Ahhh, Christmas. I know it stirs up mixed feelings in some – all that festive fun, yes, but also, all the fuss, all the expense, and the weight of all those unrealistic expectations. But I must confess to being a super-fan. L1 doesn’t call me the Christmas Monster for nothing. And Christmas in London this year did not disappoint.
The sensation of Christmas joy hit me before I went ice-skating beneath the stars at Somerset House, supped champagne with friends in a sparkling Sloane Square, or plonked my turkey into its heavenly scented brine bath of cinnamon, cloves and oranges. The minute I walked into my house I felt an overwhelming surge of warmth. I like to think that it wasn’t just the heat from the radiators (our house is always a tad on the warm side) but the settling of my very soul. For London, and our house in Wimbledon, is still home. One day, when New York has worked its way deep into my system, I might be able to say that I have two homes, like all those celebrities you read about who claim to divide their time between Paris and New York, or LA and Sydney. But for now, New York represents novelty, excitement and adventure, while London is home.
Now we’re back in that place of novelty, excitement and adventure, having expertly timed our arrival so as to miss all the snow and sub-zero temperatures. We came back raring to go and ready to re-embrace our new urban life. We also came back with a slew of New Years Resolutions.
I say slew, when what I really mean is small handful of notes scribbled in our journals. People have different approaches to the business of making resolutions, I know. Some opt for the scatter-gun approach – fire off fifteen or twenty good intentions, while drunk, in the hopes that two or three will stick. Others favour a more cautious, considered approach: two or three highly achievable goals, carefully noted, maybe even with timescales attached. L1 and I are probably somewhere in between.
The whole business of making resolutions was instigated some four thousand years ago, apparently, by the ancient Babylonians, though they made theirs in March, when the new crops were planted, rather than January. It was Julius Ceasar who moved the whole ritual to January. Then Pope Gregory X111 did his bit to formalise it all in 1582, and we’ve been doing it ever since. ABBA wrote a song about it. May we all have our hopes, our will to try, if we don’t we might as well lay down and die. A bit melodramatic, perhaps, but we get the point.
For the old Babylonians, the most common resolution was to return your neighbour’s farm equipment. So all you had to do was root around in your shed and find your buddy’s scythe. That sounds laughably easy to me, hardly worth the effort of resolving in the first place. And far easier to achieve than the current American favourite, which is to lose weight. Again. For the tenth year in a row. One final, waist whittling, life transforming time.
I was most distressed to learn that while the majority of young people make resolutions, only twenty-eight percent of people over the age of forty-five bother with them. Isn’t it vaguely depressing to think that forty-five is some sort of cut off point for having aspirations, goals, objectives, dreams, ridiculously unrealistic wishes – or whatever you want to call resolutions? I refuse to be one of the seventy two percent. And so I’ll make my resolutions, thank you very much, until the day I drop.
You don’t need to know all the gory details (though I did read somewhere that the surest way to make sure you keep your resolutions is to tell someone about them). But at the top of my list is one that makes the returning of all that Babylonian farm equipment look like exactly what it was, which is a work of mere minutes: I resolve to get a life.
I already have a life, of course. But I need a new one. L1 and I both do. We need a whole new way of living that can see us through the years beyond those from which we’ve just emerged, an approach to life and a mind-set that helps us to embrace the idea of the empty nest rather than hanging onto the feet of those birdies who are escaping it.
L1 and I came to this conclusion at about ten o clock on New Years Eve. Before I go further, let me pause and explain about our relationship with New Year’s Eve and its accompanying festivities. L1 has never been a fan. He can’t be doing with all the forced fun, obligatory kissing, and staying up late for the sake of it. He prefers to zig when others are zagging. So we’ve become accustomed to spending the evening at home with a good bottle of wine and half an eye on Jules Holland’s hootenanny. (Although our enjoyment of Jules’ annual knees up has been tarnished by the discovery that it’s actually recorded in November. So all those celebrities pretending to be in a festive New Year’s Eve mood, shaking their hips and counting down the seconds till midnight? Fake news, as DJT would say.) We’ve gone solo on New Year’s Eve so often that people have stopped asking us to dinners and parties. And normally we don’t mind that. We don’t mind our quiet New Year’s Eve because we follow it up by hosting a big New Years Day lunch, which has been known to last from two pm until 2 am, and inevitably involves two or three Godfathers dancing on and around the furniture, an all-guest conga through the ground floor of the house, and our eldest daughter standing on her head with three Bloody Mary’s and six or seven glasses of champagne inside her. (It’s her own special party trick. I wouldn’t recommend trying it unless you have a core of steel.)
This year was different. We hadn’t planned the big lunch, for reasons that are too dull to go into. At around six pm on New Years Eve, we realised the enormity of our mistake. We had nothing to look forward to, nothing to prepare for. Suddenly, our smug little plan to zig while others zagged, and to get a good night’s sleep and be nicely fresh and hangover-less on New Years Day, looked utterly pointless and misjudged and, well, very boring.
But worse than this self imposed feeling of flatness was the sudden cruel realisation – which had been hovering in a vaguely troubling way since shortly after we’d arrived home but which seemed to crystallize that evening – that life as we knew it was over. Finito. Properly auld lang syne.
So you see we had the perfect cocktail for a thoroughly depressing evening. We attempted to spice things up by watching a couple of episodes of The Crown, and then by taking the dogs out for a late night walk, but it didn’t really work. The walk was a particularly bad idea. The steady drizzle felt decidedly like a harbinger of the tears I would shed as we stepped back into the house.
“It’s so sad,” I snuffled into L1’s jacket as he struggled with the simultaneous removal of wellington boots and dog leads.
“I know,” he said, unhelpfully.
“It’s all over. Family life will never be the same.”
“No, it won’t.”
“Just look. H has already moved out and K will surely go soon. And C (our eighteen year old baby, undertaking a degree in partying at Newcastle) has hardly been here this Christmas. We’re irrelevant.”
“Not irrelevant hon. But they have lives and they’re getting on with them. And that’s what we we’ve been aiming for, so it’s all for the good. Surely?”
And so it went on. We sat bleary eyed in front of the telly, watching people celebrating fake New Year’s Eve, and wondering how we were going to salvage New Year’s Day. And I felt worse for a long while, and then, miraculously, slightly better. Maybe, in AA terms, I’d hit rock bottom and could begin the arduous climb back up.
I think it had dawned that moving to New York for a year was in no way a sufficient and fool-proof strategy for combatting the hollowness you feel when the nest begins to hollow out. Moving to a different place, on its own, was not going to prevent us from hearing the snap and crackle of the twigs as the birds flew away. What we had to do was move towards a different place in our heads. We needed (need) a new way of thinking about our lives, and about the meaning of life once it no longer revolves around being full-time, full-on parents.
Hence my numero uno New Year’s Resolution. Since making it, I’ve been on the receiving end of some exceedingly helpful advice. My friends E and L simply said, with a slight, impatient rolling of the eyes, “It’s time for you to let go.” (Translation: You think this is a problem unique to you? Stop whinging, woman, and get on with it.) DP, the recently divorced father of four almost fully grown children, who now lives in a bachelor pad in the heart of London, consoled us with the news that life after full-time-family-life could actually be fun and invigorating. “The key is that you have to learn to be a little bit selfish,” he said. “You have to embrace the new opportunities on offer.” Our jewellery expert friend, J, offered the view that continually ringing the changes was the key because it stretched out time and made the year seem longer. (Her change: tearing down her old house and building a new one).
My parents, ever the fonts of calm wisdom, reassured me that we would, in time, establish a satisfying way of living that did not entirely revolve around the children. I asked them if that meant that I might, eventually, be able to go on holiday somewhere without my first thought always being “the children would love this”, and my last thought being “I wish the children had been with us.” “Yes, of course you will,” my mother said, with only the shortest of detectible hesitations. I chose to believe her.
My friend MK assured me (as she herself had been assured) that grandchildren would come along, eventually, and that they would change everything, creating a new and equally satisfying kind of family life to carry us through our dotage. MK also offered a couple of nuggets handed down by her own adored late mother: Stay interested to stay interesting and learn something new every day. (Not bad resolutions, those)
Meanwhile, there is New York. I’m glad to be back, but I’ve returned with the newfound knowledge that we mustn’t count on you, alone, to fix everything. Your ceaseless energy can invigorate us, your cultural magnificence can entertain and inspire us, your culinary offerings can fill us up (and drain our wallets), and your own brand of quirky-crazy can delight and distract us. But you, alone, cannot solve the problem of how we are to live our lives beyond the empty nest.
P.S. On the flight home I watched the quite wonderful Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool. I have to say that it was worth ten Three Billboards from somewhere obscure in America, or whatever the Golden Globe winner was called. (Silly plot, and the most one dimensional performance of Frances McDormand’s career, but universally lauded on account of the fact that she managed to curse like a FECKING TRUCKER and was thus branded a modern, feisty woman worthy of both our respect and an industry gong). Jamie Bell, Annette Benning and Julie Walters are nothing less than magnificent in Liverpool. Vanessa Redgrave is only on screen for three minutes and she manages to dazzle. I cried (happy tears/sad tears/happy tears/ sad tears) for two hours. I defy you to watch the last scene without wanting to curl up in a ball and weep, in a good way – or to remain dry eyed through the early scene in which Bell and Benning dance to a seventies classic in her sitting room. As it happened, and via Julie Walter’s character, the film has some poignant things to say about life beyond the empty nest, so it just goes to show you that when you throw a vexing question out into the universe, the universe sometimes sends you some answers.