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.

You Go, Girls

I have bought the tiniest pair of patterned Ali Baba trousers from a stall in Dahab to take to a one-year-old girl’s birthday party today. I’ve been looking at them every time I visit, wishing I had someone to buy a pair for, and finally that moment has arrived.

I met the baby’s mother – a Norwegian woman who is married to an Egyptian – when I was walking into town to meet friends one evening and she asked me to walk with her. Another man had been hassling her (despite her being married with a baby) and she wanted me to talk to her as we walked past him. Turns out she was really nice and we met again for coffee a few days later.

We agreed that there is an unspoken alliance between women when it comes to hassle from men – I understood what she needed immediately and it was no problem. We’ve all been in that situation, in any country. This happened on the day that I’d had to deal with hassle from a British man here in Dahab so I was feeling ultra-protective of myself and women in general.

The day after this happened, a young Egyptian woman who works at my hotel asked me to go to the doctor with her. She’s twenty-three and she has come to Dahab on her own, which I gather is a very rare thing to do in Egypt. Women here are policed by family and strangers in a way that is horrifying to me. A few days earlier she’d been made to go to a police station where they called her parents to make sure they knew where she was. A friend of hers had overhead one of the police officers refer to her as a ‘whore’, simply because she was alone, and unveiled, it seems.

Anyway, she was afraid of going to a male doctor alone, so I was her chaperone. She only needed her ears syringing, but I was glad I could offer comfort, having had it done a few times myself. Earlier, my young friend had told me about her ambitions to be a journalist, but that her intelligence is seen as a threat. There is so much fire in her eyes – I told her to stay strong and to keep doing what’s she’s doing. I will do what I can to help.

On my last visit to Dahab I went on a ladies-only boat trip to Ras Abu Galum and had a wonderful time. The women were a mixed group – some Egyptian, some European, most married to Egyptian or Middle-Eastern guys. They told me about Dahab’s ‘woman problem’, which turned out to be feminism. Yes, it’s right here: women doing things that men don’t like. Having heard male friends comment that a woman shouldn’t be smoking shisha in her hijab because it’s ‘disrespectful’, I’ve seen it here for myself. I look at those women admiringly, and think, ‘you go, girl’.

On that boat trip, we were given lunch by a Bedouin woman and her daughter and I asked about the numbers of Bedouin girls running about in Dahab selling bracelets. Isn’t it dangerous? Apparently not. It’s only when they hit puberty that they are taken indoors and covered. I’ve been told that some mothers are hiding the onset of puberty in their daughters from the male members of their family to preserve their freedoms for a precious while longer. Again, ‘you go, girls’…

When I first came to Dahab I couldn’t see any local women in public and assumed they were all being kept indoors. I think it was just the time of day that I’d arrived in town, because now I see them everywhere, particularly at night, when families come out for tea and cake. There are lots of young girls doing the ‘hijab and skinny jeans’ thing I’ve seen in the Middle East, and then a few who are completely covered. The best thing I saw on my last trip was a large group of the former on quad bikes, heading towards the mountains one evening. You go, girls!

I think Europeans like myself come here with a lot of preconceptions about the lives of local women which can only be challenged or vindicated by meeting them and hearing what they have to say for themselves. I’m constantly told by local men that the women are ‘free’, and that may be true in comparison to their Saudi neighbours, but the level of policing of behaviour here tells me the real story. The women *can* do what they like to a certain extent, but they may be called names by anyone for doing it.

On my first visit to Dahab I was invited into the house of a Bedouin woman who’d just had a baby. I was told that hers was a love marriage – she in her twenties, he in his forties – but they had encountered problems conceiving. Then along came Aida, the miracle baby. I was led into the woman’s bedroom, where every single female member of the family was gathered. It was like an all-girl nativity scene, with Aida as the centre of attention. She had a shock of black hair and was sleeping, swaddled in cloth. I was offered Helba tea, made from fenugreek seeds, which is a popular Egyptian health drink. We sat round, me only able to communicate in appropriate cooing sounds, looking admiringly at the baby and the sublimely happy mother.

I was invited to the feast to celebrate the seventh day of the baby’s arrival, at which they would slaughter a goat. As the person I’d gone with was vegetarian we politely declined, but the hotel guys told me I was really missing out. When the Bedouin party, they really party. I wasn’t brave enough to go on my own, and I didn’t know anyone else in Dahab back then.

So today I will go to the birthday party – one that doesn’t involve goat sacrifice – and celebrate all the women I’ve met in Dahab and how many I now count as my friends.

You go, girls.

Things I’d Tell My Daughter

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’m childfree-by-choice, but as my life fills with young female friends, I find myself thinking about what I want to pass on to them – in a wise-woman way. I so enjoy their company and I love talking to them about how they navigate the world of work, relationships and, well, just being a young woman.

If I’d had a daughter when I was thirty, she would be eighteen now. So these are the things I’d like to say to her, and weirdly, lots of them are things my mother said to me, but I didn’t quite understand them at the time.

Be yourself

It sounds like a hackneyed phrase that all (good) mothers say to daughters as they walk into the world, but I mean just that. Be your own self. Your life doesn’t have to be defined by being a partner, a mother, or even having a stellar career. Just know that you have a choice in all of this. Define yourself by the life you choose to live, and by the people you choose to experience it with.

If in doubt, don’t

My mum used to say this all the time. But oh how true. If you have any doubts about a relationship you’re in, any at all, leave it. Don’t wait for ‘the day’ to come. It won’t and you’ll have lost valuable time. Never settle for something that doesn’t feel right or compromise your own sense of what is right to please a partner. Your gut will tell you that something is wrong – listen to it and take action.

Love your body

People started commenting on your body from a young age and it will be monitored by those around you (male and female) as you grow older. Look in the mirror and look into your own, makeup-free eyes before you monitor your own body. Make an agreement with yourself to see someone beautiful, strong and taking up space in the world. Never starve your body – eating properly makes you all of these things.

Look out for toxic people

Some of the people you choose to surround yourself with will make you feel good about yourself, others will do their damnedest to try and bring you down. These people are usually insecure and jealous of beautiful, strong, young women who are confident in the world. Surround yourself with the good ones, ditch the toxics. Don’t try and hold on to foul friendships – they will just bring you down. It’s ok to let friends – and family – go.

Be in the space

Take up space in the world. If you’re out walking, running or doing yoga in the park – take up the space. If you’re in the office in a meeting, let your voice take up the space. If you’re online and you feel strongly about something, let your words take up the space. Never flinch if people question why you are there, and they will – make your presence felt and your voice heard.

Be confident in your sexuality

Whatever your sexuality is, people will try and make you feel as though you have to hide it, that it is shameful, that you should not seek sexual pleasure just for its own sake. Do everything you want to do, safely and confidently. Do it and never wake up with regrets. The only regret you’ll have is that you never did it.

Compliment other women

Tell other women that they’re good at things. Things that don’t involve hair, makeup, losing weight or wearing a fab outfit. It will change their lives.

Don’t dread getting older

Don’t. Good things happen and they are unexpected. Your body and brain will have a way of coping with the transition that means you will discover each milestone isn’t as bad as you thought it would be. Older women are smart, beautiful and supportive of younger women. Don’t believe the myth that they’re not any of those things – it’s a lie constructed by society because older women are immensely powerful people.

Don’t lead a tick box life

Question everything. Never do anything just because everyone else is doing it. Feel the peer pressure and question it anyway. You can construct your own set of tick boxes that are different to other people’s. Don’t believe what others tell you about people, places or other cultures – find out for yourself.

Do things on your own

Even when you’re young, it’s important to commune with yourself, not just your friends. Do things on your own, such as going to the cinema, walking, going for coffee, even on holiday. You’ll never regret it.

Look out for controlling partners

Beware of signs that your partner is trying to control you. It can be oh so subtle, and before you know it, your life is completely in the control of another. If they make negative comments about your weight, what you’re wearing, or stop you seeing certain friends, the red flag is waving. Get out.

There are wonderful people out there

You’ll know the signs. They will be kind to you, your friends, their friends and their family. They will celebrate your successes and be there when things go wrong, without a sly smile on their faces. They will offer to connect you to people they know to help you in your career, and notably, women will help other women.

Say sorry

There will be times when you regret your behaviour, or saying something that has hurt someone else. Tell them you’re sorry and they will forgive you. If you don’t, the guilty feelings will just build inside of you and make you more likely to hurt someone again. We’re all flawed – think of apologising as a flaw release valve.

Have fun when you’re young

Don’t hide away from fun times. Work hard, play hard – get into all the corners that life is offering you. Make mistakes. If not, you will spend the rest of your life trying to make up for missed opportunities.

Ignore all of this and find out for yourself

Because I did when my mum told me.

Spoilt Rotten

It’s my birthday today, and like every year, I brace myself for the inevitable, “hope someone is spoiling you rotten” comment. Every time I see it on other people’s Facebook messages I think of them sitting on a throne wearing a towelling robe, attended by manservants who are bringing champagne, cakes and all manner of gifts while they gorge on everything in sight.

This has never happened to me in my whole history of birthdays (except maybe the time I turned eight and my parents had bought me a garden swing’). Even while I was married it was never a Spoilt Rotten situation. More often than not, i was frogmarched round a shopping mall in Reading in search of something he could buy me.

Exhausting.

Anyway, now I’m free and single, this is even less likely to happen and I’m largely ok with that. But last year, the comment came and I got really upset about it and railed on social media. “Just exactly do you think is going to spoil me rotten, eh? Who?” There is no secret Spoiling Rotten Fella who pops out of the woodwork on the day to make me breakfast in bed and whisk me off to Paris, people. There are no ‘loved ones’ to bring me a handmade card and make me blow out candles on a badly iced cake.

I promptly took myself out shopping and splurged.

Last year, I did allow myself to wallow a little bit in the unfairness of it all. Until the day of my party, that is, which of course had been arranged by me. As friends turned up, laden with smiles, flowers, gifts and hugs, one friend whispered in my ear, “spoilt rotten, I think.”

And that’s when I decided I had been.

This year, I remembered the phrase again. It came up on a radio show I was listening to, where a guest described being “spoilt rotten by her loved ones.” The old familiar feeling washed over me as I realised I was entering the Birthday Zone again, and someone might inadvertently say it again.

“I’m ready for you,” I thought.

Then something happened. Last week I had a difficult situation to deal with and I’ve been overwhelmed by the show of support and love from all the good people in my life. Neighbours have rallied round me, friends have texted and called regularly to check I’m ok and people have taken time out of their busy lives to talk things through with me and offer advice.

Yes, I’ve been spoilt rotten yet again. And by real loved ones who never cease to amaze me with their heartfelt support for me.

So happy birthday to me.

But really, guys, today is definitely all about you.

x

The One Where I’m Absolutely Not a Yummy Mummy

Last night, getting off the London Overground at Kensal Rise, I was accused by a group of drunk, loud-mouthed, relatively posh boys of being a ‘yummy mummy’.

I had heard them shout, “Welcome to middle England!” as the train pulled into the station and had scowled in their general direction. This prompted them to follow me on the platform, saying, “I bet she’s married to an advertising executive!” (wtf?) and then shouted, “She’s a yummy mummy wearing jogging bottoms!”

It took all my strength not to turn round, face them on a full platform, to say, “Actually, I’m a single, childfree, publishing executive who eats boys like you for breakfast.”

In reality, I was on my way back from a day-long hike, wearing leggings and cross-trainers. The boys had confused me with the mums’ yoga tribe that is part of the rich fabric of the Kensal Rise and Queen’s Park community. They’re everywhere – usually in their late thirties or forties, skinny, wearing drapy jersey items, holding a juice or a green tea from a local cafe and either looking zenned-out from yoga or looking a bit fraught. The only bit of that list I tick is the age one, and maybe the odd drapy jersey item. And yeah, ok, I was looking a bit frazzled after the hike.

The YM is the predominant fortysomething-female tribe in my area and I’m not part of it. I moved here two years ago, two years after my separation, and thought a lot about how to infiltrate its ranks, wanting to make new friendships with women of my own age. I joined a local group that has events for women but the tribal subsets were already set in stone. You see I’m not at the school gates, in the morning yoga class or at the coffee meet-up at our local deli so to them, I’m pretty much invisible.

After a while I stopped trying to infiltrate. In the main, the friendships I’ve forged here are with younger people. I’m lucky enough to be surrounded by a great set of people in my building – the infamous ‘gold building’ in Kensal Rise – and we socialise a lot. I set up a Facebook page for residents to facilitate it and I’ve met some really wonderful, genuine people.

At first I was acutely conscious of the age gap – they’re anything from late 20s to late 30s – and kept pointing it out every time we went to the pub. There were genuine looks of puzzlement: “What are you on about?!” they’d say. But there is a societal stigma about middle-aged people who hang out with younger ones, like they’ve never matured enough to keep up with their peer group or they’re trying to hard to hang on to their youth.

But what if you’ve done the whole mature couply thing for quite a long time, decided it wasn’t for you, re-entered non-couply society and found that most of the people at your age are still at the mature couply party? It is one party I’m happy not to be attending right now, but I’ve had to accept that I’ve left the cosy weekend dinners for six round at someone’s house, planned weeks or months in advance, for spontaneous meet-ups at the pub with whomever happens to be around, followed by dancing at Paradise or a party back at someone’s flat.

Long live spontaneity, in my view.

Because my new local friends have welcomed me into their lives as a person they want to hang out with, I no longer feel the urge to refer to myself as ‘the oldie’ – it just seems inappropriate now. What’s particularly lovely is that I have a couple of young couples in my circle of friends whom I love dearly. Back when I was in coupledom, we’d never have thought about hanging out with a single friend, so strong was the tribal urge to bond with other couples, and the stigma around their situation. Thank goodness that little ‘rule’ has been broken.

One thing I’ve grown to loathe in life is the way some people try to box you up, in a category that is age-appropriate. I cringe when I hear people say, “But he’s 18, so of course he’s just going to want to hang out with his mates, get drunk, have lots of sex and go wild at music festivals.” What if he’s 18, wants to concentrate hard on his studying, hang out in a coffee shop on his own, have a little bit of sex, or no sex, and camp with one good friend in a remote village in Wales?

Why do we pressure people to tick all the age-related boxes?

Similarly, one might hear someone say, “But she’s 35, she’s going to want to find a man quickly, marry him, have a child, buy a house and enjoy weekends at B&Q.” Aaagh! What if she wants to take a gap year to travel, concentrate on her career, date several men without marrying them, and rent in a really cool place that doesn’t require DIY?

You can see where I’m going with this.

People assume stuff about me. I know they do. They see me on a train, running in Queen’s Park or walking down the road to Portobello and think, “Married, just been to yoga class while the kids are at school, off to have lunch at an artisanal cafe that sells vintage furniture on the side, before picking up Tarquin and Oberon from school and making them eat quinoa for supper.”

Sometimes I feel like wearing a ‘Baby On Board’-style badge that says “Single, childfree, not doing what you think I’m doing.”

I assume stuff about people too – I wish I didn’t. I assumed younger people wouldn’t be interested in getting to know me, I assumed other fortysomething women would want to welcome me into their tribe even though I wasn’t wearing the right headdress, I’ve assumed fortysomething men would want to date me.

Wrong, wrong and wrong.

But there is something so right, right, right about not being in a tribe.

Or building one of your own.

Because you can.

 

——————

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/personal-view/11025549/Class-in-21st-century-Britain-the-new-signifiers.html