A year older. A year wiser? A year to see the years differently.

Another trip round the sun or whatever the phrase is. Undeniably, I am another year older. Whether I’m wiser? I would like to think so, though not as completely wise as I would like to be.

Trying to become wiser – through learning, experience or the value of those around us – ought to come as standard, a kind of built-in feature of life: don’t waste the privilege of being able to learn by then seeking to diminish that wonderful gift. And, if we’re going to learn, then it’s only right that we respect and acknowledge both the things we have learned and also the potential to learn more.

I’ve been around for more than 40 years and, in spite of having the fortune to be present and correct for all of those, I’ve never really been one for celebrating my birthday. That’s for two reasons: embarrassment and guilt.

As a child, I recall distinctly being reminded (apropos of nothing) by my mother how fortune my sister and I were compared too others; we never wanted for material items, support or the love of our parents. We struck lucky and I knew it. I got it – I didn’t need to be reminded. And yet I was (and still am).

What this led to was a kind of resentment of the privilege I understood that I enjoyed. I didn’t turn my back on it – I have embraced it and it has helped to carry me far – but it did engender a desire to do things for myself without reliance on others. To stand on my own two feet and ask for help only in the midst of the most dire circumstances. I also learned never to ask for anything and, as a result, always feel deep embarrassment at receipt of gifts, however heartfelt the intention that accompanies them. If I want something I buy it myself and I owe no-one anything.

But there is another guilt as well, one of which I rarely speak. And that’s a person and the life they missed out on.

On my 18th birthday I attended the funeral of my best friend. He had been seriously ill for nearly 18 months and never got to see in the momentous moment of formally becoming an adult. For more than 25 years I have carried both the memory of him – he’s the guy who gave me a love of Spurs (my goodness he’d love how they play these days) – and also of that birthday. Not because I was sad for me, but I will never forget how kind his mum was to me. That a woman who had just lost her son could find the space in her heart for me on that remains one of the most extraordinary human acts I have ever experienced.

For a long time I have associated my birthday with the sadness and grief of that family’s loss. The loss of what might have been – the future they didn’t get to share in. I got on with my life and it has – so far! – been pretty good. But each year in the week before my birthday I dwell one what might have been for my friend.

So, after a quarter of a century it’s time I learned something from this. I think that is to take hold of the joy of life more – the moments that matter, the people that matter to us and sheer wonder of being around to enjoy the privilege I have been round the sun many times already.

So, in future, less introspection and more celebration.

A coda: where was I?

Heading home from work this evening, a passenger in the car being driven by my partner northbound on the M6 (having just joined from the M62) the news came through: Queen Elizabeth II had died.

(No other comment – I’m no royalist, but bore her no ill. Just marking where I was at the time.

Actually, I wonder if this will mark a point in the life of the UK. As we break with this symbol of Britain’s past, will we turn left of right: to modernism and growth, or inwards and further rapid decline?)

A Constructive Summer

It is often said as a parent that we only get 18 summers with our children. Of course, that isn’t true for all, but it does speak to modern sense that value must be actively sought from every possible moment. Or it’s a neat way to sell books to paranoid parents.

But there is something magical to me about summer more than any season. Sure, Autumn brings with it the colourful flourish before we head into the long, dark challenge of winter. However, for me really it’s summer that lifts my spirits. It’s the combination of the seemingly endless light and warmer weather. Britain’s geographic positioning and pretty benign climate makes this for me.

That said, summer is a frame of mind as much as a meteorological measure of time. Indeed, there is a reason why Midsummer (only three weeks into the formal three month window) is so named – it’s like a bird that has hit a thermal and is effortlessly soaring higher, able to maintain that altitude without difficulty. It’s a feeling. The feeling of possibility. Of what might be and having the power to make it. And it’s a time to dream – one of the greatest of all plays takes us through a fantastical, soaring midsummer’s night.

Growing up in a small village meant transport was a bicycle and fun was heading off to see friends and bombing down the stony track to the nearby ford to wade and splash and lie around. We had few cares. Although those days brought boredom too. Parents at work and friends not available.

But from the flattening of the bored mind staring at the ceiling, so plans are hatched and ideas come to life. Build something – a go cart with wood from the shed! – allow the mind to wander and imagine a world. Sell the scheme to friends the next day. Nothing was impossible in my head in those days.

These days the tide has turned: I’m the time-strapped parent hoping for a child to have a constructive summer of achievement, of attainment. And this year promised that with a trip the All England Dance National Finals. The practice, the time spent in the studio, the effort towards a goal. The dramas of fellow dancers nearly not making it, of injuries and that sinking feeling as parents when we realised that all the effort was not going to deliver the longed for reward.

We combined that trip with an impromptu visit on the way home through the places of my childhood, where the summers were at their most powerful: schools and the house I grew up in. The schools themselves looked in glorious health and our daughter was rather awed by their air – so different from her own school in appearance.

But my childhood home was a different story: empty, unloved and dilapidated. My parents would be deeply saddened to see their hard work so diminished. For me, a mixed feeling of hose strong memories – the little motorbike zipping round the field, the secrets of the old railway cutting, the warren of tunnels in the hay bales, all products of constructive summers – and a sadness at the passage of time. Those memories are just that: markers of some of the 18 summers I had there.

Right now it’s early September. Autumn for some, but still summer for me as I cling onto that gossamer feeling of possibility and adventure. We have holidayed wonderfully as a family on England’s south coast, where the warmth and light gave so much energy. School has begun again, with all the promise that a new year brings. Work has started on the house, bringing change and newness to our lives. And we feel rested, ready to carry the solar charge of a constructive summer into autumn and beyond.

The title of this thread was inspired by the song of the same name by the Brooklyn band, The Hold Steady. It evokes the charged energy of what could be in the fractured teenage years where time passes at multiple speeds at once, together with a darker twist that reminds us of how quickly life can pass.

None of us knows how may summers we may have. Enjoy every one.

A halfway point – the year in review

OK, so it’s the end of July and that puts us just beyond the halfway point of the year. But there’s no time like the moment a thought comes into your head to do something (who said anything about planning?!).

During that fantastic period between Christmas and New Year when day and night merge, I reflected on what I wanted to achieve from this year. I must have been feeling confident because the list was broad and long. And if there’s something I’ve learned is that writing a list when my brain is free means that way more will go onto it than if it was first thing in the morning (I am very much not a morning person).

I divided the list into three sections: must do, should do, good to do. The must do were divided into the following:

  • Lose weight
  • Have the loft conversion at home completed
  • Resolve what to do about the finance on the car
  • Support my partner returning to work after a period of time away
  • Deliver on my work objectives
  • Get some professional/career coaching

My assessment:

  • Weight loss got off to a slow start, but recently I’ve found a way to trick myself into at least losing some: cut sugar out of my diet (as much as possible – I get that it’s in food like fruit!). I don’t think I’ll hit the target, but I’m sort of coming at it obliquely so as not to think I’m on a diet.
  • The loft conversion has yet to begin, but that’s down to the availability of the builder. I have the money and am ready to go when he is. Currently he’s booked in for 15th August, but we’ve had plenty of false dawns so breath not being held.
  • The car has been bought and paid for. It’s ours, so no more monthly payment. Just need to pay myself back for the outlay. That’s in hand (though inflation seems to be making that slower).
  • Support my partner’s return to work has, on the whole, been pretty successful. She is in a much better place than she was, and – back-to-normal grumpiness about the tribulations of the workplace aside – she’s doing well.
  • Work objectives are a separate conversation. It’s been a year of two halves, as I’m sure I’ll discuss soon. On reflection, the previous item on the list took more of my attention from work than I would have liked. So it goes. I’m reaching the point where a job change is needed, but have sufficient inertia not to do much about it – that tells me I have things I’d still like to achieve.
  • I did go and get some professional coaching. And frankly, it both helped and didn’t much at the same time. It was powerful during, but afterwards I feel its effects dissipating. I feel the need to do more on that front.

I had expected my plans for the year to be completely off track. I’ve hit a remarkably tired phase at the mid-point of this year, so it’s pleasantly surprising to find that I’ve achieved more than I felt I would. Now, the should do and good to do lists are, frankly, less complete. But that was the point of splitting the must do items away from a lot of other ambitions.

I think there are a few lessons in here:

  • Writing goals down is a good way to make them real and distinct – no longer are they a vague ambition
  • Making goals real means I have to be accountable. For work, sure I’m accountable to the business. But for everything else, that’s me and those around me. There’s no hiding.
  • Splitting the must do and should do/good to do items away from each other helps to keep some focus, though clearly a six month review is too long.
  • And that’s the final point: by writing them down, I also have to revisit them more regularly. So I’m going to adopt a quarterly review and reset approach.

I will reflect now on what needs to move into the must do space between now and the end of the year and set a review point for October to see how I’m getting on.

A whole lotta stuff

My parents are ageing. It’s one of those eternal truths in life that this is inevitable and yet it remains surprising. I’m extremely fortunate to have enjoyed (and continue to enjoy) the love of my parents into their 70s.

But life catches up. We’re not infallible and our bodies are no longer what they were. And it was with this backdrop that I made my second visit within three weeks. They live several hours’ drive away, and my available time is challenged by a demanding job and a full home life of my own.

As I drove the beautiful journey through North Wales and down its west coast, I had plenty of time to think. One of the things I dwelt on was that, if they have to move house at some point, what will happen to the vast quantity of belongings they own. I recall helping them move house last time – ahead of moving day things came out of the loft that had never been touched since going in some time in 1977.

They have a lot of stuff. A lovely big house and outbuildings to contain it, but nonetheless a real quantity of stuff. A lifetime of belongings that represent them, their interests and domestic life. But – and this is where I have to face the inevitable – one day this is going to have to be (for want of a better phrase) dealt with.

As I stood and looked around the detached double garage filled with tools, bikes, lawn tractors, mowers, an old fireplace, my sister’s stand up paddle board and much, much more a thought struck me: yes, this is an overwhelming amount of stuff, but they’re not alone in being acquirers of belongings. I am not their son for nothing.

Now, as it happens I’ve also been reading about Döstädning or Swedish Death Cleaning as popularised by Margareta Magnusson in her book of the same name. And, as I took the drive to my parents, I also caught up on the excellent productivity Stationery Adjacent podcast where in episodes 51 and 52 hosts Justin and Stuart discussed their relationship with their own belongings and how they manage stuff.

So, as I delicately lean into the question with Mum and Dad, I’m also going to start work on my own death cleaning. It won’t be a project as such, but more a gradual shift to a mindset of moving on those things I no longer use. Sure, many of them – bikes that took me over mountains in Étapes du Tour of old – hold fond memories. But those memories are just that: the beautiful neural imprint of the days we have truly lived.

Time to let go of the stuff. And let the memories live on.

A way out of Covid inertia

No, I haven’t had Covid. Lots of people I know have, but so far I have avoided it. I attach no value or morality to that – who knows why (certainly not me) – but just accept the fact.

However, we have all had the impacts of Covid in our lives. That hardly bears repeating. Many have had significant, life changing impacts with the loss of loved ones or long term health effects. These are people who deserve our compassion and support. But that isn’t to say that the other, more subtle impacts aren’t also relevant as we each navigate our way through this mid-stage of the pandemic.

As an office worker, I joined the masses in migrating work from a dedicated building to a temporary desk at home. That temporary desk (I literally had to build myself a desk with the available wood I had at home) has been a pretty permanent home for the past two years. If not exactly the working set-up I would design, it has become comfortable enough for the life of “living at work” so many of us have taken on.

Being at home is great. I like our house – our home – and it’s a source of security and happiness for us. It’s the base from which our daughter now heads off to secondary school each day (a transition made easier by us working at home) and to the nearby dance school where she spends so much of her “free” time. My other half has also enjoyed a kind and benign environment in which to catch her breath from the pressures of running two near-full time jobs.

Here comes the but…. As we have all willed ourselves apart from each other in the interests of public health, so my world has shrunk to this house, a twice weekly trip the the office and the daily commute between home and the dance school. A kind of inertia has set in, where many things seem far away and perhaps just a little too far to reach. I feel a little stranded from the vigour of life outside the repetitive rhythm of day to day, week to week.

In part this is as a result of what felt like a long, dark winter. But in reality it would be too easy to blame external factors, or indeed ascribe blame at all. It has been, I think, an accumulation of small things: a world that shut itself down, not spending enough time in the fresh air and daylight, working too much and falling into a limited routine. Spring is now very much here, so it’s time to take advantage of those sunny days and fit in some more living. This requires deliberate, conscious effort and cannot be changed overnight – bit by bit we can get out into the world and live more.

Last Friday we did just that: we drove up to the Lake District (not much more than an hour from this part of The North) and climbed Catbells, which looks across Derwent Water towards Keswick and Borrowdale. Not the hardest fell in the Lakes, but what a day for it. A few hours outside in the fresh air making our way to the top – which remarkably we had to ourselves – was really good for the soul. There is life out there!

The view from the summit of Catbells.

A very Sunday Sunday – at the end of a long month

I live opposite a pub car park. A country pub where people make an effort to go there for lunch. It’s rather the English idyll that so many visitors to our shores look for: summertime has seating outside to enjoy a pint in the sunshine; and in winter the open fire keeps the place inviting and warm. It’s well run and the beer is well kept.

I looked out to the carpark this afternoon and saw that it was much busier than it has been during January. While it may be that it’s taken only a few weeks for the initial enthusiasm for the patrons’ New Year diet to wear off, I suspect the timing may be a little more prosaic: it’s the Sunday after the first payday of the year. People have some money in their pockets again.

The first thought that sprang to mind is one of those shared cultural expressions that require little explanation: January is a long month. Now, we all know that thirty days hath September and that January is one of the slight majority with thirty-one. But it’s more than that. At the time of year when it’s at its darkest and coldest, it’s also the month where everyone is obliged to rein themselves in. I often feel this is somewhat premature: we didn’t manage to ward off the darkness and gloom of midwinter quite so well as we had hoped and now we live with the consequences of long dark days and little resources to fight them off.

As I have got older, so I find myself more planful heading into each new year. I suppose being the wrong side of the halfway mark in life tends to focus attention on the accumulation of achievement. But that early New Year vigour is more easily swayed than I would like to admit. So, while I’m fortunate that I don’t have to wait until the end of the month to dine out, the effect of the long, dark month of January has somewhat muted my enthusiasm for charging headlong into my list of goals.

In these times of limited daylight I could embolden myself with Dylan Thomas’s exhortation against the dying of the light, but instead have fallen into a quieter rhythm this January. It has been mainly work and domesticity. My usual desire to spend time outside in the natural light has been tempered by a reluctance to fight the wet and cold of this time of year. And so today, though it started with a bright sun through the windows, I have contented myself with those most Sunday of Sunday activities: reading, listening to the radio and dozing. I wasn’t going to fight anything – that can wait for next month.

Sometimes I guess Sundays should just be Sundays.

A new evolution of the New Year’s resolution: 2022 goals

As a young man I couldn’t see the point of making New Year’s resolutions. It seemed so arbitrary a time to start making plans when everything to do was already upon us or would be soon. Take life as it comes and have fun on the way. There is merit in that.

As I’ve got older (and now beyond the half-way point in the allotted three score and ten), the idea of making plans appeals more. It isn’t a new idea for me – some time in a former life I’ve written about this before and how the lightness of summer seems to bring on the urge to reflect and plan. To pause and go again.

I live my life in a corporate world and am committed to my career. That sort of work demands I make annual (and more frequent) plans and I manage to do these every year. Without realising it, my approach to New Year’s resolutions in my non-work life has taken on some of the approach and structure of the corporate approach. Generally I would say it is important to understand the demarcation between work and home (even if you then actively choose to cross that line from time to time), but you can learn from each side of your life too.

So, this year I’ve spent time thinking about my goals for the year. the benefit of taking a break at Christmas is that it’s a time of year when physical inaction is pretty acceptable and one can allow the mind to drift, to permit an idea to roll round like a billiard ball in the back of the mind where it takes shape and emerges into something useful.

What became clear this time is that there are both distinct areas of activity containing many goals and also a need to ensure those activities are clearly prioritised. And to help retain focus, each item that made the list has an outcome and a deadline. Some are full year goals, and some are shorter term.

The areas of activity are divided into: personal, home, cars, family, professional. Beneath each of these all the activities are sorted into Must Do, Should Do, Good to Do. The Must Do category only has one goal in for each area of activity, giving me five non-negotiable I have set myself for the year.

This is the most structure I have given to my life. It does feel a little odd to be so, well, organised with myself but somehow while living in a world where uncertainty has become the prevailing mood creating some anchor points feels like the right thing to do. We have all, over the last two years, lived with much shorter horizons in mind driven by an obvious necessity. But there comes a time when moving from the short term to a more considered future feels the right thing to do.

So that’s what I shall do.

Next step is in building achievable plans for these goals. We all know how fragile New Year’s resolutions can be, but by working on them and giving them shape and three dimensional form I sense that I have more chance of succeeding where previously I would have shrugged and put my failures down to that being the way life is.

I’m no King Canute – I can’t roll back the tide of time – but I can also make those small achievements on the way. Small wins add up to big wins. And big wins are what life goals are about.

A glut of blank pages

I seem to have a surfeit of paper. Lined paper, plain paper, dot grid paper.

Some of it is in loose sheafs, some folded into the origami of envelopes. And plenty in the form of notebooks big and small.

I buy all of this paper and these notebooks (and pens and pencils to use on their untouched landscapes) to express my thoughts. But instead I seem locked into a volume of use of work notebooks, where I’m hamstrung by habit and repetition: the same pen on the same brand, colour and size of notebook. And everything else remains pristine and intact, wrapped neatly in cellophane daring me to get it wrong.

Anyone else, and I’d advise them to throw open the doors of variety, to unshackle themselves from these norms. Though, as always, advice directed towards me falls on deaf ears.

And so – with the exception of the notes taken in meetings and at my desk (to which, let’s face it, I refer infrequently at best) – I seem to have locked myself into the paralysis of perfection. Of needing things to be just so before things can just flow.

Which is ridiculous! Whoever winds themselves into a constipation of uptightness in order to hang loose, to let the good times roll and words flow? Me. That’s who. The king of being buttoned up. I mean, I don;t even use this site more than a couple of times a decade….

I wonder, whether I need to wean myself: perhaps some sort of new rule of fewer rules to do, rather than to fail to think about doing and then regret my inaction before buying more disappointment.

Will it work? Maybe. I’ll have to follow some advice though. Anyone got any suggestions?

A huge surge of pride

I share my life with many people, but really there are only a few with whom I really share. And there’s been someone I’ve spent more than half my life with.

She’s a funny one. An odd one. Definitely a unique one. She is one on her own.

And I’m so proud that she’s my one. I don’t subscribe to the idea of ownership of other people – we choose to spend parts of our life together, and that choice should always be free and without compulsion.

She’s the one who, many, many years ago asked me “So what are you going to do with your life?” And, as always, my answer wasn’t complete; in fact it barely scratched the surface. Being an ambivalent sort of person I clutched at the first thought that came into my head in the hope it would sound plausible (actually that’s a theme, though more of my career to be honest).

But what I should have said is “Spend my life with you.”

We both work hard. We’re parents to someone quite delightful and onto whom we pour all of our own insecurities. But the one I chose. The one who chose me. Well, she’s special.

Extraordinarily lacking in confidence (and remarkably over-compensating at times), she’s also extraordinary in her ability. She’s got a single-minded drive like no other, and yet is the “life messiest” person I have ever known.

That drive has got her into scrapes. It certainly doesn’t do her much good at times as she barely hangs onto it herself. And all the while she doubts herself.

You know, I do OK in life. In the scheme of things I’m one of the world’s lucky ones. And yet if I had half her drive and a fraction of her ability I could conquer the bloody world and change all of it into a better version for everyone.

She’s the one. The talented, driven one. The one who can barely contain her own abilities.

She’s the one I’m so proud of. The one I want to be a better me for. Hanging onto her coattails might be exhausting but it was so definitely the right choice.

You’re the one. My one. I’ve won.