don’t worry about their purpose in life. They don’t have any option. The male stays with the egg in freezing conditions and the female trudges hundreds of miles across the ice to fetch food from the sea. But we’re different—we have choices, and with these comes anxiety about ‘what’s the right route’.

When we’re young then there’s a structure to life. Each year of education brings new challenges and we know more or less what’s coming next. Then suddenly it all comes to an end and we’re cast adrift in a sea of decisions with great crashing waves of doubt. I’ve spoken to several young people recently who have each in different ways expressed the same distress—what should they do with their life?

One of the most settled stages of my own life was when the children were young. Each day I knew what had to be done. Though that’s not to say that it wasn’t challenging at times. For many years, we lived several miles down a country lane and when we first moved we had just one car. My then-husband commuted to London by train and would often get back late. I couldn’t leave the children at home on their own so I’d have to take them with me to fetch him. I’d go round their bedrooms one by one and sit them up, telling them to put on their dressing gown and slippers whilst I went on to the next one. Invariably, I’d go back to gather each of them up, and instead of being ready they would have slipped sleepily back into bed so the rigmarole would start all over again. It was an odd game–a kind of cross between plate spinning and Sleeping Bunnies.

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Photo by Usien

All of that is in the past now and that purposeful, day-to-day parenting space has melted away. Children leaving home, retirement, divorce, illness, bereavement—they all force us to search for a new equilibrium. If you’re religious then that may provide you with your ultimate meaning. But even if you believe in an afterlife then there remains the issue of how to spend one’s life profitably on Earth. And many of us are not religious so we need to construct our own purpose. Mine, over the past few years, has centred around wanting to learn new things and have new experiences. I certainly don’t always manage it, but I also want to be kind where I can. Thoughtfulness passes on like a relay baton from one person to the next and to my mind can only improve the overall quality of all our lives.

The meaning of life is one of those things that you start to notice everywhere once it’s in your head. The same day that I’d had a long, hard think about it, I went to see the film Jackie, and there it was right at the centre. The dazed, bereaved, ex-First Lady, Jackie Kennedy talks to a priest just a few days after her husband’s assassination. “What’s the meaning of it all?” she asks. The priest, played by the late John Hurt, replies,It takes a long time to realise it, but the truth is that there are no answers. None.” That’s pretty much what I’d been thinking all day.

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Photo: Cecil W Stoughton

One approach that I do find useful is the philosophy of Viktor Frankl whose memoir, Man’s Search for Meaning, is in development as a film. He was an Austrian psychiatrist who spent three years as an inmate in Nazi concentration camps. Despite his own hardships and the loss of his wife and most of his family, he encouraged fellow prisoners to fight for their survival by finding meaning in their suffering. Later, he developed logotherapy, a branch of existential analysis. At its core is the idea that to live is to suffer and if there is a purpose in life then there must be a purpose in suffering. But no one can tell another person what that purpose is. Our lives are all so different. We must each find out for ourselves and take responsibility for how this relates to our own life and situation. That is personal growth.

As I said at the start–nothing heavy.

And another thought…

It bothers me to know that when my heart stops beating and I close my eyes for the last time, then all the thoughts and memories that I’ve gathered through my life, will just disappear. Maybe this is one reason why humans have such a strong drive to be creative. Whether it’s a painting, a photo, a song, a patchwork quilt or a poem they can each outlast our own life so that a bit of us cheats death.

Maybe even a blog can do that. Thank you to everyone who has read any, or all of these fifty posts. I’ve really enjoyed writing them. And as I’ve probably got a few more thoughts and memories to gather together, then I intend to keep going. It’s a purpose–of sorts.

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More For Less

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We all know that patience is a virtue but unfortunately it was in short supply when my children were young. There seemed to be so much to get done, and one of the things that frustrated me most was the painfully slow rate of progress whenever we went out. They’d trail along, dropping things and stopping and starting so that it took forever to get anywhere. My solution was to train them all to walk extremely fast. I strode along at a cracking pace and they soon learned to keep up. The younger ones protested at first but before long they’d be trotting along with their older siblings. In true dictator-style I managed to persuade myself that it was good for them as they would develop ‘wonderfully strong legs.’ But now many years later, I get my comeuppance for this hard-hearted mothering whenever I go anywhere with Henry.  As he races ahead with his ‘wonderfully strong’ 23-year old legs he looks back wryly over his shoulder and calls, ‘Come on Mum—keep up.’

Thinking back, I realise that I’ve spent my whole life being in a hurry and it’s a perspective that I must have picked up from my mother. She was always rushing around but I’m not quite sure why. Even after she stopped work, she would have urgent washing to hang out or pressing cupboards to tidy.  I’m inclined to do this, too – always dashing to get one thing finished so I can move on to the next. And one thing at a time is never enough. If I can put some washing on whilst sending a text that is good, and if I can build in a few exercises at the same time, and listen to the radio, too, then even better.

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But this habit was challenged on Boxing Day morning. The family had all gone out and I found myself with a couple of hours, and nothing particular to do. It felt very odd. I wandered around a bit, nibbled a mince pie, and then remembered that I was part-way through listening to number twelve on my project of Channel 4’s top 100 albums. Normally I put these on while I’m cooking, ironing or driving but this time I settled down in our big, comfortable old sofa and for an hour I gave it my undivided attention. It was both a revelation and a liberation—just me and the White Album. I really listened to it.

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The enjoyment and relaxation that I got from just doing one thing at a time set me thinking and I did a bit of research. Much has been written in recent years about the myth of multi-tasking and it seems that it’s a lot less efficient than people believe. It’s only possible to focus on one task at a time so if you’re juggling several activities, there is a constant process of swapping between them. This swap takes only tenths of a second but it’s energy sapping and many studies have found that repeated switching reduces effectiveness. There is also pressure from many kinds of media so that many of us live in a state of what has been called ‘continuous partial attention’—constantly checking our phones, Facebook and other media to make sure that we don’t miss anything. The net result is of attention spread thinly across a number of tasks.

I always claim to love BBC Radio Four but it occurred to me that in nearly forty years of listening, I have never given it my full attention for more than a few minutes at a time. Television and cinema require you to both watch and listen but with radio it’s all too easy to dip in and out, missing huge chunks as you get on with other things.  And for me, the irony of this realisation is that on the whole, I prefer radio to other media–the quality and range of programmes is astounding. So I decided this week to do an experiment and spend a whole morning doing nothing but listening to Radio Four.

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Even after I’d resolved to do this and had carved out a morning clear of work, it was difficult to give myself permission to do just this one thing. ‘Why not make a cake at the same time?’ said my internal time manager, helpfully. ‘No’, I said.

‘You could put on some headphones and go for a walk,’ it replied. ‘That way you could pick up some shopping, too.’ ‘No’, I said firmly. ‘Tidy some cupboards?’ it suggested.

‘Shut up’, I said and closed the door to the sitting room.

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Over the next three hours I listened to accounts of swan migration, women-only offices, the response of the Catholic Church to the Reformation, and Greenpeace protests. I learned that every month in London about two hundred young people are stabbed, and I heard some of their stories. They were shocking. A bike designer explained that crossbars are a hangover from the Victorian period when women had huge skirts and had to avoid showing their ankles. I enjoyed some snippets of poetry by Gerard Manley Hopkins and was glad to hear that just before he died, he said ‘I’m so happy’ several times. There was an old interview with the journalist Claire Hollingworth who got the scoop of the century when she reported on the outbreak of the Second World War. Then there was a drama set in Kosovo. Normally I would have zoned out while this was on but it was moving and I’m grateful to have heard it. And every hour in the news there was the juxtaposition of the outgoing U.S. President’s intelligent, gracious farewell speech with the incoming President’s latest block capital (i.e. shouty) tweets.

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I don’t think that this was an exceptional morning on Radio Four but the overall standard is so high that even on an ordinary day, it was interesting throughout. By the end of my experiment, I’d not achieved anything tangible—no cake, no shopping, no tidy cupboards. But I was relaxed and had absorbed new ideas which changed me in various small ways. It’s not a treat I can manage to do very often, but my multi-tasking handcuffs are broken, and I look forward to my next Radio Four indulgence. More importantly, I must pass on the message to my children that they don’t have to walk so fast.

Biting the Dentist’s Finger

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Photo: Marie-Lan Nguyen

It must be a relief to the Queen to have got to New Year’s Day, and Paul McCartney is surely feeling thankful, too. Many other familiar figures haven’t been so fortunate this year and I for one, will particularly miss Alan Rickman and Leonard Cohen. But making it to the finish line of 2016 is no protection against the inescapable process of ageing, and Buckingham Palace recently announced that the Queen is reducing her workload. It came as a surprise because she has been monarch for so long, but to step down as patron from just twenty-five of her six hundred favoured organisations, seems entirely reasonable— in her ninety-first year, she of all people has earned the right to slow down a bit.

This year, the ageing process has had a big impact on my own family and I’ve written previously (The Old Man and the Pea, Enhanced Eating, Beginning, Middle and End), about the 96-year old gentleman who lived for many months in my sitting room. This July he became my father-in-law and a few months later we moved to the house that was refurbished with his needs in mind. The garage has been converted into a bedroom and separate wet room for him, but sadly he has been unable to make much use of them. A brain bleed in the summer exacerbated his confusion, and by the time we moved, he had descended into dementia with disturbed nights, falls and agitation. This autumn it became clear that we could no longer cope, and he went to live in a nursing home a few miles away. We’ve had inevitable moments of sadness and doubt but we know that he needs professional care, from trained staff who have all the right equipment and can care for him around the clock.

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We visit regularly but the variability of his condition means that we never know what to expect. Some days he is unable to walk and the carers use a hoist to move him. On other days, he sets off down the corridor at quite a speed, a small white-haired figure hunched purposefully over his walking frame. There have been occasions when we’ve sat with him and he has barely responded; some when he has produced long fluent-sounding sentences that make no sense, and others when he has been chatty and business-like as if trying to regain some control over his life. ‘Now, what’s going on?’ he asked briskly on a recent visit, ‘Are we waiting for the paperwork?’

At the moment he is fairly lucid and can recite long stretches of the poetry that he learned over seventy-five years ago as a young man. But it’s all rather patchy and he couldn’t make much sense of the recent festivities. ‘I’m having trouble placing Christmas. It’s some kind of religious thing, isn’t it?’

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The good days are to be treasured and sometimes he dredges up surprising memories. I was sitting with him a few weeks ago, when he told me a story about his sister, Betty: ‘The dentist stuck his finger in her mouth, and she nearly took the end of it off. The police wanted to prosecute…’ ‘How old was she?’ I asked, unsure whether I should be conjuring up an image of a naughty 6-year old or a skittish pensioner. But he couldn’t remember and that was the end of the story. ‘Where is she now?’ he asked.  ‘She died,’ I said and then regretted being blunt, as he looked so sad—like he was hearing the news for the very first time.

Not only do we see a lot of Frank, but we’re becoming familiar with the other nursing home residents, too. We try to make polite conversation but usually get little response. One old lady sits at the dining table in baggy clothes, with her hands tidily in her lap. She has club-cut, chin-length grey hair and when we say hello, she stares at us. ‘What’s my name?’ she whispers in quiet desperation.

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It’s reassuring that we turn up unannounced at different times of day and the home is always the same. The staff seem kind and the cook told us recently that Frank asked for apple pie, so she made a little one, just for him. He’s not sure where he is, but does acknowledge that he’s well looked after.

I’ve learned a lot from Frank. I’ve heard his stories of being in the Army during the war, of being in Burma, and of building a successful career in South Africa. He achieved the highest marks in the country in his engineering maths exams, and he raised a clutch of good, kind children. Yet it seems extraordinary to me that until he came into my life, I’d lived for fifty-six years with virtually no exposure to this world of age-related decline. My own parents didn’t live long enough for that. It’s frequently hidden away behind the doors of nursing homes but it’s increasingly likely to have an impact on all of us in one way or another. Recently, dementia overtook heart disease as the leading cause of death in England and Wales.

Over the past year, more than ever, life seems to be galloping along so I want to make hay while it’s sunny. I read recently that one reason why time seems to go faster as we age is that we have fewer novel experiences. Repetition and routine simply don’t stand out in our memories. Last January I resolved not to feel guilty and for some of the time I managed to keep this sentiment in mind. Now it’s time for another resolution and there are still a number of treats waiting on my list. Amongst other things, I hope to visit St Petersburg and Dublin, to do some family history research, to listen to more of the top 100 albums, and to continue walking the glorious South-West Coastal Footpath. There’s nothing I can do to slow time down and no-one, except Benjamin Button ever got any younger. But maybe…just maybe…with a few new experiences it might be more of a trot and less of a gallop.

Happy New Year.

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