Having ‘retired’ at the beginning of the year I, like the majority of our benighted nation, have spent the last few weeks at home, doing things that I have been putting off for months, but in two weeks time I start my new, part-time job and, having worked full-time without a break for the last forty plus years I suddenly find the prospect quite daunting. I was adamant that I was not going to return to ‘pressure’ situations and my new employer assures me that this will not be the case. There will be no pressure in what I do – except that there will be a thousand new things to learn, and it occurs to me that it is a long time since I last did that. Am I still capable of learning, not an odd thing – how to peel an onion without crying, for instance; how to pull my socks up without putting my back out – but many, many new things, all at the same time? I am seriously concerned about it.
Have you ever stopped to think what you have learned recently? ‘Every day’s a schoolday’ is my mantra. I love to learn. I learn new things – all of them useless – every day, but I learn maybe one new thing at a time, not dozens, and I am increasingly aware that my brain is now operating a ‘One in, one out’ policy. Every time I learn how to set an electrical gadget, I forget the name of one of the grandkids. I look at those grandchildren and I realise how much they learn each and every day. They have brains like sponges, I fear mine is probably more like a pickled walnut: the content just as unpalatable. Pickled walnuts are soaked in vinegar, and we all know what that does to conkers. (I have only once eaten a pickled walnut*. It tasted like pickled coke**. I could not think of a single sane reason why I would ever want to repeat the experience.) Will I be capable of learning even the rudimentals – which key goes where, which button rings the till, which button sets the alarm off – let alone the more complicated stuff: whose turn is it to make the tea, who has milk, who has sugar? My brain is very good at what it does – at least that’s what it tells me – but how will it be at doing what, to date, it has not done before?
I wonder if I should somehow test it, maybe force it into doing a Sudoku, learning the chords to ‘Stairway to Heaven’ on a ukulele, making sense of the gas bill. I’m good at quizzes, but I always have been, I need a new mental challenge. How much of a stretch would it be for me to sit through an entire episode of ‘Eastenders’ without searching for something more interesting to do, e.g. researching how to pickle a walnut? I can only hope that my need to understand everything that I find puzzling is a good thing, that it shows that I am still curious, and not that I am stupid. Everything is a puzzle to me, but I know that curiosity does not necessarily equate to intelligence – I have looked it up. I am curious about how the universe works, but I do not understand any of the workings of it. Forget The Big Bang, I do not understand how come all of the planets do not just sink down to the bottom. (Also, come to think of it, where is the bottom? If there is no up and down in space, how on earth do you avoid spilling your gin?)
I still find the same things amazing now, as I did as a child: a butterfly, a snowflake, the way that animals find their way home from the other side of the world, the way that paint always drips in exactly the one place you don’t want it to. I have stopped trying to understand politics, but that is only because I have grown to realise that there is nothing to understand. It would all be so much easier if I could choose what to forget every time I manage to remember something new: the name of my next door neighbours, ‘In’ – the atomic weight of plutonium, ‘Out’; the names of the people I will shortly be working with, ‘In’ – the nicknames of the people I went to school with – ‘Out’; anything even vaguely important, ‘In’ – the kind of pedantic crap my mind is full of (‘aitch’ not ‘haitch’, ‘may I’ not ‘can I’, ten thousand incorrect uses for the apostrophe, ‘we were’ not ‘we was’) ‘Out’. It’s the knowing what to let go of, that’s the problem. I‘m sure there’s a place in my brain that is set aside for making such decisions – I’ve just got to clear out the junk so that I can reach it.
*Just for the record, I have never eaten a pickled conker – that way lies madness.
**The stuff you put in furnaces, not the stuff that makes your teeth drop out and your manly chest drop to just below waist-level.