Parties at 50 are a kaleidescope of past and present colliding
The Queenager : Eleanor's Letter (December 10th 2022)
Festive fun, turning 52 and the joy of the freezing pond
This week as the temperatures have plunged I’ve been swimming every day in the pond. I know it sounds completely bonkers, but plunging into the cold, the sky bright, the cormorants spreading their wings on the buoys in the wintry sun, the ground around white with frost and the trees still golden, it might just be my favourite time of year.
I wear neoprene gloves, a woolly hat and a bright green cossie. My feet are bare. Weirdly the immersion into 5 degrees Celsius water feels no worse than 15 degrees in summer. My toes ache a little, but my core stays warm. I drink hot mint tea before I swim, stay in for no longer than five minutes (one minute per degree is the rule) and that hit of pura vida gives me an endorphin high for the rest of the day.
It’s not just the beauty of nature, ameliorated by it being in the middle of one of the world’s biggest cities, that gives me such a buzz. But the sense of immersion in another world. I’ve become obsessed by the heron – he appears for me, almost every day. Sometimes lurking behind a tree at the end of the pond, sometimes resplendent on the near bank amongst the reeds, his grey feathers and Japanese hieroglyph markings standing out in the sun. A friend told me herons symbolise the search for self knowledge “calling you to dive deeper, to know yourself and to trust your path”. Perhaps that is why on this strange new journey of mine I am so drawn to them, why day after freezing day the stateliness of the heron calls me to the pond. And why, when I see him, I am glad.
My husband bought me a birthday card adorned with a heron, while my friend who swims in Scotland’s freezing Loch Linnhe sent me a package from her island (you should read her Bestselling book I Am an Island about it) with a lovely note, a golden chocolate coin and a long, grey feather. We haven’t discussed my current obsession with birds, but of course she knew.
I invited her to my birthday party, she couldn’t come as she has a brand new puppy; her beloved Maude, a sheepdog who had more personality than most people, passed this year. Maude would sit with us in the front of the jeep as we forayed to swim in the Loch. As we shimmied down steep cliffs to plunge into midnight blue waters where seals splash and the mountains loom, Maude would run up and down on the rocky ledge, checking up, woofing if we went too far out, or the waves were too rough. When Maude died earlier this year I felt I’d lost a friend.
Parties at fifty are a kaleidoscope of past and future colliding. Many are invited, not all can make it, but every time there is a new cast, old and new spinning into the unknown together. I was lucky enough to host a throng of friends for my 52nd birthday last week (you’ll get a sense of it above). My 50th happened in lockdown and was a quiet affair. It was time to mark the turning of the decade. All my life I have thrown parties at big moments; in my memory they stand out, like shining beacons.
This time, whenever I looked up from whoever I was hugging, there was a different bouquet of people I love in my life swirling together. A dear colleague from Noon chatting to a school-gate mate and an old pal from uni. Or my dad and his girlfriend animatedly quaffing margaritas and discussing politics with Liz Earle and my old boss. It gave me such pleasure to see all my dear ones discovering and relishing each other. I felt so much love in that room.
The evening kicked off with me, my youngest daughter and her best friends getting into our glad rags in a broom cupboard in the Groucho. In an evening awash with gifts (thank you everyone) they gave me my favourite presents of all – a box of After Eights and another of Ferrero Rocher, with home-made cards thanking me for being their “second mum”, and feeding them and listening to their woes (we call them the ‘hivemind’ because they are so inseparable) – they live in our house. My littlest misses her big sister who is off at college, so her teen hive have moved in instead. I love their blend of terror and confidence, their charm and directness, the romantic blips which seem so titanic but will leave no trace. Befriending them is like gentling wild animals, you let them approach, stand still and listen, usually offering food and then, miraculously, they unfurl, spilling confidences, allowing sacred glimpses into their secret teen world. It was so joyous to feel the love in their hand-drawn cards and their corner-shop presents. Their trust is priceless.
I love the random mix of a party, the unlikeliness of combinations of people coming together; my mates are a chatty bunch, the roar of conversation was pure happiness.
Post-lockdown has spawned a rash of stupendous fiftieths; they are the new weddings. Some are intimate; family and close friends, lavish food and fond speeches (one friend’s husband brought the house down describing her multi-faceted life as if she was Barbie in different modes: There was Sustainability Barbie, replete with vegan wraps and non-leather trainers; Editor Barbie – with a sharpened skewer and a big red pen; Mummy Barbie – a bit stressed at the wheel of the car, yelling about being late and home-work. Party Barbie – I’ll spare you that. He brought the house-down).
Another fiftieth was like a massive marquee wedding: kicking off at lunchtime and finishing at midnight. Starting with multi-generations, polite chat and champagne – delicious crab salads, steak and Apple tart – and degenerating through the day into a massive rave (he was a DJ back in the day, I think we all felt like we were 20 again and jumping up and down on hay bales in the nineties summer of love). It was weird to be surrounded by my oldest friends, veterans of thirty years of partying together, all feeling like we were still twenty, but then to see my 20-year-old daughter and her boyfriend dancing in the middle of the throng. To try and describe to her how all these oldies are, in my mind, still 20, still radiant, still my dancing partners in crime – even though her presence is a reminder of how far we have come. That we are fifty, not twenty. Although we still feel the same.
Perhaps we always will. I remember my dear granny saying to me when she was 97: “Darling, I still feel inside exactly as I did when I went up to Oxford. It’s just when I look in the mirror, or try to run up the stairs, I realise I am now trapped in this old lady’s body.”
Maybe that gets to the heart of the appeal of the ponds. That when we get to fifty we realise we use it or lose it. I am fitter now than I ever have been. Can stomp for miles. Downward dog with the best of them. Launch myself into cold water. When I was young I took for granted what my body could do; the way it could dance all night and get up the next day. Trudge up a mountain or swim across a lagoon. Now I know a healthy body is precious. That I have probably had more life under the bridge than I have years to come. That the quality of the years left depends on staying healthy, being fit. But it’s not just that. There is something magical about the sun on the water. The pull of sinew against liquid, the weightlessness. The blueness of the sky. I feel the beauty of the world and our connectedness with all of life far more acutely than I did in the past. There is a poignancy, a sense of yes, this, now.
This morning when I finished my swim I looked up to see two Queenagers, looking like ice-age fertility godesses, rounded and buxom, their red, glorious bodies resplendent against the wintry trees. They were framed by golden leaves, laughing together as they poured warm water over themselves from fabric buckets, steam rising all around them, like joy made breath.
We chatted and smiled, united in the comraderie of the swim and our incongruous nakedness on a frosty morning. We felt blessed and alive. In these short, frozen days, the sun shines particularly bright. Like Christmas lights in the darkest, longest night.
I feel so lucky, so full of joy to have made it so far, to celebrate my birthday and those of others, surrounded by friends. I wish all of you some ‘cheerful Wassail too’, as the old carol goes. And a very lovely weekend.
Ps If you’d like to support all things Noon and Queenager, we are doing a special linkup with our friends at Perfect Cellar. They have created two special cases of wine for you all for Christmas (or just you know, whenever), and are offering a £25 discount on your first order over £99 for Queenagers. There is a special page just for you https://www.perfectcellar.com/pages/queenagers-special-cases just use the code Queenagers25 to claim your discount.
If you love it so much you want to go again, there is a further £20 off any follow-on orders over £120 with the code Queenagers20
And for my gorgeous Paid Subscribers, you can get a FREE bottle of my favourite tipple Whispering Angel from Perfect Cellar. I’ll send you the details on a Paid Subscribers email, as well as where to come (or how to join online) our next Noon Circle which will be in person in Soho on December 20th, with Noon Advisory Board member Julia Bueno talking about her book Everyone’s A Critic: How We can Learn to be kinder to ourselves https://www.amazon.co.uk/Everyones-Critic-Stories-learning-enough/dp/0349014590 and Thelma Mensah who has written this great article about why Queenagers need to embrace ‘softlife’ on Noon
By Eleanor Mills