Catherine Ford Gets Personal

One year: A challenge for change


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I’m taking the advice of two “experts” on happiness: Gretchen Rubin and Edward de Bono.

Rubin’s year-long experiment in testing all the theories of happiness resulted in her 2009 best-seller, The Happiness Project. The much more famous Dr. de Bono, who created the theory of lateral thinking, published The Happiness Purpose in 1977. His is the intellectual yin to Rubin’s populist yang.

Both regard happiness as a reasonable outcome of anyone’s life. De Bono writes: “The foundation of happiness is recognized as the importance of self and the achievement of dignity.” He wanted a new religion, one that was not based on suffering, but “based on the belief that the legitimate purpose of life is happiness.”

Rubin is more prosaic, albeit much more attuned to the sound-bite nature of our current world. She advises, among other aphorisms: “Lighten up. Let it go. Do it now. There is only love.”

Why contemplate happiness? Simple.

Everyone who launches a self-improvement campaign comes to a low spot in her journey. Diet gurus call it a “plateau” — day after day, the same number on the same scale, seemingly regardless of what’s been eaten, what’s been drunk, what’s been tried. Depression sets in: Not, I hasten to add, the clinical variety, but just the blah feeling one gets when impatient for amazing results pronto.

That’s the kind of thinking that makes diet and exercise programs and plans a multi-billion-dollar industry. I know better. I know that nothing permanent comes without hard work and persistence. After all, I’ve read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, too. Given his notion that one needs 10,000 hours of practice in order to become proficient at something, at my age, I’ve had nearly a half-million hours of “practicing” weight control, since I turned 10 years old and some doctor told my mother to put me on a diet.

But, of course, gravity and age are working against me. Certainly, I could hire a personal trainer, as some of my friends have done. Of course I could write down every single bit of food and drink that passes my lips, as Weight Watchers advises — the reason their programs are so successful. But, I have to live like this for, oh I’d say about another 30-odd years and I have no intention of obsessing that long. Of course, I have all of those 30-odd years to be successful, but I’ve already set a time limit of one year for this “challenge for change.”

So, being blue that I don’t look younger and my body is not responding faster, I do what all intelligent people do — seek advice from reputable sources. Not for nothing do I have books in nearly every room in the house and hundreds of reference books in the downstairs office. They are, to me, a source of inspiration and delight. When my husband bought me the complete Oxford English Dictionary — all 20 volumes (it arrived in five separate boxes) — friends questioned why, in the age of the Internet and Google, he would waste money buying a dictionary, albeit the world’s foremost authority on words and their origins. But Ted knows his wife better than anyone, and the sheer idea of owning these books is a source of constant enjoyment for me.

Books also provide what my friend from the University of Calgary, Dr. David Taras, refers to as “unexpected consequences.” If you ask a specific question on a computer, you will likely get a specific answer. The beauty of the written word, in a book, is that unexpected consequence of flipping through the pages. One never knows what will catch one’s eye.

The other problem with computers isn’t the speed with which they deliver information to you, it’s the constant question of whether what the search engine is delivering is actually the truth. If it’s in the Oxford English Dictionary, I know it’s true. As eight-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon wrote to the editor of the New York Sun in 1897, asking if there really was a Santa Claus, because her father had told her “if you see it in The Sun, it’s so,” thereby evoking the world’s most famous and lasting newspaper editorial, some references are more believable than others

Especially in this age where anyone with a computer, a modem and an opinion — no matter how ill-formed, ill-informed or ignorant — can broadcast such to the world, those of us of a certain age are more likely to turn to sources other than the World Wide Web.

I turn to books, to music (Chopin’s sprightly polonaises), occasionally to a stiff shot of Scotch or two, although I bet any doctor reading this would be quick to point out to me that liquor is a depressant in and of itself. My reply to that pious and know-it-all advice isn’t printable, as it would include some of the English language’s more notable and sadly, most publicly abused, words.

Dodie Smith, the English writer most famous for her children’s classic, The Hundred and One Dalmatians, prescribes: “noble deeds and hot baths are the best cures for depression.” As is, I might add, the advent of spring, although the last (fingers crossed) winter storm is, at the moment, pelting us with snow, ice and winds. Somewhere out there tulips and daffodils are blooming.

Women of my age are the in-between generation — straddling the 1950s world of our housebound mothers and the unfettered world of our daughters and granddaughters. My mother had few if any choices of the role she would play; her granddaughters have all the choices in the world.

They can, in a sense, have it all. Maybe not all at the same time, but Peggy Ford’s four granddaughters can choose to get married, have babies, have a career or stay at home, or, indeed, do both either laterally or simultaneously.

For my mother, once she became pregnant with me, she had to quit work, even though as a nurse in London during the war, her skills were valuable. But not so valuable to allow a visibly pregnant women to continue to work. I don’t know if she wanted to quit or not, all I know is that she never complained to me.

So I was raised as a product of the white-bread 1950s and somewhere in the middle of my 20s, feminism happened and that comfortable but stifling world changed, mostly for the better.

Calgarian Verna Reid, after a career as a teacher, completed her doctoral thesis at age 75 in 2003. She writes eloquently in that work, entitled Women Between. While her thesis concerns four women artists who came to prominence in middle age, Reid also has words for all of us. She writes about the artists’ successes as being “achieved by coming to terms with the life processes of aging and with mortality.”

Art acts, writes Reid, both to “consolidate the sense of self and to bring into being new aspects of self. Old age, on the other hand attended as it is by the gradual deterioration of the body, brings with it a diminishing sense of self. One feels betrayed by one’s body and one’s world becomes smaller as one’s range of activity becomes more limited. The resultant loss of the sense of self is exacerbated by the rampant ageism in our society, an ageism that is especially virulent in the case of aging females.”

Reid quotes York University’s professor emerita, Shelagh Wilkinson, long an activist for women: “Old women who use their age to tap into sources of their own creativity remain vital and visible. They are like beacons showing us all new stories and new symbols to live by.”

Indeed, if anyone wants to know why I write this, the answer is contained in those sentences. Remaining vital and visible should be a goal for every woman, regardless of her age.

And helping me on that path (and Ted, too) is the amazing Helen Mikuska whose core fitness classes at the Yoga and Meditation Centre in Marda Loop are the perfect antidote for self-pity. The spring sessions started a couple of weeks ago, and we’ve signed up for the season. No one could possibly remain blue in one of her weekly classes, to which she brings enthusiasm, laughter and determination. It’s little wonder the same students return session after session.

And it’s little wonder that a session with Helen serves to banish anyone’s lingering case of “the blues.”

So despite being slow to make change a reality, every day I remind myself that just the act of smiling, of moving my lips upward serves to create an uplift of the soul.

NEXT: Banishing the “frailty myth.”


Written by Catherine Ford

April 29, 2010 at 3:25 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. I’ll confess I purchased The Happiness Project and gifted it to CBC’s book sale before finishing it. Having recently participated in a group study of a faith based book (The Good and Beautiful Life), which distinguishes between joy and happiness – I would describe you Catherine not merely as a happy individual, but as a person of great joy. It is a state to which I aspire and you continue to inspire.

    Jennifer Diakiw

    April 29, 2010 at 8:31 pm

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