Monthly Archives: July 2013

“I want a companion…with sex”

When my friend said that, I nearly gagged on the tea I had been sipping. We were at a friend’s flat in north London, sat at their kitchen table late at night, discussing what kind of relationships we envisaged having post our break-ups.

Janet* is a social worker, mid to late to 50s, with an 18-year-old son, and was already divorced when I first met her last autumn.

I had been consulting her about adoption in the UK, the rules of adoption, as she is a specialist in the field and used to place kids into homes. I had wanted to know if, as a single woman, I would ever be eligible to adopt a child, an idea I had been playing with in my head.

Not that I intend to follow this through, mind. If I adopted now, I would be doing it for all the wrong reasons. It would be as selfish, pointless and unfair to the child as a couple having a baby to salvage their marriage. But I needed to know my options.

A soul connection
Janet and I first met during what I jokingly call a “hippy retreat” in Wales last autumn, where a group of women spent days meditating a lot and discussing spiritual development. I had taken an instant liking to her the moment I opened a door to let her in; she later told me she had felt an immediate connection with me as well.

Our life stories are amazingly similar. We both feel we actually met our Mr Right many years ago but the timing wan’t right. We both feel our marriages were a “compromise”, more like…I’ll get married because it’s what you do, and there may not be anyone else afterwards, not because we felt our ex-partners were soulmates. In fact, like me, she had seen numerous “signs” early on, indicating that the man who was to become her husband was not the right one for her, but she consciously chose to ignore them, as did I.

Same mistakes, same outcomes. 

I happen to have a fair number close friends in their 50s and 60s. I treasure these friendships: having slightly more life experience than me, their insights are always eye-opening, as they are able to see life as it looks like from further down the path.

One important thing I found out from those friends is that just because you have reached your mature years, you don’t stop longing for a partner, for love, for companionship, and – best of all – sex.

For someone in their early 20s, 50s and 60s is “granny age”. You can’t/don’t want to imagine your grandmother having sex, do you, let alone, wanting sex (scandalous!). But that’s because our society is so ageist and our ideas about sexuality skewed in favour of artificial concepts of idealised happiness, which are always linked to beautiful young people.

The fact that so many women discover the true joy of sex long after their fertility shuts down is, in my view, a reason to be celebrated, not something to be disgusted at. More respect for your gran’s nooky time!

Companionship and sex
Janet would like a companion, she told me, by which she means no strings attached: someone to go out with from time to time, have tea with, have a laugh together without the pressure of an formal commitment. But she wants “a companion with sex,” because, she added, “I like sex.”

I cracked up when she blurted that out with a totally serious face but I was not laughing at her; I was laughing with her. Because I know exactly what she meant and why she wanted what she wanted.

Soon after a breakup, bereft as you may feel, any rushed attempts at a serious relationship are likely to end up in tears because you have so many emotional hung-ups to sort out. It is very easy to end up projecting a gripe you had against your ex on your new love interest and over-reacting to things that remind you of what used to bother you in your marriage or past relationship. An informal liaison is often safer at this stage than jumping into another risk-laden, long-term commitment.

We all seek companionship because we are human and hardwired to crave connectivity, especially if you have just been through the wringer exiting from an unhappy relationship.

Often, in bad marriage, sex fades out long before the relationship ends. Or, if it did still happen, the pleasure you got out of it may have been, as one married woman cleverly said in Daniel Bergner’s What Do Women Want, “like the pleasure of returning a borrowed book to a library”.

If a woman has been starved for some time of sex, good, pleasurable sex – not just-tick-the-box joyless copulation – I should think it is quite natural for her to crave it as part of the recovery process.

Or perhaps Janet’s libido has always been high, I have yet to ask her that question.

Here’s to Janet for her honesty and joyful middle-age sex. I hope she will find her dream companion soon. I’ll have what she’s having too.

[*Janet is not her real name.]

Why I don’t “like” the Facebook baby boom

facebook-baby The world’s population feels like it is exploding right now. At least six or seven of my Facebook friends have had babies this year or are about to have one, making my Facebook wall look like one continuous baby album.

Between my drafting this post and publishing it, even the Duchess of Cambridge, the most famous pregnant woman of 2013, managed to pop Royal Baby George out. Blame it on the full moon of the night before.

My timeline is a pregnancy diary I am forced to read every time I log in, complete with photos of foetal scans, recordings of babies’ heartbeats, reports on blood test results, baby kicking, baby turning, baby clothes shopping. Too. Much. Information.

I cannot help but feel sorry for the yet-to-be-born kids, who don’t even get a choice whether to be on Facebook or not: they’ve already been exposed to the world picking their noses inside a womb at 12 weeks. And I thought there was an age restriction on Facebook?

I was delighted when a friend had her first child at age 40, after being told by doctors she could not conceive, and I smiled at one or another baby announcement from ex-colleagues after that. But by the time newborn number 6 or 7’s photo was uploaded, followed by daily updates of their feeding and sleeping routines, I decided social media was harmful for my mental health and had to give Facebook a temporary wide berth (pun intended).

Don’t get me wrong: I love children, I do think babies are cute, but when every other female you know starts reproducing like rabbits on heat, the world becomes one big orgy scene from a Fellini movie, where you are the only non-participating voyeur. I feel like a freak.

God forbid I end up a self-pitying embittered spinster like the self-loathing Mail columnist Liz Jones, who, coincidentally has a book out this month called Girl Least Likely To. Even if I were the girl least likely to find true love or have a family, I still have enough scruples to find making money out of tales of self-fuckeduppedness abhorrent.

IVF anyone?
This month, 35 years ago, Louise Brown, another famous baby, came into the world and revolutionarised the lives of many infertile couples. Brown, now a mother of one herself, was the world’s first IVF or “test tube baby”. Since then, apparently, more than an amazing five million-plus IVF babies have been born.

A piece of trivia: did you know that whereas the cost for an in-vitro fertilised embryo could set you back as much as £3000 at the time, it is now possible to have one for as little as £170, or so this Guardian article says. Pregnancy for a bargain.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that if you have 200 quid spare in your back pocket, you can just go to a lab and order a baby. Having a child is a sum of many intricate parts that must come together at the right time and the right place. Often they don’t, even if you are fertile.

Fathers wanted
Many women I know are having children in their late 30s and 40s because the right man did not turn up when they were supposedly at the peak of their fertility.

Girlfriends of mine, in their mid to late 30s, who have come out of a relationship or not even in one, are in a state of mild panic, thinking they can hear their biological clock ticking loudly. Males that cross their path consciously or sub-consciously look like like potential fathers to their future offspring, just like every cactus you see must morph into a pond with shimmering water when you have been roaming in the desert for days.

The accidental baby
One of my team mates, a divorcee I am good friends with, is currently ten weeks pregnant after a holiday in South America with her new boyfriend of only a few months. The rest of the office still does not know. She told me personally by email while I was in Japan on business, suffering from severe insomnia, chronic stress stomachaches and a serious bout of the blues:

“You won’t believe this, but I’m three weeks pregnant! I’m in shock, don’t know what to do. I miss you so much. Come back soon.”

(Only a day or two before, in my insomniac fragility, I had broken down in tears in my hotel room upon finding out a man from my past I still deeply care about had had a second child, or his wife had (detestable Facebook again). The timing couldn’t have been worse. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at her news.)

I did what any decent friend would do in these circumstances: I sent my pregnant colleague a big virtual hug by email, told her not to make any hasty decisions she could regret later, as it was still early days, and whatever she decided I would support her and stand by her.

I was prepared to accompany her to an abortion clinic and hold her hand so she would not have to do it on her own, but  by the time I came back to the UK she had decided to keep the child. “I am 36 now; I may not have a chance again later,” she said.

Everyday now she gives me reports on how sick she has been, how every food she puts in her mouth makes her throw up, how no trousers fit her any more as she is so bloated. She receives email alerts from some pregnancy website telling her how many inches her baby is now, week by week, and shows them to me, proudly.

It almost makes me miss the days when she used to brag to me how good her new boyfriend was in bed, that they were having sex everyday, twice a day. I suppose it is the duty of a friend to be a good listener, in good and bad times…

She is planning a small ceremony to secretly marry her boyfriend in a few weeks’ time and has already bought a dress. Physically she feels miserable but I can see she is happy. I am happy for her too: a whirlwind romance two years after a divorce and a child on the way.

A happy ending. As always. For others.

She asks me if I can come to her wedding. I check my diary: the day of the ceremony is a day I am away on business. “Sorry,” I say, but I am relieved.

I am a bad friend.

Kodak moments
I have seen and admired more than a tolerable share of happy “Kodak moments”. I haven’t got a family right now; chances are I never will. Even at the risk of breaking politeness etiquette, I cannot bring myself to “like” any more baby photos and updates. I’ve had enough.

Doesn’t the world know I am hurting like hell?

Give my your gas and air and show me your pet hedgehog’s photos any day.

Daddy longlegs: to kill or not to kill

Crane_fly_halteres I seem to have a daddy longlegs, or crane fly, resident in my bedroom at the moment, which makes me nervous.

I am not too fond of insects in general, let alone insects with huge gangly legs that remind me of spiders, of which I am terrified. If you ever hear me screaming my head off in my own home, it could of course be that I’ve found a corpse in the cupboard, but it will be far more likely that I’ve simply come across a spider, or a cockroach.

La Cucaracha
Luckily cockroaches are not so common in UK homes, but I grew up in a hot country in South America and spent my entire childhood traumatised by the possibility of a chance encounter with a scurrying roach in the middle of the night, as I step into the kitchen for a drink of water. Woken by my bloodcurdling screams, a bleary-eyed dad would come to my rescue, unceremoniously flatten the roach with the sole of his slippers and send me back to bed.

As a child, I used to think my dad was pretty pathetic about most things, but that was one rare moment when my chest filled with pride for him: dad was a hell of a roach killer.

I apologise to any animal lovers reading this, who think killing insects just because they are ugly is a sacrilege, but cockroaches are vile. What was Kafka thinking when he wrote Metamorphosis?

When I moved in with my (now ex-)husband, before we married, I found out his house was full of spiders. He used to tease me saying they were a sign of good luck. They weren’t. In my heart of hearts, I knew it was a bad omen…that the house was so full of something I didn’t like.

The spiders would always appear at the most inconvenient moments, such as when I was having a shower and could not run away from the scene. Upon hearing what he called my “spider scream” my husband would eventually turn up, laughing, with an empty glass jar to trap the spider in and empty it outside the house. His method was more humane than my father’s slippers, but when I was alone in the house, I resorted to death by suction…more specifically the hoover.., while praying they would not later resuscitate and crawl out of the hoover bag for a Second Coming.

I no longer live with a husband nor any other male, so I am grateful my new flat has, so far, been relatively creepy crawly-free. I am not saying insect removal is a man’s job but, let us just say if I was checking profiles on an internet dating site, one listing “ability to get rid of insects that scare the daylights out of me” would definitely get extra brownie points. Put a spider in front of me and gender equality goes out of the window.

My resident daddy longlegs has just flown a couple of times over my laptop to remind me to come back to my main point, which is about him…Or her? It is such a ridiculously clumsy flier, it nearly crash-landed on my keyboard. It makes me shudder to think I could have accidentally squashed it with my typing fingers and have to fish its dangling legs out from the gap between two letters.

I knew naught about daddy longlegs until a few days ago I learned from a friend that these long-legged flies only live for a few days, or was it hours, and don’t bite humans despite looking like giant mosquitoes.

Having discovered they have such short lives, I no longer have the heart to cut its lifespan even shorter just because its long legs make me uncomfortable. So I let it live, I let it fly around my bedroom while I nervously watch, let it sleep (sleep?) on my wall. It has been around for almost a week now, so it can’t be long till its expiration date. I will probably wake up one day to find it dead on my floor, its legs shrivelled up, no longer looking so menacing.

I googled and found this BBC article from 2006 with the title: “What’s the point of daddy longlegs?”, which is exactly what I was thinking. With only days to live, what is the point indeed? Apparently, they are “an important source of food for birds and spiders” and “their larvae also eat decaying plant material and help to recycle nutrients back into the soil.” And, yes, they do die a few days after mating.

Virgin death
I have no way of knowing whether my resident daddy longlegs has already found a partner to mate with. If it hasn’t, will it die mateless anyway? And would that be the equivalent of dying as a spinster..or worse..a virgin?!

My bedroom is not exactly a singles’ bar for flies of any kind, so I do hope it is not wasting its short life away, stuck to my wall, dreaming of the day it will get lucky. Okay, I do that too, but I have a few more years to live, and, who knows, I may still find geriatric love in some old people’s home?

Resident daddy longlegs, I have spared you from deadly slippers and suffocating hoover bags so you could enjoy your fast-track life to the full. Go find your mate, go lay your eggs so you can leave your mark on earth. If you must die so soon, may you die happy, having known a sense of completion.

It made me think: how much more intensely would one have to experience life if we too only had weeks to live. I probably wouldn’t be moping about, wondering what went wrong, crying over things that cannot be changed.

We are spoiled for having such a long lifespan.

Daddy longlegs, I salute you.

Because I mourn…

I read a Julian Barnes book for the first time this year. Despite being into literary fiction, I always thought Barnes was too highbrow for me. But I discovered Levels of Life, his latest work, while browsing at my favourite Kentish Town bookshop and came across a passage that so resonated with me, I decided to buy it just to be able to re-read it at home.

In the third and last part of the book, Barnes talks poignantly about how he still struggles with the grief over the loss of his wife, the literary agent Pat Kavanagh, who died in 2008. Thirty years ago, in one of his novels, Barnes had to imagine and describe the feelings of grief of a widowed character in his sixties; only to be surprised by the accuracy of his words, when his own turn came.

Here is an excerpt:

“…Afterwards comes the madness. And then the loneliness: not the spectacular solitude you had anticipated, not the interesting martyrdom of widowhood, but just loneliness.You expect something almost geological – vertigo in a shelving canyon – but it’s not like that ; it’s just misery as regular as a job… [People say] you’ll come out of it…And you do come out of it, that’s true. But you don’t come out of it like a train coming out of a tunnel, bursting through the Downs into sunshine and that swift, rattling descent to the Channel; you come out of it as a gull comes out of an oil slick; you are tarred and feathered for life.”

Often the loss of a loved one, even if they are alive, can also feel like death, and the dark times that follow like one long mourning you may or may not come out of. The loss of dreams can be another form of death, the letting go of something that could have been and now will never be.

I have lost many of both.

What if there is a yet unrevealed alternative path to happiness you had not envisaged? We all live in conviction that the happy ending we had foreseen for ourselves was the only ending possible. Once the script is changed, and we realise it cannot be achieved, we struggle to accept any other.

In Levels of Life, Barnes asks the “unanswerable question: what is ‘success’ in mourning? Does it lie in remembering or in forgetting? A staying still or a moving on? Or some combination or both?”

I reckon the intensity of one’s grief is always in direct proportion to the intensity of the love there once was. That is why while I feel for Barnes’ suffering, I also envy him for having known such a great love even death cannot obliterate.

The intensity of a love that transcends our earthy existence; to be able to love and be loved in this undying manner – does it exist, and, if it does, can there be anything more rewarding in life?

This reminds me of German singer Herbert Grönemeyer‘s Der Weg. Grönemeyer, a widower, wrote the song with his late wife in mind and the love they shared. The ending words always make me crumble:

Habe dich sicher / I have you safe
In meiner Seele / Inside my soul
Ich trag dich bei mir / I’ll carry you with me
Bis der Vorhang fällt / Until the curtain falls

Ich trag dich bei mir / I’ll carry you with me
Bis der Vorhang fällt / Until the curtain falls

Sometimes, Barnes says, “you want to go on loving the pain.”

Well, I say, sometimes you just need to go on loving. Until the curtain falls.

Why Sehnsucht

I first came across the word Sehnsucht [ˈzeːnˌzʊχt ]I when I was studying German literature at uni. Even though the word denotes something unspecifiable, no other word can better describe the motives behind the launch of this blog and my search for an answer I may never find.

A yearning for the unknown. Don’t we all carry it.

From Wikipedia: “Sehnsucht […] is a German noun translated as “longing”, “yearning”, or “craving”, or in a wide sense a type of “intensely missing”. However, Sehnsucht is difficult to translate adequately and describes a deeper emotional state. […] Sehnsucht represents thoughts and feelings about all facets of life that are unfinished or imperfect, paired with a yearning for ideal alternative experiences. It has been referred to as ‘life’s longings’; or an individual’s search for happiness while coping with the reality of unattainable wishes. “

From Levels of Life by Julian Barnes: “There is a German word, Sehnsucht, which has no English equivalent; it means ‘the longing for something’. It has Romantic and mystical connotations; C.S. Lewis defined it as the ‘inconsolable longing’ in he human heart for ‘we know not what’. […] The longing for something – or, in our case, for someone.”

What do you yearn for? Do you sometimes long for the longing itself. Because longing feels like being in love. Like the promise of a hot cup of tea on a cold rainy day. Like the memory of a silent hug from a dear friend who said nothing but saw everything when you were broken inside.