The Queenager : Eleanor's Letter (July 24th 2022)
Eleanor celebrated her wedding anniversary and many other exciting things this week.
So I finally got away to celebrate my wedding anniversary. We went back to the Manoir Aux Quat Saisons where we stayed the night before we got married (in Oxford registry office with two witnesses…). The Manoir is the same only slicker; a new orchard complementing the honey-coloured stone, lavender bushes and tea sanctuary. The vegetable gardens are a greedy-guts’ joy; such artichokes, rows of plum-sweet tomatoes, huge yellow courgette flowers. It’s funny what we remember: of that night before we tied the knot I recall the TV that rose majestically out of an armoire chest of drawers and a small glass of consommé which tasted more truly of tomato – stripped back to its essence I suppose – than anything else I have ever eaten (including tomatoes straight out of a greenhouse). The chef’s skill is to concentrate the flavour – to truly bring out the true core of the taste.
There is something about the circularity of returning to the same place two decades on that invites comparisons. Of course we do not circle back exactly to where we were, it is more like a spiral, back into the same spot but of course, we are different and it is too. Sometimes the overlaying of past and present is so intense it can be overpowering.
When I go back to my college in Oxford to visit my daughter who is studying there now (Ok terrible humble brag I know that sounds insufferable but bear with me) I feel assailed by ghosts. I have an almost physical sense of vertigo, a sense of time kaleidoscoping – the past and present converging. It was made manifest when I had to bunk down on her floor one night after we’d gone to A&E (she had a terrible chest infection and we didn’t get out of there till 1am so I had no choice). To sleep yards away from my old room where I’d spent three years from 18-21 was to thoroughly merge the then and the now; I had the weirdest dreams. Walking around the quad I started ‘halluci-mating’ – seeing kids who looked like my friends from 30 years ago. And then I walked out into Radcliffe Square and bumped slap into a guy who used to live on my staircase – he too is now 50 but it seemed totally right to meet him there. (He’d come back to show his kid round the college). It was like the thirty years in between just disappeared. (I know we are both older and wrinklier but somehow it was exactly the same).
I had a similar kind of sensation at dinner. There we were spiralling back to our earlier selves, before we were parents, when we were just starting out; as the courses unfurled deliciously (the highlight was a chanterelle and truffle stuffed courgette flower with scallops) we probed what had changed and what hadn’t. Over dinner we tried to pin down what our own essences are; what qualities, sensations, essentialness of us has persisted over the two decades we have been together. And what has changed.
Our conclusions were that in the true essentials we hadn’t really shifted. We still love to mix the low and the high. When we went to the Manoir before we got married we arrived there muddy from having spent midsummer in a campsite in the middle of Savernake forest outside Marlborough. (Regular readers of this newsletter will recognise that I was there this year too, it’s where I interviewed Sheryl Sandberg in my car!!) Last night we were living it up in Raymond Blanc’s Blanc de Blanc bridal suite (all white and cream, I was terrified of spilling something). But today we are on the M5 to Devon (I am writing this while waiting for my electric car to charge…) and tonight we are bunking down in a caravan with no electric perched in the middle of a field (stunning view overlooking Dartmoor). So that is the same.
In the intervening period we have raised two kids together – one is at uni, the other doing A levels. I was pregnant with the elder one when we got married. In fact I wore the dress I got hitched in to dinner last night. It is lime green and satin, from Ghost 20 years ago and still looks bang on the money as all those fashions have come round again. Another weird spiral.
Do I feel the same inside the dress? Well actually I would say I feel happier. My 31-year-old self was grinding up through the hierarchy of the newspaper; frantic with news and the constant pressure of deadlines. My first pregnancy was pretty uncomfortable; she lay transverse across me and I had constant sciatica and heartburn. I worked till 1am or 2am every Friday (starting at 9am) despite my condition; it was a tough world and I wanted to make it. I got on with it. If I am honest my memory of those early years of motherhood (particularly once the second one came along) are pretty hazy; I was flat out and totally knackered. I worked, I did the girls with Derek (my husband). Life was full to bursting.
Fast forward to now and I have much more control of my time. I don’t have a scary boss breathing down my neck telling me to jump… and when I say scary I mean it, when his name flashed up on my phone I would get a terror adrenaline rush (and I wasn’t the only one). These days the only person driving me on is myself (and all of you Queenagers out there!) I do way more self-care; swimming every day in the Hampstead Ladies Pond, I meditate every morning, I go for walks with my husband, occasionally my kids even cook dinner – and much of the time they are off out having fun with their mates, which is as it should be.
Compared to when they were little I have far more time to read now, more time for my friends – I love weaving the web which is Noon and this community and the consulting, business and speaking which goes along with it all. I’m still using all the skills I’ve acquired over the years but in a way that feels much more me, much more authentic.
So how have those shifts manifested in the last twenty years? I suppose we grow into ourselves. But more than that I feel I have finally sloughed off everyone else’s expectations, I am not ticking anyone else’s boxes. Only my own. Studies show that in the first 25 years of our lives we are getting ourselves set up, getting educated, navigating our birth families; from 25-50 we are in the ‘years of achievement’ – doing all the things we were programmed to do: whether that’s working, or buying a house, having a family, finding a partner. I was very driven by external status, a need to prove myself to be someone in the world.
When all of that stopped, when my big job spat me out at 49, I initially felt sad and rootless – lost in the world without my big cloak of status and identity. But I soon realised that when I took the big heavy thing off I felt freer, more nimble, more myself – kind of new-born and ready for a next act. Two years on the shedding was a process, painful at times, but also wondrous and liberating, scary but exciting; scary because it was all new again.
My lovely co-founder at Noon sent me a card just after we began – it read: Do something terrifying every day! And inside she’d written “Only one??” That sense of living on the edge again, making it up as we went along was heady. And alongside that has also gone a more inner journey; I’ve shed all sorts of baggage – physical, mental – so much I no longer needed to carry.
So when in our Noon research we talk about Queenagers being Forged in Fire I know what that means; it showed that it was the women who have been through the most who are now the happiest; like me you’ve ditched (or had taken away) the bits of your life that no longer served you and have now got it set up just the way you want. There was a quote from one of the Queenagers that always stays with me: “I love my life now, it’s MINE. It’s like being a teenager but in my own house, with nice sheets and proper tea. I feel like don’t mess this up, it’s great, I’m just getting going.”
So here’s to the circularity of life, the spiral which – if we are lucky and hang in there and keep trying when things are tough – brings us back to kind of where we were before, but revivified, better, stronger, more wise, more open, more battered and more kind.
And here’s to all the lovely people in all of our lives which make it sing. I’m finishing off writing this now in my cousin’s caravan, perched high above the almost ridiculously rounded hills of mid Devon, (they are like hills drawn by a child – they seem to smile).
Yesterday I swam naked in the rain in a river high on Dartmoor, its reddish water made my skin softer than any moisturiser. I’ve always loved the water, when I was a child they could never get me out, they called me the fish – that is definitely still the same.
And today we celebrate my cousin’s 70th birthday, we’ve been putting up balloons and banners – she is like a little kid, surrounded by love and piles of presents, beaming from ear to ear as she chats to her grandchildren in Australia by Zoom.
So here’s to all of us Queenagers out there, muddling through, making it up, being brave, suffering sure, but circling back – becoming the women we were always supposed to be!
Have a great week.
By Eleanor Mills