New classes, new schools, new colleges, new jobs—this time of year often brings a mixture of excitement and fearfulness. The need to make new friends, and moving from being a big fish in a small pond to being a minnow in an ocean can be a challenge. Watching two new hens join our original four showed me again that settling into a new pecking order is fraught—the two new ones are still being bullied after four months. Coping with this (settling in I mean, not the hens) is difficult enough when you’re in your sixties, but can you remember what it was like when you were starting school? I was at primary school 200 yards away from the house. I can’t remember much about how I felt then except for a general air of anxiety, for some reason made much worse when our cat followed me to school and I thought I’d get the blame for it. Maybe that’s why I don’t like cats, which are probably best housed under the wheels of a heavy truck (they also bring on wheezing and eye-watering). Back to the plot. Moving from primary to secondary school can be troublesome with official and unofficial hierarchies to cope with, and coming to terms with some of the more unwelcome aspects of playground gangs, and seniors who appear to be the size of houses.
By the time you get to 18 it might be that you can’t wait to leave home and start to plough your own furrow. That is admirable and understandable—indeed, if we never explored we’d still be scrabbling about in caves (as I’ve said before, and doubtless will again). The sad thing is that for financial reasons students now find it increasingly difficult to study away from home, at exactly that time of life when they should be shoved out of the nest. I can’t remember where I read it, but someone said that people can be classified as those who always look forward and don’t fear anything, those who defend and are always watchful, and those who remain within the boundary caring for the nest (nothing to do with male/female, since both sexes are found in all groups). I suppose you might say nomads, defenders and home-makers. I’m a nomad, SWMBO isn’t, so rows are not uncommon. Adapting to new circumstances, however exciting, always provides challenges. Please spare a thought for those whose personalities and inclinations make this a troubling time, especially those starting school.
Starting a new phase of life may well mean that we need to grieve for what we’ve left behind. This kind of grief is every bit as serious as the grief for someone who has died. If we don’t acknowledge it, it will bring us low. If we bottle it up, it will explode when we least want it to. It’s worth marking the old ‘life’ in some way in order to celebrate what has passed. It might be worth thinking about how elements of the past can be incorporated into the forward-looking present. This becomes more important as we get older, and I guess this is why people like poring over old photographs, or keeping toys and books from childhood. Don’t just keep them in a press in the dark—take them out occasionally and revel in them. Use the past to enrich the present and future.
Talk of memories brings on some neuroscience. We smell food as much as taste it, and what we call tasting food is partly smelling it. The brain’s memory circuits are linked with smell and taste. That’s why smells and tastes evoke memories and responses. This is good: as animals we learn to avoid danger. Pheromones enable us to ‘sniff out’ sexual attraction. I think of my mind, inasmuch as I have one and can see what goes on in it, as a tank of viscous fluid with memories slowly and randomly moving, up and down, side to side, slithering about. The only viewing point is a small opening at the top. As the memories move, they become visible for a short time through the opening, sometimes this, sometimes that, sometimes the other—unpredictable, ever-changing. If these memories have not been processed, the undesirable emotions and responses they provoke can cause real disruption. All the more reason to pay some attention to what goes on in our minds.
This is self-examination, reflection, confiding in a friend. It is a clearing-out, a cleansing. However distressing we find it, we come out the other side enlightened and lighter.