You know that poem, a lot of us do. Here it is in case you don’t:
When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn't go, and doesn't suit me.
And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves
And satin sandals, and say we've no money for butter.
I shall sit down on the pavement when I'm tired
And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells
And run my stick along the public railings
And make up for the sobriety of my youth.
I shall go out in my slippers in the rain
And pick flowers in other people's gardens
And learn to spit.
You can wear terrible shirts and grow more fat
And eat three pounds of sausages at a go
Or only bread and pickle for a week
And hoard pens and pencils and beer mats and things in boxes.
But now we must have clothes that keep us dry
And pay our rent and not swear in the street
And set a good example for the children.
We must have friends to dinner and read the papers.
But maybe I ought to practise a little now?
So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised
When suddenly I am old, and start to wear purple.
I’ve heard this read out splendidly at funerals, read it on Facebook showing purportedly ‘defiant’ elderly ladies who are bucking the trend and daring to be different. And we like this, because they’re old, and, well, haven’t they spent enough time doing what other people wanted? Haven’t they worn sensible shoes from Clarks, worn calf length beige skirts and faintly floral blouses for long enough? Surely they deserve a bit of the ‘fuck it’ button in their old age? Don’t they? A change to ditch the drear of washing up the pots, ironing (ugh, I hate ironing) and ordering earl grey tea instead of a double gin and tonic.
I agree with this approach. I don’t think older people should have to carry on with the things that they’ve stuck to, dutifully, all their lives. Many will have raised families, had dinner on the table at a sensible time, organised bath times, held down careers and delivered fantastic things despite the world of men in business that they had to contend the whole time. They may have had to be polite and courteous when congratulating a fellow (male) colleague who got promoted ahead of them, even though less qualified and less suitable. It’s just good manners. And they probably carried on doing a marvellous job, either as a mother, or working, or both. My own mother did both and she is most excellent. And we can't have everything 'going to purple' and being non-conformist, I know.
But then I do wonder, why aren’t we, at least more of us than the "eccentric", "daring", "slightly out there" few ‘wearing purple’ now, as Jenny Joseph suggests (to practise, a little!)? Why do we have to wait till we’re old? Is there some rule book somewhere that I’m missing? I’m pretty sure the bible doesn’t talk about wearing purple as a bad thing; in fact in my youth I remember our local Catholic priests often wearing purple robes whilst officiating. Purple is a holy colour, and it’s a beautiful colour, evoking not only ecclesiastical traditions but also the arrival of spring, with croci, Easter with beautiful tulips and bonnets (and chocolate, wrapped in glorious Dairy Milk purple foil!) and more.
Of course, this is the literal interpretation of that poem. It’s not about wearing purple, it’s about giving a damn. Why on earth do we spend so much time giving a damn? And yet we do. I am a chronic sufferer from the ‘What-on-earth-will-people-think-if-I’ syndrome. I've said it before: I am a people pleaser. I like people to like me. In fact I am a chronic sufferer from this disease. I will bend over backwards to make people happy. I used to be worse. I used to eat food I didn’t want in restaurants I didn’t like because friends wanted to go there. I am so stricken by this disease in fact that I usually expect people not to like me unless I do something to change their opinion of me: "Why should they like me? I need to do something to help, to make things nice, to support, to listen to...and then perhaps they will like me, at least for a little while."
Now I’m not quite so bad. (Or maybe I've carefully selected friends who like to eat what I do!) But I’m honestly one of the worst people I know for this stuff. I work desperately hard and want people’s approval for what I've done. This comes from a schooling method I would never, ever advocate, where teachers express disappointment when you don’t do as well as they hoped, with the suggestion that your performance directly hurts them, and that you have let them down (no thought for yourself). I built myself around this model and am now trying to demolish it. Rationality helps, but thorough nurturing in this toxic skill has left me struggling to enjoy or feel pleasure at times (especially when most depressed) if I feel that I cannot please others and do things that make them happy, and therefore make me feel good. It’s a ridiculous way to live one’s life, but I've really struggled to stop doing it. I’m sure I will continue to struggle, but I am damned if I won’t try.
I will drink Champagne when I feel like it, because it’s delicious, and when I feel well enough, that’s enough of a reason to celebrate. I will go running in clothes that don’t match. I will wear bright red lipstick and nails to the office and defy anyone who might consider this display of feminity inappropriate in a business environment. (Men, you need to ditch the red trousers for this to be a vaguely credible line of thinking.) I will leave the washing up. I will feed myself nutritious juices and also bread and butter, and not follow any fad diets. I will wear hats at all times of year.
I will do these things and more, because, why should I wait until I’m old? I have had real trouble finding reasons to continue to live at times over the last year, in fact more time than that. But I am feeling a bit better now. I'm working more and enjoying it more and more. I'm seeing people when I can. I'm resting, but I'm also painting and (trying to keep) writing. I'm trying to live, and to do that I am hoping to lose the restrictions and standards I've placed on myself, and just bloody well be. Just be. Not just do it. Just be. So here goes people...I'll let you know how it works out...And if you're wondering whether you should do it too, then look out for the thirty-something woman on the tube or in the street wearing odd colours or swearing, or spitting. That'll be me.