Not having a wobble

IMG_5718So this is a picture my daughter drew of me, emphasising my ‘wobbly bits’ she calls them. I smiled with my lips but my eyes lurched to the gin bottle.  I could try and explain that you know, middle age spread and all that, but I know I wouldn’t sound that convincing. We both know my running shoes have been growing mould over the last few months, and the glass recycling jangles a bit too loudly with clinking empty bottles of vino.   My slight obsession with salted dark chocolate is also worryingly evident. Like a naughty child caught red handed with bulging cheeks and an empty sweet wrapper, I’ve been spied too many times with chocolate lips.   

Her picture was meant to be funny, but it did give me a jolt. I’m not that bad… obviously…. but i’m definitely having a long-distance relationship with firmness at the moment. Firm thighs, firm arse, and firm resolve.  Not so firm.

So once this summer holiday is over….(my only resolve this holiday is to enjoy wine, sleep late, and read books)… I’m getting my floppy arse in gear. This time two years ago I was the fittest I’ve ever been in my life. I was in training for the Dublin marathon, and the only rippling my body did involved muscles, not fat. I was 44 then. Now I am 46 and have entered the twilight zone of middle age (yet to be redefined because I am NOT calling myself that), and I am using this time to take a good hard look at myself in the mirror.  I have two ways to go – up or down. The middle aged spread is an actual thing – another happy hazard of our hormones going haywire – so I’m not like my 20 year old self who could eat KFC for a week and still fit into a size 8 jean. Now it involves work, commitment and yes, firm resolve.

I’m the first to admit I’ve had a self-indulgent 18 months. I’m going to forgive myself for that. I’ve had a few knocks.  My knocks have had knocks. Losing your husband, your mum, and nearly your sanity is definitely a Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free card on the chocolate front. But what I have learned in my half-life so far, is that no-one can pick me up but me. (I might need a hoist though, and my knees might creak).   So in this mid-life crisis I find myself in, is also my mid-life opportunity.  It’s a gift in many ways, and one that many of us are experiencing as perhaps the first generation of women to enter ‘middle-age’ and have the choice to say Fuck Off.  I wrote about it here for the Irish Times.  It’s the middle you see. Not the end. Just the glorious middle.   It’s a period to look back at all the stupid mistakes we made but march forward knowing we survived them well.  At times of reflection, we are often told to write a letter to our younger self, giving her advice. But she’s gone and I’m all about looking forward. So I think about my slightly older self…. let’s say 60 years young. If she was to write to me now, what would I want her to be reflecting on?  In what ways would I want her to be proud of me?   What would I like to have achieved for myself, my family, my career in the next 14 years?   Where will I need courage, where will I need help, when will I need a good supply of gin?

What picture do I want my daughter to draw of me?   Not the one she just did, so that is plan Number 1. To live well, I need to live well. So self-indulgent time is over, and self-love time begins. (I believe in moderation, so let’s not get too West Coast American about this – I’ll keep the wine habit, but throw in pilates and running again).

I have huge ambitions. Perhaps more now than I have ever had in all those years as a ‘career girl’. And that excites me more than anything. I want to write another non-fiction. I am writing a novel. I am building my career as a fundraising copywriter and freelance journalist. I want to do a masters in Gender Studies. I want to read, and write and teach and learn. Despite a varied and stimulating career, I feel in many ways I am only getting started.

And then there is love. Who knows if it is out there for me, but actually right now, I’m not too bothered. What was interesting though was the number of people who said to me once my husband left, “You’ll have to find yourself a rich man.”  Sorry, I thought feminism had arrived and we’d found equality?? I do NOT need to find myself a rich man.

I want to stand on my own two feet!  I don’t need a rich man – I would like a man to cuddle with, but I need to make myself rich (well rich enough to keep me in Bombay Sapphire and skin-firming night cream.)

Before I got married I held a senior management position in a leading charity, had my own flat, car and teeth.  13 years later I left my marriage with an extra stone around my waist, debt and a coldsore. (OK, and 3 glorious girls…. who will hopefully look after me in old age, or at least find me a nice home where they serve hot chocolate for breakfast and keep me in clean pads).    So the ‘you need to find yourself a rich man’ was actually really offensive. Perhaps in time, I’d like a kind, loving man please, who knows how to do an Indian head massage and loves hoovering. 

IMG_5790I’ll try and find my riches myself, and as I sit in the sun here in Donegal, the sun climbing Mt Erricle while I drink my first cup of Earl Grey, three sleeping children upstairs and a new puppy at my feet, my laptop on my knee and a head full of ideas, I know that riches aren’t all in my bank account. (That’s not to say I wouldn’t say no to a villa in Tuscany.)

And that’s what my mid-life celebration is going to be. Saying yes to everything I can get my hands on (and knowing  that conversely, that for me to say yes to things that will enrich and satisfy me, I’ll have to start saying no to a lot of shit that doesn’t. I think houses can be too clean anyway. Bad for you I hear. I’m saying yes to Dirt is Good. See how easy that is?)

I’m going to ask my daughter to draw a picture of me every year, and no doubt they’ll all be insulting in the way that only children can be when they really love you. But it’s the picture I draw for myself that really matters. And the one thing I am sure of is that my adventures in middle age will not be middle of the road.

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M is for….?

Quite soon after I became a ‘single lady’ last year (it sounds so much better when Beyonce puts it like that) I changed my bedroom around. I got rid of the ‘extra’ bedside table so I could move my bed to the wall and make more space.  I got rid of the ‘extra’ wardrobe and bought a gorgeous vintage writing desk on ebay. (it sound so much better when we say we buy things on ebay).  I bought a roll of vintage wallpaper and covered my chimney breast in the beauty of blossomed hummingbirds (it sounds so much better to say just one roll as if it is a show of design restrain, but it’s really because I could only afford one roll.)

It is MY bedroom… even though the children very much see it as an extension of theirs.. they sleep in it (when oh when will this stop??), get dressed in it, do their hair in it, and occasionally raid my wardrobe and prance around the place in high heels in it.  So perhaps it’s ok that despite the hankerings to be a grown up private room, it is cluttered with the chaos of childish things: painted pottery of unicorns and pigs that I was given as mother’s day presents, notes and cards of love and devotion, hair bobbles, their dirty knickers, and even a mouldy apple core (found the other morning behind my curtain). 

One of these child-centred things is a large fabric M that hangs on the wall beside my bed. It made complete sense of course to a child who wanted to give me a present, as the M represented everything I am to them – Mum.  It didn’t oMccur to them to get an A……a person with a name, a desire to sleep and a growing collection of books that never get the attention they would love. M is what I am to them, as it should be for now.  So sometimes as I lie awake in bed, sleep swapped for gazing in wonder (and irritation) at a sleeping child beside me who kicks me at regular intervals, I stare at that M, wondering what word it means for me that day.   It’s surprising how many things that M can represent.  In my twenties it meant Magic and Mystery and Men and Mistakes. In my thirties it was about Marriage and Mortgages, and Maybes and Babies. And then into my forties it’s all about Motherhood, Mayhem and Middle Age. Wait, What???   Arrgghhh!   How did I go from Martini girl to Mid-aged woman?  And one M leads to another. The M word that makes me pause. The M that is creeping up on me and making me mentally measure my morphing body and circumstances and mindset.

M can mean Monster (sleep deprived or otherwise). Or Mad. Some days I want it to mean Mutiny and Must I (really, another meal?) and when a little person sneaks in at 1am, a Must You?   But it also probably means the other M word.

Menopause. I’m not there yet, but things are afoot. Yes, the rogue chin hairs, the random periods, the curry and wine belly that won’t deflate like it used to after a day of Nutribullets, the extra vicious hangovers, the saggy bits, the waggy bits, the baggy bits… all those things wrapped up in the other M of misery – Middle Age.  Somedays I feel like putting an F up there beside it. With three asteriks.

M is for middle age and menopause.   Ho-bloody-ray.

I’m 46 with a close peer group ranging from 40 to 60 and so we’re either waiting for it, stepping our toes in it, plunging right into it’s depths, tentatively drying ourselves off, or have marched back up the beach, defiantly stretching out our new fertile-years-are-over-how-exciting-I-can-dedicate-all-that-energy-to me wings. I thought I was very much in the first bracket, but I think my toes are wet without me realising.

I’m not afraid of the menopause – it’s just another part of the hormone rollercoaster that starts at puberty.  In fact, there is a part of me delightfully anticipating a few decades of not being controlled by haphazard hormones and not having to apologise regularly for my moods.  If I’m going to be a plate-throwing madwoman, I’d like to take full responsibility for it. I have three kids, and absolutely don’t want any more (lovely as they are, I feel obliged to add) and to be alive at this stage of the game is exciting enough. 150 years ago, I’d be knitting myself into the grave.  But it is a confusing time. I’m still young at heart and mind, but my body is showing signs of wear.   And it’s so much harder than it used to be to patch it up.

In the last month alone I have downloaded a 21 day Yoga body transformation course, bought running socks and even worn work-out gear on several occasions. But the only working out I’ve done is working out how many glasses of wine I can drink of an evening without triggering the oh-fuck-why-can’t-I-drink-anymore hangover. I mean really?  You give us wrinkles, chin hairs, saggy belly’s, monthly madness, bad eyesight, hot flushes AND an inability to drown our sorrows without paying for it?? Mother nature is a glorious woman, but damn, she can be a mean bitch at times.   Maybe she’s having an M day.

A bit like life, I never quite know what’s going to happen next with my body. I try to treat it like a temple but more often I still treat it like a supermarket trolly: chuck everything in it and hope I can make something that looks good out of it at the end of the day.   I buy the creams, I download the yoga course, I swear off the wine, but you know, some times I look in the mirror and just see Me.   Merry, manic, mercifully too old to give a shit, muscle-challenged, motherly, mentally stretched, mindfully overwhelmed Me.  A good reason to open the Merlot.

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Can’t see the writing on the wall.

Can’t read the writing on anything much to be honest.  Especially labels on small containers.

So I was in the chemist perusing the face cream shelf, hoping to find that magic pot that costs €20 but does the work of three botox sessions. Failing, obviously, I asked the assistant what she would recommend, since despite squinting, I couldn’t read any of them. I told her my age, 46, smiling, hoping for a slightly startled reaction, and a “Oh, you don’t look it” giggle.  But instead, she sighed wearily, pointed to the heavy duty glass pots and said. “There, those are the creams for middle aged women.”

I looked over my shoulder to see who she was referring to, but there was only my reflection in the lipstick stand mirror. Fabulously furious 46 year old me!

My heart lurched in direct comparison to the rising price tag (how come ‘youth’ get tight skin and cheaper creams?)

Taking a jar and my horror out of the shop, I immediately googled ‘middle age’ only to discover that the damn woman was right. According to Wikepedia, the Oxford English Dictionary and Collins, I am middle aged.   How the hell did that happen?  Last time I looked, which was actually only that morning, I was still young(ish) and trendy(ish) and energetic(ish) me. Say the words ‘Middle Age’ though and a frightening array of images from my childhood sweep before my eyes of purple perms, elasticated waists and shapeless cardigans.

I might be plucking rogue hairs from my chin at a frenzied rate, and holding food labels out on a selfie stick so I can read them, but that is definitely NOT how I see myself.

It used to be that most women ‘of a certain age’ became invisible once their clear role as a Mammy diminished, and they were left to congregate together, knitting and complaining about their men (or other women who made the social faux pax of being mutton dressed as lamb).  But I look around me and that is not what I see now.

If I was Bridget Jones, this would  be my pre-journal summary count:

  1. Life/skin/energy/eyesight boosting nutrients: handful of spinach, half a mango and a kiwi (I can’t be arsed to calorie count, so replacing these with ‘how many green veg and yellow fruit can I cram into a NutriBullet per day’)
  2. Wine content. Obviously: 1 glass. So far.
  3. Rogue chin hairs to be plucked: 1 (and a squeezed spot)
  4. Hot flushes: haven’t a clue – am constantly in a sweaty state of panic that could be menopause, ozone-wrecked weather schizophrenia, or sweat from multi-tasking home, children, work and Facebook.)
  5. Chocolate: 4 small squares of my new addiction (Dark Milk, by Chocolate & love)

Now, I’m not normally a fan of labels, except the ones that show a rare shopping indulgence or indicate a high coco content. I’ve been lots of labels for lots of years – a teenager (a term, that if spoken by my mother, was accompanied by rolling eyes); a student (bank manager now rolling his eyes); career girl (lots of rollings – in hay, of cigs and rolling home); wife (rolling along); mother (rolling over). I didn’t particularly like being labelled any of these things although I thoroughly enjoyed each phase to a lesser or greater extent.   So it’s a little disconcerting to discover that I am yearning for a label to describe myself now, because it seems society has mislaid a whole sector of us. Losing one person is unfortunate. Losing a whole generation is downright negligent. By us, I mean women who find ourselves in the uncharted waters of being labelled in a middle age that does not reflect our lives.   Society hasn’t just mislaid us, it hasn’t actually realised we exist.   

I’m having a mid-life identity crisis. 

I know I’m young at heart but I’m also young at spirit. I’m mid-life and I really believe the best is still to come, rogue chin hairs and hot flushes notwithstanding.  I’m older yes, but let’s call that experienced. I’m a bit more wrinkled, yes, but let’s say that shows a lot of laughter.

So as I buy purple mascara instead of a purple rinse, I laugh in the face of comfortable shoes, sling on a pair of toIMG_5481tally impractical but totally gorgeous killer heels and step out into the unknown (partly because I can’t see a damn thing close up).

Just don’t call me middle aged. I’m only getting started…

Oh and just because I feel like cheering everyone up…. this is my new baby…..

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Putting the Good in Goodbye

gin-and-tonic-1I’d like to start by saying that I’m delighted to hear that – according to one lady who has reached the ripe old age of 100 – the secret to a long life is Gin.

I knew something so good, couldn’t be so bad.  I may not stretch to her 6 a day, but I do love my little glass of sparkle at the end of a day.

And it’s fitting too, that gin will feature heavily in my new blog… yes, it’s time to say goodbye to The Sandwich Years.

As I have written a lot about, one of the things I have been forced to learn (kicking and screaming and tearing my hair out at times, admittedly) is how life is a constant change.  Sometimes those changes are thrust upon us, and sometimes they are a natural progression – either way they take courage and care to step out into new land.  A nice wedge helps too.

And so it is with this blog. It started out 9 years ago as Mummy Mania, where I cut my blogging teeth as my babies cut their milk ones at my feet. I found my voice as a new bedraggled and frenzied mum, and an awestruck and bowled-over-by-love mum and wrote about this amazing and confusing time as I adjusted from being an independent person to one that couldn’t go to the toilet alone.  I wrote some crazy stuff about my crazy life and that blog made me some friends from the blogosphere that are still my cheerers and shoulders today, as I am theirs.  That blog also got me some magazine commissions and helped me develop a sense of regular writing as my career as a writer developed.  I had a little Gin to celebrate my survival through those mind-and-body-altering years, where the responsibly of caring for little lives often felled me in ways trekking alone across SE Asia never did. I might have swum with sharks but wading through the toddler years are much more dangerous waters.

I was sad to see that Mummy Mania blog go, but when I entered a new phase of my life, I knew it was time to bid it farewell and evolve into something new. I took down the banner, and the photo and I replaced the image and the name, and The Sandwich Years was born.

For five years I wrote about the struggles and stresses, the love and laughter of my life as I cared for my mum and my babies, and ultimately the end of my marriage.   Many of the blogs posts became very serious, as I dealt with some of the most difficult episodes of my life, including the death of my lovely mum. But that blog too served me very well… and from it’s pain and poetry came a book deal, and a bestselling memoir emerged from it’s premise (available on Amazon!)

Motherhood is still manic, and my sandwich years still exist to an extent (although I can hardly say I ‘look after’ a dad who has already made me my Christmas cake and who mowed my lawn last week) but I am taking a step in a high heeled glitzy sandal into a new phase of my life, and like a trusty old friend, I’m bringing my blog with me.

Together we will stride out, Gin& Tonic in hand, to embark on an exiting new journey.. as a mum of course, as a single women embarking on the dating scene, as a mid-aged woman about to start a hormonal odyssey into the unknown, as a writer playing with lots of exciting projects, and as a women navigating a new life.

So this is the last time I will write under The Sandwich Years banner.  You have served me well but I will have a little Gin & Tonic now to toast all that we have been through together, and to celebrate what you have given me… a voice when I often didn’t have one, a book deal and a lifetime dream of being published and friends who have responded with love and support (apart from a particularly crazy one who makes up email addresses to insult me… hey ho. I’m amazed that someone who is so irritated by my blog continues to read it!).

So it is time to let go of this phase of this blog, and this phase of my life.

Salute as they say…..and to those who read these pages thank you. Thank you for staying with me through these tough times…. I hope you stay with me now for the good times, the haphazardly hormonal times, the good, the unbelievable and the challenging… because one thing the posts of this blog show over 9 years – you get them all, sometimes in one day.

I wrote recently in the Irish Times about my peer group of women redefining what it means to be middle aged.   We just don’t fit the stereotypes, and we are probably the first generation of women to take advantage of the extra years we have been given. 150 years ago out life expectancy was 40. Once children were reared, women retreated into the background to knit away their remaining days. Now it is 83. Women today find themselves with an entire extra lifespan to enjoy, and for the first time we are beginning to shed the image of grey-haired, elasticated-waist-wearing has-beens. Those extra decades aren’t added to the end of our lives… they have been inserted into the middle and Middle age is being redefined by a new generation of women not ready to hang up their high heels.

I am so excited about my new blog… it will no doubt contain dating disasters, puberty potholes as my home becomes the House of Hormones (three daughters heading into puberty and one single woman heading into menopause… it can’t be good), highs and lows.  My marriage is over, my parent-care years have eased and after 10 years of babies and toddlers I have three school children.  I have reached the statistical mid-point of my life, but when I look in the mirror, I don’t see ‘middle aged’. I see a woman with a whole life still ahead of her.

My mid-life crisis is a mid-life opportunity.  And I’m not alone.  All around, I see my generation of women refusing to disappear into the mists of middle-age as silver hair becomes the new golden age.   

So my new blog is going to explore this time…. I am having to embrace certain physical changes as menopause madness looms (eyesight failing, boobs needing more support to stay up, and rogue black hairs appearing spontaneously on my chin) and enter scary dating territory (was told by one dating agency that 46 is the least popular age for women to be selected… thanks), raising three girls to be empowered, confident feminists who will tackle all kinds of issues in their teenage years, and striving to fulfil my creative dreams as a writer, whilst trying to pay the bills.

So I hope you join me as I hot flush into the Grin & Tonic blog years, tweezers at the ready. It’s going to take courage and friendship and laughter and heart. Goodbye The Sandwich Years…your job is done.  As Beyonce pointed out with her new album Lemonade (when your life is handed lemons, you can still make it sweet)…. even a bitter lemon can be made to taste good when mixed in the right ingredients.   So I hope you enjoy my new blog Grin & Tonic, a slice of lemon in a glass of sparkle.  Onwards and upwards… always.

 

 

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Facing Fluidity

Warning: this blog post may contain some chanting. 

Facing Fluidity… No, I’m not talking about my wine or gin consumption… Facing my fluids of an evening are the carrots that get me through the day.  Nor am I referring to that post-children caution for jumping on a trampoline (only women will understand that one).  I mean facing the fluidity of life.

I’ve been reading a lot about Buddhism over the last year (no mini cymbals needed, this is not the chanting part) and the most striking lesson I am taking from it – I would take more lessons but Buddhism and me is like trying to make a Type A personality become a spliff-soporific surfer dude…. It’s going to take time and a lot of mind-alteration – (See why mindfulness and meditation will take some time with me? That’s three different thought streams in one sentence – I don’t have the grammatical know-how to write my thoughts.) Anyway – the most striking Buddhism lesson learned is the idea of life being fluid. Of nothing being permanent….an idea that directly conflicts with how most of us in the West are brought up to view life. We are reared to seek permanence – a permanent job, a permanent home, a permanent relationship, a permanent waistline (and now with Botox, a permanent face.).

We strive to arrive. To reach that point where we can stop and relax (a little white lie that is told to us along with Santa and the Tooth Fairy, only meaner and it takes 4 decades rather than 1 to work out it’s a lie).  There is no point where we can stop and relax.  Life just keeps going…. On and on and on, with dramas and dullness, highs and lows, ins and outs. But still, we think life should reach a stage when we are ‘settled,’ when we finally have a grasp on what we are meant to be doing.  But reading my Buddhism at night trying to calm my manic heartbeat I realise that the panic I have felt most of the last 18 months is that very fear of fluidity, that loss of stability, that utter crashing, crushing disbelief that actually nothing in life is permanent.  As a chronic control freak, this has been rather seismic. My life has changed so much in the last couple of years – finding out my husband could no longer be married to a woman, realising I was a single parent just when I was emerging from the pressure of the baby years, losing my mum.  Both families I had come from – the one I was born into, and the one I created, had altered. Permanently. It doesn’t get more permanent than death and divorce.

And for a while, holding on to what I knew was the only thing I could do. I clung on to what had been by my white-knuckled fingertips, so terrified of the unknown abyss below me I could have hung on there for ever. But it was letting go that saved me. Letting go of the past, and embracing the now, and the future, and discovering that along with the fear is excitement.  Letting go and falling…. and realising that I am able to land.  That fluidity is an essential part of life, that permanence is a trap, and that instead of striving to arrive, we should actually just strive to thrive, wherever our life takes us.

So I find myself back at Malaga airport. I write this in Starbucks on my own as I wait for my pick up to take me to a writing retreat in the glory of the mountains of Andalucia.   And as the airport’s familiarity startles me, I remember.

I remember that I was here exactly a year ago, sitting in Starbucks on my own.  Bizarrely, I’m even sitting at the same table, with the same order: a spearmint green tea and a freshly squeezed orange juice.   But the fluidity of life, the fact that I am embracing instead of clinging means this time I am not crying.   As I sit in this seat, I can almost touch the shadow image of myself across the table.  The me that sat here last year is crying so hard, a kind lady comes over and touches her shoulder. She doesn’t speak English and I don’t speak Spanish, but her smile speaks the offer of love and support.  The me that sat here last year has just had to walk away from her children.  In a holiday booked before their dad left, we had agreed that I would take the girls for a few days, and then he would come out spend the last few days with them. So the me that sat here last year has just had to pack her bag and kiss them goodbye and walk down the path of the villa and close the gate on the family she is now banished from.  The me that sat here last year stood on the road for a few minutes listening to the squeals of laughter as their daddy threw her children in the pool, knowing that his decision meant that I was no longer part of that family.  The unfairness of that walk nearly broke me. Because of the actions of another person, I had to relinquish my children. The pain seared me hotter than the Spanish sun. So I sat at this airport exactly a year ago, at this very table, and I cried because the permanence of my life had been shattered, and I was incapable of understanding it’s fluidity.

But now I do. A full year later I sit at this table, and I am able to embrace the future. It still hurts me that my children and I are being forced apart for a week.  It will always hurt me that they don’t like only being with one parent at a time.  But the me that sat here last year crying, her knuckles white, hasn’t learnt to jump into the abyss yet. I have.  I don’t like, or enjoy, being a single parent. But given that that is the situation I am in, I will make the best of it. Last year, the me that sat here crying could only feel the pain of loss. This year, that pain in still there, but I can also embrace the gain.

(Warning: Chant coming.). If I have to be away from my girls for a week so that they get to spend quality time with their dad, then I am going to do something for me. I am about to spend a week in a stunning old hacienda, at a writing retreat where I can indulge my own headspace for days. I will also be embracing the fluidity of Spanish wine no doubt, and reading and yes, chanting. 

Facing fluidity is the only way we can strive to thrive. So as I stand up now to gather my bags, I look at the seat opposite me and I imagine resting my hand on the me that sat there a year ago crying, and I would whisper in her ear, my chant: “you will be ok… let go.”

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What is happiness?

I have a problem when I go to Donegal.  The sky is so vast, the colours so complex, the sea so mesmeric, and the landscape so wilder than I will ever be, that my camera just will not take the right picture.  I’ve tried cameras, I’ve tried iPhones, I’ve tried filters, I’ve tried wide angled lens, but sometimes I just end up putting the contraptions down and staring at the vista to take a mental snapshot that clicks in my mind and the image then is developed inside of me and imprints on my soul.

I like to take the photos on my phone anyway and post on Instagram and Facebook just to try and share the glory, but it never tells the real truth (do Instagram and Facebook EVER tell the real truth?)

And so with life… sometimes you just can’t put a frame around it… the truth is always bigger than the picture inside.

I’m reading a book on Happiness at the moment – not for myself, but for research for a new book. (Honestly….it’s for research. If I have learned anything over the last 46 wonderful, turbulent, life-affirming, life-whipping years, it’s that I don’t need a book to tell me what happiness is….. I’m very aware that happiness is an ice-cold sparkling G&T sitting in my garden swing chair as the evening sun melts; it’s sofa spaghetti on Saturday movie night with my girls, our legs entwined in harmony, our hands entwined in hostility as they grapple in the popcorn bowl; it’s a stolen moment to read a great book when nobody wants me; it’s a sweaty mum sandwich in my bed on a Sunday morning eating chocolate spread on toast and watching funny cats on youtube, hearing the giggles of my girls; it’s the exhilaration of writing a gut-happy sentence; it’s the buoyancy of walking away from a writing event knowing my dreams are coming true; it’s the thrill of the fear of a blank page; it’s any form of dark chocolate in any situation but particularly a Butler’s Salted Truffle at the end of a long hard day; it’s the end of a long, hard day; it’s finding out John Snow is alive in Game of Thrones; it’s every moment I spend with my friends; it’s sitting on the bench in my garden that I used to sit on with my mum, gazing in peaceful pain at the incredible blossom of the rhododendron my dad and I planted in her memory, and knowing beauty will always grow back; it’s knowing those moments when my tears of frustration and overwhelming exhaustion hit, they will be over at some point, and all of the above are always possible.) 

Isn’t it funny that ‘unhappiness’ is all about big words – grief, loss, abuse, rejection, fear – yet ‘happiness’ is the small things, the details, the bits of living in life?

So I’m reading this book and it’s all about how happiness is only within yourself. It’s not another person. It’s not about being thin. It’s not about everything we think happiness is, it’s only within ourselves. But like the Donegal landscape, you just can’t frame ‘happiness’ in a soundbite. Because, like the colours of the sky on a Donegal evening, it’s just too complex.

Happiness is definitely not relying on anyone else for your happiness.  Oh how I have learned that.  It’s not my mum, it’s not a husband, it’s not my children. Over the last year and a half, I have taught myself to have date nights with myself…. amid all the nights alone, I now allow myself the odd special one where I don’t give in to the wicked witch voice in my head telling me all the things I should be doing, and all the things I haven’t done. I leave dishes in the sink, I pull my bra off down my sleeve, I let out my belly and I seduce myself with wine and chocolate and I sing to myself as I walk around my garden smiling at the beauty of it all, and I read or I write or I shut down words completely and I wrap myself in the memory blanket I had made of my children’s clothes, and I snuggle with myself on the sofa and watch The Good Wife, and Game of Thrones, and First Dates.  

Busyness is the modern currency of kudos – we all list how busy we are, we complain how busy we are, we compete with how busy and manic our lives are, but I’ve decided that occasionally I’m going to bring in my own currency of slovenly laziness. Sometimes (not enough, not nearly nearly enough) I do nothing. It might be just a few moments in my swing chair in the sun, it might be a cheeky snooze on my kitchen sofa before I collect the girls, it might be a few minutes with a G&T on my garden bench but I am going to admit to them.   There. I just did. (Quick, quick Alana, reaffirm quickly just how busy you are.. running my own business, carving out a writing career, single mum, caring for dad, busy social life, entertaining, quick quick, list your busy-ness) but I am teaching myself to be a lazy arse too. Happiness is about both…. being busy and being lazy.

And like the book says, happiness is about finding peace within yourself but it is also very much about other people too. Making time for friends, engaging, being loved by good people, shared moments.

Only you – and some good people – can make you happy. Of course happiness is not reliant on another person – I know how UNhappy another person can make you – but it takes complexity and simplicity to make us happy. It takes peace and solitude AND love and friendship; it takes busyness and discipline and creative stimulation AND laziness and slobbyness and spontaneity; it takes date nights with yourself AND date nights with others.

As a single mum, time alone is the currency of sanity.  But like chocolate, too much of it has disastrous consequences. Time with enriching people is the currency of life. I am lucky. So lucky I have incredible and enriching people in my life.

Today I fly off with my girls on holiday – a eurocamp in Croatia. It’s going to be warm and beautiful and manic and loud. We’ll be sleeping in a  mobile home and eating breakfast on the balcony. I’m optimistically taking 3 books with me but suspect I won’t get a moment’s peace to read them.  I suspect the soundtrack to the week will be a constant loop of “Look at me!  Look at me!  Jump in the pool! Look at me!” And that’s what we need. A nourishing fun week together with none of the pressures of everyday life. I don’t get that much with the girls any more – good quality time. So it’s going to be glorious, if not exhausting.

The following week, I then fly to the Andalusian mountains for a writing retreat where silence is the order of the day.  I will be alone, and every day I’ll walk in beauty and write in solitude. I will miss the girls but welcome the head space.  In the evenings, the other writers and I will congregate for dinner to talk and share and suck up some company.

And that is happiness to me. A little bit of everything, happiness with myself, AND happiness with others. The little things that make up the vast picture that can never be captured in a photo frame or a sound bite. 

We’ll be heading to Donegal again in the summer and I know happiness is just looking at that sky and because of it’s beauty,  knowing that life will always be ok.

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The uniform of life

I’ve just laid out some new clothes on my eldest daughter’s bed.  Despite there being a threat of summer in the air, they are black; a black jacket, a black cardigan and black sandals. She is 10.

It seems 10 is the new 16, and black is the new orange, and goth is the new princess. She will wear colour (pink or purple) but no pattern, please. She will not wear dresses, skirts or jeans (yes that’s right… she won’t wear jeans). Just black leggings.   Only black leggings. I asked her what was going to happen when the weather improved and black leggings become too, well, black and leggingy.   So she pondered this for a while and then made a seasonal fashion concession “I’ll wear my denim shorts.”  (She doesn’t have to concede on T-shirts as that’s what she wears all winter as well.)

And so this is her uniform: black leggings, with whatever top is in order, with matching bows. Bows – BIG bows are the new thing… last year it was hairbands with flowers, this year it is bows and her whole class are obsessed. Last week I found myself screeching to a halt on a busy road because I saw a handmade bow stall and I stuck my arm out to the lady shouting – “give me whatever you have for a tenner!” while ignoring the honks of the cars queueing up behind me (seems her obsessions become my obsessions).

All her friends in the Black Leggings Brigade are the same.  Leggings, runners and tops, occasionally a fleece and hoody are allowed: the uniform for this current phase of childhood, and this union of like minds.  I remember, way back when, at the age of 3, she started defiantly stamping her fashion foot (Lelly Kelly clad of course). I dressed her in practical non-gendered clothes like blue and red trousers.  And then one day, she woke up with more than her milk teeth, and demanded that from that day forth, only pink would suffice, and she fluttered into her new role as a pink and pretty princess. It was all nature, no nurture.  But that phase changed with her height and her attitude and pink faded into purple, and a rainbow of other expressions of her ever changing self followed.  And in so many ways, the clothes we choose to wear, the uniform we create for ourselves is just that: a representation of our current phase of life.

I look back on my own phases, so many of them cringe worthy, and so many of them attempts to fit in to my surroundings, or my peers, or my aspirational ambitions (If I dress like a serious professional woman, I might eventually feel like one instead of a fraud). Often in my life, I would turn up in the wrong uniform.

Unlike my girls, who have a say in what they wear – and have no issue expressing that say! – I had none until I was well into my teens. I spent my first years as a blossoming girl, feeling like a wayward weed sprouting chaotically in the wrong place. I wore plastic national health glasses, invariably cellotaped together on one side as my dad would only pay to get them fixed when I had broken both legs.  I wore ghastly styles that were even ghastly by 1980’s standards, and home made clothe

Kirks 62-02 264

Yes….those are white knee length socks with moses sandals

s. In fact, my mum’s friend, being a better dressmaker than my mum, made clothes for her two daughters and then they were passed to me so most of the time I actually wore second-hand home-made clothes.  When I did start expressing myself, I was such a booky nerd, I had no idea about fashion (despite being an avid Jackie reader.)  I remember one day, about mid-1980’s, when drindle skirts had made a come back and I was going out with two friends. I had finally persuaded my mum to get me an (actual shop-bought!) drindle skirt but I didn’t have the know-how or budget to wear it properly with white ankle socks and tucked in blouse. So it looked like something my big sister would have worn (had I had a big sister, and a big sister who also had no fashion sense and perhaps was a missionary out in Africa).  As we three prepared to go out, my other two friends complimented each other and it went back and forth along the lines of:

“You look amazing. You are so much prettier than me,”

“Stop!  You are so much prettier than me. Your skirt is fab.”

“No, you look much better. Your skirt is gorgeous.”

And on it went until I must have coughed and they both glanced round from their mutual admiration frenzy and just one look at me ended the conversation. No-one even attempted to pretend my look made it into the conversation.  Then, when I was around 15, that excruciating phase of trying to stand out while trying to fit in, I went through a purple chapter.  Everything was purple. Even my eyes. Tongue-poking-out-my-mouth labours of applying 16 shades of purple eyeshadow just made me look like I’d been punched in both eyes, but still I persisted. And then there was the androgenous phase. Buttoned up shirts and bow-ties. I kid you not.

So from such auspicious beginnings, I suppose the only way to go was up, although I could document a few more really special moments in my fashion fiasco history, but honestly, it is only in the last few years that I have finally found myself in the mirror.

“Ah!” I say to my reflection, “you look on the outside, how I feel I am on the inside.”  At 46, I finally see who I am.  I have hit middle age, but I really feel I am only – finally – getting started. Middle age used to be the beginning of the end, but now, as I venture out of a highly damaging marriage, with a career of creativity blossoming around me, with the baby years behind me and three amazing girls to adventure with, and an army of friends who have battled to get me through, I feel I am just at the end of the beginning.  A whole new life is at my feet, and for once, I know what shoes to wear.

150 years ago, women’s life expectancy was 40.  Now it is 83.  That is an entire extra lifetime.  I intend to live it well.  And the uniform I chose to dress myself in armour?  As I preen, and pluck and dye and exfoliate and shed the wear of worry, I swing my scars like bling, flashing and defiant. I wear my character, built from adventure, pain, and love. I wrap myself in a luxurious cape of friendship. I accessorise with a defiant, reliant smile, and I clothe myself in hard-fought self-love.  Oh, yes, and a wardrobe of clothes I finally love.

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