I never really know what to say at these times so I’ll leave it to John O’Donohue. Read or listen, and thank you for joining me in the shed throughout 2023. I wish you all good things as another year arrives on the horizon.
At The End of the Year As this year draws to its end,
We give thanks for the gifts it brought
And how they became inlaid within
Where neither time nor tide can touch them.
The days when the veil lifted
And the soul could see delight;
When a quiver caressed the heart
In the sheer exuberance of being here.
Surprises that came awake
In forgotten corners of old fields
Where expectation seemed to have quenched.
The slow, brooding times
When all was awkward
And the wave in the mind
Pierced every sore with salt.
The darkened days that stopped
The confidence of the dawn.
Days when beloved faces shone brighter
With light from beyond themselves;
And from the granite of some secret sorrow
A stream of buried tears loosened.
We bless this year for all we learned,
For all we loved and lost
And for the quiet way it brought us
Nearer to our invisible destination.
John O'Donohue from Benedictus, To Bless the Space Between Us
Is it just me or is life speeding up? I’ll put the bins out and five minutes later have to do it again. I know this odd sensation comes with age, but who’d have thought that a big birthday would send me hurtling down the ramp of life at such high speed?
So yes, I am now fifty years old. Fifty. Some days it makes sense (sore knees, grey hair) but some days, I think of that number and shake my head in disbelief. Youth really is wasted on the young. And some odd behaviours are creeping in too: grumbling about loud noises, enjoying a wee nip of sherry, annoyance about self-service tills.
My local superstore (I won’t name names) has taken away most of the manned checkouts and installed these self-service tills. Even for trolleys. I suppose this is the future – robots are taking over and I just have to get used to it – but still, I feel a bit sad and frustrated. As I was beeping items through the other day, and trying to set them down and yet avoid the loud announcement about an unexpected item in bagging area (another one? Really? But I just bought the thing!) I couldn’t help but notice lots of staff members jumping to attention every time the red light of doom lit up. Customers cannot really do this alone, can they? Is an avocado a fruit? Where’s the barcode on this thingy? Oh hang on, that’s my toilet roll toppling off the edge and rolling down the aisle.
It’s all a bit fraught now. I thanked the helpful staff member who came to my rescue (again) and realised that it’s not really the technology and clumsiness that I’m struggling with, it’s the lack of human interaction. Every time I did some shopping here over the last few years I would chat with a lovely lady on the till who had admired my handbag (you’ll not be surprised to hear that it’s covered in pictures of books) and we soon got to talking about all things literary and bookish. Her daughter is a writer too. We would joke about holding a launch in the store if my book came out soon, and making sure I brought a signed copy in just for her. Before I knew it, I was looking forward to catching up and sharing news. It meant a lot, in the end, to have someone ask me how things are going with the writing and wish me luck with it all.
I spotted my book friend that day and waved sadly in her direction as I fought with all my groceries. She waved back and smiled. The machine told me to check I hadn’t forgotten my receipt and thanked me for coming. But of course, it wasn’t the same. No smile, no laugh at my handbag, no wishing me well. The self-service world is removing something precious from our human lives. Loneliness and anxiety will surely be the end result.
I’ve just returned from an amazing campervan trip to the wilds of Scotland. It was stormy, windy, wet, sometimes sunny, and utterly gorgeous. ‘Summer’ holidays are best taken in September, I reckon.
The NC500 tourist route around the tip of Scotland is one of the world’s must-drive roads and it’s easy to see why – misty mountains, bracing winds and wild seas. There’s not much in the way of mobile phone data (a relief in many ways) and most of the roads are single track with frequent passing places and, for the most part, obliging drivers. Terrifying nights on a cliff in gale force winds notwithstanding, I think it was one of the best van trips we’ve ever had. There were even Northern Lights on the Orkney Islands.
I lost count of the breathless social media stories of those dancing green lights in the night sky. I looked in wonder at the national news items that outlined, with absolute certainty, the dates and times and venues for The Lights to appear. So informed, I spent several nights endlessly scanning the night skies, opening and closing the van’s blinds, arranged into a standing position in the direction of the North Star. But it wasn’t to be. They were not in the mood to dance on the nights I watched.
Instead, I saw the brightest stars sitting atop the Ring of Brodgar stone circle. I saw the Milky Way as a starry smudge streaked across the sky. I saw constellations that looked as if they’d been drawn on by the gods; firm and clear. Neolithic people stood on this same spot and looked into this very sky, seeing pinpricks of light that are still shining. It was a haunting reminder that I am very small indeed.
I took the lesson and used it to shake off the self-righteous indignation that other people (just down the road!) got the see the Northern Lights and I didn’t. Mother Nature owes me nothing. In fact, it’s the other way around. So I thanked her for the gift of neolithic stars and stones, the gift of fearful gusts of wind, the gift of Highland wildness.
And when I wasn’t even looking, we met a wonderful couple from Cornwall who’d just got the exact same van as ours. Cue much chat and laughter and sharing of stories. This was another gift. These unexpected treasures happen when we least expect them. And they’re all the better for it.
Who needs magical dancing green lights? My Scottish lesson: don’t try so hard.
This might sound strange but I have a favourite mirror in the house. It’s more flattering than any other (and don’t get me started on changing room mirrors – what were they thinking? Fluorescent tube lighting?) The bathroom mirror is beside the window and since it’s a small, dark room there’s only a little bit of natural light, so when I catch sight of my reflection it’s as if there’s a generous filter and (if I don’t squint too hard) I can’t even see too many wrinkles. Needless to say, this is the mirror I gravitate towards to fix my hair or makeup – it just makes sense.
But now and again I get a surprise when I catch sight of myself in another mirror, or when big birthdays arrive, or even when interacting with someone younger. I know that answering the question ‘how old do you feel’ is going to remind me of sore joints and grey hair and time ever-fading away. I’ll probably give a sad (and large) number in response. But how about this question: how old am I in my head? Not how old do I feel, but how old do I really think I am? It’s a great question. Think quickly and find your own answer.
If you’re over forty, odds are that you’ve chosen a number that’s at least twenty per cent younger than your actual age. This is incredibly common in the western world. It’s a mixture of trying to stay young and the pressures of modern youth-oriented culture, of course, but there’s more to it than that. Maybe a traumatic event has stalled us at a certain point in our minds. Or a moment in time that changed us forever. But there’s also a sense of optimism and hope involved in believing that you’re younger – life is ahead, you’ve lots left to give, all those inspiring things. Rather than admitting defeat and zooming in on grey hair and wrinkles, we can look inwards and find a fount of eternal youth that keeps us skipping along the path.
One word of caution though: social interactions can get weird. If you focus too much on that youthful number in your head, you’ll forget that you’re not the same age as your younger friends. So step carefully when taking part in things. For instance, I won’t be joining Adam and Sally on their wakeboarding trips, but I’ll be around on their return to sit by the fire and have a nice chat.
I wish someone had told me at school that I’d never need to do quadratic equations ever again. Or know how to calculate the angles on an isosceles triangle. Instead, I sat in maths class and sweated and strained under those hideous numbers until nothing at all made sense. Luckily I avoided Mr McCart’s eraser missiles (other mates were not so fortunate – I’m looking at you, Louise) – an old-fashioned teaching technique that seemed to assume that terror, and a little bit of violence, would suddenly make the ‘maths light’ come on in our heads. All it achieved was chalk marks (I know, I’m a certain age) on our wool blazers and a sense of encroaching dread before and during class. On one memorable occasion my friend Karen was asked a mental arithmetic question and simply cried out “Seven? I don’t know!”, before slamming her head onto the desk and moaning loudly. We all sat with widened eyes as Mr McCart, for once, remained silent.
I’ve been thinking about those terrible classes recently because of the noise out there surrounding ‘useless’ degrees. You know, the ones that don’t lead to big-earning careers. I’m all for STEM education (and we need to get more women and girls onto these courses) but it’s making my heart sad to hear my beloved arts so maligned. Recent cuts to the arts are painful here in Northern Ireland. Of my two degrees (English Literature and Psychology) only one is a science and is now considered ‘useful’ but I haven’t gone on to earn big bucks as a psychologist. Instead, I studied the topic for the love of learning. Nonetheless I’ve used my new knowledge to great effect in my (charity) job working as a story teller with people in the criminal justice system. Both degrees have come together in the most unexpected way. It’s a small salary but the impact packs a punch. Who knows, it might even change the world.
The arts not only change our hearts and minds but make the world go round. They speak truth to power. And there’s the rub – writers and artists are always feared by the establishment. It’s no surprise that dictators quickly go after artists and burn books. Art opens our minds to questions, philosophy, semantics, ideology and all things in between. Without William Shakespeare how could we know how to cope with grief, ambition, fear? Without Charles Dickens how could we know to question a society that leaves the vulnerable to starve? Without Margaret Atwood how could we get a glimpse of dystopia and the harm it can cause? Caravaggio showed us the divine. Van Gogh broke our hearts. Picasso opened our eyes.
If we focus only on money and numbers, we humans will lose something very precious. Art, put simply, is life.