The true face of friendship in midlife; light in the darkness

The Queenager: Eleanor's Letter (April 16th 2023)

Healthspan, bodies and being grateful for being here together now

Thanks to Ruth Schocken Katz for the photograph

Dear Queenagers

I’ve been thinking about writing about our ageing bodies – how we feel about them, the complex emotions that surround them – for a few weeks now. I even started it; a joyous paean to the naked Queenagers at the pond, a bit of a rant about how our wrinkles go unseen, our older bodies uncelebrated in our patriarchal culture. I was going to write about my own insecurities around this how – although I know that I shouldn’t, I have been known to stress more about what I am going to wear for a big keynote or interview than about what I am going to say or do. How I can lie in bed working through the upsides and downsides of possible outfit combinations for literally hours, that it becomes the sticky heart of my anxiety around an event. How I berate myself for this obsession with form rather than substance.  How stupid that is. Basically about the relentlessness of our concern about our appearance as women. How we are programmed to be hyper aware of  how we present to the world, how even when we fight against it, the outside rather than the inside can become what matters most.

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But then I got hit with my own biopsy and haven’t been able to swim for two weeks – and one of the side effects of that is that I have been thinking about my body in a whole new – grateful – way; not what it looks like but how happy and fortunate I am that it still carries me about and is active and healthy. So it seemed wrong to write about superficialities and appearances which ultimately  don’t matter (though my god are we women told over and over that they do…).

Although I am fine now (thanks for your kind messages)  I’ve had one of those periods where I’ve been reminded that health really is the most precious of commodities. A string of friends have suddenly been laid low. And I’ve found myself plunged unexpectedly into some pretty deep and important conversations. That is what I want to write about today.

One pal turned up to what was meant to be a jolly evening out at a gig with a big group, looking grey and wan.  Taking her upstairs to the guest-room so she could dump her stuff I asked gently what was up. It all flooded out. She’d spent the afternoon in an MRI scanner. She was sore and scared; facing painful, long and invasive treatment. Her poor husband looked terrified too. We sat and had a hug. She shared some of her fears. I made a silly joke enacting being inside the jug-jug-jug – brrrrrr of the MRI. She laughed. He did too. We all felt better. We went downstairs and drank some rum and champagne – what my kids call ‘pre’s’ ie pre-going out drinks. We danced around to the Stereo MCs at a new club in Kings Cross and felt happy to be together listening to music we loved. Still here. It was a special night.

Then at dinner with another friend I got a weird frisson of fear and premonition when she told me she was going back for more, extra tests on a long-running issue. I didn’t say anything, but I hugged her hard when she left and I shed a little tear in my car on the way home. Not because she is sick but because the idea of losing such a beloved person, even the possibility of it, was so scary and sad. And then on a whim, I called another dear old colleague, who I knew was in the middle of breast cancer radio and chemo, who started off sounding low – but after we’d exchanged a bit of scurrilous gossip and reminisced a bit, ended up with both of us in stitches of laughter as she told me about how she’d terrified her local village by appearing in the shop without the scarf she wears over her now-bald head. She was so funny, and raw, and real and lovable that I came off the phone really glad I’d called. It was probably one of our best ever chats; the culmination of so much shared time and endeavour in the past.

These tough times come to us all. They are as much a part of the Queenager experience as the joy of new tribe or finding our purpose. It’s not talked about very much. But I reckon we owe it to our friends – in fact, it is probably the key part of being a friend – not to shirk the difficult conversations or avoid them (tempting) but to lean in and use our love and affection to help them bear it. Often just being there, checking in, helps. Not necessarily talking about ‘it’ all the time, but allowing that to come up if necessary. And maybe sending a little treat through the post -brownies, or flowers, or a book, or even Vegan cookies. There’s nothing like a little treat, a thoughtful gesture… even a note, or a text. It can mean so much.

But most important – I think – is being prepared to have some big conversations; the kind where you kind of have to pinch yourself that it is really happening, where you are talking to a friend about something big and real and scary and you need to be there for them, to hold that moment, let them express their fears. I think we Queenagers are good at that; we’ve all been through enough to know that sometimes that kind of engagement is necessary. That it is just life. Maybe being a real grown up is doing that. Comforting those in pain, supporting them through the difficult stuff. Indeed often in the weeds of those conversations – the type where we just really try to be there for the other person, with love, – are some of the sweetest times we ever have as humans. That point of light, of connection, of love in the darkness really is the brightest we ever burn. These are some of the lovesliest, soul-to-soul exchanges we ever have. Let’s all try to be rather un-British and embrace them rather than shying away…

The on-point chat currently is to talk about ‘health-span’ how we optimise it. Liz Earle told me for my Midlife Mot she’s all about the five Ks – Kimchi, Kombutcha, Kefir, (I forget the other two but they are all fermented things which are good for the gut). We’re also supposed to walk 10k steps and lift weights. And have one small glass of red wine; and blueberries and 30 different fruits and veg a week.  I find myself drawn to articles such as one in the papers today about how Prince Charles at 72 ploughs up hills like a mountain goat and hangs from bars, or does headstands, to keep himself in the military uniforms he had fitted in his 20s; he never eats lunch and tries to avoid official banquets as much as possible as they are murder to his dietary regime. I collect this info into random folders of my brain, following it haphazardly. I know The 100 Year Life isn’t so great if you are sick and ill; that we have to optimise our health as much as we can.

But also we have to make the most of the time we have.  I interviewed Richard Walker, CEO of Iceland for the Telegraph today. He told me how his mother got early-onset Alzheimer’s in her early sixties; of his fears that he may have inherited it too – how that is a great motivator for him to live life to the max. He practices what he preaches – he’s off to climb Mountain Everest this week to raise £1million in her memory and for a Rare Dementia Support Centre. He was pretty brutal about how dementia is not pretty, how it strips every ounce of dignity away. How he is determined to pack as much life into the time he has as possible because we can’t know how much more we have left. I liked him – if you fancy donating to his worthy cause here is his justgiving link.

I hope this newsletter isn’t a Debbie-downer –  I try and reflect honestly to you all what I am thinking about. What flows. The truth that needs to be communicated. It’s one of the great freedoms of writing this newsletter, of Substack. I write what I feel.

I’m also really proud of a couple of pieces we have just published on Noon – this one by Kerensa Jennings about losing her mother, how she was suddenly catapulted into a secret grief club she hadn’t known existed. And this one by Rebekah Clark about finding her purpose and coming to terms with growing up mixed race in this country. I highly recommend both!

Lots of love to you all – remember in the darkest times the light shines brightest. If we look for it. If we let it. If we are brave and reach out, and support each other.


By Eleanor Mills


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