Category Archives: Our bodies ourselves

N’est pas un parfum pour les femmes effacées

Rive Gauche

What is she talking about now, I hear you ask!

Well I was walking past the Yves Saint Laurent cosmetics counter the other day just as a customer spritzed herself with Rive Gauche. In a giddy breath, I was transported back to those heady days of the mid-70s. For me they were an uneasy marriage between feminist consciousness raising groups (remember them? I miss them!) and dating men my mother would have considered unsuitable had she known about them.

Rive Gauche was the perfume which accompanied me through those days. It was the first perfume I bought as an adult. Considered daring and modern, somewhere between a floral and a chypre, sold in a can, not a bottle, it was aimed at the growing market of independent women. (Here’s a link to a contemporary advert from YouTube.)

And the point of this little trip down memory lane? To understand just how potent our sense of smell is.

I only have to catch a whiff of tomatoes – those old-fashioned varieties with that musky damp green scent clinging to them – to be back in the tomato nursery I visited as a small child, the vines high above my head.

And the bitterness of roasting coffee has my three-year old self toddling along on reins with my mother past the only Italian shop in our North London suburb, insisting that she stop and wait for Henry to catch up. (Henry was my imaginary friend, an immaculately clean pink pig who was a little portly and could not walk as fast as I.)

Our sense of smell has evolved to be useful in all kinds of ways. Was the gas left on? Has the milk gone off? If you don’t have a sharp (or any) sense of smell, you lose a lot of eating enjoyment because the senses of smell and taste are interlinked. (I did an experiment recently in which I allowed a small square of fine dark chocolate to dissolve in my mouth while holding my nose. Very little sensation in the taste department.)

There is evidence that some (not all) loss of the sense of smell as we grow older can be an early indicator of dementia or other serious conditions. But it’s not all one-sided, as aromatherapy can be an effective way of improving quality of life in dementia, and I’ve seen from my own family experience that a familiar smell can cause moments of awareness or recognition.

I could probably name a hundred scents which have a profound influence on me. What are your scent memories?


Taking a fall


Two weeks before Christmas, on a Monday morning, I had a nasty fall in my kitchen.

Why am I telling you? Because there was something about it that foreshadowed for me what it may be like to be old and frail. And that got me thinking about vulnerability.

But first, the fall. It was, perhaps, down to vanity. I had bought a new pair of shoes (see pic). They are gorgeous: metallic pewter leather lace-ups which give a real edge of drama to a pair of plain grey flannel trousers, or jeans. Wearing them for the first time that morning, I checked myself out in the mirror: looking spiffy! But what I had not reckoned with was their virgin, smooth, slippery soles.

I reached up to take a breakfast dish from a cupboard in my kitchen and slipped on something on the floor – a tiny patch of oil perhaps. My feet simply went from under me and I fell backwards. You know how these things seem to happen in slow motion? As I fell, I somehow had time to be thankful I had moments before closed up the dishwasher so I wouldn’t bash into it on the way down. And then I connected with the floor and banged the back of my head, hard.

After a stunned second or two, I realised I hadn’t lost consciousness, and that this was probably good! I felt the back of my head and there was no blood or anything else sinister. Shakily, I got to my feet and took stock. No broken bones. Bizarrely, one of the first things I did was jump onto Google and look for symptoms of concussion and head injury. Well trained in the digital world, me! I had no nasty symptoms then, nor in the following days, just a painful lump on my head and, when I awoke the next morning, a lot of aches and pains and bruises on various body parts.

But I couldn’t get the fall out of my mind. I kept obsessing on “what ifs?” What if I had cracked my head open? What if I’d broken a bone? What if I’d been incapacitated? The next day I also managed to catch a nasty cold, and began wondering if the normal muggy-headedness of a cold was something worse. It’s actually taken me until now, two and a bit weeks later, to feel back to normal. I realise I was profoundly shocked by what happened.

Maybe this is a good thing. Maybe we all need to feel vulnerable at times and realise how close we come to the edge. How important it is to keep physically strong but at the same time how the unexpected can still happen. I’m being a little more careful around the house now, but don’t want to be afraid of what might happen, to be too cautious. People of all ages have accidents, some of them fatal. People of all ages get episodes of illness, some sudden and disabling.

Time to get the shoes out again, but this time I’m going to sandpaper the soles first before wearing them. I’m sure there’s a metaphor in there somewhere!

Sleeping late


First, I want to say how grateful I am for all the comments on the blog and privately that I’ve had from readers keen to see this space continue when I raised the question of its future recently. I’m really touched by your enthusiasm. So we will definitely keep going. I will write when I have something to say, whether that’s twice a week or twice a year. I’d also love to hear from you if you would like to contribute a guest post to Pilgrim’s Moon. A couple of people have made suggestions and I’ll be following that up shortly. Meanwhile, on with the show…

Being gentle with ourselves

Yesterday, Saturday, I slept until nearly noon. I’ve only done that on a handful of occasions since I was a teenager and used to do it all the time. I had an exhausting day on Friday, setting off at 7.30 a.m. to drive across country to a recruitment event we’d organised, arriving home at 10 p.m. having spent all day talking to strangers – interesting but never easy for an introvert like me. I had intended to get up at my normal time on Saturday but that just didn’t happen.

When I did wake up, I was refreshed. I knew my body and mind had needed that long, luxurious sleep. And simultaneously, I felt deeply disappointed with myself: I had “wasted” a morning.

I’m sure I’m not the only one to think that a little luxury is a “waste”. I wonder why. Is it a generalisation to say that women find it difficult to “treat” themselves, or is it more to do with that good old Calvinist work ethic which is alive and well both sides of the Atlantic? Is it maybe a subconscious feeling that because by definition we have less time left than say 2o years ago, taking time out for treats is taking from our remaining time?

Little luxuries

I hope many of you reading this won’t have a clue what I’m talking about. I hope that for you, taking time out for little luxuries (whether it’s sleeping late or something else) is just part of your life.

But for those of us who guilt trip about this sort of thing, let’s make a pact. As we grow older, let’s allow ourselves what feels luxurious, let’s be self-indulgent from time to time. None of us knows how much time we have left so let’s enjoy it.

What are you going to allow yourself this week that you don’t normally? What little (or big) luxury will you indulge in?

Fear of dementia

Dementia. It’s the elephant in the room. The big fear that we will not be able to live out our crone years in joy and wit and strength.

And I think there’s something about our baby boomer generation that believes we can conquer it, even though many of us will have known the experience of caring for a loved one with dementia, watching helplessly and saying goodbye long before that final goodbye.

Last week I went to a meeting run by a group (in the UK) called Dementia Friends.  I’m going to tell you about an exercise we did, which really surprised me.

Imagine, if you will, a group of about 20 people, lined up against a wall to the side of a large conference room, facing into the room with space in front of us.

Our leader asked each of us to take a folded slip of paper out of a container, read it privately and note the contents without letting anyone else know. Each of us had a scenario on our slips of paper. Mine was:

You are a 73-year old woman. You have had dementia for six years. You are living at home with your husband.

Then the fun began. Our leader told us she was going to read out a series of day-to-day activities. If we thought the person in our scenario would be capable of a particular activity, we should take a step forwards. If not, we should stay where we were. I can’t recall all the examples, but they were activities such as “You can walk to the local shop, buy objects from a shopping list, and return alone”, “You can make a cup of tea independently”, “You can follow the plot of a TV drama” and so on.

By the end of the session, after about 20 example activities, we were in various positions relative to the wall we’d started from. Some of us were only a couple of paces away from the wall, some had made it nearly all the way to the conference table, others at all points in between.

Then our leader asked someone (not me) to read out their scenario. It was:

You are a 73-year old woman. You have had dementia for six years. You are living at home with your husband.

And at that point we realised we all had the same scenario. What an interesting moment of revelation as we realised how very different our perceptions of dementia were.

Now a few facts (stats based on the UK):

  • Dementia is not an inevitable part of aging, it’s caused by diseases of the brain, the most common of which is Alzheimer’s Disease.
  • Two thirds of people with dementia are women
  • One third of people over the age of 95 have dementia
  • However in the UK, there are 17,000 younger people living with dementia (and dementia is much more common among people with Down’s Syndrome and other learning disabilities)
  • Two thirds of people with dementia in the UK live in the community, one third in care homes

There’s a great deal that can be done to help people living with dementia, so they can live as fully as possible for as long as possible. Some of it is simply around allowing more time to do things. There’s a lot around being respectful.

This disease is definitely not something that can be sugar-coated, and especially in its later stages it is intensely distressing. But what I learned last week was that even at the end of life, flashes of joy and what makes that person unique can still shine through.

Which is all by way of saying that if you’re in the UK, please become a Dementia Friend, and if you live elsewhere, please do what you can to educate yourself and to raise awareness of dementia. Thanks!


Sunday Collection: International Women’s Day

Caro-SparkIs it me or is International Women’s Day losing its meaning? Last Friday, I felt a certain ennui reading all the self-serving contributions from political and business leaders. Are we turning our backs on what the Day should represent?

Corporate women

The official site is sponsored by BP, another energy company, and financial institutions, with “gender equality” pages published by accountancy firms, media businesses and government (as well as charities and special interest groups).

I know the arguments: the involvement of big business is crucial because it’s the only way women’s interests won’t be sidelined, because only big business has the klout to make policies which give women equal opportunities and pay. That women who are successful in business will make their effect felt in politics and boardrooms around the world.

But “family-friendly policies” make not one iota of difference to the basic premise that multinationals are not person-friendly or planet-friendly, let alone woman friendly.

Perhaps I’m just hankering after the heady idealism of the days when the personal was political and we were going to reform the world, not join the enemy!

Big media

Left-wing media in the UK didn’t disappoint on Friday, with a couple of interesting contributions from The Guardian which particularly caught my eye. The first was an interactive timeline map of the world showing when each women in each country got the right to vote, to stand for election and when the first woman was elected. It’s very interesting. Click here to take a look.

The second Guardian piece was a series of interviews with women and men around the world on the topic of gender violence. I haven’t read them all, but there are some incredibly moving stories, told by courageous people.

HuffPost came up trumps with a piece called 7 Sadly Disturbing Truths About Women’s Bodies (HOW YOU CAN HELP) which does exactly what it says on the tin, covering horrors like female genital mutilation, rape and infant mortality AND giving some suggestions for action.

On the blogs

It seems I’m not the only party pooper on the topic of International Women’s Day.

Echidne of the Snakes begins a really interesting post (with some good links) thus:

The meaning of this day seems to be changing to something a little like Mothers’ Day.  I spot people congratulating women on this day and such.  That’s not the intention of the day.  It also feeds directly into the argument that having a day for women but not a special set-aside day for men is sexist.

Read the whole thing here.

And Emily Lakdawalla has this to say in the same context:

For me, celebrating me or any other woman today only serves to emphasize that to be a woman is still considered to be “other.” It should not be exceptional that I am a woman in science; it should not be something worth celebrating. It should just be. The fact that it is still considered exceptional and something about which awareness needs to be raised with a special day is something I want to mourn, not celebrate.

To read the whole post click here.

On a lighter note, British feminist blog The F Word tells us the story of early 20th century Liverpool footballer Lily Parr, “the woman with a kick like a mule, a chain-smoking habit, and as many career goals as Pele…” I love hearing stories about women like this. Read it here.

And finally, at Feministe I found the song One Woman – singers and musicians coming together from around the world to sing with one voice. Here’s the video

(link here for email subscribers who can’t see it above)


That’s all for now. Let me know what you think of International Women’s Day, and  have a great week everyone!

Photo credit: Caro Spark


Are you rising?

One in three. One in three women will experience violence during their lifetimes.

Screw Valentine’s Day, today is V-Day, and One Billion are Rising all around the world, to break the chains binding women to violence.

Want to be inspired? Here are the women rising in San Francisco:

And remember, this all started with the vision of one woman, Eve Ensler. One person can make a difference – what difference will you make?

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