Farewell to my Forties…

Another decade has ended and I am thinking back to those months just after I turned forty, when my mindset completely changed about who I was and what I wanted out of life.

I stood and took a selfie of myself in a hotel room in Cannes, in a Mediterranean Blue maxi dress, looking nervous but excited about the night ahead. That night (which I’ve detailed elsewhere on this blog) changed everything. Coming back to London, I knew everything had to be different.

And it was.

Thank you, forties, for letting me find out who I truly am; letting me explore my independence, my sexuality, my freedom, my voice, my self.

I look back at the 43-year-old who left a marriage and set out on that first holiday on her own to Thailand, who found herself flying round an island on the back of a motorbike with a black-haired boy and laughing.

I think about the person who stood in a bar alone, having a drink bought for her by a shocked woman (who went back to her husband eager to tell him what she’d done).

There is a scene where a woman buys a flat of her own in a golden building in a new place that turns out to be her real home.

There are beautiful young men who’ve appeared, grinning and eager, curious about the world, and even more curious about her.

I’m watching a woman reading on a beach in Dahab, watching the sun rise and fall behind shadowy mountains, smiling to herself about the evening ahead.

She goes back to the hotel to write a blog post, because writing has become a way of processing her days and recording her experience. Maybe no one will read it, but it doesn’t matter.

There is a woman who finally realises that shrinking her body is not the way of happiness. That being strong and in the world, taking up space, is the way she needs to be, and that there is nothing better than walking – walking along a coastal path or through a rainforest – to put her mind at rest.

Perhaps most surprisingly of all, there is a woman who realises she has something to say and has the confidence to say it. It’s only taken forty or fifty years to get there. Yes, it might scare off some of the men she meets, but actually, that’s fine. If they can’t deal, they can’t deal. She has friends who can.

So now I’m fifty and I need to stop talking about myself in the third person. It’s here, and I’m excited and not afraid. I know how to do it – I worked it all out in my forties. I’m off to London Book Fair to meet amazing people and talk on a panel about European illustration (on the day when Theresa May might trigger our departure from Europe).

Let’s do this.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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1928

Recently, I was asked in a questionnaire what year I would like to go back to and why. After deliberating awhile I realised that there was only one year I could go back to: 1928. This is the year my mother was born; the year that women gained electoral equality with men in the Equal Franchise Act; the year that Virginia Woolf delivered her famous A Room of One’s Own speech to the women of Girton College, Cambridge.

How amazing to have been there, listening to Virginia exhorting the assembled young women to “possess yourselves of money enough to travel and to idle, to contemplate the future or the past of the world, to dream over books and loiter at street corners and let the line of thought dip deep into the stream.”

I’ve realised that this blog is my response to Woolf. I left my marriage when I felt I was financially able to – it really was the trigger – and I’d waited a long time for it to happen. Since then, I’ve lapped up my freedom and dipped so deeply into that stream. I eventually felt compelled to write about my experiences. Virginia would be so proud.

I’ve also recently read Gloria Steinem’s memoir My Life on the Road and been similarly inspired. It made me smile, the chapter entitled ‘Why I Don’t Drive’ because like Gloria, I can drive but I’ve stopped, preferring public transport. And like Gloria, I don’t drive “because adventure starts the moment I leave my door”.

I remember my honeymoon to New Zealand. The two of us spent the whole time in a motorhome, speaking to no one, having miniature meals out of the miniature fridge and stacking everything back neatly so that it didn’t fall out of the cupboards when we were driving in the mountains. I remember the relief of speaking to the petrol-station attendants as we bought the infamous steak-and-cheese pies from the heated cabinets (try them). I wish with all my heart that we’d at least driven round in a car and stayed at motels – at least we’d have more people to speak to, and I’ve have had less time to ruminate on whether or not I’d just made the biggest mistake of my life.

I’m 50 next year (I know, right?!) and I’ve been having some ideas about what I’d like to do. I’ve decided on a smorgasbord of experiences rather than a big single one, although I am tempted to return to Costa Rica. It’s just too beautiful not to return to…

Anyway, one of the things I’m really settled on is that I will walk. A lot. On my own. I love it, and I discovered that Woolf did too, walking in London, Cornwall, Sussex and Spain, believing that walking benefits mind, body and soul. On  a recent return trip to my beloved Isle of Wight coastal path, I felt my soul sing with every step. I can’t not go back there.

I am thinking about the Camino – the pilgrim’s routes that form a web of walks all over northern Europe to the final destination in northwestern Spain: Santiago di Compostela. I know it’s a well-worn route, but I might try the Portuguese coastal way. The last time I was in Portugal I was miserable, with a ‘friend’ who was bemoaning the loss of a boyfriend and taking it all out on me. I wrote a diary whilst there, detailing my longing to escape. It would be great to go back and reclaim that country for myself.

I’m also thinking of the Norwegian Hurtigruten cruises. I know it sounds like I’m already applying for my Saga reward card but ever since I visited Norway I’ve been keen to go back and see that coastline properly. The Hurtigruten was once a postal ferry that plied along the Norwegian coast – now it does it mainly for pleasure-seekers, it seems, but I’d love to try it. It’s on the list.

And finally, and yet another inspiration I got from a book I’ve recently read (Wildwood by Roger Deakin) I’m thinking about trying Peddar’s Way in Norfolk. I’d never even heard of it until I read the book. And I’d never heard of Roger Deakin until I’d read Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways. And so, my circle of book-based life-enhancement goes on.

And so does my relentless search for another coastline to love. At some point I have to revisit the glorious Wild Atlantic Way, because for me, no other coastline has quite had that magic. Dahab in Egypt has come close, but nothing speaks to me like that west coast of Ireland. I’ve driven it, yes, but I’d like to feel my hiking boots on the ground and the inevitable drizzle and sunshine (often at the same time) on my face.

And then there’s the Guinness and Tia Maria to try again in that bar in Allihies…

 

 

Eat Pray Love Made Me Do It

I wrote this essay for the tenth anniversary of Eat Pray Love – author Elizabeth Gilbert put a call out for people to say how her bestselling book had changed their lives. Their stories will be published in book form, entitled Eat Pray Love Made Me Do It in April this yearMy story didn’t make the final cut so I thought I’d publish it myself here.

Dedicated to Katherine.

I was given a copy of Eat Pray Love at the airport by an American girlfriend. A girlfriend who knew I was struggling with my marriage and no doubt hoped it would make a difference to my life.

Initially I was wary of the Julia Roberts quote on the front cover, telling me she’d given a copy to all her girlfriends. ‘Ugh – self help,’ I thought. As I browsed the pages in the airport bookshop I saw a few mentions of ‘god’ that made me roll my eyes a bit. ‘American navel-gazing ‘hallelujah’ twaddle’, I thought.

But I started reading the book on the plane to San Francisco. And it spoke to me. Who was this woman, singing my life with her words?

The marriage that on paper, seemed perfect. Nice guy, nice house, nice life. And yet it wasn’t enough. It was making her miserable. The desperate nights on the bathroom floor.

Although I hadn’t gone as far as a bathroom-floor experience, I was feeling increasingly desperate. The year before this holiday I’d had an epiphany on a work trip. I’d just turned forty and had an encounter with a man at a party that had reset the way I saw myself. He looked at me and described what he saw – “half woman, half girl,” he said. He told me I was beautiful and sexy, that he didn’t usually go for older women (only a four-year difference, mate) but there I was in front of him. I didn’t know what to say. No one had ever said those words so clearly and directly to me. Including my husband.

I was in the midst of a boom-time, career-wise. I was spending most of my time in the office or in the pub after work, celebrating the achievements of the team I was working with. Increasingly, I’d started to feel that my husband didn’t want to celebrate any of my success so I’d started to stay out night after night, to get it all out of my system before I went home.

The work trip was to Cannes Film Festival and I‘d been invited to a party hosted by one of the big studios as I’d been working with them on a huge project. And boy, was I ready to party.

I danced energetically and happily with one guy for most of the night. He was from my part of the UK and we got on well. It felt so good to be with someone I could be openly celebratory with, there in the balmy Cannes night, in the gardens of a beautiful villa.

At about 2am the whole group headed back to our hotel in Juan Les Pins and after an aborted attempt to go skinny-dipping in the pool, the others drifted back to their rooms. I was still high on the experience of the party and couldn’t face going to bed. I went to my dance partner’s room.

At this point, you’re going to think, ‘oh she slept with him’. Reader, I didn’t. We went out on his balcony and looked at the night sky and talked. I’ve always loved that song, ‘Strangers in the Night’ and now I know why. This guy lived in America so there was no real chance of meeting again. It was a one-off encounter.

It was around 4.30am when I decided to return to my room. We hugged each other at his door and agreed that it had been one of the best nights we’d ever spent. Nothing more than a brief kiss happened, but it was as seismic as full sex as far as my life was concerned. More so.

I returned to the UK and he to the US, but there was a crackling line of electricity between us that lasted for months, even years, after. I felt as though I’d been jolted awake after years of sexual slumber. When I returned from Cannes, my husband joked that he thought I was having an affair. I wasn’t, but he could see that something in me had shifted.

The plane I was on a year later was heading to San Francisco, where Cannes guy lived. It wasn’t the whole reason I was going, but it was a strong part of it. He actually chickened out of meeting me by telling me he was in the UK when he wasn’t, but that trip sealed my fate.

I’d read Eat Pray Love on the flight out to SF and spent the week with my friends thinking about my situation. I remember a moment, sitting on a lakeside somewhere in Sonoma, watching my friends swimming then laying my head on my drawn-up knees. I needed to be free and I needed time to think about how to do it.

The answer came a few months later in the form of a promotion, and with it, financial independence. I walked home from a shopping trip one day (I did these frequently on my own – more escaping from home life) and told my husband as soon as I got in. I wanted a divorce.

And oh, the sadness of that moment. He was one of my best friends. We’d shared adventure holidays together, built homes together, stood next to each other when parents had died, when jobs were lost.

Crucially, though, we hadn’t held each other when the bad things happened. One of the main reasons why I felt the way I did was because he simply hadn’t been there to support me when the chips were down. He’d pretended to be ill when my mum died, so he wouldn’t have to deal with it. He’d ignored the fact that I was in London during the July bombings. He’d got angry when I nearly drowned in a river.

He just didn’t care.

He didn’t love me enough.

He was a good friend, but not a great one.

But now I could break free, and in doing so let him go and find a new life with someone he might be able to love properly. Maybe he’d even start a family, as I’d been resolutely childfree-by-choice.

With Elizabeth Gilbert in mind, my first action, post-separation, was to book a holiday to Thailand on my own. I’d thought about Bali but I was keen not to become a Gilbert Groupie and just shamelessly copy her journey. I pictured Bali filled with women-of-a-certain age, all roaming around yearningly looking for a Felipe of their own.

As it turned out, I wasn’t looking for a Felipe – I needed freedom, not a new, permanent man in my life. In Phuket, I found Dougie, a young Aussie Thai boxer, who carried me round the island on the back of his moped, my hair streaming behind me as I grinned with joy. Like Cannes guy, he’d approached me with candour about my older-woman attractiveness, saying I was ‘cool’ and much more chilled than the younger women he was used to. He’d had testicular cancer some years before and was just trying to enjoy life. We enjoyed it together for a short time.

In a way, that first Thai holiday was my ‘bathroom floor’ moment. I cried myself stupid in my hotel room for three days before getting out and meeting Dougie. I’d been surrounded by couples in a lovely hotel and found myself weeping into my dinner, night after night. Only the good offices of friends made me wash my face, put on a nice dress, and walk into the nearby town to see what was going on. I was so afraid, but there was nothing to fear. Dougie and his friends were there.

But that holiday wasn’t enough for me. It had been a test to see if I could holiday alone, so I immediately booked a return visit to Thailand when I returned home. Next stop, Koh Samui.

My longed-for freedom came as I found myself befriending two Thai women and whizzing round on their motorbike, one in front of me, the other behind me. ‘Farang sandwich’, I quipped, ‘farang’ meaning ‘white European’. At a club in Chaweng, I met Andrew, another Aussie, who was still partying on New Year’s Day, after a big New Year’s Eve on Koh Pha Ngan. We danced, we laughed, he marveled that I was in my forties. I loved it. I loved him.

Those Thai holidays became the first of many, and now I am a seasoned solo traveller. I’ve even started a blog about ‘flying solo’ as it’s something that’s come to define my new-found independent status. In many ways, Dahab in Egypt is my Bali, where I have friends I return to frequently. It is my happy place.

At home, I can go for a drink or have dinner on my own and it feels like the most empowering thing a woman can ever do. I haven’t found my Felipe, but in a sense I don’t want to right now. The end of my journey hasn’t happened yet and I can’t wait to find out who’s waiting for me.

Eat Pray Love made me do all of this.

 

 

 

Proper Little Madam

Does anyone else remember that Clarks shoe advert from the 1970s, where a little girl exclaims, “My mum says I’m going to grow up to be a proper little madam!”? I’ve been searching for it online but the only upload of it has been deleted.

I remembered laughing with my family about it as a child. Perhaps the little girl in the advert dared to be a little bit choosy about her footwear and insisted on a particular style. Not surprising that the 1970s billed that as ‘upstart’ behaviour from a girl. I was reminded of it this morning when watching Sheryl Sandberg’s 2010 Ted Talk about the lack of female leaders in the workplace, and the follow-up in 2013 after the publication of her book, Lean In.

In the second talk Sandberg brings up the subject of women who take the lead being called ‘bossy’ and how that starts at a young age. I’m sure I won’t be the only woman who remembers the word being applied to herself in school, and the words ‘proper little madam’ have stuck in my head as a by-phrase for the way women of any age are viewed for having an opinion on things.

This is something I’ve been musing on recently, as I’ve had some really unexpected ‘micro-attacks’ on having an opinion, all from other women. I expected these to come from men, especially as my very first blog post attracted the following passive-aggressive response from ‘Geraint’:

My favourite phrase (referring to the proliferation of blogs/social media) is “Just because you can doesn’t mean you should!”

As much as I admire your new adventures it’s a big like those who write blogs about being pregnant/unemployed/married etc – it’s tricky but nothing new/unique and therefore should be confined to a personal diary.

Otherwise it’s just attention seeking.

Sorry 🙂 x

I particularly loved the smiley at the end. I read this and thought, “Here we go…” preparing for the onslaught of trolls waiting to silence women like me who dared to express thoughts and opinions online. But thankfully that didn’t happen. Lovely Geraint (a fellow Welshie!) seems to have been a one-off.

No – what’s actually happened a year on is that I’ve pretty much been told to either shut up or ‘tone it down a bit’ by mainly women. I’ve been told my blog appears ‘spiky’, ‘judgemental’, ‘aggressive’, ‘bitter’, arrogant’, ‘opinionated’, ‘angry’, ‘difficult’ and ‘challenging’ by people who seem to have had nerves touched by what I’ve written. They’ve even warned me that it might put men off. (It’s actually quite a good asshole filter, truth be told). 

I’ve been told that they don’t agree with everything I write, even though I’d never expect them to, yet they never comment or respond to anything I say publicly, only one-to-one. Maybe I should be grateful for that.

All of this response seems to have been exacerbated since I wrote Awareness Is All back in May, about my take on feminism. Women, it seems, have a problem with me being feminist and would prefer it if I piped down a bit and got on with being a woman quietly, like everyone else. (Good job the suffragettes didn’t do that, eh?) I’m challenging the world they’ve bought into, perhaps even compromised themselves for, and they don’t like it. 

I have received my Women’s Equality Party Founding Member card this week with pride. It is the first time I have felt strongly about anything political and I’m determined to be part of the movement to redress the ridiculous levels of economic, political and social inequality that exist. And they do exist, whether everyone acknowledges them or not. And as the party line states, ‘equality is better for everyone’, not just women.

The upshot of this micro-barrage is simply that I am even more determined to have an opinion and express it publicly. Every time I get ‘shushed’ I want to shout even louder. I’m starting to think that the very best thing a woman can be called is ‘opinionated’ and ‘attention-seeking’.

If blogging isn’t an attention-seeking act, then what is? Everything about this is in the choice. I can seek your attention with my views but you don’t have to give it to me. If my followers happen to agree with my opinion then great, if they don’t, fine. Either tell me in a comment or not. It’s up to you. It’s just my not-so-humble opinion.

As I write, there is a Twitter conversation going on about whether or not book bloggers should be ‘critical’ of the books they review. I am aghast that this is even a question. If we can’t give an honest opinion about something in a reasoned, intelligent way, then what on earth are we doing this for? Just to be nice?

I’d rather be a Proper Little Madam any day of the week.

A Year of Blogging

It’s a year to the day that I started this blog, and nearly seventy posts later, I’ve learned quite a lot. One the main things I’ve learned is how much I enjoy writing, and that is something I never knew about myself a year ago. I started the blog because some good friends gave me the confidence to do it, and I’m very grateful to them for that.

So here are the Things I’ve Learned:

I write quickly

I write fast and post quickly. It’s part of my character to want to do things in the moment, not wait for a more perfect time. I often write first thing in the morning, having woken up with an idea I want to write about, or the news might prompt something, as it did when 4chan released those pictures of Jennifer Lawrence. It takes me about half an hour to get everything down and I often edit material after I’ve posted it. I usually have to abridge a post to 750 words for Huffington Post.

Personal is good 

My blog is really honest and people seem to enjoy that. My most-viewed posts are the ones where I share something really personal from my life. I was surprised at the reaction to The Silence last year, in which I confessed to once having had depression. I think it’s something that should be talked about, not hidden away and that is part of the purpose of my blog.

People message me privately

Quite a lot of what I write about seems to resonate with people to the point where they have to tell me the same thing has happened, or is happening, to them. I don’t get a huge amount of public comments on the blog, but I do get a lot of direct messages from people telling me about their experiences. A surprising amount of men and women messaged me about Ping Pong, in which I talked about being child-free by choice.

I publish myself

I do try and make my posts timely and topical, tying in to current trends, ideas and news stories. By hashtagging my posts appropriately it can make a huge difference to the number of views. For instance, I republished my Epiphany ‘body image’ post on Huffington Post using the #everybodyisready tag, from the protest against Protein World adverts.

I work to a set of ‘brand values’ for Because I Can and my keywords are: clarity, honesty, openness, authenticity, myth-busting, revelation and debunking.

Dating is the hottest topic

My most-viewed post by far is Sixth Date Syndrome, and the myriad ways it is searched for on Google tell me that I’ve discovered a Thing that isn’t just happening to me. Every day (including today) people search for it, view it and hopefully learn that it’s not just them. I’ve also enjoyed debunking myths about female sexuality and the ‘cougar’ trope.

Men enjoy my posts

I have a posse of Secret Male Admirers for my blog. They come up to me at parties and tell me how much they like the insight into the female psyche. I am mainly writing for women like me but my main responders on Twitter and WordPress appear to be men. Surprisingly, women seem to have more of a problem with my feminist leanings than men.

People disagree with me but don’t say it

Recently a few people have revealed in person that they don’t agree with everything I write. I’d never expect them to as these posts are just my opinion, but they only tell me face-to-face, rather than on social media. I’m always surprised I don’t get more open disagreement in my comments, especially as they are inherently feminist.

I naturally ‘cluster’ things

I do this all the time at work and in life – see patterns of behaviour or trends and then cluster them together to make a Thing. This is what I’ve tapped into to write the blog. Noticing that women shove other women has been one of the more surprising moments in the past year, as has observing men leaping out of my way when I run.

I could actually write a book

I’m currently in the early stages of writing a novel based on my experiences. Writing the blog regularly has made me realise how I can write 1000 words really easily. I decided against a memoir because I wanted to shape my story and fictionalise some of the elements. I’m finding it quite difficult because my blog ‘voice’ is the one that comes most naturally to me.

A big thanks

To everyone who’s followed me, tweeted me, retweeted me and Facebook-shared me. It means a lot every time it happens.

To mark my anniversary, I’m going to be ‘live-blogging’ a solo walk around the entire coastline of the Isle of Wight next week, so stay tuned.

The top ten most-viewed posts on Because I Can (in descending order):

1. Sixth Date Syndrome

2. In Support of J-Law

3. The Silence

4. Things I’d Tell My Daughter

5. The One Where I’m Absolutely Not a Yummy Mummy

6. Toxic People

7. Bare-Faced Cheek

8. Ice-Breaker

9. In Praise of Younger Men

10. Epiphany