Mirror, mirror … on showing off and the gift of experience

The last of the weekend dried and put away I emerge from the kitchen with the first coffee of the morning. The mirror’s on the wall directly in front of me. I can’t help but stop and admire it. Procrastination and power-tool-paranoia left it languishing in bubble-wrap behind the armchair for more than three-and-a-half years. Now here it is, placed to perfection by a man with a drill, and looking exactly the way I’d always hoped it would. So good. There’s just the one thing makes me hesitate, and that’s the picture enclosed by its heavy, wooden frame.

At first I’m inclined to be critical. For the better part of four years, the only mirror in the place has been above the bathroom sink. The lighting there’s artificial and kind, and I can’t see most of myself anyway. The light in the living room this morning’s cold and grey. It hides nothing and the image is nigh on full-length. In addition, I can see the abandoned decorating tools in the hallway, the marmalade pan on the cooker and the wilting poinsettia on the bookshelf in the background. The woman looking back at me is not young. She’s wearing glasses and a shapeless sack of a top, and she could do with a cut-and-blow-dry, although without the glasses she likely wouldn’t be able to tell you that. I want to be depressed. Then I take another look.

My hair’s silver, aside from the purple streaks. Not grey, silver. I used to tell people it was platinum blonde. A woman in the hairdresser’s last year asked how I got it this colour. She’d been trying to dye hers just this shade, she said. Took me sixty years, I said. Then there are the curves. I haven’t seen them in a while. Hips broad enough to have cradled four babies and breasts that got to feed only three. A face wise and sad enough to have weathered that storm. There are the hands that have created, eyes that have seen things no-one else will and the belly I battled so long to lose and wound up loving, its hidden scars all whispering stories of their own.

In a little over a month I’ll be sixty-two. Quite how that’s happened is a mystery to me. My grandfather retired when he was two years younger than I am now. He took to a bungalow in the country and refused to leave his armchair. It’s not an option I’d have, even if I wanted it. Nevertheless, I sometimes think our society would prefer me to be invisible. I came home to Bristol in May 2012. Half a lifetime of domestic turmoil and some unwise choices had left me little to call my own. I moved in on May Day Bank Holiday. Tuesday morning I was on the doorstep of the Job Centre at nine. I’d polished up my CV in advance. I’d called every language school in the city, and most had responded with enthusiasm. It was the right time of year to be looking for work as a teacher of English as a foreign language, and I knew it. Everyone takes on teachers for summer schools and I had exactly the right experience and qualifications. I’d sent out the CV a dozen times and more. Not one single response. I sat across the desk from my new Employment Advisor.

Do you think it’s my age?

I can’t tell you that.

Of course she couldn’t tell me. It’s been illegal to discriminate on grounds of age since 2006. It’s also been illegal to discriminate against women since 1970. This didn’t prevent us from earning on average 15.7% less than men in 2014, or in more stark terms working almost two months of the year for nothing. A bit of a double whammy if you happen to be a woman of slightly-beyond-a-certain-age.

I don’t consider myself high maintenance. I’ll confess to a lingering penchant for books and CDs. I like good coffee and the odd glass of red wine. I’ve even been known to buy new clothes from time to time, although almost never at full price. In general however, I don’t have an expensive lifestyle. I decided to opt for self-employment. At least I couldn’t discriminate against myself.

I’m my own worst enemy when it comes to selling my skills. Pride comes before a fall, don’t run before you can walk, all that jazz and I’m scuppered before I’ve started. I have a steady few students and a part-time job that keeps the wolf just shy of the threshold. Nonetheless I live with a growing sense that, false modesty or no, I might be worth a little more than this. Oddly, looking in the mirror in the harsh light of morning, I feel the sense stir again. I love teaching. It’s performance art and regardless of whether you believe me, I’m nothing if not a show-off. Every class pitches me into agonies of stage fright. That’s one thing that’s not got better in all these years. The moment I open my mouth the fear’s gone and words flow like magic. I end on an adrenaline high. What could better?

Yet, if I’m honest, there’s one thing makes all that pale and pointless. Writing. Writing comes from the core of me. I’d not cling long to the remnants of sanity if I didn’t write. Objectively, I don’t think I’m too bad at it either, although I realise I’m the person least qualified to comment. Now and again even my internal editor, the worst critic bar none, will look at a piece and say: Hey, that’s not so bad. Better still, one or two people whose judgement I respect tell me they like things I’ve written. I hope to god they’re not saying it because they think I’ll hate them if they speak the truth.

Most of the time this blog doesn’t attract much attention. I’m crazy happy if fifteen or twenty people read a post and over the moon if one gets thirty hits. If nothing else it means I’m not sitting here talking to myself all the time. Thus I was stunned to come home last Thursday and find 170 people had been reading a post from last December while I’d been out. I’ve no idea how they found it, and for all I know every last one of them thought it was crap, but at least they read it.

On the basis of my not being the worst writer ever, I’ve pitched to one or two publications over the past year. Nothing major, just local rags. The response? Zilch. A glance in the mirror and I wonder if they just couldn’t see past that old woman in the grey sack. Age is a formidable barrier. In an image-obsessed society first impressions can be deadly, and my pitch has always been honest. I’m a feminist idealist, who writes from the dubious wisdom of sixty-plus colourful years. What else can I be? I don’t do buzzwords, soundbites or jargon. I do truth as I see it, and these days I’m no longer afraid of the consequences. Truth always has more than one level though. The old woman’s no more than the surface. The curves and the scars go deeper. I know my own heart now. I’ve lately grown to love it, and that’s a gift only experience can bring. Sometimes you have to know what you’re searching for before you’ll see, but look long enough into the mirror and you’ll find it’s all there.

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