2017

I sometimes regret not having consistently kept a diary during my life. But, better late than never, perhaps a blog is the next best thing. I started blogging a few years ago now and for a while I had several sites devoted to different categories such as writing, health, Bach flowers and cats. This became rather cumbersome so, even if it meant having fewer followers, I decided to combine them here. Most of my blog posts, while inspired by some recent experience of my own, aim to provide a brief overview of a topic that could be relevant to others. This present post summarising my past year’s activities is a more purely personal one, written as a record for myself and possibly of interest to a few relatives and friends.

The outstanding feature of 2017 was exploring the Irish side of my family. With the help of FinderMonkey, AncestryDNA, Rootschat and some extraordinary coincidences I discovered two half-siblings I did not know about, and had successful meetings with them both. To respect the privacy of those involved I won’t give any further details here, but it has been a remarkable experience.

Meanwhile life back in Auckland has continued on an even keel and I am happy to report that Brian has maintained a good recovery from his major cardiac surgery of 2015. He remains active physically and mentally, usually beating me at online Scrabble. My own less serious health problems are under control and I have kept up my fitness regime of Zumba Gold classes and daily cold water swims. Rather than move into one of the retirement villages that are proliferating around Auckland, we have decided to stay in our old Victorian villa with its large garden, ideal for our three cats, and pool. Following the sale of my mother’s house we have undertaken some repairs and improvements, so the inside is now ​warmer and more comfortable​, and renovation of the exterior woodwork will take place next year​.

I continue my involvement with SPCA, helping to raise funds for a Satellite Centre to care for abused and unwanted animals on the North Shore, though with regret I have given up doing regular sessions at the Animal Village because increased traffic congestion has made the commute so long. I am currently exploring other volunteer opportunities with the Heart FoundationInternational Bomber Command Centre and DogShare Collective. I ​am ​still in the alto section of St Patrick’s Cathedral Choir​,​ and attempting to sing soprano in a “Pop-Up Chorus” with NZOpera. I also see a few Bach Flower clients and recently had some success treating an anxious dog. ​

Inspiration for w​riting ​has been somewhat lacking since I published my short memoir at the beginning of the year, though I have made a tentative start on a new novel. Sales of my existing ​books trickle along slowly. Much as I dislike the marketing aspect I know I need to make more effort to stand out from the hordes of other indie authors, and have updated my profile pages on Smashwords.com, Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.
I am planning to visit England again in 2018. Brian no longer enjoys long haul travel so won’t be coming with me, but we have booked to go to Australia together for a medical conference and a trip on the Indian Pacific train.
A Happy Christmas to all my readers.

JenniferBarraclough-17

Two churches

This morning I attended 11 a.m. Mass at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Auckland, as I have done almost every Sunday morning for seventeen years. Being a member of the choir, I watch the proceedings from up in the organ loft.

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Services at St Patrick’s are traditional, based on the same format that has been used for centuries in Catholic churches all over the world. In the choir we mostly sing classical four-part motets, in either English or Latin; today’s programme included Call to Remembrance (Farrant), O Lord Increase my Faith (Gibbons) and Ave Verum Corpus (Elgar). Singing such pieces requires concentration, but there is also time to appreciate the beauty of the liturgy and the music, and the prayerful atmosphere of the setting.

After a brief lunch break I walked up the road to St Matthews in the City for a very different experience at the annual Blessing of the Animals service organised by the SPCA. The church was packed with people and animals, mostly dogs, some of them extremely active and vocal. The programme of hymns, songs from a school choir, poems and talks was mainly cheerful, though some aspects – lighting a candle for pets who have died, and prayers for animals who suffer abuse – were quite emotional.

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It is said there are many spiritual paths, all equally valid. Today’s two services could hardly have been more different, but both were uplifting.

 

Style after 70

With spring on the way, this feels like a good time to sort out my wardrobe. Despite my policy of giving away one garment whenever I get a new one, I have too many clothes and some of them no longer seem suitable.

Circumstances, priorities and bodies change with advancing age, often calling for adaptations in dress style. Some older women become more adventurous and frivolous, following the latest fashion trends or putting purple highlights in their hair. Some stick to a safe formula such as wearing only black, white or navy blue. Some have clearly lost all interest in their appearance, and opt for the comfort and convenience of old tracksuits. Personally I have become rather more conservative, aspiring to a simple practical and classic look, and hoping to avoid any impression of “mutton dressed as lamb”. So all my shorts and jeans, and anything too brightly coloured, will be going to the charity shop.

But other superfluous garments are hard to part with. Some have sentimental value because they were given to me by someone I care about, or bring back memories of a special occasion. Some that were quite expensive to buy have become faded and out of date, having languished too long in the cupboard being “saved for best” and hardly ever worn. Some are old favourites that I still wear a lot, but probably shouldn’t because they look awful if I happen to see them in a photo of myself. Others simply “might come in”. I suppose it is an exercise in letting go of the past and I could apply Marie Kondo’s advice to “keep only clothes that bring you joy”, as described in her book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.

My long-held ideal is having a wardrobe planned according to a logical system: a certain number of clothes of each type for each season, all colour-coordinated of course. Despite many attempts over the years I have never quite managed to achieve this. Fashion – and life – is always changing, and can never be perfect.

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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.