New Year, New You

There seems to have been something in the air.

I’m actually compiling a list of every woman I’ve spoken to who’s had a romantically disappointing New Year. Like me, they’ve walked into 2017 with a resigned yet resolute air about them. The resounding cry of, “not you as well!” has made us laugh and know we’re not alone … yet we all know that we might be better off being alone. At least for a while.

For most of us, New Year has given us a snapshot into the reality of our situations and the clarity is terrifying. Christmas affords an opportunity to bedeck our lives in tinsel, fairy lights and the blurry focus of too-much prosecco, but New Year hurtles towards us, brutally throwing the decorations aside, revealing what lies beneath: the harsh truth of our situations.

I think that’s what people find so terrifying about New Year. Whether we choose to blot it out with booze, go to bed early, or plan to be in the air when it’s happening, it is because none of us find it easy to face New Year head on. If we don’t have a hand to hold or lips to kiss at midnight, it is as though life has just taken a selfie of us at our most exposed.

Nowhere to hide, nowhere to run.

For some, like me, the ‘midnight selfie’ was just what was needed to allow us to make a clear decision. On New Year’s Day I had an epiphany. I realised that what I’d thought (and hoped) was a relationship really wasn’t. He was in town with a friend on New Year’s Eve, while I was with friends at a party (and actually went to bed at 11.30pm having peaked too soon).

Suddenly the fact that he’d chosen to be apart on this one night of the year gave me the clarity I needed. It’s been so obvious. I’ve been a victim of wishful thinking, but I’m being nice to myself about it. Everyone is allowed to get away with that every now and again, right?

Other women I’ve spoken to have reported the men in their lives going AWOL on New Year’s Eve. Making plans and promises, then not turning up. Or turning up and creating an argument over nothing that then leads to them running away. Is this a thing? I’ve asked myself. Is there something about New Year that cements a commitment to someone if you share it? Do these guys run away from it because they’re scared of it, the terrifying clarity of the midnight selfie?

When I was married I had the opposite experience. New Year’s Eve (or Hogmanay, as we would be in Scotland for it) would suddenly provide me with a partner I didn’t recognise. One that would embarrass me in front of his friends by non-stop snogging. I can’t say I didn’t enjoy the attention, I just wish it could’ve been spread out across the rest of the year. I think the lawnmower got more attention than me on the other 364 days…

Anyway, now I’m entering my fiftieth year, and I’m honestly relieved not to have to factor in another person to the plans. I had been worrying how my ‘flying solo’ plans would be affected so I’m now back on track, at least.

The decorations are down and my flat looks clean and clear.

So does 2017.

 

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The Good Souls

This Christmas and New Year are game-changers for me. For once I haven’t fled the country, or stayed in a place I don’t want to be with people I don’t like, or roamed moodily around my own home, feeling a bit sorry for myself.

I left the decision whether or not to fly away until pretty much the last moment. I knew the guy I’m seeing would be working most of the time and only free on Christmas Day. I knew that people were saying they’d be around (those that weren’t going away) but I also knew that when it came to it, I probably wouldn’t see any of them.

People are funny about going into hiding during the Christmas holidays. They disappear from Twitter – announcing that they’re ‘taking a break’ to be with family – then suddenly they’re back, taking a break from their families…

Anyway, this year there has been no break or flight from anything for me, except the office. I know enough about Christmas now to realise that the best bit is the run-up to it. I started enjoying the party season from December 1, knowing that come the 25th it’s going to be a bit of an anti-climax, or at least a post-party chill-out (this is precisely why I start enjoying summer on June 1 – if you wait for the ‘big day’ when the sun is at its hottest, you’ve missed out on all the fun. And the big day may never arrive…)

It was a very Christmas different for me. My guy is Muslim so it was a no-booze zone and I made a halal lamb dish for us both. It was quite liberating, heading into Sainsbury’s on Christmas Eve, hearing people shouting, “WHERE ARE THE BLOODY PARSNIPS??”, knowing I wouldn’t be buying anything remotely involved in a traditional Christmas dinner.

The world didn’t end because I didn’t observe a single tradition, apart from present-opening and a pre-dinner walk. The biggest surprises of the day were finding out that my guy likes Rick Stein documentaries, animated children’s films and Gladiator. We ended up watching The Revenant, hardly joyful Christmas viewing, but at least it was set in a wintery landscape. It wasn’t White Christmas, but I enjoyed it anyway.

My guy had had his birthday a week earlier, and made it feel like my birthday by bringing around an enormous cake for me. For me! I was struck by the generosity of it. The generosity of spirit which escaped me for years, when I was with someone incredibly mean-spirited. No completely unselfish acts, no celebration of anything good (unless initiated by me), no joy in sharing a life with another person. Just being frogmarched around a shopping mall to select my own gift, which was inevitably a high-ticket consumer good because it was easy and required little thought.

Two of my best friends are Jewish and do a sort of ‘Chrismukkah’ which I rather love. We joke that they have become my ‘Jewish mothers’ but I’ve realised that they have actually become my family here in north-west London. They phone me to catch up, even though I hate phones, and I love it. They sought me out this year, separately, to arrange to meet for gift-giving and pre-Christmas cheer. I love them dearly for that. Please keep phoning me, ladies. I love it, honestly.

The week before Christmas, one of my oldest friends arrived in the country from Qatar and arranged to meet me in Kensal Rise, where I live. It had been a difficult day, because what is left of my actual family were meeting in Wales for a Christmas dinner and for reasons I won’t go into here, I couldn’t attend.

Kensal put on a show as though I’d been rehearsing it for months. The chatty barman, the friends popping past to say ‘hi’, the local pub quiz we entered into with gusto, the knowledge that these smiling friends were here to see me and that they are a big part of my life and history. The universe spoke to me loud and clear: this is my home and these people are my family.

In between Christmas and New Year I arranged to see another old friend (we date back to university), who is the mother of my godson. Thanks to the generosity of yet another one of my London Jewish framily we got free tickets to a Christmas show in Manchester and a backstage tour afterwards. I introduced my old friend to my London friend and felt grateful to have both of them in my life.

I started to think about all the good souls – the people who really matter. They are marked by their kindness and generosity. They are consistent and don’t have any agenda. They like to see me and I like to see them. It’s so beautifully simple.

My northern odyssey continued with a night out with my brother, ending up in a bar on the infamous Canal Street. Much fun was had. Over dinner I told him that the thing that most impressed me at his 60th birthday party was a) that he’d served the guests dinner himself, and b) friends of his that I’d never met came up to me and told me how kind he is to them and their families. We’re not the closest of siblings, but I am proud of who he is. And now I wonder why we’ve waited so long to have a night out in Manchester…

Finally I met up with my mum’s sister for a hug, a cup of tea and a chat. Like my mum and nan before her, she is wiser than wise. “Take each day one at a time,” were her parting words to me, and I shall. I shall.

The person who drove me to my aunt’s and came back and took me to the station at the end of the day was someone I know professionally: an illustrator. He’d also picked me up earlier, and cooked lunch for me and his family. Again, I was blown away by the generosity. The universe is literally throwing good souls at me right now.

So much crap has happened this year, I can’t wait to leave it behind and start a fresh new one. I’m not naive enough to think 2017 is going to be a bed of roses, but I’m going to be fifty, and I’m going to celebrate that with people that matter.

And in the words of Starsailor:

As I turn to you and I say
Thank goodness for the good souls
That make life better
As I turn to you and I say
If it wasn’t for the good souls
Life would not matter

Happy New Year!

Dedicated to: Justine, Chelsea, Neal, Helen(s), Jess, Phil, Sam, Jonny, Kay, Woody, James, Lucinda, Sidali, Ben, Coreen, and the people of Kensal Rise and Canal Street.

Because I’m Happy

I’m writing this ahead of Valentine’s Day, because normally at this point the fear and dread has set in. I’ve never been keen on being in a pink, heart-festooned restaurant even when I was in a couple, but it’s even worse when you’re not. At least this year, VD (oops, did I just write that?) has the good sense to be on a Sunday, so we can all avoid the flower deliveries to the office and the smug carriers of said flowers on the train home. Normally, I’d be contemplating a day inside my flat, binge-watching something, and binge-eating something else.

But this year, I’m not. It doesn’t actually matter any more. I used to get all het up about this stuff, but that moment has passed. I know VD is a mostly sham experience, but hey – lots of my friends are in love, or have found love, so it’s fine if they want to celebrate it. Hell, I’ll even celebrate it with them (in a social-media sense).

I have found real love here and there in my life, but never for very long. I think the most I’ve managed is a few months. I remember the feeling it creates… That heady delight in everything, where you want to skip down the road and hand out flowers to small children and the elderly. You find yourself marvelling at the minute detail of the world and being kind to people on the Tube. I remember feeling like I wanted to pirouette down the street (dance training comes in handy) and sing, “I’m in love … with a pretty wonderful boy!” from West Side Story.

The thing is, I’m feeling a bit like that right now. There’s no romance in my life, although I do see a couple of guys occasionally. They make me feel happy when I’m with them because there’s no pressure for it to be anything than what it is. I think I make them happy too. As a friend says to me quite often, “It is what it is, Babe.” This has turned out to be my life mantra.

It’s been coming on now for a few months. I have found a job that I love and people I love working with. I’m being collaboratively creative in a way that hasn’t happened for years and it is making me so happy.

I have found myself letting old grudges gently slide (well, nearly all of them). I’ve realised people are just humans like me, imperfect and just trying their best. Might as well just all get along while we’re here, eh? Why make it worse for ourselves?

I’ve found myself helping a variety of people on public transport and smiled at the surprise on their faces. I remember the last time I felt like this and it was a love affair that did it – it made me want to be kinder to people. How lovely that it can be done even without another person being involved. Who knew that all it required was just to feel genuinely happy in your own skin? I don’t think I’ve ever felt like this.

So here I am, nearly 49, single, feeling happy in my skin. And yes, I’m just as amazed as you probably are. It’s not supposed to happen, is it? Women my age are meant to be surrounding themselves with cats and growing hairy warts on their faces. Instead, I’m striding out to work with a spring in my step, booking solo adventures abroad and saying howdy doody to surprised old people in north-west London. I’ve even given up dieting and don’t feel the need to drown any sorrows in booze. I even spent Christmas in the UK, without feeling like I needed to get on a flight somewhere. Anywhere…

I’ve noticed for a while now that more people are smiling at me, in general. I think it’s because my face is set in one (for a while I thought I had a ‘little something’ on my cheek). I’ve particularly enjoyed exchanging smiles with women when I’m out and about, mainly because smiling at men can often get you in trouble. And I think women SHOULD smile at each other more. There’s way too much scowling for my liking.

So, if this post is making you gag with all its sickly sweetness, bear in mind that on Sunday, I might be celebrating the fact that you’ve found your own sickly sweet love. And I truly think that’s great because I’ve felt its awesomeness.

But I’m afraid the old cliché is a cliché for a reason: because it’s true.

In the words of Whitney Houston, learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all.

Happy Valentine’s Day to me, and to all you lovers out there.

Mwah.

 

Ghosts of Christmas Past

It’s that time of year when I remember the Best Christmas of All. I think it’s a composite Christmas, a combined memory of Christmases in the mid-late ’70s, when I was eight or nine. Maybe that’s the age of peak Christmas, where you still believe the magic and everything is tinted with the multi-coloured glow of Quality Street wrappers.

My house was a hive of activity – my dad loved to organise parties and liked to make drinks for people from his cabinet. We had a succession of visits from friends and extended family and I loved the surprise element of it all: aunties, uncles, cousins, mince pies, ginger ale (for me) and copious trays of nuts you had to crack open, and Quality Street. That’s what Christmas was made of, back then. And the legendary Boxing Day party at the house, where my duty was snack-serving and observing drunken behaviour without really knowing what it was.

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Classic ’70s-style tree from Dreamstime

And oh, the sights and sounds. The huge, real tree, in reality far too big for the living room, with the classic ’70s frosted baubles and multi-coloured lights that always needed about twenty bulb changes to get them going. I was probably a huge health and safety hazard but my favourite thing to do was to wriggle on my back under the lower boughs of the tree and look up through the branches at the lights. I’d blur my eyes to make the image even more magical. To me, everything was still magical.

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Classic ’70s-style lights from Laurel Leaf Farm

My mum had told me the truth about Father Christmas by the time I was eight. It was a lovely, very Catholic explanation, that allowed me to hang on to a bit of the magic. I was told that he wouldn’t *actually* come down the chimney any more (even though we had gas central heating and there was no chimney I went with it) but his spirit would enter the house just the same. If  anything, I got more into Father Christmas at that point (never ‘Santa’ in our house).

Everything contributed to the magic. My advent calendar, pre-chocolate, was a beautifully illustrated nativity scene which ended with the doors to the stable opening to reveal Mary, Joseph and Jesus inside. I couldn’t wait for that moment. I studied the scene intently: the Angel Gabriel, the shepherds, the wise men – everyone was there, or behind the doors. I read the St Luke Gospel, with its classic nativity narration, and loved the story of the holy family finding shelter in the stable.

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My calendar was a bit like this vintage one from 32 North

It will come as no surprise that I was *always* the narrating angel in the school nativity play. Always the narrating angel, never the virginal mother. Seems my life has turned out that way. I was the one that had to stand front-of-stage throughout the whole thing, arms crossed over my chest, quoting bits of St Luke while god knows what went on behind me. One year I had to sing ‘Glory to God in the Highest’ on my own and my mum told me I was ‘flat’ afterwards. She was a trained soprano. Thanks Mum – no one realised I was actually an alto at the time.

I *loved* getting into that angel costume. It was the wings and tinsel headdress that did it. And the makeup! At my primary school we also got a visit from Father Christmas, who’d give us presents from his sack. I distinctly remember getting a selection box featuring a chocolate gun, packet of cigarettes and a cigar. And a lighter. Ah the ’70s.

I was lucky in that my dad was a local councillor and ended up being Chairman of the town. I accompanied him, with mum, to switch on the town lights one year (I need to dig that photo out). He also used to run the Rotary Club Christmas float and dress up as Father Christmas to fling sweets out of the back of it. My sister was commissioned to paint the sides of the float with Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. I was so proud when that float went round our estate and I followed it round with the other kids, boasting.

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On the day itself, my dad started proceedings by cranking up the record player with his Mantovani ‘Christmas Bells‘ album. I loved its gaudy cover. Then my mum would shout upstairs (for some reason our kitchen was below the lounge) and ask for Jonny Mathis, especially ‘When a Child Is Born‘. My mum spent most of Christmas in that kitchen, not her natural habitat, shrouded in pressure-cooker steam and never more than a foot away from a glass of Harvey’s Bristol Cream, that my dad kept topped up.

I remember one distinct Christmas where I was captivated by Greg Lake’s I Believe in Father Christmas, and I still am. The glorious Prokofiev Troika sample track is still one of my favourite classical pieces. I used to alternate When a Child is Born with Greg Lake, and stare out of the lounge window into the darkness of the evening, imagining indistinct Christmassy things. I had Lake’s ‘eyes full of tinsel and fire’. (I also think it’s why I love Dr Zhivago so much).

A year later, and my dad died, taking with him almost all of the family traditions and pretty much my belief in magical things. It would be a few years before I dropped Catholicism and religion completely. Like Father Christmas, I believed Dad’s spirit still visited the house, but was less convinced of that in the end. All I could think about was how he’d been the one who’d eaten the mince pies and the whisky I laid out on Christmas Eve, and somehow it was ok to believe that he sort of did it *for* Father Christmas. They were almost the same person in my mind, given that Dad was wont to impersonate him from time-to-time for the Rotary Club.

So there it was, crystallised forever, the Best Christmas of All. I feel very lucky to have had one like this at all, and think about it every year when I put up my own tree. It’s partly a homage to those days, but without the sprawling mess of paper and random gifts all over the living-room floor that my mum used to get me to help her with.

Did anyone ever use their Imperial Leather box set with soap and flannel, or the Old Spice talc and socks? Or the cuddly bunny holding a bottle of Charlie perfume? Probably not. But no one cared about that. It was all part of the big old magical mess that is Christmas.

However you’re spending it, I hope you are with the people you want to be with, in the place you call home.

Happy Christmas, one and all.