Living in the good ol' days
My Why audio version of this blog available here.
As age sneaked up on me and whisked me into my forties last year I found myself identifying more and more with statements I would have previously attributed to, what I’d called, ‘old people’. Even the two words ‘old people’ have taken on a new meaning to me. What used to be a phrase for ‘old folk’ as a collective thing for anyone I deemed waay ahead of me in years, has now become a descriptive term for people who have been around a long time and basically just got ‘old’. It’s not very flattering when you think about it that way, but at the same time, it’s kind of endearing in my world, old people. I remember a story my Auntie Olwyn shared with me about fifteen years ago, when she was a mere 88 years old. She had been to Curry’s to buy a new fridge or something and the young chap on the till had to sort out delivery details. There was apparently a box for ‘description of customer’ for when they delivered the item and unbeknown to him as he typed in the carefully chosen words, my Auntie Olwyn was watching over his shoulder and proceeded read them aloud in disbelief; ‘Very old lady?!!’ He blushed, she frowned, and I’m sure he was more careful in future. We roared with laughter as she told us this story, which she found very amusing, as she was/and still is at 103, always younger than her years. You’ve got to chuckle at the nerve of someone who writes the word ‘very’ in front of ‘old’ when describing a lady.
Anyway, the statements I’ve found myself uttering, largely to children, are things like:
‘Haven’t you grown!’
‘You’ll be taller than me soon’
‘I remember when I held you as a baby’ (and even though I try to mean this as a warm way of connecting with the child, I realise I’m just the old person making a statement that the child couldn’t care less about, like when someone said it to me).
‘When I was young…’ yes these words leave my lips far more than I’d like, but the comparisons between my youth and the youth now are already stark.
‘No, go and play, the adults are talking’ (obviously I don’t get to say this, but I find when parents we’re with do, I realise it didn’t feel that long ago I was told those words, desperate to share in ‘adult talking’, It’s only now I realise when the child goes away and we resume talking about how to knit something, who gets what waxed nowadays, how to bake the perfect cheesecake, and what so-and-so said about some local scandal, I wasn’t missing out on much as a child.
The other shocking thing is how young teachers look, I’m pretty sure when I was at school all my teachers were in their 50’s at least! But I won’t go into that disillusion here.
However, the statement that I’m struggling to come to terms with the most, in my own life, is more of a concept than one I say out loud really and it’s - ‘The good ol' days’.
I find myself more and more unable to appreciate life now as a better option than what I experienced growing up, and I end up longing for the experiences I had as a child for the children of the current generation. I can hear my grandparents reflecting the same thing about their childhood back to me.
Thing is, as children we have no appreciation for such reminiscing, we live in the here and now. Our reality is not theirs and we don’t want it to be. I had no desire to get an orange for Christmas and a handful of nuts, I wanted new pens and fun toys I’d seen on the television. I didn’t want to just sit and read books and play board games (though I did love those) - I wanted to be allowed up long enough to watch Friends or Coronation Street. I didn’t want to experience an outdoor toilet in the middle of the night, I had a bathroom indoors to use. I didn’t want to ‘amuse myself’ outdoors when there was a new computer and new levels to achieve indoors (and when I say ‘new computer’ I mean - new to the world, not just to our house). I didn’t see the point in reusing a teabag because that’s the habit they got into during the war, and I didn’t understand only heating one room so it was freezing when you left it.
Yet now as I reflect on my childhood and I compare it to life now for children, I find myself wanting to point out what I had and did, in comparison to what they have. As I pondered on this more, and tried to work out what it was that made me feel this way, I realised it’s not so much because you want the next generation to have appreciation for it (although that is an important part of life that should be told through the generations) but it’s because with each generation of change you can see the good that is lost.
I’m increasingly realising the pain of this through not having children of my own. I’m becoming aware that one of the things I would have loved most to do would be to pass down all the good I learnt and all the wisdom I acquired from not only my own childhood but the experiences passed down from my grandparents, and with my grandparents. As an observant person I realised I have stored a lot in me over the years that was kept to be shared with our children - there is no other outlet for it. It’s not stuff for Chris, my husband, it’s not for other people’s children, it was for my flesh and blood, it would have formed how I parented, the values I’d have given our children and the legacy others left behind. When I think of all this stopping at me it makes me sad, it feels wasted and I feel I have let people and their memories down in some way.
Even as I write this I can hear voices around me saying ‘Oh you haven’t let them down’, ‘Don’t be silly they don’t mind about that’, ‘You could pass it onto other children’ etc. They’re well-meaning words but and I’ve let shape a lot of my emotions and processing over the years, but they haven’t helped me deal with it, it just pushes it all to the side, and I’m learning feelings are valid, whatever they are, they occur for a reason. These voices minimise the importance of having your own children and simplify the reality to a concept that doesn’t exist. At a young age I was interested in what my parents and grandparents shared with me because they were my parents and grandparents, I don’t actually remember many memories and stories shared by their friends, or my aunts and uncles, about their families.
Once again I find myself in a situation that can’t be fixed, it can’t be instantly healed, forgotten or ignored, it can only be endured, processed, pondered and worked through.
For me the ‘good old days’ involved playing outdoors with friends in a make believe world of mummy and daddy’s, shop keepers, pharmacies, creatures crawling around under blankets exclaiming ‘gobbledegook’ (the Pickop family know what I mean there), plastic guns and foam bombs (controversial now perhaps), bike and scooter riding, hedgehog hunting, dog walking on the common, basic computer games with simple instructions, board games and jigsaws with my grandparents and reading poems, listening to grandpa play the organ, the tea trolley that grandma filled with goodies (and celery) for tea, sitting by the fire in their house with no TV, looking round grandpa’s garden (oh how I wish I could speak to him about gardening now), looking for fish in the concrete pond at my other grandparent’s house and running around their huge garden, learning card games and doing word searches and crosswords, searching through the encyclopaedia for homework answers and ringing uncles for help when the answers weren’t there. And letters. Oh how I miss letters. I remember things occasionally that I’d forgotten, like the fact we used to have two post deliveries; one in the morning, one in the afternoon, and shops were all shut on Sundays and no one had mobile phones so you just assumed guests would arrive at some point. I was privileged with simple, innocent pleasures within boundaries that kept me feeling safe, in a way children nowadays don’t get to enjoy in their busy, interactive world. Some children now seem to have worlds as busy, stressful and entertainment-filled as adults, and I wonder how they’ll learn to switch off as adults when they have no memories or skills of it from childhood. I am ever grateful for being taught the ability to sit still and wait, and reach a state of mind that is so valuable and yet now so disregarded - the state of being bored. I’ve actually heard the loss of boredom being referred to as detrimental in our society today.
So the ‘good old days’ to me look better, healthier, simpler. Just as my grandparents thought about their childhood (which incidentally was during the war!). So that leaves me to conclude that the children around now will also look back one day and say the same about theirs. Does there ever come a point when a generation recognises they didn’t have it easy, they don’t look back with fondness, and they change the narrative for their kids? So much change has come about in the last 100 years, it’s hard to know where the chips will fall. My Auntie Olwyn was born in 1919, in the span of her lifetime we’ve gone from no electricity in houses to electric cars which regularly now sneak up on you in car parks. We’ve gone from outdoor or shared toilets to toilet rolls with no cardboard tube (I’m still not sure about this piece of ‘progress’ and I’m fairly sure guests think I’ve just removed the middle bit for some strange reason). We’ve gone from telegrams to emails. When she was born the idea and image of a car was new, the next generation now will look at a flying driverless car as a ‘when’ not an ‘if’. So much change, for good and for bad. So maybe it’s not comparable across these generations when one experienced the rationing of food during a war, and the other is allowed complete choice of any food they want to eat from the first year of life.
But is it getting better? Is it progress? If we all lived like my grandparents or Auntie Olwyn or many older folk I knew, here’s what I know: our energy bills would be lower and the country would all use way less overall, food waste wouldn’t be needed because they threw nothing away, food supplies would be less because they grew their own food, the supermarkets wouldn’t be full of needlessly endless choice because their diet was simple and healthy, the NHS wouldn’t be under so much pressure because they didn’t excessively drink, smoke or get overweight, their work ethic was strong, their commitment to what they were involved in was unwavering, wildlife would be thriving because they appreciated nature and gardens, recycling wouldn’t be a thing - they rarely bought stuff that needed it, landfill would be quieter - they tried to fix everything themselves rather than throw it away, work stopped when you left the office, communication was meaningful and personal.
Now there is obviously a flip side to every coin and with progress brings a lot of great advances in medicine, technology, engineering, transport, communication. Life without washing machines, ovens, kettles and hairdryers does not look fun, the energy resources were not renewable etc, but they didn’t have the tech to work with that anyway, and I’m not disputing all the good. But what I am questioning, is what if we are throwing out the good with the progress? Rather than harmonising them together. In a world where there is too much information, even areas like parenting, which used to be taught by the generation that went before, and still is in many countries, has now become a stressful world of too many options, suggestions and websites from everyone else (whether they were good at parenting or not, whether the children turned out like you’d like to see or not), parents are drowning in advice, and throwing aside the experience of those that went before, preferring a new craze the world has recently built through just one generation of learning. No wonder so many children and parents now fall out over parenting styles - the knock-on effect of that being a subject I hear about a lot in conversation.
With the invention of electricity came the possibility of light 24 hours a day, and also bringing the possibility of work 24 hours a day.
Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything. George Bernard Shaw
Which is all well and good, but as we know from the quote I put on our social media this week - with all change comes loss.
I’m currently reading Michael Chabon’s ‘The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay’ and the opening line of Chapter 7 struck me recently:
One of the sturdiest precepts of the study of human delusion is that every golden age is either past or in the offing. Michael Chabon
[I'd never come across the word 'offing' before but it means 'the more distant part of the sea in view'.]
How often do we live as if the best times are either behind us or ahead of us? And where did we get that from?!
The good old days are now. Tom Clancy
Humans seem to have it inbuilt to focus on the bad things, the negative comments not the compliments, the things we lost not gained, the things we can’t afford not what we can, what you don’t like about a person stopping you seeing what you love, it’s just how we are. Sadly.
In the last season of The Office (US version), the character Andy Bernard says:
I wish there was a way to know you’re in the good old days before you’ve actually left them. Andy Bernard
The only way I can see to get around this is to assume you’re in them right now. We often make the assumption better days are ahead, because we focus on the negative of now, but what if we assume worse days are ahead - yes that sounds very defeatist doesn’t it, but wouldn’t that mean we were in better days now? Does the optimism of better days ahead actually trick us into assuming what we’re in now is worse, so we fail to enjoy the times we’re living in?
Look at the people around you, friends, family, colleagues, acquaintances, that stranger you can see right now, what if you knew they wouldn’t be here next year. That’s the perspective a lot of people seem to get when they go through a bereavement. They talk about a new appreciation for the day, for life, for those around them, why is that? They’ve been introduced to the idea that awful things can happen, they do happen and they might happen again, so they appreciate the now.
Right now it’s sunny outside the window, yes today England looks glorious. So we have a choice, enjoy it, or moan about the fact it probably won’t last long. Well, because we rarely see weather like this most people will be desperately trying to enjoy it and make the most of it - why? Because we know there are worse days ahead when winter arrives. The assumption of darker times forces us into enjoying it, making the most of it, and appreciating it.
So, my suggestion to live in the good old days now? Assume there’s worse to come.
I can hear those annoying fake-optimists (because there are two kinds of optimist, the sort that really do see life half-full, and already appreciate the day they live in, and the annoying fake-ones that just want to tell you to be half-full because it makes them feel better), I can hear the fake sort saying - ‘that’s depressing, no, come on, I’m sure there are better days ahead.’ Well, if there are better days ahead then that means today isn’t as good, and I don’t want to live in a day that isn’t so good. I want to live each day as if it’s my last, I’ve always wanted that (never achieved it, but that’s another story). I want to kiss my husband goodbye in a way I’ll always remember if I don’t see him again (again, I said ‘want to’ not that I always do), I want to enjoy the small things, dance whenever I hear music, throw aside work for something that’s come up that I’ll love, spend time with people that make me laugh and feel like I’m valuable on this planet, read books that inspire and only watch TV and films that take me to new places and new emotions, live a childless life with no guilt, sadness or awkwardness around others, not apologise for who I am and what I’m going through, never let myself feel left out or less in any way, let dreams and enjoyment fuel me and not money, wear the special clothes, burn the expensive candles, enjoy food. All a bit of a dream I know, but the only way to live that life, as far as I can see, is to assume today is all I have, and make it the best I can.
One of the illusions is that the present hour is not the critical, decisive hour. Write it on your heart that every day is the best day in the year. Ralph Waldo Emerson
A song whose lyrics always empowered me when I first heard them, was ‘I hope you dance’ by Tia Sillers. She wrote it after breaking up with someone and escaping to the coast to dry her tears, her mum would phone multiple times a day and say ‘I hope he’s miserable, I hope he never finds anyone else…’ and all these bad things. After a long walk, and a lot of thinking she didn't matter, and should just give up her dream of being a songwriter, she felt small and insignificant. On returning home she was invited last minute to a writing retreat because someone had dropped out, she climbed her first huge mountain and it was terrifying, and this song was the culmination of those experiences, the opposite of the bad ‘I hope…’ that her mum had wished for her ex, and they’re my hope for me, and for you. In living in the good new days now I hope it involves lots of dancing, whatever that may look like for you.
I hope you never lose your sense of wonder, You get your fill to eat but always keep that hunger, May you never take one single breath for granted, God forbid love ever leave you empty handed, I hope you still feel small when you stand beside the ocean, Whenever one door closes I hope one more opens, Promise me that you'll give faith a fighting chance, And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance. I hope you dance. I hope you dance. Tia Sillers