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Thriving is elegant

“Surviving is important, thriving is elegant”

Maya Angelou

The warmest welcome to my first blog post on Life in the Middle Lane. (Thank you Daniella Browne for the title). I am so excited, and full of passion, for this new project as it’s something I’ve been wanting to do for years. My aim is to build a virtual coffee table of like minded women of all ages. A place where we can sit around talk, laugh, cry about all the funny, happy, sad things that happen in our amazing lives. I remember the way my Irish Mother and her sisters would sit around gossiping, putting the world to rights. They had hard lives, but they were full of joy and spirit. I love that

A little about me. I’m a journalist who’s spent the past 30 years working in various parts of the media from newspapers, magazines to TV presenting. I’ve written a book about my life (more about this in a minute) and I run a media and communications agency http://www.apple-box.co.uk. I think they call it a portfolio career – I never was one for the 9-5. I live a kind of urban life in South London. Love anything creative – the cinema, theatre, dance, drama …. am bonkers about fashion, make-up and sitting in coffee shops watching people go by.

I’m 55 and I’m a Mother and a Grand Mother (still sounds strange). I have a gorgeous new partner and in full midlife crisis mode I’m just buying a motorbike (well actually it’s a vespa – easier to balance). I’m a yoga teacher on the side (a huge life passion) and a novice Buddhist. I love good wine, maple covered scones and – like many of us – now have a daily struggle with my weight. I was skinny up to 50 and then it all went wrong:( I have a great life…. but it wasn’t always this way and I know now, for sure, that this is a sunny spell. Life will go wrong again and again I will know that the richest, best-est, greatest part of life is love and connections. And these will hold me up again and again. Oh and plans for the year ahead include: getting back on a horse having broken my back on one in my early 20s. Nice gentle safe riding on Wimbledon common – but if horses are in your blood – you just can’t leave the idea alone. I long to get back in the saddle and I’ll be sharing this little journey with all of you.

A life of contradictions and many different hats. I bet loads of us are like this.

Now for the sad bit. I’m a widow. I was so happily married to Simon for 14 years and he was the best of men. He got Motor Neurone Disease in his early 50s and headed off pretty swiftly for an assisted death in Switzerland. But much worse, just a year before this I lost my most precious youngest daughter Chloe to cancer two weeks after her 18th birthday. If you want to know more I’ve written an Amazon best selling book about this splendid

It’s 4 years since I lost my husband, over 5 since my daughter died. And I’m here – battered and bruised around the edges – but burning with a passion to live the best possible life. I don’t want to dodge the difficult bits, in fact I want to talk about them, but I want to do this with a light touch and an understanding that life is full of dark, light and shades of grey. That there is always choice, even in the darkest places. That idea of surfing the waves always comes to mind. I know how hard life can be, but I hope by being here and showing up that I will prove that I have something to say/to offer others on a kind of manual on how to get back up there and live life full on again.

And who will you be – dear reader. I can kind of see some of you, visualise you around my coffee table. I think you’ll be female, although men are surprising me lately. I know that you will have the hugest heart and passion for life. You’ll want to live on your terms and push the boundaries in all kinds of ways. You may be looking for new and different things or new friends and connections. I can’t wait to meet you all.

So what do I want at the end of one year of this project. I want to have made a tiny difference in somebody’s life. Even if it’s one person’s life – that is enough. Every day I get emails/letters from people who say that my book and newspaper/magazine articles have helped in the darkest of times – that is a best feeling in life for me. That is success. So I want the same here. If I just make one of you laugh, smile, or think you can get up when all you feel like doing is hiding under the bedsheets – that is good enough for me. As a mid-life woman I will be talking about all the older stuff sometimes – but I hope some young women/people will join us too. I’m a Mother of daughters, a woman’s woman – and I think my younger friends, of which there are quite a few, will find our topics interesting too.

Of course I will look to do podcasts, bits of video, interviews with other women and lots/lots more.

Smiles,

Debbie xxxx

“There’s nothing wrong with loving something you can’t hold in your hand”

Ghosteen, from the album Ghosteen by Nick Cave

Oh what to do on a day like today. Such a sense that sadness is thick in the air for all, do you dear reader, really need to know more about mine? I will try and give you some shades of light, with my darkness, and maybe a reason to believe, but if you want to look away please do.

It is always alright to look away. Sometimes we just can’t take any more sadness and that doesn’t mean that we don’t care. I know this is true, but I’ve struggled with this one.

You see my little girl would have been 26 tomorrow. And that really really matters to me. Each milestone a chance to reignite that roaring furnace of love, so tightly woven together with searing pain and grief. It is now eight years since my Chloe Jane died, but if you saw the state of my heart you’d think it was minutes ago.

As CS Lewis observed “It is the case is it not, that grief is, at the very least, one of the prices we pay for love.”

…and was it worth it? She asked me that once. She asked if I’d regretted having her as she could see how her dying was ripping me apart. Oh dear girl if only you knew – my girls were my very reason for breathing. I’d give my life for a minute to hear her voice again, touch her hand. It was worth everything to me and in a heartbeat if it meant I could have picked her as my daughter I’d do it all again.

Pictures are so important don’t you think. Words so often feeble in the face of this kind of grief. I scoured them all. The gorgeous blue eyed long limbed child who shone with life, hope and possibility. Tall and dark like her father, but I could always see my family in the way her eyes tilted slightly downwards and her mouth with that huge grin. I remember her mouth so well.

The picture had to nail something for me. Her burning spirit and a single minded mission to drink up all that life was offering for a beautiful, funny, sassy teenage girl. Boy, just a month ago this girl had had life at her feet, we hadn’t known then of the tsunami of cells that were about to break loose in her body and bring our wonderful life to an end. Forever.

The scene, a familiar one. The ribena bottle with a nod back to “I’m still a little girl at heart”. Drawers stuffed with the obligatory make up (including quite a bit of mine that had mysteriously gone missing) and my bold girl bursting with creativity wanting to dress up to the nines at any opportunity. F**k You Cancer – she had this emblazoned on her very spirit – this girl was not going down without one hell of a fight.

Chemotherapy in the morning, heels, nails and her oh so loyal girl gang seemed to form a steel circle of love and protection to see her on her way. Maybe they knew, as we did and I’m quite certain that she did although she never let on, that every evening was a chance to grab a little of life’s magic in the fading of the light.

I don’t write to make you sad, I write because it is terribly terribly important for us bereaved Mothers to raise the flame of our child’s memory above our heads and keep charging forward so in some way she gets to be taken into the future that she was so cruelly robbed of. Say her name, I shout. Because, you know what, people stop saying it and that hurts us all very much. And I know that people don’t really mean to hurt me – it just does.

Hope is a funny thing. It comes back when you least expect it. A hushed white winter morning, a smile from a random stranger, a promise of something better. I glimpsed it today in a beautiful painting with hints of warmer lighter spring days ahead. We humans are built to survive anything and I am living proof of that. I’ve come to love and embrace my dark days – major health warning here never push these dark days away as that is where trouble lies – I sit with them and let the emotion permeate my whole body. I am very very sad and that feels very appropriate.

When it’s done with me the weight of the sadness lifts a little and like a flickering candle a little joy and hope peek above the gloom. And for that I’m very grateful. In those moments I can tuck my child back into my heart and keep her close and safe. She talks to me sometimes and often I answer always in a whisper.

I so wish I’d written the following, as it so perfectly captures what I’m trying to say here. But how can anyone match the mighty Nick Cave when it comes to things like this.

“Grief is tidal. In time it can recede and leave us with feelings of peace and advancement, only for it to wash back in with all its crushing hopelessness and sorrow. Back and forth it goes, but with each retracting drift or despair, we are left a little stronger, more resilient, more essential and better in our new life.”

There is always light to be had. Always some light.

I dedicate my post to my daughter first and foremost and then to all of you who have suffered bereavement recently. Step gently dear friends it will in time get better.

Debbie x

“At 70 years old, if I could give my younger self one piece of advice, it would be to use the words “f**k off” much more frequently.”

Helen Mirren

Wow there’s something happening to me as the year closes. It’s something kinda wonderful and dear readers, if you haven’t already taken it up yourself, I urge you to do it right away. Along with wild water swimming, getting a first tattoo (more about this in a minute) and embracing boyfriend jeans and Dr. Martens (honestly the ultimate cool mid-life uniform) – it is a right of passage at a certain age to STOP being nice.

Kind is cool. Nice is not. My 93 year old Mother in Law warned me way back when “Don’t you dare call me nice. People who are nice don’t have any opinions.” (Believe me the one thing she doesn’t lack is opinions) .

I’ve always thought I’d cultivated a “nice’ exterior and been a bit of a people pleaser. It was only when a friend almost choked in laughter at the revelation that I was dropping the nice act – that I decided to re-evaluate. Slightly red faced, to her credit, she tried to explain “You’re smiley but that’s a very different thing to being too nice,” she explained. Pushed further she admitted “Debs, really we all know you are steely as hell underneath that gentle exterior” .

Whoa – that was definitely not how I’ve felt all my life. Heavens would I have had any friends at all if I’d shown the real self early on. There’s a thought.

But on closer inspection I began to like the fact that my South London background, being the youngest of three in a bonkers Irish family, holding my own in testosterone fuelled newsrooms and more latterly causing a hell of a stir around the injustices of how we treat children with cancer – I settled into the thought Yes I didn’t let nice get in the way too often. And for that I’m really pleased.

But like all things in life moderation is probably the key here and not being nice in the right circumstances takes some navigating. And not being nice DEFINITELY does not mean being a bully, lacking compassion and empathy – it just really means not putting up with bullshit, being bold enough to say no and nothing else (young women this is a skill worth cultivating), turning away from people or things that aren’t good for you.

I guess above all else it means respecting yourself , your values and opinions first and foremost. Never, ever veer from this path you youngsters – you’ll thank me later.

And all of this means that you have more time, space and an open heart to give to those who need your time, attention and love. It also gives you space to work on your internal values and decide how your life is going to be from here on in. In short not being nice gives you everything you need to be a very good person when you decide you want to be.

Watching the sad/happy/tender/nostalgic documentary on the wonderful Billy Connelly last night, Russell Brand (I’m a big fan) said Connelly got away with humour that from somebody else would have been discarded as brutal or revolting – because he had the audience’s heart. Ah the wisdom of crowds eh – he could push right to the edge of acceptable taste, because they all knew that his soul was good. In fact through the tears, I realised he has one of the most magical souls we’ve ever had the good fortune to have been around. Brand, too, if you look past the silly school boy pranks, is a deep thinker who has some amazing things to say about mental health – particularly for young men.

So I think the same is with ditching the nice act – it’s fine if underneath you are actually a good, decent person. It is not if you aren’t.

So back to the tattoo. There’s an Irish saying that each soul is born at a certain age and stays that way throughout their life. Some, hmm I’ve known a few, stay childlike throughout their lives, dodging responsibility and generally leaning on other people (I’ll stop there I think) and others, like me, are old souls from day one. I feel I’ve always been middle aged, always preferred a quiet night in with a book even if I’d spent a fortune on the latest leather trousers, never did drugs and as a journalist was once caught pouring a third glass of wine into a plant pot – as after two glasses I’d literally pass out. Not much rock and roll there I’m afraid.

Yes, I was the laughing stock of the newsroom for a good week after that.

But I never really minded and anyhow I got my revenge. As other more wild souls lament the passing of their youth, I’m feeling very much at home in my rounder middle-aged body and as staying in is the new going out – I feel the world has finally caught up with me. Honestly I can still shake with excitement in a Waterstones surrounded by all the different lives and opinions I can delve into. Love really is a good book.

BUT, this past year my personal stylist at Harvey Nicholls coerced me into stepping into these full on black rebellious Dr martens. OMG the world turned for me – it was love! Staring into the mirror I thought of all the cool rockstars from my youth – Debbie Harry, Chrissie Hynde, Tina Turner … why didn’t I realise back then what a pair of boots could do. I could have been a contender …

Back home he nodded in approval but then muttered “thing is I’ve always thought you were more a Call the Midwife kind of girl”. Bubble burst, but I still love the boots.

And guess what, he doesn’t know this yet BUT I’m following veteran broadcaster David Dimbleby, who got his first tattoo at 75, and getting my first one at 57. How about that.

It will be on my wrist and it will be of a Celtic Knot, these knots are complete loops and have no start or finish and are said to represent eternal bonds.

Underneath I will have written the two most beautiful names in the world – the names of my two daughters Hannah and Chloe.

Warmest love

Debbie x

For after all, the best thing one can do when it is raining is let it rain

Henry wadsworth longfellow

Oh the beauty, the loneliness, the devastation of the soul – all captured in this magnificent painting called The Isle of the dead by Arnold Böcklin, 1883.

Böcklin, was a Swiss symbolist painter who combined mythical stories with real-world inspiration to create striking fantastical paintings.

‘The Isle of the Dead’ is loosely based on the English Cemetery in Florence, Italy, near where he had an art studio. It was where he had laid to rest his baby daughter, Maria. No wonder then that ‘The Isle of the Dead’ is a bleak, desolate place, with a lonely white figure journeying into its shadow.

When I first saw this painting, without knowing the history, it brought me to my knees. The white figure, alone, once again visiting that dark lonely place where only she can go. That she stands ready as she knows that in this lifetime she is sentenced to revisit this dark place again and again. This is her place. Her place alone. And strangely for that she is eternally grateful – it is where she gets to be again with her precious child.

The pain of the loss was equal to the love that I had for her

When my child died I learnt that my favourite place was deep down with the tsunami of pain in my heart. It was that that connected me to her and gave me some peace. I learnt not to look away. The pain of her loss was equal to the love that I had for her. And that love was as big as the universe, so there was no getting away from the loss in this lifetime. I made peace with that.

But dear reader, I do not write to make you sad. I write to explain how my life has been made more lovely, more peaceful, richer through embracing the sadness, the difficulties and the hardships of life. I really do believe that the worst pain we can subject ourselves to, as human beings, is to buy into the myth that life must only ever be wonderful, magical and that nothing must change.

In Mark Carney’s Reith Lecture he charts how the world had come to esteem financial value over human value and how we have gone from market economies to market societies. How so many of us turned away from the inconvenient truth of the current and looming horrors of climate change. He even suggests that we turned out back on the whole concept of death – in a world where economic value had replaced God, death is for “losers” some could say.

And then Covid happened and death was back on the table. And perhaps also we were all left face to face with our own fundamental vulnerability – the fragility of human life. Did we all pause and look into the eyes of our loved ones, young and old, and remember that it is the ties that bind us that really matter in the end even though the object of our love may not be “economically viable”.

As millions of people stepped up to help their fellow man through volunteering for the NHS, food banks, or just giving more/a smile of acknowledgement to the people who beg on the streets – governments across the world seemed to step up and decide that when it really comes to it human life has the highest value of all.

For me there is such hope in this shifting mindset. Life and how we live it is everybody’s business – or should be. What madness is it that we lock ourselves away in gated houses that are way too big for us, when our fellow man sits on the street without a home, a hot meal or a loving embrace. There is a saying that parents can only be as happy as their unhappiest child, maybe this should apply to our wider world.

I learnt helplessness, vulnerability and the power of acceptance when my 15 year old daughter was diagnosed with cancer. Until that point I’d believed my own “bull***t – a pointy elbowed middle class entitled Mother and a journalist to boot. I’d faced down many opponents and mistakenly thought that friends in high places, knowing how to work systems and knowing how and when to fight. I had this cancer thing – it was only a matter of working my way around the system.

Ha I could feel the Gods laughing at me – my best was completely pointless in the wider plan. It was a freezing snowy winter’s night, the wind was howling and shaking the windows of the hospital and there was snow on the ground. Still so beautiful, I thought. But the very fabric of my whole imagined life was being blown apart – I felt like I was in an emotional war zone. I remember to this day my head in my hands, tears streaming down my face, running through the hospital corridors. Before that moment I had always searched for a doctor. That day I needed my priest.

Physicians who work on children’s cancer wards (if there is a heaven or whatever please God let these people be first in the queue) wait patiently for the parent to reach this point. As they know that it is in the acceptance of death that one can really start to live again. I am so grateful for my breakdown, at it enabled me to start loving and living with my child exactly as she was. I had 12 months in this state with my youngest girl and it held some of the most profound and wonderful moments of my life.

Or as Lao Tzu, the first philosopher of Chinese Daosim said “Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.”

At Christmas, like many of you I rest more on the empty chairs around the table. And like you there will be more this year – but so thankfully they will be back again next year. And for that I cannot tell you how joyfully grateful I am. I will weep, as I always do, and I will wonder, as I always do, what she would have been like now. All grown up, those beautiful deep green Irish eyes and the courage of a lion.

This Christmas I will write, as I always do. Only this time I will share with you if you care to read/to listen and I hope to persuade you that there is such beauty in the acceptance of sadness. That despite whatever happens in life there is always a reason to be hopeful and to learn to love life again.

And for my sake, as much as yours, I will search out beautiful pieces of art, literature, poetry that will help us on our way and remind us all that despite everything it really is a very beautiful world indeed.

I love this quote and wish that you find many friends like this in your life

“A friend is someone who gives you total freedom to be yourself-and especially to feel, or not feel. Whatever you happen to be feeling at any moment is fine with them. That’s what real love amounts to – letting a person be what he really is.”
― Jim Morrison

Debbie x

Yoga, sherry and 10 life lessons from 57 years on earth

Yesterday, 22nd October, was my birthday. And despite Boris Johnson trying to ruin it all with his Tier 2 lockdown it was a grand day indeed. Full of love, meaningful gifts and messages from a lifetime of fun and great connections.

Yoga and sherry – and why not?

I learnt way back that it is the “small things”, always the seemingly “small things” that are the real magical ingredients of a good life. And these days I stop and take notice. I see in a friend’s face an adult lifetime of friendship, just looking at her I am drawn back onto that hill in Northern Italy where we danced in the late summer sunshine together to Dusty Springfield’s Son of a Preacher man. It opens a door in my mind back into youth where everything was full on colour, there were endless days and anything was possible. I no longer lament the loss of youth, instead I just feel so happy that I was there and felt those things.

Two school friends called – a warning here to younger people if you stay friends with these people you can never lie about your age and if you do, as I did once in a national newspaper of all places 😦 , you become the butt of jokes for years to come – but it just makes my heart sing hearing from women who have shared almost the whole life journey. Family and friends – it’s where it’s at and all the rest is really just stuff.

I fear I may have to join the Dolly Parton fan club to find other souls who get just how utterly brilliant she is.

And later we danced – me and him indoors. My birthday, so I chose the playlist. Barry White Sho’You Right , Luther Vandross Never Too Much , Tina Turner Private Dancer, Kylie Can’t Get You Out of my Head. Later we did The Jam Going Underground and Dexys Midnight Runners Come on Eileen – to me so evocative of us teenagers growing up in South London in the early 80s. After a few champagnes I tried to throw in a few country and western songs – I am such a fan but have never found anybody to share this with – but the horror on his face said it all and I gracefully moved on to a Van Morrison’s In the Garden – mainly to calm the mood. I fear I may have to join the Dolly Parton fan club to find other souls who get just how utterly brilliant she is.

So anyhow I woke up this morning and thought I know what I’ll do – I’m going to write down the 10 top lessons for life. I feel I’ve done a lot of stuff, and had a lot more stuff happen to me, maybe I’ve got something interesting/useful to say. So here goes:

Life lesson #1 “Most of the old moles I know wish they had listened less to their fears and more to their dreams”. Lesson one so beautifully captured in Charlie Mackesy’s The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse”. Incidentally I want to start a national campaign to ensure this book is made mandatory reading to every child, teenager and adult in the country. Through these extraordinary animations he captures in such simple terms how we should all live our lives and treat each other. On my Mother’s deathbed she left me with a similar thought “I don’t regret anything that I did; but I so regret all the things I wanted to do and didn’t”

Life lesson #2 All women by the time they’ve reached 40 should be encouraged/forced to read the following: Nora Ephron I feel bad about my neck’ absolutely anything by Dorothy Parker who said the best line of all time I like to have a Martini, two at the most. After three I’m under the table. After four I’m under my host”. Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay, Bossypants by Tina Fey, absolutely anything by Marilynne Robinson, although I think that Housekeeping is my favourite, Middlemarch by George Elliot, The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy (to learn about character), End of the Affair by Graham Greene (on love and misunderstandings). Note to self to read NW by Zadie Smith and I’ve yet to get through Donna Tartt’s Goldfinch and I know that is an appalling admission. I love Everything I Know About Love from Dolly Alderton for younger women and Caitlin Moran is always worth listening to. Oh and absolutely everything and anything by Maya Angelou – listen to her perform But Still I rise. One of the most amazing performances of all time.

Life lesson #3 Do yoga from the age of 25. If that’s way too late start now. Yoga is simply a full medicine cabinet in one place. It treats your mind, your body and your spirit. You look better, you move better and your joints stop hurting so much. It is a complete no brainer for your health so please if you haven’t already, immediately go out and buy that mat and join the millions of people who do.

Life lesson #4 “There’s good in the worst of them and bad in the best of them” and “love everybody, but trust only a few”. All from my 5ft nothing Irish Grandma Mary McKay. 14 children and lost her husband in the war – but was the bravest, fiercest and funniest woman of all by all accounts. I never met her, as she died before I was born, but her wisdom and stories flood through the veins of my family. Her belief that we are all capable of good and bad is such a lovely way to view the world and it makes us all so much more compassionate, interconnected and allows us to forgive ourselves first and foremost and then to reach out to not be so judgemental of others. Not easy! But I so believe this is key to living well.

Life lesson #5 You can’t control what happens to you; but you always have a choice of how you respond. The essential message from “my bible” Man’s Search for Meaning by holocaust survivor and Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl . It is a seminal work on thriving, not merely surviving, after trauma and it changed my life. Also in this genre is The Choice by Edith Eger – again the message is that we always have the power to steer our own lives once we accept the choices that we have available at any given time.

Life lesson #6 Learn quickly to respond and not react. I wish I’d known this earlier. As soon as we react to others we are letting go of our own internal value and strength. Try hard, and it is hard, not to enter into other people’s dramas or bad moods. Identify your core beliefs and values and stay true to these whatever happens. I love the metaphor of tree pose in yoga. Standing firm and strong, with balance, at the root and then gently staying flexible so one can move with the moment – but never moving away from the root.

Life lesson #7 – Mind your own business 🙂 Similar to the point above. But never let anybody decide for you when is not enough, when is too much, what you should be doing with your life, how to succeed and how to fail, how not to make a fool of yourself – making a fool of yourself is an essential skill in my humble option and we don’t do it nearly enough. If we are so terrified of making a fool of ourselves we get locked in a prison of other people’s expectations and beliefs and this is a very bad place to get to. If we want to live bold, magnificent and full on lives then pushing out of our comfort zones and keeping on challenging ourselves has got to be part of the mix. Safe, staid lives don’t do it for me and there is absolutely no time to waste. Do the internal work necessary, and it usually is necessary, to understand what you want to do with this precious life of yours and then tune into your inner voice – it is the greatest guide of all.

Life lesson #8 Take karma seriously. I promise you, and I’ve been doing my own little life study of this, people who keep doing bad things run out of road in the end. Take responsibility, say sorry when you need to and move on. Be ruthless around keeping everything around you in harmony with your own belief system. This means the way you look after your body and mind, including the things you watch/read/engage with, your home surroundings and the people you choose to spend time with. Not all relationships work and some run out of steam – be brave and keep your own standards. Letting go of things/people is sometimes the best, or only, option.

Life lesson #9 “I have learned over the years that when one’s mind is made up, this diminishes fear; knowing what must be done does away with fear.” Rosa Parks. Never be afraid to voice your truth however hard that may be, and sometimes it is inordinately hard. Never be afraid to be unpopular and ditch people pleasing as soon as you can. Never lie to yourself, your very soul is damaged when you do this.

Life lesson #10 “There is safety in reserve, but no attraction. One cannot love a reserved person”. Jane Austin Emma. Enough said.

…. and finally take this from me who has seen many children and young people not able to live the lives that were promised to them, getting old is an absolute privilege. Don’t waste a moment worrying about it. Love those lines like crazy, they mean you’ve lived to tell the tale. Dance lots, sing if you can, or do whatever fun pointless thing that makes you feel more alive, employ a great therapist, surround yourself with people who love you and you them and feel sorry for those who don’t – oh and enjoy that occasional tipple of your choice (within Govt guidelines of course)

Stay safe, stay happy and love to you all

Debbie x

I learnt way back that it is the “small things”, always the seemingly “small things” that are the real magical ingredients of a good life. And these days I stop and take notice. I see in a friend’s face an adult lifetime of friendship, just looking at her I am drawn back onto that hill in Northern Italy where we danced in the late summer sunshine together to Dusty Springfield’s Son of a Preacher man. It opens a door in my mind back into youth where everything was full on colour, there were endless days and anything was possible. I no longer lament the loss of youth, instead I just feel so happy that I was there and felt those things.

Two school friends called – a warning here to younger people if you stay friends with these people you can never lie about your age and if you do, as I did once in a national newspaper of all places 😦 , you become the butt of jokes for years to come – but it just makes my heart sing hearing from women who have shared almost the whole life journey. Family and friends – it’s where it’s at and all the rest is really just stuff.

I fear I may have to join the Dolly Parton fan club to find other souls who get just how utterly brilliant she is.

And later we danced – me and him indoors. My birthday, so I chose the playlist. Barry White Sho’You Right , Luther Vandross Never Too Much , Tina Turner Private Dancer, Kylie Can’t Get You Out of my Head. Later we did The Jam Going Underground and Dexys Midnight Runners Come on Eileen – to me so evocative of us teenagers growing up in South London in the early 80s. After a few champagnes I tried to throw in a few country and western songs – I am such a fan but have never found anybody to share this with – but the horror on his face said it all and I gracefully moved on to a Van Morrison’s In the Garden – mainly to calm the mood. I fear I may have to join the Dolly Parton fan club to find other souls who get just how utterly brilliant she is.

So anyhow I woke up this morning and thought I know what I’ll do – I’m going to write down the 10 top lessons for life. I feel I’ve done a lot of stuff, and had a lot more stuff happen to me, maybe I’ve got something interesting/useful to say. So here goes:

Life lesson #1 “Most of the old moles I know wish they had listened less to their fears and more to their dreams”. Lesson one so beautifully captured in Charlie Mackesy’s The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse”. Incidentally I want to start a national campaign to ensure this book is made mandatory reading to every child, teenager and adult in the country. Through these extraordinary animations he captures in such simple terms how we should all live our lives and treat each other. On my Mother’s deathbed she left me with a similar thought “I don’t regret anything that I did; but I so regret all the things I wanted to do and didn’t”

Life lesson #2 All women by the time they’ve reached 40 should be encouraged/forced to read the following: Nora Ephron I feel bad about my neck’ absolutely anything by Dorothy Parker who said the best line of all time I like to have a Martini, two at the most. After three I’m under the table. After four I’m under my host”. Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay, Bossypants by Tina Fey, absolutely anything by Marilynne Robinson, although I think that Housekeeping is my favourite, Middlemarch by George Elliot, The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy (to learn about character), End of the Affair by Graham Greene (on love and misunderstandings). Note to self to read NW by Zadie Smith and I’ve yet to get through Donna Tartt’s Goldfinch and I know that is an appalling admission. I love Everything I Know About Love from Dolly Alderton for younger women and Caitlin Moran is always worth listening to. Oh and absolutely everything and anything by Maya Angelou – listen to her perform But Still I rise. One of the most amazing performances of all time.

Life lesson #3 Do yoga from the age of 25. If that’s way too late start now. Yoga is simply a full medicine cabinet in one place. It treats your mind, your body and your spirit. You look better, you move better and your joints stop hurting so much. It is a complete no brainer for your health so please if you haven’t already, immediately go out and buy that mat and join the millions of people who do.

Life lesson #4 “There’s good in the worst of them and bad in the best of them” and “love everybody, but trust only a few”. All from my 5ft nothing Irish Grandma Mary McKay. 14 children and lost her husband in the war – but was the bravest, fiercest and funniest woman of all by all accounts. I never met her, as she died before I was born, but her wisdom and stories flood through the veins of my family. Her belief that we are all capable of good and bad is such a lovely way to view the world and it makes us all so much more compassionate, interconnected and allows us to forgive ourselves first and foremost and then to reach out to not be so judgemental of others. Not easy! But I so believe this is key to living well.

Life lesson #5 You can’t control what happens to you; but you always have a choice of how you respond. The essential message from “my bible” Man’s Search for Meaning by holocaust survivor and Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl . It is a seminal work on thriving, not merely surviving, after trauma and it changed my life. Also in this genre is The Choice by Edith Eger – again the message is that we always have the power to steer our own lives once we accept the choices that we have available at any given time.

Life lesson #6 Learn quickly to respond and not react. I wish I’d known this earlier. As soon as we react to others we are letting go of our own internal value and strength. Try hard, and it is hard, not to enter into other people’s dramas or bad moods. Identify your core beliefs and values and stay true to these whatever happens. I love the metaphor of tree pose in yoga. Standing firm and strong, with balance, at the root and then gently staying flexible so one can move with the moment – but never moving away from the root.

Life lesson #7 – Mind your own business 🙂 Similar to the point above. But never let anybody decide for you when is not enough, when is too much, what you should be doing with your life, how to succeed and how to fail, how not to make a fool of yourself – making a fool of yourself is an essential skill in my humble option and we don’t do it nearly enough. If we are so terrified of making a fool of ourselves we get locked in a prison of other people’s expectations and beliefs and this is a very bad place to get to. If we want to live bold, magnificent and full on lives then pushing out of our comfort zones and keeping on challenging ourselves has got to be part of the mix. Safe, staid lives don’t do it for me and there is absolutely no time to waste. Do the internal work necessary, and it usually is necessary, to understand what you want to do with this precious life of yours and then tune into your inner voice – it is the greatest guide of all.

Life lesson #8 Take karma seriously. I promise you, and I’ve been doing my own little life study of this, people who keep doing bad things run out of road in the end. Take responsibility, say sorry when you need to and move on. Be ruthless around keeping everything around you in harmony with your own belief system. This means the way you look after your body and mind, including the things you watch/read/engage with, your home surroundings and the people you choose to spend time with. Not all relationships work and some run out of steam – be brave and keep your own standards. Letting go of things/people is sometimes the best, or only, option.

Life lesson #9 “I have learned over the years that when one’s mind is made up, this diminishes fear; knowing what must be done does away with fear.” Rosa Parks. Never be afraid to voice your truth however hard that may be, and sometimes it is inordinately hard. Never be afraid to be unpopular and ditch people pleasing as soon as you can. Never lie to yourself, your very soul is damaged when you do this.

Life lesson #10 “There is safety in reserve, but no attraction. One cannot love a reserved person”. Jane Austin Emma. Enough said.

…. and finally take this from me who has seen many children and young people not able to live the lives that were promised to them, getting old is an absolute privilege. Don’t waste a moment worrying about it. Love those lines like crazy, they mean you’ve lived to tell the tale. Dance lots, sing if you can, or do whatever fun pointless thing that makes you feel more alive, employ a great therapist, surround yourself with people who love you and you them and feel sorry for those who don’t – oh and enjoy that occasional tipple of your choice (within Govt guidelines of course)

Stay safe, stay happy and love to you all

Debbie x

My new venture – inspired by my love of women

If you are always trying to be normal you will never know how amazing you can be.”

– Maya Angelou

Hello my lovely, gorgeous Life in the Middle Lane followers and friends. Thank you so much for coming on this journey with me and sending me so many of your stories/your lives/your challenges.

It is these stories that have partly inspired me to set up Rock My Age http://www.rockmyage.com. That and a constant drive to do something good in my daughters’ name. Unfulfilled potential or women unable to make their dreams come true goes straight to my heart.

So if I may, if you will, invite you to hop across to rockmyage.com and see what you think. I will still be writing here too – but I think you may like what you see. It is entirely built on love, passion and female friendship and a desire to do something good in the world.

And so today (23rd June, 2020) our Rock My Age journey takes off. Where it will go, we do not know. But we are certain that we are in for one hell of ride, as we seek to boldly step into fresh new territory around women and age!

Our mission is to create a space where women like us – spirited, curious, ambitious women – can lead/share/celebrate conversations/skills and wisdom around the pleasure that comes with being happy in the age we are in right now.

With lifestyle content, coaching and wise living retreats we are all about enhancing women’s wellbeing and opportunities in life and work. We are passionate about rewriting the narrative on age and creating a positive legacy for the next generation of women.

Sure we want to shake things up a bit; but always with a wink and a smile (isn’t that our most potent female force – that heady combination of soft and strong but with a touch of humour). We want to call time, once and for all, on the mythical narrative that’s persistent in the media, that women would want to hide their age, or be obsessed with “looking younger” or be prevented from doing anything at all because of their age.

It is all nonsense! But we do recognise that some women sometimes feel less than, judged or discriminated against simply because of their age. This is not ok.

The figures and facts speak for themselves. Us midlife and older women are the healthiest and wealthiest of a generation. We have power ladies, loads of it. We think that the media, the advertisers, the marketeers are slowly waking up to this – budgets alone will drive their interest – but we think there’s a lot of work to do to ensure that all women, whatever their age, are empowered and inspired to live the life that they want to lead. And so many more of us are doing amazing new and different things with our lives – showing that life is full of wonder and magic at any age. It really is there for the taking.

We have a hunch that there are quite a few women out there who may want to join our ride? We so hope so and we are so looking forward to meeting more of you and hearing your amazing stories. One thing I know having worked as a journalist for so many years, women our age often have the best of all stories. And often full of laughter, humility and fun.

I guess Erika and I share a kind of bohemian spirit around our journey, our lives, the way we view the World. We want to live full on, unconventional lives right to the very end – but we are also driven by deep values of love, compassion, community and ethical living. We truly do believe, in the words of Madeleine Albright, “there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.”

I believe that Erika and I were destined to meet. As our dear friend, and Master Yoga and Tai Chi “guru”Sue Woodd says “when we work on our internal worlds enough a soul knows a like minded soul when it finds it.” I think this speaks to the beautiful friendship that Erika and I have built and to the many many gorgeous women who we surround ourselves with. We will be showcasing so many of them/us on the Rock My Age Platform. Successful business women, women who lead in charitable sectors, entrepreneurs or women just doing amazing women things. We will dig deep beneath the surface to reveal the humanity and those golden nuggets of wisdom that these women have. We will build a rich depository of wisdom that we, or future generations, can dip into whenever we/they want.

But we are certainly not setting out to paint a rosey picture of midlife and the World in general. Gosh such bad things are happening now. But we do believe fundamentally in hope and lifting others up. We know through our own lives that sometimes the world goes very dark indeed and that ultimately we have very little control on external events. But we are driven and united in our belief that if we can get our internal worlds right well that is when the magic truly happens. We can live our best, our most luminous, most valuable life for every minute we are blessed to be on this earth.

Rock My Age is for you if you have a huge open curious heart, ambition and a passion for life long learning and development and/or if you just want come along and have a whole lot of fun.

Love,

Debbie x

Hey reader down in my girl shed I’ve found a new cool meaning of life

“The egoless child is still calmly sitting inside each of us. Buried in layers over layers of lies, egos, and personas. Happy nonetheless. Waiting to be found. Let out” ― Mo Gawdat, Solve For Happy: Engineering Your Path to Uncovering the Joy Inside You

“I’m a trained extrovert,” says Mo Gawdat, former chief business officer of Google X, an entrepreneur, author of the book Solve for Happy, and officially the coolest guy on the planet.

Gawdat thinks there are a hell of a lot of us trained extroverts out there and that we are all suffering a lot because of it. He talks of how we’ve designed an uber-extrovert World where we avoid the real thinking and creativity and instead turn to our quick fixes of constant hook-ups, networking, meetings, conference calls, dinner parties, conferences, coffee breaks … and this is before we even get into social media.

It’s tough on introverts. Maybe it’s tough on everyone. I was watching twitter addict Trump and I was overcome by a deep sadness for him as a human being (no I haven’t lost my mind) I just felt how horrible it would be to be inside his manic reactive head. I fundamentally agree with the Dalai Lama when he says the true nature of all of us is compassionate and kind. It’s hurt that gets in the way and is the root cause of making people behave so badly. Underneath there could be a very hurt little child.

Once we get this idea it is incredibly difficult to hate anybody. And by not hating we can clean up our own souls and heart and allow all the good things in. Not hating is as much for our benefit as for everybody else.

Having thought carefully about this action orientated behaviour, I agree that every time I reach for that coffee break I’m indulging in some kind of addictive behaviour. And that this behaviour is fundamentally bad for me. It is seriously impacting on the quality of my thoughts, my imagination and my ability to be all I can be in the World.

It’s got to change.

I’ve read Gawdat and loved him for a while. But I found something more from him when a friend sent me a recent Guardian Newspaper The Upside Podcast: In conversation with Mo Gawdat and it’s had an extraordinary effect on me. The Guardian’s mission to provide “a dose of optimism” during these challenging times is journalism at its best and most thoughtful. Wonderful!

Gawdat speaks in his usual modest, beautiful and thoughtful manner about how really in the West we don’t have much to complain about – even with COVID-19. Life is fundamentally risky and he talks a lot about his equation for happiness = one’s perception of reality MINUS expectations. His thoughts on the “game of life” are fascinating and he has lots and lots to say about how any kind of human control on anything is largely an illusion. I want to go back to his thoughts on the link with happiness and chaos theory as I think science has so much to show us in this area.

It got me thinking hard about the paradox of this lockdown thing. On the face of it it is so terrible – yet I’ve certainly personally lived through worse. But I’ve found a most golden core, peace and silence at it’s heart that I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced before. I largely view it as the ultimate opportunity for self development and to face my demons – of which there remain quite a few.

But then on Sunday it all fell apart for me. It’s always bad on a Sunday – maybe it’s a Catholic thing.

I felt I was “starving to death” from the lack of human contact and fantasised about dashing back to London, touching and hugging every human being I could find (don’t worry I was aware it was a mad dream), get coffees – loads of them – and drink them all day in busy parks.

In reality the most I was contemplating was a return to the City as the silence of the countryside was becoming way “too loud” for me.

And then I remembered Gawdat’s words and the thoughts expressed around loneliness of almost every philosopher and psychologist I’ve read or met. And the words of the Dalai Lama in The Art of Happiness. It’s at that point of discomfort where the real learning begins. It’s what we find most difficult that is where our real teacher lies but only if we want to listen – and for me the big elephants in the room have been and are always loneliness or a fear of missing out.

I’ve never really seen myself as being addicted to anything – apart from cake – but I can imagine it is at this pain point that the addiction kicks in. Isn’t it that deep empty loneliness, longing for some kind of love/comfort/relief that gets us all sometimes. We cannot stay with that thought a moment longer as it will rise up and swallow us hole…the whole fabric of our body and soul is telling us to get the hell out of there.

No wonder some people turn to a drug of some kind as a balm to soothe that childlike pain. If we accept that we are all addicts in some shape or form I believe that it makes us so much less judgemental towards those poor souls who cannot face the pain just now. Whatever has happened in their childhoods must have been so terrible to numb the self protective stop button.

I may not be an addict of the usual substances, but I’ve re-thought my World and think I am an addict in terms of connection. Yup that is me Sir – stopping what I’m writing because it hurts too much, reaching for the phone because I can’t stand to be in my own head for one second longer. Stopping thinking because gets hard. Trying to get touch points through social media because – well just because I feel so lost and alone.

This time I didn’t act, because I was aware it was through acting that I would be giving in to the addiction. I sat with the discomfort and it felt really horrible. I felt all of those nasty emotions we try to smother – loss, envy, anger, hate. The urge to just run away as fast as I could to somewhere I didn’t know where. We all have them, these funny feelings, and it’s denying them, the psychologists tell us, is what provides that one way street to anger, depression and the need to hurt other people.

Finding stillness at that moment was the most courageous thing I have done for quite some time. I faced down the feelings and didn’t run and boy I felt like I’d conquered the World – I felt I’d tasted the best drug on earth. It was great.

Bonus – there were no after effects – I woke the next day with a kind of lightness and stillness that is quite new for me. Then got to work with a new gusto, it’s like actions and words started to flow out of me. The more I work on myself the more I get closer to that wonderful and illusive state of flow – also known colloquially as being in the zone and is the mental state when a person is fully immersed in a feeling or energised focus.

The more I work on this stuff the better I understand management guru Stephen Covey’s idea of the circle of influence vs the circle of concern as outlined in his book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Like many people I’d spent years in my circle of concern boring anybody who’d listen about my worries about – well just about everything in the World. But gradually I’ve been drawing in to my much smaller circle of influence. Bit of a shock first of all about just how small that is – but it is, believe me, the door to incredible riches.

The more I focus on myself, my values, my reason to be in this World the less I care what other people think of me. Hey none of us are everybody’s cup of tea – but I have found the more I know myself the more I draw the kind of people I want into my inner circle. It creates the most amazing feeling of certainty and freedom – it’s like getting my own brand values aligned and right. The more I write for myself, the more letters I get from others saying “Hey me too, I feel like that …” The less I make manic efforts to connect, the more I feel connected to the people who really matter. The more I face down my demons the less interest I have in joining anybody else in any kind of battle with theirs.

Finally dear reader, if you wish to join me, I’m joining the slow movement as I really think this is where it’s at now. Don’t expect too much from me as I’ve been a very well trained extrovert for quite a few years. I got a bit clever by being a voracious reader so I’m going to read and read and summarise for you if you’d care to know more. And I’m going to capture those funny, simple little daily things that put a smile on my face and maybe yours. Here goes:

  • chasing three naughty lambs – for the 5th time – today who had escaped from a farmers field. It’s always the same three and they always give me a very ungrateful kick as I kindly lift them back over the fence to safety. Naughty but gorgeous.
  • listening to Bruce Springsteen’s The Wish on my morning run. I challenge any Mother of boys, or any boy who loved his Mother, not to weep with words like “if pa’s eyes were windows into a world so deadly and true. You couldn’t stop me from looking but you kept me from crawling through.” The whole album is divine
  • The rose that is growing up the side of the house and the delicate pink flowers that are peeking through my window are the first thing I see each morning. Could almost make one believe in God.
  • The new documentary Home on Apple TV. The ultimate in slow living and unveils the boundary pushing imagination of the visionaries who dare to build a home of their dreams. Lots of ethical and sustainable building and focussing on the wonderful interplay of man’s work and nature. Hours of bliss.

Have a lovely week and see you soon.

Debbie x

“Sometimes even to live is an act of courage.”

Lucius Annaeus Seneca

Is it me or is it getting tough out there. I sense a shifting in the collective emotional state, as we gingerly stagger back into some kind of life. This thing hasn’t gone away so how are we supposed to navigate this “new normal”? Maybe, for some, if we weren’t directly impacted by this terrible thing, lockdown was fun at first. Maybe, a much needed reset on our mad mad world – but somewhere along the way I feel many of us have lost our footing and our heart aches at not being able to hug our family and friends, share that coffee, watch a film.

Oh the good old days, eh.

But most importantly how are you dear reader? No really, forget the “fine thanks”, how are you really doing? Does anyone ask you and if you dared to speak your truth would they stay and not turn away? Is there another human being who catches your eye and reassures just with a gentle smile “We’ll be ok. This too will pass”. Do they know exactly how you like your tea, your toast, the favourite cup, the right plate for each meal because – well just because that’s how love works.

Love and friendship, what jewels they are in life. As C.S Lewis says in The Four Loves “Friendship is born the moment when one man says to another ‘What! You too? I thought that no one but myself..”

It is never too late to connect. All one has to do is open up in the right circumstances to the right people and hey presto another human being to walk alongside you and to share your joys and your pain. Of course it doesn’t have to be a lover – although they are always nice to have – it can be a friend, a neighbour, a volunteer or even a help line. The key, I feel, is to recognise our own vulnerability and accept that sometimes the bravest thing we can do is to ask for help.

Life is so terribly hard sometimes. Sometimes we just need credit for showing up.

It’s the little things don’t you think? I lost interest in grand gestures, chasing perfection, acquiring more and more things way back when. They’d lost their razzle dazzle, for me, but in giving up I opened up my world to something way more unpredictable, seemingly smaller at first but ultimately so much richer.

I try to continually notice “the small things” and the more I notice the larger and more magical they become. Witnessing my daughter’s courage in standing up for the right thing always, (she doesn’t realise how brave she is), when a friend calls just to check in and share a little news, when he places a single flower next to my mandatory 6pm glass of something nice. They all make my heart sing and speak to a childlike place deep inside me that sometimes worries that “I did it all wrong” and “I’m not enough as I am”. Don’t we all have that place?

Ouch that was scary admitting that to you. I’m a strong, feisty woman who’s got it sorted. Right! But scratch the surface and, like you I suspect, I yearn to belong, to be accepted, to be liked for just the way I am. Isn’t this the human vulnerability that Brene Brown urges us to embrace if we are to make the best and deepest connections.

I quit judging a long while back, as I think judgment is the single biggest barrier to connections. And hey I’m so very far from perfect/sorted, I felt it wasn’t a great strategy to live by. I work hard to embrace humility and another of my regular mediations is drawn from those wonderful Leonard Cohen words “there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”

Philosophy, the Stoics and Aristotle have a lot to teach us here. If you want a manual for leading a good life it’s all there for the taking. The ancient Greeks have so much to tell us about judgement and accepting our fellow man. Central to their belief here is that all of us could quite easily come apart if ever events chose to make that happen. Fate, they believed, was so often out of our hands.

This is the opposite of the black and white morality pedalled by our Western society and most especially by our tabloid press (I’m guessing Piers Morgan is not a fan of the Stoics). They lie when they tell us that if we just work hard enough, bounce back from life’s knocks, develop resilience – they say it’s all in our hands. They are wrong.

What if, as hard as we tried, we don’t recover from cancer, our business fails and we can’t start it again, what happens when we get old, lonely, sick and we need to rely on people to help us? At the end of the day thing are going to end badly for us in one way or another. As Clive James said “nobody gets out of here alive”.

To keep the idea of fate at the front of the collective imagination the Ancient Greeks developed a particular kind of art form: tragic drama. Tragedy is seen as the sympathetic, morally complex account of how good people can end up is disastrous circumstances. They thought that people should continually see this happening to counter their otherwise strong inclinations to judge and to moralise.

Such a great lesson isn’t it. If we quit judging we can open up our hearts and start really listening. And if we all did that more maybe we’d all live in a place like New Zealand that seems to be headed by one of the most decent, sensible and clever politicians of all time. Oh, and she’s a woman:)

My friends embrace vulnerability, embrace humility and love as much as you can. It’s a much more fun, joyous way to live. Surround yourself with quality people and hate the bad behaviour, but never the person. We too are horrible sometimes aren’t we? My Grand Mother apparently used to say “There’s good in the worst of them and bad in the best”. My family story is that she never turned anybody away from the family dinner table whatever “their crime”.

I never met my Grand Mother, as she died before I was born. But I love whispering her name Mary McKay. A Southern Irish woman who married a man from the North – ha the rebel spirit started early in my bloodline. But the more I learn about this five foot tall woman, who bore 14 children and lost her husband in the Second World War, the more I think how cool was she. I feel her warmth, love and indomitable spirit flooding through my veins. But mostly I witness her kindness and empathy in all of my family.

I think people are really struggling now. Not me so much as for once, for now, I’m on the right side of fate. But I remember so well what it felt like when I wasn’t. I think we all need to be terribly careful with each other and kinder and more compassionate than we’ve ever been. We have no idea what is really going on behind those strained faces, closed doors, or reassurances of “oh it’s fine”. A smile, an understanding word and no preaching – that’s the way to go.

It could literally save somebody’s life.

Stay safe all.

Debbie xx

“I will be calm. I will be mistress of myself”

Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility

Calm is such a beautiful word, don’t you think? Just whispering it softly could make one believe that everything really will be ok. Words are such a passion for me. I have a “bag” of favourite words at home and in there you will find “grace”, “dignity” “serendipity” “cherish” “love” “epiphany” and my children’s, my grandchildren’s and my parent’s names. I’m actually not sure that there is anything quite as moving as the names of one’s own family. My Mother was christened Norah McKay – she absolutely hated it, but now I think it’s pretty cool.

Something I have discovered in this weird period of lockdown is a growing passion for some of the writers I’d previously spurned. Take Jane Austen, why did I not know how totally brilliant she was and that she knew everything you needed to know about being a woman at any age. And as I’m just into the first chapter of Middlemarch – I know I know I feel totally ashamed that I hadn’t read it before – I feel I’m on a whole new literary journey into the wonder and excitement of female writers throughout the centuries.

You see back in the day I was a Thomas Hardy girl all the way and can proudly boast to have read The Mayor of Casterbridge 20 times before I was 25. Yes really, and that was cover to cover. I was obsessed with Graham Greene, although I never got why anyone would actually choose to be a Catholic, and his treatment of moral ambiguities in political settings. I still relive the dark haunting magic of Brighton Rock, when I visit the South Coast seaside town. And yes I even had a thing for Hemingway (I know a bad choice for a woman’s woman but have you read Old Man and the Sea – pure gold).

I guess back then, as the brooding, lost and quite lonely young woman I was, I was deeply touched and strangely comforted by Hardy’s pessimistic view of the world. And I still weep at one of my all time favourite lines:

Susan is pretty, but her face often has the hard, half-hearted expression on one who expects the worst.”

And this line got me thinking is there really anything so wrong in expecting the worst? Sometimes my greatest emotional difficulties in life have been caused when life hasn’t lived up to my hugely inflated aspirations of what it “should” be delivering. I think I actually got happy when I stopped investing in the future and realised we seldom have any control over much at all. Terrible things have always happened and I’m guessing always will. Whoever would have thought that that COVID-19 would be such a close neighbour – well actually Bill Gates did but that’s another story.

This acceptance idea really isn’t as grim a thought as it seems. Having studied Yoga, and the philosophy of yoga, for many years (I’m still very much an amateur) I have worked continually, and often very badly, in the pursuit of trying to live in the present. It certainly is a hard gig this “present living” and so often I drift off course lamenting “oh why oh why didn’t I take that dream job that would have transformed everything …blah blah blah. And, of course, if I could just have that house, life, cake, handbag … then everything will be just fine.

But, like a stream gently pounding away as it slowly and surely changes the form of the rock, continually drawing back into the present moment starts to change the shape of the mind. In the sublime Hindu scripture The Bhagavad Gita the mind is likened to a chariot of wild horses. One has to keep drawing in the reigns to gain control and keep the whole thing steady. And this really is lifelong work.

If you suffer, and I mean to use this word, from a very active mind like I do, I wholeheartedly recommend that, like me, you meditate on this idea every single day for the rest of your life:) It seems that there is never so many quick fixes with this mind stuff – one just has to keep coming back time and again. But when the medicine starts to work boy it is the most life changing/exciting trip I’ve ever been on.

I’m here to tell you after 10 years of meditation, I have transformed myself from a ruthlessly ambitious, neurotic, obsessive worrying hypochondriac into a normal-ish person. Most beautiful of all however is that I now feel at peace in my own skin. I would not trade this feeling for all the tea in China. It is as good as it gets.

Now young people, listen up, maybe you are lucky and you already feel this – I don’t have the evidence but I suspect if you do you are in the very fortunate minority here. But do not lose heart if you haven’t. Do not believe them when they say you are so exciting, such fun, so attractive, make things happen. If all the air, life and joy leave your body when you close that bedroom door then I have something else way more beautiful for you to believe in.

On the outside I had great life in my 20s and 30s, on the inside I was like an empty shell. But due to the work I’ve done on the inside, I now steer away from drama but my life has never been so exciting. I’m getting old now, but feel so young, vibrant and curious. I rarely worry about things going wrong, because the worst has already happened to me and whilst life is great now at some point in the future it will all go wrong again. It’s just how it works. Whilst I’d do anything not to be alone when I was young, now I choose to spend a lot of time alone yet I’ve never felt less lonely. I have lines around my eyes, my hair is shimmering with silver white strands and I’m way podgier than I would like – yet I’ve never felt more beautiful.

Oh I wish I could bag these ingredients for a wonder cure for any kind of misery and angst and give them back to my young self. I wish I could give them to you if you are struggling at whatever age you are at. It really is there for the taking. I think I’m talking most about serenity and non-attachment. Of course one has to adhere to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – I’m not sure how much serenity can be found in Syria right now or any other war torn county. But if we have enough health, enough wealth, enough love we really have won the lottery. And yes even in lockdown.

So yup I’m getting bored now – maybe like you. I miss my family, my friends, my two little Grandchildren. But I’ve learnt, through my difficulties, that boredom is a great teacher and forces one to get creative. Apart from loving my new book I’ve taken to teaching my Grandchildren each night just for 15 minutes on zoom. We’ve done elephants, giraffes and planets and now dipping into biology. Seeing their little faces drinking in the weird and wonderful facts about our lovely lovely World, makes me feel like I’ve won the lottery. Reminder to self to write this in my gratitude diary.

If we get our mind right, everything else flows. And this is what I now have written above my desk. My mantra.

I will not let anyone walk through my mind with their dirty feet.”

Mahatma Gandhi

Stay safe, stay well and stay kind

Debbie x

Once we accept loneliness, we can get creative

Loneliness makes us more capable of true intimacy if ever better opportunities do come along. It heightens the conversations we have with ourselves, it gives us a character. We don’t repeat what everyone else thinks. We develop a point of view. We might be isolated for now, but we’ll be capable of far closer, more interesting bonds with anyone we do eventually locate.

The School of Life

I’ve always been lonely. I think it’s part of the very fabric of my character, as it seems to have permeated every stage of my life. I used to be embarrassed about admitting it – doesn’t it ooze the idea of the unwanted/the misfit/the pitiful – but for many years I have been working on accepting it.

I think that loneliness is very much central to the complexity of humanity. How can we be anything but lonely when we are born alone, die alone and really truly can anyone really understand us? And for that matter can we ever truly understand anybody else? Part of the rich tapestry of life – we are actually all so terribly interesting. And if we are all really lonely then surely that doesn’t make us feel so alone.

What I do know is that false company, false rainbows and false activities are a waste of this precious life and a one way street to misery. I ditched them long ago and I’m so grateful that I did. The phone didn’t ring so much, the party invitations dried up and there were a few hairy moments when people didn’t like the direction I was going in. I had to hold very very tight at times and keep my eye on the prize ahead – to live an entirely authentic meaningful life and, is Maya Angelou’s words, to live it with some style.

I spent 10 years working on myself – yup that long this internal stuff is hard hard work. I unwrapped, unpeeled, ditched, burnt all the messages that I didn’t want anymore. i went deep, and then when I was brave enough deeper still. I wrote, and wrote and wrote. I meditated and meditated some more. I spent years reading every psychology, philosophy, theology book I could get my hands on. My late husband once challenged the guy in the local Waterstones to” find one self-help book in here that my wife hasn’t read.” – to be fair he did, but it was a close run thing.

And then my daughter died and so did part of me. I had to start all over again.

But the work I had done permeated really deep and was a fundamental part of me learning to live again. They say you can only be as happy as your unhappiest child. I think that’s right and I’m still not exactly sure where that leaves us bereaved Mothers.

So there was me smugly thinking that all the work I’d done would kind of cushion me in this lockdown. I’ve made friends with loneliness and reframed it as an essential part of my creative mind. To be honest I’m not sure I’ve ever met a writer or other artist who shies away from being alone. I think the trick to all this is in the wording – alone/solitude good. Lonely – not so much.

But this lockdown thing presents a whole new challenge me thinks. As the external landscape has temporarily disappeared from view, the vaults of my mind seem to be swinging open again. And in there, for me at least, is a whole load of messy bits that could do with a good tidying up again. Above all else I feel the whispers of the past calling me again – back into the choppy waters of grief.

And so I will stay a while as I know so well that to do anything less would be a very bad idea. The School of Life (wonderful organisation) says insomnia is the revenge for all that we try so hard not to resolve in the daylight. I think the same applies to depression, unhappiness and loss of purpose/joy – our subconscious is such a powerful tool it will keep shout and roar at us until we stop and take notice.

I revisit so much of what happened with my daughter and I try and sit with the pain again and again. Sometimes it’s jagged edges soften a little, but other times I just have to take the stabs again and again into my heart. You see the pain of the loss really is equal to the strength of the love and it never goes away. But you know what that’s ok I never want it to. And this time I find myself planning a little gold pendant that I can wear around my neck, next to my heart, with her name on it. And that feels a really nice thought. And off I go again into the normal cadence of another day.

It’s all ok. It really is.

So many of us have our own griefs and losses don’t you think? Not always of a person, sometimes of a dream, a missed opportunity, our youth, our potential. This life thing is a tough gig. And maybe with all this space, your mind too is starting to crack open and invite you deep within….. terrifying/thrilling/inviting all at the same time.

Julia Cameron, one of the original self help gurus, says in her beautiful book The Artist’s Way “it feels like now is a good time for people to find their inner lives.” I half envy some of you who may just be starting out. You’ve got a cracking adventure ahead ..

In no way do I want to divert from the horror of this pandemic, of the lives lost in the most dreadful ways. But is it not also holding a giant mirror up to us all and our mad mad lives. Recent research shows that only 9% of people want to return to their pre-Covid lives. Whatever were we all doing that makes lockdown seem so appealing. Madness.

For me I have lived a gentler, quieter life ever since my daughter died. As I’ve said before it changed me at such a fundamental level. My brain was rewired then for kindness, compassion and connection. So strangely the more I let go of things, the more a beautiful space emerged where so many other things could grow and flourish. It was like I had stripped back some land and could now choose which crops to tend to create my life. The life I wanted to live.

I often retreat from the World to write and it gives me the deepest pleasure of almost anything else. And the more I have found my authentic voice, the more people talk to me, write to me, make friends with me. This all happened because I stopped listening to outside voices and instead made my own voice my best friend. So just as I was making friends with loneliness, I now have more connections with so many people across the World.

I also don’t mean to dismiss the pain of loneliness – and I am fortunate in so many ways as I so often choose this way of living. My heart literally breaks for the people who are trapped into lives where they have no human contact. Shame on us all for allowing any other human being to feel like this.

There’s this great new book out (I highly recommend it) Together: Loneliness Health and What Happens When We Find Connection by Vivek H Murthy. He repeats some of the dismal statistics on loneliness such as a 2009 study that showed the health impact of loneliness is the same as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. A 2013 poll showed that 76% of GPs in Britain said they saw between one and five patients a day whose visit was primarily driven by loneliness.

In my desperate times there have always been those magical people who just showed up and don’t go away. They haven’t tried to fix anything, they are just there and have walked beside me until things got a little better. And they are not always the people you expect – one of my greatest companions had been a work colleague I’d found an absolute nightmare. Another lesson there – let go of judgement – we really have no idea what other people are going through.

So like so many of my musings I come back at the end to love. To love, compassion and connection. If we all keep just showing up for our family, our friends, our community, I think that’s about as good as it can get. And just maybe so many more of us are being reminded of the real magic of this funny old life.

Please keep writing to me. I absolutely love hearing your thoughts and stories.

With all my love,

Debbie xx

“A Diamond is a chunk of coal that did well under pressure”

Henry Kissinger

Oh no my hair is going white. Yes, actually white! There are some little known advantages of having been a redheaded child. Once you choose to forget the constant claims that you have a bad temper (I don’t) and you suit green (I don’t). Apparently – and this is backed by research (not sure why they did this) – but us redheads feel less pain (true), have better immune systems (don’t intend to test this one in the current climate) and we lose our hair colour later in life and when it goes it goes snowy white (both true I’m now finding).

I’m guessing many of you out there are, like me, being re-acquainted by our midlife natural hair colour. And it’s proving a bit of a surprise, but maybe not as bad as we had once thought.

Ok I admit to a flicker of terror when the white first emerged. But then I caught a glimpse in a window, in the sunlight, and thought actually I can see a little Hollywood glamour there. Few days in I suddenly felt incredibly empowered – I can do this. I can go white and still be me and maybe even a better more authentic version of me. It felt not just ok, it felt good.

I’ve got this thing about the media narrative on age. The talk of demise, the horrors of menopause, decay, endings, empty nests, anti-ageing, turning back time … how boring and what nonsense. Sure things change and I do know some people have a horrible time with hormones. But for heavens sake there is so so much more to the un-chartered territory of age in this time – isn’t it all way more interesting than that?

With my history, believe me, I find it an absolute privilege to have reached the age of 56 and still feel (for now) in pretty good nick. I remember once shaving a couple of years off of my age for some fashion feature – yuck it just felt so horrible. It was as if I was lying to my own body and soul. The worst thing about not embracing one’s real age is the damage it does to our own authenticity and our own self esteem – it’s letting the shame message seep in and this is very bad for our mental health.

I’m so bored with sayings like “50 is the new 40″. It isn’t. Us humans last for a certain number of years and whilst this might be increasing, it’s not by much. I love that slogan “50 is the new 50” and really is there anything more sexy than that sassy confidence that comes with owning it and not giving a damn.

I’m not sure that there’s been a better time to celebrate just being alive, well and emotionally healthy. One of my life’s achievements is surviving. Trauma changed me completely. It made me: a better person, a nicer person and it gave me the ability to lead a better more joyful life. As they say “there’s a rainbow in every cloud” – but only if you want there to be.

Don’t we need a whole new truthful conversation about what it means to be the age that we are in. Speaking personally I want to know about the joy of being alive, embracing our lucky lives, being confident in our skin, passing down wisdom, falling in love again at any age, watching our families grow or loving our friends a little more each year as we know that this life thing is pretty unpredictable.

I look at the lines around my eyes and I can see pain, magic and love etched in each one. I have them because I’ve lived quite a few years and done quite a few things in that time – that makes me proud, not ashamed. I look at the tubbiness around my, once washboard, tummy and I feel so blessed that I was able to have two children. I look at my white hair – natural highlights that will save me a fortune – and think ah another mark of time moving on. I think of Helen Mirren, Honour Blackman (RIP), Emmylou Harris, Jamie Lee Curtis and how beautiful they all look. It’s all ok.

And then I think of that Kissinger quote and feel so passionately that the real loveliness of any human being so often comes out after really testing times. There’s such a dignity in resilience and survival and it’s all so interesting. Who knows what the challenge of these times will leave behind in our own bodies and souls.

I was enthralled by a beautiful article in this week’s Sunday Times by the palliative care doctor and author Rachel Clarke (I do think people who care for others at the end of life have so much to say about living one’s best life.) Titled “Finding light in the darkness” she points out that facing up to our own mortality is something many of us have never had to do until now. I was so delighted to hear her add, what I have believed for so long, that “when we do life becomes imbued with such joy”.

As I’ve said before I’ve spent many years researching, writing and thinking about death. At first it was forced upon me, but the more I looked and refused to turn away, the more interesting it all became. I can honestly say that it is this work, above anything else, that has given me the sheer grit and determination to never sweat the small stuff, forgive quickly, not enter anybody else’s drama and love as much and as often as I can.

It’s a great lesson. But I do know it can be too brutal an idea for many, especially in the current climate. So I will pipe down with my almost evangelical beliefs around daily meditations on death. Instead, if you don’t already, may I recommend meditating on the more gentle idea that time is short for all of us and we are all just passing through – as only then will the doors of your mind swing open and your real path – untarnished by external stuff – will make itself known. Peace and happiness are an inside job and we now all have the time to do the required internal work. How exciting is that.

And finally I leave you with thoughts of my two of my new loves – a 6pm gin and tonic (just one) and the English Poet Ted Hughes. I’ve always wanted to immerse myself in his work – and now in lockdown I’ve been able to do just that. I absolutely love what he says about living and I hope you enjoy it too:

The only calibration that counts is how much heart people invest, how much they ignore their fears of being hurt or caught out or humiliated. And the only thing that people regret is that they didn’t live boldly enough, that they didn’t invest enough heart, didn’t love enough. Nothing else really counts at all.”

Happy, peaceful Easter to you all.

Debbie xxx