2022 is A Wrap!
What 3 Words?
How do you summarise such an intense year? So much has played out in both the world and my world that the mind balks at the bustle and chaos. I always find answers in simplicity, in trying to boil life down to some kind of essence I can grab a hold of. In wrestling with the weight of multiple, interrelated strands, it always helps me to think in threes - the little a, b, c’s of sanity. Like the website What3Words that maps your location in the world, choosing three words helps me pinpoint where I am in life. For 2022, my 3 words are Learning, Loss, & Home. What are yours?
The biggest lesson of 2022 was the power of taking a year out to learn something new, engage with fresh ideas, connect with cool people. Our extraordinary human ability to learn and stretch and broaden was everywhere visible as we emerged from our catastrophic pandemic years.
In the world, we learned that democracy wasn’t quite as dead as many feared. That the autocrats weren’t quite as competent as many thought. That the Ukrainians and their comic-turned-president gave us a profound lesson in courage. That the US could be reasonably run by an almost-80-year-old. That NATO had its uses and that nobody had done more to support it than Putin. That energy dependence on nasty regimes was doomed and dangerous and that energy security was the new game in town. We (sort of) accelerated responses to climate crises, made progress on fusion. We even managed to get a global UN agreement signed for biodiversity. We are making progress, in our usual, incomprehensible, crisis-driven, pendulum-swinging way. Enough? Probably not, but in a decade we may look back at 2022 as the pandemic-emerging inflection point towards more focused efforts and priorities.
In my little corner of life, leaving the barn in Somerset where I had spent two cloistered Covid years among the sheep to spend a year at Harvard with 43 world-changing superstars was like waking to an invigorating morning shower. A veritable dousing in learning, exploring, deepening and trying new things – in person! Finding myself, at 60, biking to classes on climate change, mental health or AI and human rights taught by some of the best minds in the world. Researching how universities around the world are starting to replicate Harvard’s pioneering midlife transition school model. Or launching a podcast to deepen the ideas I’ve been developing around a new roadmap for longer, 4-Quarter Lives. And replicating the brain stretch with a bountiful bodily addiction to brilliant yoga classes in Cambridge (more amazing teachers). There can be few better gifts at this stage in life, I have learned, than investing in learning - about whatever fascinates and engages you. I won’t call it a fountain of youth, because I’m not youth-seeking, but it’s definitely a deep drink of renewable energy for the rest of the marathon of life.
LEARNING: I won’t call it a fountain of youth, because I’m not youth-seeking, but it’s definitely a deep drink of renewable energy for the rest of the marathon of life.
So. Much. Loss. For so many around the world. Years of Covid, now escalating in China, a year of war in Ukraine, a year of weather extremes from Bangladesh to Buffalo (where my brother lives). The old, the young, the everyone we’ve lost and mourned. The species we are killing off. The trauma and pain for those left behind. Embedded for generations in genes and memories. A world of weeping, trying to shakily, impossibly, ‘move on.’ The shadow side of life and humans. Death as the outline of life.
The older you get, the more loss you live. Synchronistically, part of my learning about longevity and ageing in the classroom was accompanying my mother in her last year of life, at 97, and her choice of assisted dying. Loss comes in many forms – of life, but also of health, of control, of independence. An education in itself, accompanied by Harvard courses on Dying Well and the Meaning of Life. One of the gifts of this year was to be (relatively) near as my mom turned the page on her final chapter. Thinking deeply about death and how to die is a good recipe for living consciously. My mother, my lifelong teacher and role model in so many things, from motherhood and cooking to fashion and feminine power, showed the way, as she so often has. Watching her lose control of her body and take control of her end made me profoundly respect the importance of both these things – bodies and ends. It turned every walk into a grateful meditation on easeful movement and freedom from pain. Made every day another gift of time – and love.
Loss makes life more visible, intense and embodied. There is little I take for granted, now. From the brown-tailed bird plummeting in to land on the back hedge as I write, or the sound of coffee beans being ground as I lazed in bed this New Year’s Eve morning. To the miraculously joyful life force exploding from my tiny granddaughter, or the increasingly astonishing wisdom taking root in my own children. All of which brings me… home.
One of the greatest gifts of travelling is returning home.
"The real voyage of discovery,” wrote Proust (my mother’s favourite), “consists, not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes."
While emptying my mother’s house, I found a letter I had written her on my first trip to London 40 years ago (she kept all my letters - and everything else too). I found it again as I was unpacking this week, now returning home as an older woman to the very city I had visited as a jubilant 20-year-old. It is a breathless recounting of a densely-packed week of ballet (with Baryshnikov!), theatre (A Chorus Line!) and tea at the Ritz in the company of my oldest friend, Juliet, hosted by her mother. The joyful excitement lifts off the weathered pages, undimmed by the intervening decades.
It sounds almost eerily identical to the elderberries blog I wrote last week, of the joy of returning home to my big megalopolis of a city. Celebrating Christmas and Hannukah with my own, now-grown daughter, who invited us out to dinner… at the Ritz! (I’ve now been twice in my life, at a 40-year interval). And a week of theatre, film and the exciting cultural feast that this buzzing, throbbing city offers. Cambridge was nice, but as news of the Boston bomb cyclone erupted, it was a joy to go gift shopping through London’s balmy, festively lit lanes. Friend Juliet is coming for New Year’s Eve dinner with her man… continuity and rituals are the joyful lighthouses spread across a life well lived.
After a year or two of driving my man (and my kids) to distraction with my declarations that it was time to move to Lisbon or Annecy and leave this crumbling, Brexit-bereft and disunited Kingdom behind for our ageing decades, a year away may have made me change my mind (to everyone’s great relief).
It’s lovely to be home. I’ve discovered that home is not just where the heart is. It’s also where Dave the greengrocer on Lower Marsh waves us a delighted, welcoming hello and picks us the choicest of Christmas trees. Where at the end of a busy day, I tuck my earrings into the specially designed jewellery drawers my beloved made for me. And where friends like Eleanor drop in for tea on their way to the Globe for an evening performance of Henry V at the Wanamaker Playhouse.
I kept saying I wanted to live in a 15-minute city. Where everything you need, and everyone you love is within walking distance. As this year draws to a close, as I’ve wandered and learned and lost and returned, I understand that what I wished for is just exactly what I’ve got. It’s just that now I can see it.
Here's wishing you a wonderful wrap to 2022, dear Reader, with your own 3 words ripe for reflection and digestion. The lessons we reap are foundations for the leaps we make. To a joyful spring into 2023, elderberries! See you on the other side.
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