HelenHayward

life writing

going home for christmas

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‘Never go back to the place where you were happiest as a child’, a friend once told me. ‘The place you went on holiday to, a garden from childhood, a tree house in the woods. It’s gone, lost’, she said firmly, ‘and you can’t refind it’.

 

My friend spent her childhood in a house high up on a hill in Wales, surrounded by trunks full of her mother’s textiles upstairs and a bosomy garden below. Her children meanwhile have spent their childhood in a semi-detached house in Brighton, set affordably back from the beach. Her lawyer husband tutors their son during school holidays to keep his grades up, and her daughter’s skin condition flares whenever she eats anything sweet. Years since she visited her childhood home in Wales, my friend has a business in interiors and is a trained cook.

 

Yesterday I drove home with my daughter – a sixteen-hour drive and overnight ferry – after spending Christmas and New Year in the city I grew up in. My daughter was crewing in a sailing regatta and I wanted to catch up with my family. On my second day in Adelaide I took a walk past my childhood home. Standing in the rain opposite our old back gates I drew the attention of the owner who came out to talk with me. Not for a moment did I want to live in that house again. I didn’t want my childhood back. Yet for those five minutes I felt rooted to that spot on the pavement, the last thirty years a blur against the sight of our old back door and garage.

 

To break our drive home my daughter and I stay overnight on the coast of South Australia with my cousin Sam – a farmer who took over his family’s cattle property at the age of twenty two. Waiting for fish and chips on the main street his wife tells me jokingly that Sam never grew up and left home. I disagree. ‘Sam seems perfectly grown up to me. Perhaps’, I say, ‘it takes more maturity to grow up at home than to take yourself off to another country – as I did – to do your growing up there’. His wife smiles briefly and we chat about other things.

 

After supper five of us take a walk round limestone cliffs with their rocky shelves and sea lapping green below. A dipping sun stains the sky red, suggesting a hot day to come. My daughter and her cousin, tired from surfing, drop behind.

 

Despite the beauty around me I feel empty, melancholy even, as I remember past New Years’ Eves when I partied as a teenager on these same cliffs. Sam tells me of his decision to sell his share in his family beach house – pushed out by hefty land taxes and off-shore winds. ‘We live on a windy farm’, says his wife unsentimentally, ‘and we come on holiday to another windy place’. Sam isn’t bothered by his decision. He has grown up on these cliffs, scampering down rock faces to swim in the coves below, and doesn’t hanker for his childhood.

 

Like me Sam’s one remaining parent recently died. Yet he seems content with his life. His son will one day take over the farm from him, his second wife couldn’t be nicer, and his two daughters – one of whom is training for big things in sport – are coming up in the world. Perhaps, with the money from his share of the family beach house, and as his son takes more responsibility on the farm, he and his wife may travel.

 

My daughter and I are away for a fortnight. On returning home late yesterday my husband – who stayed home to work – says that it felt like we’d been away for five years.

 

This morning I wake up early, do some yoga, take our dog for a walk and write in a café, just as on hundreds of other mornings. A friend sends a text while I’m walking – did I enjoy being home for Christmas? I stare at the screen. Have I been home, I wonder? Certainly the twenty-three people round the table on Christmas day made me feel I was at home. Getting lost in the city that I felt I should know my way around, on the other hand, made me feel like a stray. Watching my daughter surfing with her cousin, silky white sand between my toes, wasn’t that home?

 

Standing on a beach that was considered too wild for swimming when I was a girl I watch my daughter and her cousin in the surf. Pacing up and down the beach – the eternal parent – another day fades into dusk. As light rain falls I pull a stripy red beach towel tighter round my shoulders. A kite surfer zips across the waves, back and forth, faster than I’d thought it possible to surf.

 

Eventually the kite flops and the surfer walks out of the waves, his large frame testament to his strength and speed. Standing on the beach, our backs against the dunes, we chat about kite surfing – though a fellow surfer became a parapelegic a week ago ‘doing something stupid’ the surfer insists that if you surf according to the rules kite surfing is safer than driving a car. We talk about risk taking in general and the importance of it. Then he tells me that he loves food and wine just as much as surfing. And that his daughter, a whizz at marketing, is currently writing a book about food in Tasmania – as coincidentally I too, though not a marketing whizz, have done. Water dripping off his nose, and without saying goodbye, he turns away to tend to his sodden kite.

 

Glancing at my watch I wave my hands in the air to signal to my daughter and nephew that it’s time for them to get out of the water. Just I used to do, when my mother waved to my sisters and me when it was time to get out of the water, they shake their heads in unison. Then they turn their boards out to sea and wait as if there is no tomorrow for the perfect wave to come.

on not writing christmas cards

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Every year the list of people I send Christmas cards to gets shorter. Every year I put off writing them until closer to the postal cut-off date. Writing Christmas cards has come to feel like an admission that the year is ending, a feeling of defeat that may explain why I put off writing them.

When I finally do put pen to card I know, when I take the envelopes to the post office today, that – like everyone else’s cards in the post office – mine won’t arrive in time. I know they’ll be opened as afterthoughts, as well-intentioned yet misguided gestures.

I’m not the only one who feels overwhelmed by the festive season, who feels convinced that each year the rate at which the months roll speeds up. Even my kids feel this. Nor am I the only one whose heart sinks when gold tinsel goes up in the town square a full month before Christmas, who cynically thinks that buying things is a commercial sleight of hand designed to distract us from Trump’s new appointments, the crisis in Aleppo and a new coal mine in Queensland that risks bleaching what’s left of our Great Barrier Reef.

My mother used to write Christmas cards under a tree by a friend’s pool while my sisters and I mucked about in the water. Having grown up in the country my mother always insisted that she couldn’t swim. Looking back I can see that writing Christmas cards under a shady tree – engaging with absent friends and ticking names off her To Do list – gave her more satisfaction than cooling off with us in the pool. Just as she gave half a dozen bottles of beer to the postman, and a box of shortbread to her hairdresser, she knew the right thing to do at Christmas.

I am similar in age to my mother when she wrote Christmas cards by the pool. My To Do list is shorter than hers ever was and I’ve never given half a dozen beers to the postman. Moreover these days my Christmas card list has whittled down to a manageable ten.

Even so this year I struggle to write Christmas cards. Because this year my life has got the better of me. This year I’ve felt as overwhelmed by my family as I did when my children were toddlers. These days my children, now teenagers, demand things of me that I can’t give – even as they reject my efforts to provide them.

I’ve always struggled to describe an entire year in a hundred words inside a Christmas card. I find it even harder this year. Because this year it’s clear to me that my life isn’t going to plan. There is nothing wrong with my life, most of which I’m very happy with. It’s just that over the course of this year I’ve realised that the things which seem to come out of nowhere, to excite and unsettle me, are the stuff of my life. They aren’t things that I’ll ever recover and move on from. They are my life. And this awareness changes everything. It makes catchy summings in Christmas cards up impossible.

When my daughter saunters into the kitchen yesterday afternoon I moan to her that I can’t get myself to write Christmas cards. She tells me airily not to bother. ‘But I still want to’, I say, wanting to explain. ‘We could make potato print cards,’ she suggests, trying to be helpful. I roll my eyes in response, hoping that she can’t see my face – potato prints at the kitchen table being as far from what I feel like doing at that moment as a weekend in space.

Ten minutes later she brings in the mail and I open a demand to pay a water bill that I’ve overlooked in the craziness of these last few months. Trawling through paperwork in my study I discover that my car insurance is also four months late. I knew I’d been lax in keeping our accounts, I knew I’d been sticking my head in the sand. Even so I felt amazed that four whole months had slipped through my fingers leaving hardly a mark in my accounting book.

I sat up late last night. After putting all my paperwork on my study floor I forced myself to order it into piles. I attempted to make good our household accounts. I wrapped up Christmas presents and put them under the tree. I made a To Do list for today. I addressed the four most important Christmas cards that I’d already written and addressed envelopes for a few more.

In the cards that I’d written in a moment of peace in a café, earlier that day, I didn’t sum up my year. I didn’t list my kid’s achievements or my husband’s travels. I didn’t mention my writing projects. I kept it simple. I wrote about our garden made lush by spring. And the building work on our old house that is at last finished. I wrote about driving interstate for my daughter’s sailing regatta on Boxing Day in ten days’ time, and about my plan to have a Christmas picnic with my near-blind ninety-year-old aunt. And I left it at that.

It was late when I went to bed, and I lay awake for a while. It was done. I’d pulled my head from the sand and the panic that goes with keeping it there had ceased. I could feel my desire for Christmas distinct from the demands that – when I’m stressed – they so easily turn into. I could hear the wind in the trees outside the window. I had let the year come to an end – the moon outside was full – and made my peace with this my funny lovely life.

dinner for twenty

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The last time my husband had a big birthday we had a dinner at a long table on the verandah, with hired glasses and chaos in the kitchen. After the starter a friend came into the kitchen where I was washing leeks under the tap. ‘Haven’t you already washed those?’ she asked in surprise. ‘No’, I laughed. ‘My mother is a caterer’, she said, ‘and whenever she does a dinner she is always super prepared’. ‘Well’, I replied, waving a wet hand at the table of noisy guests through the window, ‘if I’d planned all this ahead of time I’d never have invited this many people’.

 

The woman at the electrical repair shop – who I’ve now spoken to numerous times about our broken dishwasher – is surprised when anger and tears creep into my voice on the phone. ‘What do you mean the pump for our dishwasher hasn’t arrived?’ I ask without disguising my exasperation. ‘It’s been five weeks and we’ve had three visits from the repair man and it’s still not fixed. I do understand that it can be hard to get parts from the mainland, but couldn’t the pump have been expressed down?’ ‘Well yes’, the woman replies, ‘but express costs $32.50 and no-one ever asks for this service’. ‘But I would have been happy to pay it to have a working dishwasher for a big dinner!’

 

I stop flicking through The Guardian Weekly sitting on the windowsill. I return to the photo on the cover. Angela Merkel is staring out, two small downward groves either side of her lips to her chin, the future of the EU weighing heavily on her. I feel shown up by my ridiculousness – worrying about a broken dishwasher when far bigger things matter further afield. At that moment my daughter walks into the kitchen, I admit my idiocy, and to cheer me up she shows me some photos on the Internet of Trump without makeup.

 

*     *     *

 

Guests stream through the door and my excitement and panic mounts. Standing at the kitchen window I count them in the courtyard below – eighteen, nineteen, that makes it twenty counting myself. There is a knock at the door and I open it too quickly to stop the words falling out of my mouth. ‘And you are twenty-one and twenty-two!’ They laugh and we joke. My daughter takes it in her stride and we shuffle round table settings and find the sewing stool upstairs. There is another knock at the front door – twenty-three! My daughter rolls her eyes at the mother who can’t count how many people she has invited for dinner. This time we resort to placing an unhinged wooden door from the basement on top of two workhorses, covering it with a rug and white tablecloth.

 

Getting guests into the sitting room, where the table is set, is like herding cats. They’d rather chat in the hall and kitchen. A few explore the garden. They don’t want to be treated like guests at a wedding. ‘But what about the asparagus?’ I ask, pushing through a clutch of people to rescue two large pots on the hob.

 

Realising we are one chair short, two men decide to take turns at the table, persuading me that they are perfectly happy helping my two teenagers in the kitchen. Together the four of them take over the serving of the meal. ‘Go away!’ they say after the first course goes out. ‘We don’t need you in here. Go away!’

 

And I do go away. I leave them to it. My otherwise shy daughter, flushed in shorts and tshirt, flies in and out of the sitting room. My son washes up at the sink in the corner of the kitchen as if in the galley of a ship. The two men rally.

 

Twice more during the evening I go into the kitchen to take over serving. And twice more I’m sent back to the table. I hope it’s because they want me to enjoy myself. But I can also see that the four of them are having a better time in the kitchen because I’m not there.

 

My husband talks to the people on either side of him as if there is no tomorrow, and declares at the end of the evening it has been his best birthday yet. No singing, no speeches, just a warm acceptance of something – friendship perhaps – that is so present in the room it doesn’t need expression. When I enter the kitchen, after dessert, my son is confident from my laugh that I’ve been drinking. ‘No, just lime juice’, I reply with a quick smile.

 

*     *     *

 

At five o’clock, two hours before guests are due to arrive, my daughter asks me a question. ‘Will you be glad when it’s over?’ I stop in my tracks and put down a box of cutlery. ‘Gosh’, I say, ‘what a good question’.

 

Now that the dinner is over I find I’m not glad. Like my husband I wish it could have gone on longer. That life itself could go on longer. Not least because this was the first dinner in my house that I’ve been able to enjoy as a guest.

 

This morning, the morning after, I am teased by my kids. ‘How can you have been so totally disorganised?’ they taunt. ‘It was easy’, I reply with a laugh. ‘Don’t you remember what you were like two weeks ago’, I say to my daughter, ‘swotting for exams and leaving it till the last minute? That’s exactly how I felt yesterday, knowing I was about to be hit but unable to do anything about it.’

 

What they don’t know, what they can’t imagine, was what really happened yesterday morning when my mind was in such a whirl that I snuck out without telling anyone for a walk on a bush track by a nearby reservoir. As I walked, on entering the cover of trees, I started crying. I cried for all the years that had passed with nothing and everything to show for it. I cried for the friends who‘d come from interstate as a surprise for my husband. I cried for my marriage which at times feels out of my hands, yet which cradles in them. I cried for my family life that at times feels so consuming, so rewarding, and so demanding that I can barely hear myself think. I cried for my childhood family who did so much for me yet half of whom are now dead. And I cried for my own children whom I am in the slow process of letting down – though we call it letting go – so that they can make lives of their own. Until, just as my tears started, they stopped. I looked up at the trees, thanked them for their shelter, and no longer felt upset.

 

After a bush walk with my daughter this evening again I am teased about my disorganisation at my husband’s birthday dinner. Sitting in our parked car in our driveway I listen silently as she lists my oversights. Then I break ranks and tell her about my tears round the reservoir. I don’t tell her to burden her. I tell her so that she can understand something of the complexity of my life. I tell her so that she can glimpse the richness and pain in store for her as she grows up. I tell her so that she may gain a perspective on her own internal goings on, which are so consuming to her yet which are passing. And I tell her so she knows that I too can feel very sad and very happy on the same day.

 

As I talk she listens quietly in the growing dark. Suddenly our dog barks loudly at a neighbour’s dog. ‘It’s time go in for dinner’, I say, putting up the car windows. And we do.

 

 

 

the ugly stepsisters

 

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When I was young reading, writing and arithmetic were subjects that I had to work hard at. But they never felt insurmountable. I could grasp them in the classroom. They were as nothing compared with the three “r’s” – resistance, reluctance and resentment – that I would meet later in my life. These ugly stepsisters have proved far harder to understand than learning the alphabet and arithmetic. And yet even as I instinctively avoided them I kept meeting resistance, reluctance and resentment on my meandering path to maturity. Until eventually I realised that although instinctively I avoided their company I needed to hear them out, because they had important things to tell me.

We talk a lot about positive psychology, as if this is all we might need when dealing with the challenges life throws at us. However we don’t talk much about negative psychology – of the way in which, left to our own, our feelings have a way of entering a downward spiral from which they don’t return until our ruminations are over. Then there is resistance, a residual unwillingness to doing something, which is another expression of a negativity that we’d like to wish away – and yet which so often defeats us. Often it isn’t until we have experienced a tidal resistance within ourselves for the simplest of tasks that we acknowledge how strong a force this negativity can take.

Nowhere is our resistance to simple tasks more rife than inside our homes – where we are master of how we spend our time, and where only we can decide whether something is worth doing. This, our resistance to household tasks, can prove so great – for me it arises around the paying of bills – that the energy we spend avoiding a task far outweighs the energy required to complete it.

Whereas resistance provides the motor, the dynamic with which we push against a repugnant task, reluctance brings a whole imaginative world in its wake. Reluctance is the carpet bag of emotions and images that flesh out our resistance to doing whatever it is. For example my reluctance to pay utility bills immediately conjures my history of past earnings, my Protestant family background, my current earnings as a writer and subsequent financial dependence on my husband, and not least my utter inability to organise a sensible routine for administrative tasks.

Lastly there is resentment – perhaps the most poisonous of the ugly stepsisters – which like a snail leaves a trail that attaches to seemingly benign tasks. Resentment puts paid to the common sense idea that daily household tasks are trivial – attached as they are by long threads to tumultuous feelings which prove that the task is anything but trivial. I am not just paying a gas bill – I am caring about the running of our home late at night when my own disorganisation forces me to care about something that no-one else in my household has to worry their pretty head about it.

When I was younger my instinct was to keep these ugly feelings together and to tip-toe around them, for fear of the havoc they might wreak should I awaken them. (I always remember my mother saying that were she ever to go into a psychotherapy session she may never come out again.) However at a certain point in my life this suppression became counter-productive. Because once my life reached a certain level of complexity – roughly when my kids became teenagers – I started needing the energy bound up in my own negativity. I needed some of its strength and verve. And this meant that I needed to hear it out, in all its banal bitterness. Because ultimately my negativity was holding hostage powers deep within myself that, if I wanted to come out on top, I couldn’t do without.

As a younger woman I had no idea how much my experience of grace would depend on my willingness to do things that I don’t like doing – and that the quality of my life is to some extent tied to my attitude to homework.

tweed jacket

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Twice a year, around about when the clocks go forward or back, I go through my wardrobe and store out of season clothes. But this makes me sound more organised than I really am. Each time the clocks change I have to prod myself into going through my clothes. Often I’ll trick myself into it – a quick whip through my summer clothes, after one a hot day after months of cold ones, will turn into a wholesale clean out.

 

One year I was lucky enough to go through my clothes with a friend on my bed, which made the process much more fun. But not just fun. It was also irksome to find out that the skirt I’d worn again and again didn’t pass muster, and that my favourite cardigan looked like just that, and nothing more. I can still remember the short silence that followed after I buttoned up my tweed jacket. Karen’s short silence, no longer than the intake of a breath, made me realise that my tweed jacket’s days were numbered. ‘But it’s so useful’, I said, springing to its defence. ‘I can dress it up and down.’ There was another tactful pause. ‘Also it’s the jacket that my daughter likes me in most.’ Karen demurred, nodded her head, and the tweed jacket stayed.

 

That was five years ago and now my tweed jacket’s days are over. Even the short leather jacket that my husband bought me to look sexy in has aged better than this tweed jacket. And yet for years I’ve loved wearing it, often done up with a scarf. I’d wear it into town or on a hike – all the while my kids wishing that I’d wear a fleece like normal mothers. I thought of my tweed jacket as smart camouflage, something that I could button up and not have to think about all day.

 

Two weeks ago, dressing in a hurry and not wanting to think about what to wear, I grabbed my tweed jacket off its hanger. However the moment I put it on I knew, despite my hurry, that I simply couldn’t wear it. My tweed jacket had died, precisely when it was hard to say, and it was useless pretending that it hadn’t.

 

My daughter despises the vanity of fashion to the inverse degree that she is influenced by it. Much as she hates admitting it, the cut of a tshirt and the fit of her jeans matter to her a whole lot more than they did five years ago, when she’d defiantly patch her clothes and wear her elder brother’s hand-me-downs.

 

I knew I’d made the right decision about my tweed jacket because the morning that I felt like mutton dressed as mutton, and said as much to my daughter, she let the comment slide. ‘It just has to go’, I said to her flatly. At that moment I could already see my tweed jacket squashed on a rack in the charity shop, hemmed in by slightly musty clothes that I’d never pick out myself. ‘Fifteen years is a good innings even for a well-made high street jacket,’ I added. Or perhaps my daughter had decided that, given how confused her opinions about her own clothes, it wasn’t her place to disagree with mine.

 

At this point I remembered a scene during a trip to the UK to see old friends. A close friend, who was quite sick at the time, asked me to spend the day with her. For someone who hadn’t lived in the country for five years it was a tricky drive, and I felt relieved to arrive safely at my friend’s house in Brighton. I can still remember the flash of disappointment that crossed her face when she opened the front door and hugged me. At first I couldn’t work it out, given that she was clearly thrilled to see me. Later that day, by which time I plucked up courage to ask, she explained. ‘It was because I thought you would have changed in five years’, she said. ‘But instead when I opened the front door you look exactly the same’. What I think she meant was that I’d gone all the way to Australia, and was living a completely different life, and yet I was still wearing the kind of jacket that I could pick up any day in Oxford Street or Paddington.

 

I don’t know the direction my life will take from here on, not really. However I do know how I feel when I put on my clothes each morning. Going forward, that terrible phrase, will I wear more of the same, or will I strike out in a new direction? Perhaps this is what my clothes are nudging me towards.

resentment and gratitude

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We talk about gratitude a lot. We know it’s what we are supposed to feel when we reflect on our life. I know it’s what I’d like my kids to express more of. We imagine it as a pure well of feeling, the milk of human kindness. However we don’t talk about gratitude’s ugly step-sister very much, even though most of us receive regular visits from her. Resentment, the uncomfortable feeling of hugging bitterness for others to ourselves, is not something that we keep a journal about. We don’t record or treasure our bitter feelings. We shrug them off, hoping they’ll stay that way. We don’t sit down late at night with a cup of hot something and write down the five things that made us feel resentful that day.

 

Resentment is the cup of poison that you pour for another and then drink yourself. This is why it can’t be shrugged off. Because once we’ve taken it in to ourselves it becomes part of us. Even if we’ve done nothing wrong, we’ve had bad thoughts, and so at some level are guilty of them.

 

Lately my teenage daughter has taken to resenting her elder brother. She resents that he has finished school and is doing what he supposedly wants to do. She resents his freedom and even his fitness. After a long illness that has left her feeling weaker, she wishes that she had more of what he seems to have – life force or whatever you want to call it. Even though, from my point of view, my daughter has no cause to resent her brother. Can’t she see the strengths in herself that everyone else can plainly see?

 

Over the years I too have had my resentments. For a long time I resented my more successful, better educated, better travelled husband. Just as I resented certain more worldly, more self-assured and go-ahead friends. Of course I didn’t think a bit well of myself for feeling resentful in this way. I felt small and slightly ashamed of myself. I have so many advantages, I’d say to myself, how could I possibly resent the successes of others?

 

Just like my daughter, fearful of her looming exams, I’d negatively compare myself with my successful husband and friends to the degree that I felt insecure about my own prospects. (‘We cannot perceive objects in themselves’, wrote Daniel Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow, ‘but only in relation to an anchor point.) When my children were young, and my husband seemed to be galloping ahead in his career, resentment of his success seemed the rational response. It seemed common sense that I might resent his advantages – his network of mentors, his work ethic and his disregard for domestic responsibility.

 

But then something happened which, at the time, I barely noticed. My husband and I drifted into a traditional marriage and over a few years my resentments dried up. The more empowered I felt in my work and at home the less I compared myself to him. We moved into such different spheres that comparisons became irrelevant. I didn’t stop caring about what my husband thought of me. And I still reacted when he corrected me or asked for clarification on something. However my compass had moved – which meant that his opinions, or more precisely what I imagined were his opinions, were no longer the anchor point by which I measured my own worth.

 

Has this made me stronger? Perhaps. Certainly it has made me more relaxed. And I definitely feel more grateful for the life I actually live. Because just as resentment is a sign of a bruised ego, gratitude reflects a content soul. This is why I know it’s useless for me to tell my daughter to be grateful, in the ‘pull yourself together and be thankful for your blessings’ sort of way. As a loving mother I do feel this – sometimes my exasperation when she is moody for no reason is colossal. However mostly I manage to curb my exasperation. Because I know that not expressing gratitude is not the same as being ungrateful – as my own mother sometimes made me feel. I know that when your gratitude is blocked by resentment there is nothing to be done but to wait for the resentment to dissolve.

 

My daughter doesn’t need to be made to watch a documentary on orphaned children in Syria. It’s not my job to make her grateful for her materially blessed life. Because when she resents her brother’s freedoms she is talking about something more intimate than the daily conditions of her life. Rather she is saying to me, ‘Look, this is where I feel bruised. This is where I need to heal. So please don’t press on this place and make it worse’.

 

Thankfully my daughter is healing. When, before school yesterday, she spied in an email a photo of her brother jumping off a tall ship into blue Atlantic waters, it wasn’t resentment that she automatically felt. Envy perhaps, but not resentment. Because these days, whether she knows it or not, her compass is shifting. She still orients herself via fixed points – clever/stupid, strong/weak, fat/thin. However her hold on them is loosening. And as she lets them go, and mourns the certainties of childhood, the more relaxed and playful she becomes – and the more she plays the piano.

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This essay – a longish one – has been on my mind for years now, fed partly by responses to readers of this blog. It’s about why we value what we do at home. Thank you all, Helen. http://velamag.com/homework/screen-shot-2016-09-29-at-9-15-39-am

feedback

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Of course I want feedback on the manuscript that I’ve been writing on and off for fifteen years. Of course I want to hear my new editor’s thoughts about it. Up until, that is, she drops the qualifier ‘but’ into a sentence. At which point I wanted her feedback to stop.

 

The baby whom my new editor promised would be asleep during our phone call mews. We are not alone. Just as my mind was half on my baby whenever I chatted on the phone all those years ago, so is my new editor’s today. She laughs. ‘I really meant for her to be asleep’, she apologises. ‘Really don’t worry about it’, I say. ‘I remember it well’, I add, aware that the mere passage of time relegate me to the position of the older mother.

 

‘You know’, my new editor says, ‘all the time I was reading your manuscript I was wondering whether you had resolved the struggle you write about, when your children were young, between wanting to be there for them and wanting to succeed in the world’. ‘No’, I reply. ‘I still feel it. I still live that conflict. Perhaps’, I say, thinking aloud, ‘I always will’. ‘Oh’, she says, whether disappointed or not I can’t tell.

 

Our conversation to and fro’s. The editor mentions that she will be returning to work full-time in January, with two children under four. ‘The sensible choice that I didn’t make’, I think to myself, wondering if reading my manuscript helped to cement her decision. I mention my fear that readers may find my ideas dated. ‘No’, the editor says. ‘The manuscript reads freshly to me. I often found myself making comparisons with my own experience as a mother’. ‘That’s good’, I say, relieved.

 

‘Another thing sprang to mind while I was reading your manuscript’, the editor says. ‘I’ve only read it through once. But when I was reading it I found myself wondering whether you and your husband were still together. The way you write made me feel you might not be’. There is a pause. ‘Really?’ I reply. ‘Well actually we are, although I do see how you might think that. It might be because I tend to write about the parts of my life that I find tricky and that I need to understand through writing about them.’ Another pause. ‘Although if I’m honest I can also see that being close to my children has lead to less intimacy in my marriage. I guess some readers will judge me for this – I’m not looking forward to that bit. But I wanted to be true to my experience, in writing about it, and this has been my experience. On the other hand I’m married to someone who has allowed me to write about our marriage, which counts for something. Besides’, I add, ‘the last chapter makes it clear where my heart lies’. ‘Yes’, she replies, and we move on.

 

The first time my new editor uses the rewrite word I don’t pick up on it. But the second time she drops it in I can hear nothing else. ‘Is she serious? But I’ve done with this manuscript’, I think to myself. ‘Finished!’ Keen as I am to publish the manuscript that has been in and out of a drawer since my children were born, I don’t actually want to rewrite it. ‘Isn’t that your job?’ I feel tempted to ask my new editor. Except that I know I can’t ask this. I know that making my work publishable is as much my job as hers. And that for this to happen my new editor and I will be working on it together in the months ahead.

 

I brace myself to ask a last question. ‘Do you’, I hesitate, feeling a game of snakes and ladders in my stomach, ‘want me to rewrite the whole manuscript?’ ‘Yes and no,’ the editor replies with a laugh. ‘It’s more tightening that it needs. I think that if we think about it in terms of chapters, with each chapter a solid thing, and using your synopsis as a frame, that this next stage won’t be too overwhelming.’

 

Gulping yet wanting to stay upbeat I change the subject. ‘Do you think’, I ask, ‘that you will want to market the book as a memoir or self-help?’ ‘For me it’s a memoir’, she replies. ‘It’s about your struggle to come to grips with something that – while you don’t resolve it – the process of figuring it out in words allows you to grow from.’ ‘Sure, that sounds right’, I say, struck by the weirdness of my experience of motherhood being summed up in a sentence.

 

‘So does that mean the book will end up in the Biography section of the bookshop?’ ‘Well’, the editor replies, ‘when I ran a bookshop we had lots of books that didn’t fit into a particular section. For these books I created a section called ‘Madness’. I reckon yours would fit into that’. This time we both laugh. At which point her baby cries loud enough for us both to know that our phone call is at an end – and that once I receive her notes it will be up to me to respond to her feedback. To rewrite parts of A Slow Childhood that I’d thought, until twenty minutes ago, I’d left far behind.

letter to my father

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My daughter, who you never met but would I know like, is doing a project in English at school at the moment on the power of language. She holds out little hope that exploring what words can do will be of any great interest to her. This is because, as she likes to tell me, she is terrible at English.

 

So far this hasn’t stopped the two of us having long elaborate and sometimes painful conversations about growing up in my parked car, as we find a way through whatever it is in her life that currently preoccupies her – will her friends ever want to go on adventures, what will her life after school look like, what does it mean that her brother has gone to sea, what does fulfilment mean, and is she as clever as she sometimes feels or as stupid as her exam results tell her? The kinds of things that you were kind enough to talk through with me all those years ago, and that held me in good stead when you were gone.

 

Now of course I am grown up, or at least as grown up as you were when we talked about life on the darkened balcony of our beach house, with stars above and breaking waves below. Like me with my daughter, you never gave clear answers. But you were never afraid of my questions. And this meant such a lot to me.

 

In a way it seems silly that I am writing to you after such a long time. Although in another sense it seems remiss that, given how intimate you are to me, I haven’t kept in better contact. I could list straight away the things about my life I’m not terribly proud of, and that I feel you’d pick me up on. I am hopeless at keeping financial accounts! Why didn’t you push me on this more? And I often feel resentful in the kitchen in the hour before supper when I’m feeling tired and my family are squirrelled away doing something more pleasant than cooking or undoing the dishwasher.

 

I’m not sure why it comes to me now, but that afternoon you asked me, when I was nearing the end of schooldays, whether I would consider a future in the department store you were on the board of, I felt offended. How, I thought, could you think that I’d want to work in an airless building buying things that no-one really needed with just four weeks’ holiday a year? Looking back now I realise that you were testing the waters and that you were giving me the chance to consider a different kind of future. And not consigning me to a life of futile bulk buying.

 

I think I’m drawn to write to you now that thirty years have passed because my son, who you would also like, has just left on a long voyage. All the books that he was read aloud as a boy by his father led him to want something that he knew in his imagination was possible, yet barely dared hope for. And now he is doing the thing. He has stopped lying on his bed reading boat magazines and films on his phone and has found a ship that he wants to be on and that has a place for him. For my part I am wishing him well, all the while wishing that the tall ship he is on were thirty metres longer. As I imagine you, not a risk taker, would too.

 

My husband will soon be off on his own adventures. You would probably disapprove, but he has found that Italy speaks to him, and fosters his work, as deeply as a life at sea speaks to our son. And I am not stopping him. If he feels more European than Australian who am I to disagree? If his need to write undistracted is greater than anything else what can I do but respect this? He doesn’t go for that long, but it’s longer than a holiday and I have grown used to people’s reactions when they hear about his periods away.

 

This, my letter to you, is prompted by a deeper question which you wouldn’t have been able to answer but would have responded to. It’s a simple question. But stark too. When someone that I love goes away am I right to feel abandoned? The little girl in me, the bit that never grew up, just does feels abandoned whenever I’m left. It’s as if I’m powerless to feel otherwise. And yet even at the same time a more grown up part of me, the part that was good at English, understands that I can’t hang on to the people I love. I can’t stop them from wanting things that I can’t give them. I can’t shackle them to the spot in some eternal present, waiting for the next Christmas or for birthdays to come.

 

Besides I’ve also learnt, after many comings and goings, that when someone I love goes away a bit of space opens up that wasn’t there when they were around. Just enough space for me to start thinking about what else might be possible. There are, I now know, other people with whom I am happy. There are other people who need me – and not just my daughter. More than this, and this is harder to talk about, I have discovered that there are things I can only do when I’m not feeling quietly overwhelmed by the people I love most.

 

All those conversations in my parked car with my daughter brings me back to you. Just as when I talk with her, you didn’t have clear answers. And yet your comfort with my questions – my incessant why’s – always helped me through. I still don’t embrace change, any more than my daughter does. When our new neighbour sent a quote through yesterday, for a new fence between our gardens, all I could think of was the ivy and greenery that would be lost to her need for a cleaner division.

 

However over the years I have learned to bend rather than block. I have stopped trying to control my universe. I now accept something that you hinted at, which is that what we can bear is just as if not more important than anything we might want. And that bearing things well, without suffering them, is an art.

 

So here it is, my letter to you after all these years. Thank you for teaching me how to let go. And for showing me what words can do. And for being there. Hx

 

 

creative at home

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I grew up assuming that I would, if not change the world, make a significant impact on it. I set my sights on making a difference, on mattering in the minds of others. Forever one step ahead my ambitions kept me on my toes, restless, never quite settling in the moment. Now and then I’d listen out for my small still voice, but only in time off from study or work. With each passing year it was my work and goals that gave my life structure and meaning, and that drove me on.

 

Then I had two children whom I wanted more than anything to be around for. My world tilted. I was in this world to help them come into awareness, not to change it through making a difference. While existentially this was the right decision, in that it chimed with something deep in me, it was also a tough decision which led to quite a lot of anxiety and impatience. What was I to do with myself all that time that I was around for my family? How would it be to put my ambitions on hold while I encouraged my children to develop theirs?

 

Being around for my children in an open-ended way lasted about five minutes. I soon discovered that I was incapable of being there for them, selfless and loving, for any length of time. Right from the start I wanted something back from the time that we spent together. And I didn’t just want it, I needed it.

 

I’d always drawn and read in my spare time. I’d always taken a sketchbook on holiday. And I’d always enjoyed making things – that childlike part of myself had always been there for me. However before I had children I’d grown unused to her company, and it took a while to coax her back into the light.

 

It wasn’t just awkwardness before the blank page that held me back. The put-upon housekeeper side of myself was another bar. It was too easy, on a Saturday afternoon, to set up the craft things for my children and then pull out the vacuum cleaner for myself. It was simpler – it generated less resistance – to keep up with what needed doing at home than to make room for the looser, softer, playful sides of myself which took longer to access than the duster and broom.

 

Giving myself permission to push on creatively, knowing I couldn’t justify it in terms of my worldly ambitions, turned out to be just as much of an obstacle to expressing my creativity as finding time to sketch and cook and play the piano. While finding time was half the battle, overcoming my reluctance to get out my pencils, or find secateurs and head outside in search of flowers, was the other half.

 

I still cleaned the house. I still got satisfaction from keeping on top of housekeeping. However being house proud wasn’t, I realised, the only thing that mattered. It was up to me to carve out time to be creative. If only because those days when I did, those afternoons when I had enough time to do something creative, I always felt better for it, and so more pleasant to be around.

 

Often I have to be a little stern with myself to suspend the ‘this drawing is rubbish’ voice in my head, the voice that doesn’t give a jot for self-expression or personal satisfaction. It may not seem like it, from a younger way of seeing things, however I now accept that it takes courage and not just time to put the world at bay – even at home there is a world – for long enough to knit or draw. When I’m in the middle of a drawing it takes courage to override the voice in my head that would rather I brought in the washing than sketch in the shadows around the pear that I’m colouring as evening draws in.