A childhood friend recently sent me an old photograph she’d found while sorting through a drawer. It was of me, her and my youngest brother, sitting in the back garden of my family’s home at the time. I was delighted to receive it, and enjoyed the memories that came flooding back from when it was taken; of living in that house, of walking home from school along that street, of eating delicious puddings my mother baked from the peach trees in that garden – even how much fun it was watching a baby brother grow up.
But the most striking memories the picture evoked were of my friend Diane and I, and those years of our friendship. We were inseparable. Her parents worked full time, so she came home from school with me most days and I spent most weekends reciprocating at her house. I remember playing endless duets on the piano (my poor family), doing our homework while listening to ever so slightly distorted cassette tapes of 80s pop songs, and, as we both had the same sense of humour, I remember there being a lot of hysterical teenage laughter (again: my poor family).
But another overriding memory of that time was of how obsessed we were with striving to get thinner, and trying every remedy we could to improve our skin and hair. If a magazine article suggested it, we tried it. We knew we needed to look better. And we were focused on the task.
One entire weekend we ate nothing but the occasional teaspoon of honey (it was the 80s – magazines freely printed health-endangering ideas back then). On another, we ate nothing all day until we were so ravenous in the evening we melted half a block of cheddar on a plate in Diane’s mother’s microwave and ate the resulting congealed mess with our fingers, sheepishly re-joining the family for normal meals the next day.
We read that applying vinegar to our faces would tighten our pores and so we tried that too. That afternoon as we slid into the back seat of her father’s car to go somewhere, he sniffed suspiciously and asked, “Who is eating chips?” Neither of us answered him, and the journey took place in unusual silence. I think we both sensed from the tone of the chips question that any explanation we gave of this latest development in our pursuit of doll-like complexions would be met with an unsympathetic reception, and we understood the need to maintain plausible deniability.
As I looked at the photo and reflected on all of this, I felt a sense of regret for the fact that the preoccupation with trying to to be thinner and prettier dominated so much of our thought processes, time and energy. We focused on it so much that I don’t think we fully enjoyed what was unique and great about those years; having a world of opportunities to look forward to, having a good friend to hang out with, having my family all under one roof – I didn’t pay attention to any of that at the time.
So now I wonder: what might I be focusing on now that could be taking my attention away from what is amazing about my life today? Could I be in similar danger of wasting other valuable moments by allowing my focus to be on unimportant preoccupations?
It is unlikely that any era in our lives will be completely perfect. There will always be a mix of circumstances; the breathtakingly good, the mundane, and usually something difficult or challenging – and all of this to varying degrees and at different times. There are so many things clamouring to hold our attention, we need to be choosy about what does.
Right now, the following can be said of my life:
There are areas I could grow in and improve. So I’ll work on those. But they won’t take over my focus and I won’t define this era by them.
I’m dealing with some challenges. Some are so minor I won’t remember them in 12 months’ time, while others are significant enough I will probably still recall them in many years to come. They won’t feel as difficult as they do now, though, so I will use that knowledge to help me keep them in perspective and not let today’s enjoyment be overshadowed by them.
There are unique freedoms and opportunities I enjoy right now and, most importantly, there are people in my life who I love and with whom time shared is valuable. These are what I want my focus to be on. Because, like the challenging stuff, the lovely stuff can be transient too, and the moment to enjoy it is now.
Diane and I spent most of our adult lives on different continents. My brother in the photo became seriously ill and we nearly lost him when he was 20. In hindsight, I should have paid attention in that moment on the lawn; that two important people in my life were sitting right there with me. In reality, I think took them for granted while I was probably planning the next crash diet. I can’t go back to that moment and tell younger me to stop worrying about unimportant things. But I can learn from her, and enjoy today by appreciating what’s good about it intentionally.
I was able to see Diane when I visited Cape Town recently. Her daughter took a photo of us together. As I look at it closely, I purposefully push away thoughts that I should lose a few pounds. It’s not the most important thing. What I think about instead is how grateful I am for the day we spent together; how much we laughed, and how good it was to share and be understood and encouraged. All of that is what this new photo is a record of. And there is real contentment in letting the rest slip gently out of focus.
Emma Howden is a mum, sister, daughter and friend. She is a communicator at heart, believing understanding gained through clear communicating and listening can usually go a long way to help most relationships stay healthy. In a previous century she started her work life as a mainframe computer programmer, but now is loving a second career in communications, which has taken her to roles at a number of great charities. She has a strong-willed cat who regularly challenges her authority at home, and two teenage sons who make her laugh often and help keep her ideas and outlooks fresh.