Reflections on Henry Marsh’s Buttocks

Reading a review of Admissions, a new book by celebrated brain surgeon Henry Marsh, author of the remarkable Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery, I’m surprised by his admissions about his own ageing.

His retirement…the sight of his elderly sagging buttocks…have made him more fearful. The sudden proximity of death and the disabilities that old age brings….

Blimey. Henry Marsh must be older than I thought. But no. Turns out, H Marsh is only 3 years older than I am.

I drop the review on the duvet.

Elderly sagging buttocks? This is upsetting.

I get out of bed and go to the mirror. Hmm, not too bad – though I haven’t got my specs on.

Nonetheless, I am quite shaken up. Buttocks notwithstanding, I must be getting old too. These ailments of decline that he talks about, they’re round the corner for me too.

If Henry Marsh is feeling the draught and was born in the same decade that I was, then how can I go on pretending that I’m somehow immune from ageing?

Is there a point?

If death is suddenly proximate, and with it the ‘disabilities that old age brings’, is there any point in say, writing a blog. Or buying a bike? Or planting a tree?

Perhaps there’s more point, rather than none. But I still can’t quite shake off the fear.

Over breakfast, the feelings start to drift, but they leave a certain undertone to the morning, which isn’t dispersed by a walk, particularly under a grey sky.

Later, a sausage roll from the nice baker brings some solace and a sense, renewed yet again, of ‘just effing do it’, whatever it is.

This is how it is, I think, beyond 60. We start to see the end of the road in sight. Maybe it’s still a fair way off, maybe not. Most of us don’t know. Can’t know.

Now and then, Henry Marsh’s buttocks or something like them, force us to face up to our mortality. But we can’t hold that feeling for long, or we prefer not too.

By the end of the day, Henry and his sagging bum have receded. But they’ve made an impression.

Onwards, that’s the only answer.

How to tame travel fears over 60

Ah! My old friend, Travel Angst!

A few days before any trip I get a familiar frisson in my gut, and my mind starts working overtime.

‘Something could go wrong,’ it tells me. ‘You might miss the flight/lose your luggage/get blown up by terrorists/die of food poisoning’… on and on it goes. Sometimes my mind shouts so loud, I can’t hear myself thinking!

Why this fear? It’s not based on reason, or fact. And therein lies the key to wrestling myself out of its tentacles.

Familiar Patterns

Help is at hand when I start to notice what’s going on. I’m simply caught up in thoughts, fears and feelings, totally enmeshed as if they were reality, when in fact they’re simply the product of my mind, and I can watch them wander in, and and float away again, as long as I’m aware of what’s going on.

One way to tame the travel terrors, is to welcome them in. Yes – open your arms as if to an old friend. ‘Hello Travel Angst. Fancy seeing you again! Come on in, settle down and let’s have a good old chat about all the dastardly things that might happen when I leave home.’

As soon as I take that approach, the fears shrink. They don’t like being under the spotlight, because they’re quickly shown up for what they are – just thoughts, nothing more.

Taming Your Mind

Try this approach with anything that scares you. Keep a watch on your thoughts, and when they start to shriek their way to a climax, call them out. Say to yourself: ‘Just thoughts’. Name them: ‘I’m having thoughts about fear.’ Open up to them by stopping what you’re doing and taking a few deep breaths. Make space for them, and see if they don’t start to evaporate.

Give this fear-taming technique a try, and let me know how you get on. You can leave a comment below. 

BRING MORE GRATITUDE INTO YOUR LIFE AT 60+

I never used to think about gratitude, but now, Beyond 60, I find it comes more and more to the front of my mind.

Big gratitudes, for simply being alive, and well, and warm. For living in a country that isn’t threatened by war or famine.

And smaller, more personal gratitudes, for the little pleasures that enrich every day life.

It’s good to notice these. Right now, the flame-orange of parrot tulips in the garden, the unfurling of fresh green leaves, the black furry aura of my cat’s sweetly curved haunch as she nestles down beside me.

I’m grateful for these, and when I notice myself noticing them, it enhances the feeling.

Keep a Visible Gratitude Record

Maybe you’ve tried keeping a gratitude journal? It’s something that happiness gurus often suggest. And it’s not without worth. I have a little notebook tucked away with sporadic entries.

But keeping it in a drawer means I forget about it for months at a time. So I decided to make something that I can see, to remind me of how much there is to be grateful for, and how powerful it is to mark that gratitude.

Above, you can see my Joy Jar. How corny, eh?

But I don’t care. I love my Gratitude Boot, and it stands on the shelf I see when I open my eyes every morning.

It’s made in a beer glass which I stole from my daughter’s room – apparently her mates pinched it from a bar in Portugal. You could make one in any container that takes your fancy.

I love cutting up images and using them, in the way that some people love to draw or paint. Snipping and shaping and sorting and choosing puts me in the zone, and that’s a good place to be.

I hoard cards I’ve been sent, fragments of coloured paper, and other bits and pieces. When a gratitude moment comes upon me I cut bits out and write my gratitude message on the back, and drop them into the jar.

Every so often, I give it a shake to rearrange it. When I see it, I remember just how many things there are to be grateful for.

Looking for Light in a World that’s often Dark

Maybe it’s cheesy, or trite. Or maybe that’s my self-judgement gremlin at work. All I know is,  when life takes a bleak turn, if I’ve had sad or bad news, or an overdose of harrowing stories via internet or TV bulletins and am left anxious, helpless or even despairing of the darkness of the world, I can turn to my little collection of joyful moments and find a spark of hope.

 

Just dipping in, and pulling out a few is enough. Now and then I even tip the whole lot out and read them. Where is gratitude to be found?

The memories fill me with warmth and pleasure all over again. I can travel back through time just by reading them: ‘ping pong with Clara’…’gorgeous spring sunshine’…’a day with Louise’…’looking forward to meeting J for dinner tonight’…’Sangha’…’Blogging Excitement!’…’photos sent by G’…’talking at the table with N until late’…’builder fixed the broken door’…’at least I didn’t break my right hand’…’Laughing with BB cos she overheard someone describe her as a lively-minded old bird’…’snow’…’beach walk’…’a warm cheese scone eaten outdoors’.

Tiny pleasures, and significant. They signal the joys of connecting with others, of love, of nature, of engagement with life. Good things to remember.

These are the fabric of which life is made. It’s good to see how many gratitude moments arise in any day, and it’s fun and rewarding to keep them in my jar of joy.

How do you remember moments that you’re grateful for? Please share your thoughts below.

Embracing the Unexpected at 60+

In the spirit of Finding New Creativity Over 60, I signed up for a workshop on Concrete Poetry run by the Creative Working Lives group.

A what? If you who know about Dada and the Surrealists you’ll be nodding wisely at this point, but I didn’t have a clue.

But nothing ventured…and it was interesting – spending a day at a long table with a dozen or so others, rearranging random words, making masks, snipping, sticking, writing and generally messing around.

I learned something about poetry, art, surrealism and the glee to be had from in unleashing my inner 5-year old. I also revisited a long-lost wail of ‘I can’t do this….’, and then found that maybe I just about can.

But what I learned most, was the extraordinary power of the unexpected.

Embrace the Unexpected

Because strangely, the gift of the day was not the chance to play, or the feeling of community in the room.

No, it was none of that. It came instead in a conversation with someone else on the course, that sprang up like a Spring storm and died away again just as quickly.

Maybe it was the art that opened the door, or the air of risk-taking and experimentation.

Maybe it was the influence of the letter I wrote from my 80-year-old self, who wants me to be more open.

Whatever the spark, this person simply sat down beside me as I worked and began quietly to talk about a recent and very painful experience in his life, a near-loss which had affected him profoundly.

It felt natural for me to carry on with my cutting and sticking, and let our talk flow effortlessly and honestly into discussing losses in both our lives.

How there are things that can’t be spoken of – until suddenly they can.

How very long it sometimes takes to even begin the drawn-out process of grieving.

How sorrow can resurface years later and feel just as scalding as it did early on, and then drop away again, leaving a sense of release and relief.

The Unexpected Happens in the Moment

His ease in launching into that conversation was the most unexpected and memorable part of a day that was filled with the unexpected and memorable.

And made me aware, not at the time, but now, that perhaps one hidden purpose of this blog is to find a sideways route into writing about grief in a way that heals.

Our talk ended as suddenly as it had begun with the call ‘5 minutes until we’re done!’, and with no acknowledgement of what had been said we both turned to focus on finishing off our pieces of work.

Creativity opens channels. If there’s any message here, it’s to remember that, and explore it.

What have you learned unexpectedly, through trying something new? Please leave your thoughts and comments below.

Write a Letter from Your Older Self

Dear Younger Me…with love from Older Me

Do you ever spend time with your older Self?

Virginia Woolf referred to her older self as ‘Old V’ in her diaries, and this week I’ve brought my own ‘Old E’ to life, in the interesting exercise of writing myself a letter, from me – at 80.

Taking a bit of time to get inside the head of the future you is very different from merely thinking about getting older.

For me the age of 80, though scarcely imminent, isn’t so far in the dim and distant that it’s completely unimaginable. Imagining it is scary, but it’s fruitful too. Will I even get there? Only one of my parents made it into the ninth decade, and that by a hairsbreadth.

Today, I’ll assume that nature will be kind, and fast forward into my older body and mind.

Imagine Yourself at 80

Try it. Sit for a moment, and look at the backs of your hands. How will they look different when you’re 80? Who will you be, years hence? What will be important? And what wisdom does Old You have to share with your younger self?

Le the thoughts settle, then start writing.

Older E turns out to be a force to reckon with. She kicks off: ‘…I’m not “Old E”…I don’t feel old. I’m still not entirely grown up.’

She challenges me to be bold:  ‘…don’t wind down, it’s too soon. You know those richly creative dreams that swirl around in your head…do me a favour, dear younger me, and give up playing safe!’

Let Go of Your Censor

When you write your letter from older you, aim for free flow. Write as you’d speak. Your older self will be a lot  like the current you in the way they speak and think, so don’t use a voice that doesn’t ring true.

Let your inner thoughts come to the fore. Older E knows I’m afraid of looking stupid – she says:

Write stuff. Never mind what people think. People don’t really care that much about what you do, so get over it!

And she offers me reasons not to be scared: …Lead a rich life – think BIG – give me some lovely excitement and adventure to look back on.

She knows what’s good for me, and admonishes me to keep going: …the meditation, it’s so good for you, for me, for us. Learn to know yourself as well as you can, then maybe I won’t need to make quite so much effort at breaking our painful old patterns of anger and defensiveness because you’ll have done the work for me. 

Write to Yourself with Compassion

Don’t use your letter as a chance to berate yourself for any shortcomings. Imagine that you’re writing with love and compassion, to help someone you care for deeply. …what I’m saying here dearest is not here’s a huge to do list, but be kind to yourself and just do your best

You can use your letter to give valuable reminders. Old E insists: Eat wisely and never get above a size 12 – I do NOT want to be matronly.

She advises me to …go easy on the gin, stop being a wuss and get on the bike, go swimming, dance round the kitchen. Have lots of laughs, have fun! It’s up to you whether I’m fit and supple or creaky and cantankerous. 

You’re In This Together

Your Older and Younger selves are one and the same, and what younger you does now can have a profound effect on older you’s experience of ageing. Not that Old E likes that ‘ageing’ label. She says:

Keep your zest for life, stay young at heart and never refer to yourself as an old lady – that’s a label reserved for centenarians.

There’s a surprising amount to learn from spending some time with the Future You. Give it a try, and please leave a comment below and tell us what you’ve discovered.

 

How to Spend More Time in the Present Moment at 60+

You’d expect it to be easy to spend time in the present moment. After all, it’s right here, so why not make up your mind to ‘be’ in it?

Today, as I walked along, I remembered that I wanted to practice being more be present.

‘Gorgeous magnolia,’ I remarked to myself,

‘…and,’ added my mind almost instantly, ‘…how awful it would be if you were knocked off your bike and killed, that would be the last magnolia you ever saw. Imagine how upset people would be at your funeral…’

And we were off, within a micro second, caught up catastrophic thinking and, rather than being here and now with the magnolia, propelled vividly into some future time that is never likely to happen, particularly as I don’t ride a bike….

The mind finds it virtually impossible to stay in the present moment for more than a few fleeting seconds. Its relentless desire is to launch into a re-run of some tale from the past, or else to amuse itself by itself by cooking up horror stories of tragedies, upsets and disappointments that might unfold in the future – but almost certainly won’t.

Why the mind has evolved in this way heaven knows, but it can no more stop thinking than the lungs can stop breathing, and it is constantly casting around for something to chew on.

Learn to Be Present More Easily

Cultivating an awareness of the mind’s antics is a great skill to have, and one that you can learn. Without that awareness, you can be oblivious to your entire experience if you’re walking around lost in thought. There are times when you just wouldn’t know that mind and body are connected.

A nice little trick to bring that awareness back is to have a run-through of the senses, noticing:

5 things you can see
4 things you can hear
3 things you can feel
2 things you can smell
1 thing you can taste

Try it now. You may be amazed to discover that you have hands! And feet! And they’re doing something which you can feel. What’s more you’ve got eyes that are filled with images, and ears that are attuned to the most subtle of sounds.

Find The Thing That Takes You Out of Yourself

But even if you set out with the best intentions to be here now, it’s an effort to train the mind to play along. So what else can we do, to spend more time experiencing the joy of the present moment?

The 80-year-old artist David Hockney shares his wisdom in a little video I saw recently. He says:

‘When you’re painting, it’s Now. I like to live in the Now. That’s all there is – Now – isn’t there?’

Hockney’s nailed it. When we’re totally absorbed we don’t notice time passing, we’re lost in the present moment.

What’s the activity that takes you out of yourself? Is it painting, like Hockers? For me it’s writing for pleasure (not for duty), and making music.

For you –  it might be gardening, baking, sewing, running? Please leave a comment, and share the activity that roots you in the present moment.

Feeling Uncertain After 60? Live the Questions

Sit and Think – or Live the Question?

There are times when I just don’t know.

What to do for the best? What to do at all? Which path to follow? How to make a bit of progress? How to get done what I want to get done, but can’t seem to start, or continue?

I’ve tried having a good think.

Writing down the pros and cons.

Asking a friend.

Setting a deadline.

I’m not convinced any of these work, though they might help shift the ideas along. But they seldom deliver answers.

This week, mulling over the questions of how to find out where I want to go with Beyond 60, and how to get there, I was given a timely reminder of a beautiful piece of wisdom written by early 20th-century Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke, in his book: Letters to a Young Poet. Rilke wrote:

…be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.

Notice the wording. It isn’t ‘Live With the Questions’ – which carries a note of resignation ‘I suppose I’ll just have to live with this uncertainty’, and a sense of giving up on finding an answer. It is Live the Questions.

What an interesting idea. How do I go about living my questions? I simply do my best to  inhabit them, examine them with curiosity, keep them in mind when reading, tie them to a string and let them float, sip them in my glass of wine, take them along on a walk, relax under a blanket with them, give them my attention and my intention, and at the same time leave them to drift gently in the background.

Above all, I don’t fret over them. Let them be. As poet Mary Oliver says, ‘Things take the time they take. Don’t worry.’

The one thing that put me off Rilke’s words was the implication that answers might not emerge until ‘some distant day’. At Beyond 60, I’m not so keen on waiting that goes on into the distance.

But strangely, I’ve found that answers bubble up naturally and sometimes very swiftly, if I live the questions, without prodding them.

Have you tried living a question? What happened? Please leave a comment below.

Finding Time To Blog After 60

Time starts behaving very strangely when the familiar old constraints of job and family weaken their grasp or disappear entirely.

It is more than easy to drift through the days, mooching round the garden, turning out drawers, fiddling about on the computer, seeing friends, reading in the morning – I know, outrageous – and so, time sifts away.

It is an incredible privilege to be able to drift through the days for the first time ever since I was packed off to infants’ school aged 4. All those years under the cosh of the timetables, working hours, deadlines and routines.

It’s time to break free.

But to create Beyond 60 and do it well needs time, not drifty time, but focussed creative time.

I want to do it. The idea fires me up. Yet time is slippery, and elusive.

Here’s how I’ve managed to grab hold of a bit, and use it to make something happen.

The 10-minute trick
Snip out a 10-minute segment. Set a timer. Give that 10 minutes full attention and go like the clappers until ‘Brrring!’ – time to stop, but I nearly always keep going. And if I don’t, well, even 10 minutes is worth doing.

Use the right label
When I call my blog ‘work’, I feel ill. Seriously, my chest feels tight, I sit rubbing my forehead saying ‘ergh…’ and I do not feel at all well.

When I think of it as messing about with my blog, doodling with a few ideas because I feel like it – then it’s smiles all the way and a couple of hours gone by, and I walk away saying, ‘that was FUN!’.

Drop the deadlines
I’ve got a blog vision but there’s no rush to get there. One step at a time is all it needs. Keep doing it and don’t give up. But no self-flagellation, please. An hour here and there is ample.

Stop should-ing on myself
When the gremlin voices point out that I ‘should’ be: posting more often, conquering WordPress, making it look prettier etc et-flaming-cetera I offer them a two-word response, and get back to playing.

Experiment with resistance
Whenever I think I can’t be arsed, it’s too much work, no one will read it and so maybe I won’t do it – that’s the time to dance with resistance, play with it, tease it – do anything that’s light and fun to overcome it and use it to catapult me into something new and different.

I love these little tricks because they feel radical and completely opposite to the way I used to work, when work was what I did. And they make blogging feel exciting and fun.

Brrring! There goes the timer.

But before I go, do any of these ideas appeal to you? Have you any tips to help find time for precious creative projects? Please leave a comment below.

Living Dangerously Beyond 60

Egg-diving illustration © Clare Nesbitt

I watched Dr Bill Thomas, a great mover and shaker in the field of creative ageing, talking on the remarkable Growing Bolder website the other night, on how to change the way you view ageing.

His message was simple, and his final piece of advice really struck me. He said, ‘Live dangerously,  because the mortality rate is 100%. And you have a chance now to live more dangerously than you ever lived before.’

That was it.

I kept thinking about that statement. Live Dangerously. What does it mean? Bungee jumping? Egg-diving? Aren’t there other ways, not involving broken limbs, that I – that you – could live dangerously as we get older?

While that was on my mind,  I read blogger Mark Manson on The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F***

I use asterisks, as I’m not ready to use four-letter words on my blog, but Manson, described by the Huffington Post as, ‘…incredibly inspiring, deeply philosophical and extremely clever’, uses the undoctored profanity  as a way into an exploration into the importance of choosing what’s really important in our lives, and what isn’t.

He made me laugh, a lot.

He also made me think.

He says that throughout our lives, we give a f*** about far too many things. At Beyond 60, these could include cat-sick on the carpet; missing an episode of Desert Island Discs;  running out of Earl Grey teabags, or gin.

But in truth, these trivial items are really not worth giving a f*** about. And, says Manson,  there are only so many f***s you can give in a lifetime, so you’d better choose them carefully, because: ‘Developing the ability to control and manage the f***s you give is the essence of strength and integrity.’

And also, I’d say, the key to living a more dangerous and fulfilling life.

So back to Dr Bill and the question, how to live dangerously?

It’s about taking risks, emotional risks, and you can do it by embracing the things you truly give a f*** about and giving them your all.

Me, I give a f*** for talking, writing and blogging about what matters, like the fact that time is of the essence, because death is not so far away for any of us;  that retirement can leave an exciting and at the same time terrifying void in our lives; and that there’s this chance here, right now, to have an adventure, push ourselves, move out of what’s comfortable, and into what scares us.

Yes, do it kindly, one small step at a time. But do just f***ing do it.

What steps could you take, to live dangerously? Please leave a comment in the box – let’s be dangerous together!

What Does Your Heart Need?

Sometimes, meditation needs a focus.

It’s all very well to sit and count the breath. That can be calming, and lead to greater understanding of what’s going on in your mind.

But other times, it doesn’t feel like quite enough.

I was introduced to a very simple but deep meditation while I was on a Stillness Retreat organised by Psychologies magazine and Now Events, a week or two ago, and it’s one I’ve come back to several times already.

The session was led by Dr Tamara Russell, a mindfulness expert. Seated in a circle, the group relaxed deeply, our eyes closed, breathing deeply, and gently. It was the end of the day, in dim light, with an air of peace in the room.

And then Tamara asked the question:

“Heart – what do you need?”

I’m not sure that I’ve ever spoken directly to my heart before. I’ve asked myself – my Self – what I want or need – but that’s a sure way to kickstart the brain into problem-solving and get caught up in more head-talk, with its litany of ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’.

This was different. If you think of the heart as more than the organ that works tirelessly to keep you alive, but also as the seat of your emotional essence, then it makes sense to go there to find out what’s needed to nurture you from moment to moment. Now, when I tap into what my heart needs, the answer is often as simple as ‘time’, ‘space’ or ‘rest’.

Here’s how to try it for yourself.

Heart Meditation

Find a spot where you can be undisturbed for a little while. Make yourself comfortable, sitting on a chair or on the floor.

Keep your posture upright and alert, but relaxed.

Take a few deep breaths, in through the nose and out through the mouth.

Gently close your eyes, and let your breathing return to normal.

Focus on your heart. Imagine it as a ball of light, radiating warmth and life through your body.

If you like, put your right hand over your heart.

When you’re ready, ask the question:

“Heart – what do you need?”

Allow some time, and see what arises.

If you notice your mind wandering off into thought, bring it back gently to your heart.

Ask the question again, if you wish.

“Heart – what do you need?”

Don’t push for an answer, or worry if nothing seems to happen. Trust that your heart will make its needs known to you, in its own way.

When you’re ready, open your eyes.

Use this meditation now and again, whenever you want let go of living in your head – and let your heart have a say.

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