On turning 70

Today was my 70th birthday. I had been dreading this particular milestone, despite telling myself that it is pointless to feel defined on the basis of age, and that I know plenty of people who are still going strong not only over 70, but over 80 or 90 or even 100. Despite my misgivings I don’t feel any older than usual this evening, and I had a lovely day including lunch with friends at a seaside restaurant in the glorious sunshine of our New Zealand summer, and a big bouquet from husband Brian.

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Ageing has many negative aspects, but also some positive ones. Ideally, it is said to be a time of contentment, enhanced wisdom and spirituality, liberation from old constraints and perhaps a chance to start something new. I’ve ordered a book called 70 things to do when you turn 70, no doubt full of inspirational ideas along these lines. For myself I have few ambitions at present, though having just finished the memoir that will be described in my next post, I do hope to write more books. And in my next life I would like to learn to fly. Meanwhile I appreciate being in happy circumstances and good health – having finally grown out of the severe migraine attacks that blighted most of my adult life is a huge bonus. It is a relief to be free of the responsibilities of paid work, and seldom having to do anything unless I want to, although I still feel an obligation to spend my time on something “useful” and am not comfortable with a life of pure leisure. The free travel pass is very nice too.

The domestic arts

When Brian and I were first married back in England I aspired to be a good housewife. I knitted jumpers for us both, with matching patterns. I made our own breads, cakes and ice creams. I grew vegetables, and turned the fruit from our garden into marmalades and jams, or stewed and froze it for later use. I quite enjoyed these practical activities, but was never much good at them and the results did not always come up to expectations.

As the years passed, more of my time and energy became channelled into writing, and I gradually gave up any attempt to be a domestic goddess. The range of clothing and foodstuffs available in the shops had improved so much that there seemed little point in making my own. We could afford to eat out a couple of times a week. I almost gave up entertaining people for dinner, being unable to complete with the many excellent cooks among my women friends here in New Zealand. I never did any ironing, and despite periodic attempts at organising and decluttering, the state of my wardrobe and cupboards left much to be desired.

But there are signs the tide is turning. I have been doing more home baking lately, though tending to stick to foolproof recipes for boiled fruit cakes. And I sorted out a bag of wools and knitting needles that had lain untouched for about thirty years. Having watched a YouTube video to remind me how to cast on and off, I have started making small blankets for the foster kittens at Auckland SPCA. This simple form of craftwork is very easy, and surprisingly relaxing. There is in fact research evidence that knitting, being a quiet repetitive activity akin to meditation, can relieve stress and improve cognitive function. Carried out in moderation, knitting can improve manual dexterity for people with arthritis. Because knitting keeps the hands occupied, it may help those wanting to cut down smoking or drinking. And, unlike meditation, knitting has a tangible end product. Even Brian has expressed an interest in taking it up.

If anyone else would like to knit or crochet blankets for the kittens, the required size is approximately 40 x 40 cm and if you need more details please contact me.

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Family and friends: an appreciation

This short post is really about people rather than cats, but I couldn’t resist including a photo to show the friendship between Daisy (the tortoiseshell one) and Leo (the tabby).

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I am in the final stages of editing my short memoir about the traumas of 2015 – 6: my husband’s collapse and heart operation, my mother’s death following abdominal surgery and a stroke, and my own stress-related illness. The positive theme that shines through amid these painful topics is the huge value of support from family, friends and neighbours during times of sickness and loss. I will always be grateful to the local people who took time to listen when I described my troubles, brought meals to the house when I was too unwell to shop or cook, and gave lifts to the hospital when I was too unwell to drive. I could not have coped without them.

Many of our closest friends and relatives live in the UK so were not able to give practical help, but their emails and phone calls were a great support. Most of them had also known my mother and several months after she had died, when Brian and I were well enough to travel, a return visit provided the opportunity to revive some family connections and make some new ones too.

Research consistently shows the importance of “good social support” in buffering the adverse effects of stressful life events, but not everyone has a network of people to call on in times of need. Loneliness is a significant predictor of poor health and reduced life expectancy, and it is endemic among many sections of modern society especially for older people who live alone. Companion animals can help; I remember when Brian was in hospital, and I was alone in the house, I appreciated more than ever the comforting presence of my three cats.

I am very fortunate to have so many good relatives and friends. Today, New Year’s Eve 2016 – the first anniversary of my mother’s death – I send my thanks to you all, with best wishes for 2017.

The challenges and rewards of volunteering

After I retired from paid employment I thought it would be a good idea to do some voluntary work. Having spent some years with other organisations I found my niche with Auckland SPCA, a charity which protects thousands of animals from neglect and abuse each year, and offers a variety of roles for volunteers.

The most important reason for volunteering is the altruistic one of contributing towards a worthwhile cause. Personal satisfaction comes secondary, however there are also benefits for the volunteers themselves: an enhanced sense of purpose, more social contact, taking more exercise and learning new skills can bring improvements in both mental and physical health.

Volunteering does not always work out well, and unsuitable people can be a hindrance rather than a help to the organisation they are meant to be serving. Those who have taken it up as occupational therapy for themselves can tend skimp on the more boring or arduous duties which are usually involved. Conversely, those who are carrying on from a sense of duty but not enjoying it can grow to feel martyred and burnt out. Retired people who volunteer for work related to their former profession can feel frustrated in a subordinate role where their knowledge and skills cannot be used to the full, whereas those who choose a new field can be daunted by the adaptation required.

Nowadays most organisations require aspiring volunteers to provide references, agree to police checks, attend training courses, and observe health and safety regulations. Becoming a volunteer is a formal process and a serious commitment, and helping out on a casual basis is seldom an option.

Based on my own experience in different settings, my advice to aspiring volunteers would be: Choose a cause that is truly important to  you, keep the big picture in mind if the day to day work seems tedious, and persevere long enough to understand how the organisation works and get to know some of its employees. I currently volunteer once a week in the fostering department of the Animal Village, and also take some part in fundraising activities, having previously worked in the cat ward, adoption cattery and on reception. Rather than cuddling sweet kittens, volunteers in the feline areas are mainly occupied in such tasks as setting up cages, cleaning bowls and litter trays, and replenishing stocks of food; these may be mundane, but are essential to the over-arching aim of saving animals’ lives. The paid staff members value and respect the volunteers, and have been tolerant of my slowness in learning practical procedures and my clumsiness in letting a cat escape from her cage. They remain cheerful and friendly despite having to deal with some heartbreaking cases of animals in distress. A high proportion of these animals can be successfully rehabilitated and rehomed and one of them, my own cat Magic, will be featured in my next post.

Homelands

 

Happier, healthier and several pounds heavier, I am back in Auckland after spending a sunny September in England. I’ve been lucky enough to be able to revisit my home country every year since we moved to New Zealand in 2000, and this year Brian came too. We were both anxious about travelling in view of our recent heart problems, so it was reassuring to discover that a consultant cardiologist was seated next to me on the outward flight. Neither of us needed his services and there were no medical emergencies during the rest of the holiday.

This visit was more than usually nostalgic, filled with reminders of my mother who died nine months ago. One sunny Sunday afternoon a group of cousins from her side of the family, the Guys, gathered for a picnic in the grounds of Gray’s Inn; our homes are so widely scattered around the UK and overseas that many of us had not met for decades. I had a friendly meeting with my first husband, having resumed email contact with him after my mother’s death. I walked on the sands at Margate in Kent, where my mother spent part of her childhood. And scattered a portion of her ashes beside her brother’s grave in the churchyard of the Yorkshire village where she lived in later life. Thanks to her wartime service in the British Army, I was able to stay at the Victory Services Club in central London, an ideal base for making daily trips around the country with my Britrail FlexiPass.

There have been other deaths among my UK contacts in the past year: two close friends have been widowed, another couple have lost a son, others are getting old and unwell, so some of my visits were tinged with sadness. But I still have many relatives and friends around the country, including some younger ones I did not know before, and though there was not enough time to see them all I did meet people from diverse places: Malvern, Frome, Gosport, Winchester, Kirk Hammerton, Oxford, Dorchester on Thames, Hythe, Manchester, Birkenhead, Shetland, Soberton Heath, Saffron Walden and various parts of London. Everyone was so kind and hospitable – thank you! Here I am in Sue’s allotment, with Sara’s dog, and with Brian in Oxford University Parks.

There were sightseeing visits too, to Charles Darwin’s home at Down House and the Sackville-West estate at Knole, both in Kent. My most adventurous solo trip was to Limerick, a first step in exploring my Irish ancestry on the paternal side, a topic I may write about in a future post. Limerick seemed a charmingly old-fashioned small city, so quiet and peaceful after London, and I had a lovely view of the River Shannon from my hotel room.

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As always these visits make me question where my true home is, but at least for now it is in Auckland, and it is good to be back as England turns towards autumn and New Zealand to spring. Wearing clothes in different colours, after the all-blue wardrobe I packed for the trip. Thinking about writing another book. Being reunited with my cats.

 

 

 

 

Memories on Milford beach

In this morning’s winter sunshine we walked along the bottom of the cliffs between Takapuna and Milford, part of Auckland’s North Shore Coastal Path. This must be one of the best short walks in New Zealand but, as the warning sign says, it “requires a reasonable level of fitness and is not suitable for prams”. It is not really a path at all, but involves stepping over mounds of black boulders and lava flow, the residue of long ago volcanic activity from what is now Lake Pupuke. In the middle there is a narrow concrete section with a steep drop on both sides. At low tide, the rock pools and golden bathing beaches are exposed. At high tide there is a risk of getting soaked by the waves crashing against the rocks. There is a spectacular view across the sea to the island of Rangitoto, another extinct volcano.

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This walk holds many memories for us. Towards the Milford end we pass the house where Brian and his brother grew up. When his parents came to live there in the 1930s it was a modest weatherboard dwelling. There was no heating and the roof leaked, but having a beach outside the garden gate provided a wonderful outdoor environment for children. In the early 1980s, after Brian and I had met in England, we came out to spend holidays there. His mother looked after us beautifully and I remember idyllic hot summers when we went swimming every day and drank gin in the evenings. Now the house, no longer in the Barraclough family, has undergone a multi-million dollar conversion. The only reminder of Brian’s parents and brother, all now dead, is a plaque on the bench outside the fence.

Food Bag Day

Our weekly delivery of raw ingredients from My Food Bag arrived today.

I used to enjoy cooking, but during the dark days of last year the need to plan the menus, go to the supermarket and prepare the food came to seem a daunting challenge, especially as I was finding it a struggle to eat. I resorted to buying in ready-made dishes from the various companies which service the Auckland area. These tended to become monotonous, and generated excessive amounts of waste packaging, but were a great help when the health of the family was at its lowest ebb and my days were occupied with hospital visits.

Even after both Brian and I had largely recovered, my culinary creativity was still lacking. I relied on a limited repertoire of dishes, most of which could be made in in bulk in the slow cooker and heated up as required. This too became monotonous so, despite feeling rather guilty about spending extra money on a domain of life that I should have enough time and energy to manage myself, I decided to try My Food Bag. So far this has been a success – but not in the way I expected.

I no longer have to choose the menus or buy the food, but the time I spend on last-minute dinner preparation has greatly increased. Far from becoming lazier in the kitchen, for the first time for years I am doing things like grating beetroots and toasting sesame seeds. Tonight’s recipe, “spiced chicken with carrot, feta and mint bulgur”, will require 18 different ingredients and five separate cooking utensils. The quality is excellent, with fresh seasonal vegetables and free-range meat, poultry and fish; the quantities are large so there is often enough left for next day’s lunch; and most of the packaging can be recycled. All except one of the meals has tasted delicious, we have been introduced to many new recipes and techniques, and Brian has not minded doing the washing up.

[Update one month later: We have now downsized to “My Own Food Bag” – intended for one person, but quite enough for us two]