My forties have been an amazing decade for me, so far. We left America after 17 years and moved back to Oxford, England, and are very happy here. It feels like the right place for us to be.
It also is a decade of experimentation, and trying several new things.
* * *
In my teens and twenties, I didn’t want to do anything I couldn’t be really good at. At boarding school, run by German and Irish nuns, I had a relentless campaign to be excused from choir and games because I would never be good at them. I wanted to concentrate on academics, in particular literature and debating (and writing, though I didn’t say that) and become really good. Amazingly, the nuns agreed, and I was the only girl accused from compulsory sport, an hour a day, and choir practices.
But I think my old approach of wanting to be good at what I do, or not doing it at all, has often robbed me of joy. I was telling my husband, Roy, that writing this blog, a post a day, has been and is one of the things I have enjoyed most in my whole life.
* * *
Then I stopped and thought. No, the work I have most enjoyed was the period in my twenties when I read reams and reams of poetry, and wrote poetry. I submitted a slender volume of poetry for my Masters Thesis in Creative Writing (at the Ohio State University) and was accepted for a Ph.D in Creative Writing at the State University of New York, Binghamton to develop, revise and expand it as a Ph.D thesis. (I quit my Ph.D to get married, and am not yet sure if that was a good decision–dropping the Ph.D which was SO, SO stimulating, I mean; not the getting married part).
For the first year and a half of married life, all I did was read poetry, and write poetry. I must have had 50 poems published in magazines around America in that period.
And then, silly girl, I showed them to John Frederick Nims, the editor of Poetry Magazine, then the leading poetry magazine. “So, are they really good?” I asked. “Do you think I might have a career as a poet?” He re-read them, pursed his lips, and said, “I don’t know. I don’t know if I would make major sacrifices for a poetic career if I were you.”
Something else was tugging at the bits: non-fiction writing. Annie Dillard says that moving from only writing poetry to writing “creative non-fiction” is like moving from playing a single instrument to working with a whole orchestra. And there is something to that.
And so, just like that, I gave up reading and writing poetry, which was the most thrilling and fascinating thing I have ever done.
The poet Donald Hall wrote that people abandon poetry, and then talk about it wistfully, as if poetry has abandoned them. So I did, whenever I met poets. “I used to love it too,” I’d say. “I used to write it too.” The poet Ellen Bryant Voight, who I met at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference at Vermont said encouraging, “Well, then, you will write it again, perhaps when the children are older.”
And so I will.
* * *
Meandering. The point of this post is to say that the idol is broken. The idol of needing to be good at something if I am to do it seriously. The idol of doing it really well or not at all.
In my forties, I have taken things up which, odds are, I may not be brilliant at, but which I immensely enjoy.
My second and third languages at school were Sanskrit and Hindi, and so I have never learned French, but I adore the sound of it. So two years ago, I got a tutor who comes over weekly and works with me on my French, even though I can only dedicate 2-4 hours a week to it. He is a Parisian actor and playwright, living and working in Oxford, who directs his own plays, acts in other people, and adapts books for the stage.
We talk for an hour a week, on everything— films, plays, books, art and Europe, and it is amazing how much fun one can have–rowing far out of shore, talking in a foreign language about things which interest you, while knowing that you are probably making several erreurs per paragraph.
Zoe, 16, and I used to do French conversation together with a native speaker, but now she is seriously working for her G.C.S.E.s and I don’t want to spend more than 3-4 hours on French (an hour of conversation; a hour of grammar and reading a book and Le Monde; two hours on a French movie. So she has Jean-Patrick for her own hour. “Do you think I am now better than you, Mum?” she asked in delight. “Are you going to let me become better than you?” Yeah, I think I am, though it will be hard. The idol of competitiveness is being smashed, along with the idol of being really good at what I take up seriously. It’s freeing to enjoy something for its own sake, without it leading to anything that I can see.
* * *
Another late-forties project of mine is to become a bit fitter. (To become really fit will be a project for my fifties.) Something else I have taken up recently is tennis, with a coach. There is not a snowball’s chance in hell that I will ever be good at it, as I can’t run fast enough. But that doesn’t prevent it being a lot of fun. Roy watches me in amazement and says, “Wow! You’re really enjoying it. You really enjoy exercise” And so I am.
The girl who hated anything physical now has a gym membership!! Again, I really enjoy yoga, zumba and body combat, while being, quite probably, and– quite probably, quite visibly–the
worst in the room.
* * *
I don’t think I would have been able to blog in my thirties. I don’t think I would have been able to release work which wasn’t my best. Now, I do. In fact, I don’t even have a blog stack, but press publish as each post is written. Holding on to them, revising them, would be a sure way for perfectionism–and its evil twin, writers’ block–to show their faces again.