HelenHayward

life writing

on needing to get away

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Not everyone feels a need to get away – from home, the people they love, housekeeping, work. I need it the same way I need food and sleep. When I don’t get it, I suffer, which is why I do just about anything to get it.

 

I am thin-skinned, and long since stopped wishing I was otherwise. For me, it’s like having brown eyes and a love of being outdoors. Sometimes I think that I started writing in order to secure time alone, to guarantee that at last some of my day would be given over to spinning out the thoughts inside my head.

 

This part of myself, that needs time alone to focus on the things I find important, hasn’t minded the recent social distancing measures. Not having to socialise, not being allowed to socialise, has been, yes, a relief.

 

I have a family at home, I am not alone. Perhaps I would tell a different story if I were. If anything, adjusting to the presence of four adults at home has heightened my need for time alone. Especially as one of them is currently at a loose end with her foot in a boot from an ankle injury.

 

I’ve liked knowing that I’m not missing out on anything, that there isn’t a party on around the corner to which I wasn’t invited. I’ve liked knowing that every night, after dinner, the four of us will play a game of some kind. This, more than anything, has helped hugely in the project of putting up with each other and bringing us out of ourselves for another night, rounding off the evening before we go our own ways.

 

I don’t want social distancing to last forever. It’s too queer for that. But it’s been interesting to notice what goes on being important even when so much has been put on hold. Trips to the beach with our dog. Surprise texts from friends. Good food at night. Piles of raked up leaves.

 

Will the changes I’ve made to adapt to this situation last? The blocked news sites on my computer, the radio that stays in the cupboard in the kitchen, the podcasts that go unlistened to?

 

What about all the things I promised myself that I would find time for during social distancing? The musical notes on the piano that I was determined to learn. The drawings that I promised myself I’d do every night before bed. The piecrust that I was keen to perfect. But then again, I haven’t caught up with all the movies I’ve missed on Netflix either, which must count for something.

 

I’ve enjoyed going to bed to read that much earlier than I ever did before. Each night I feel weirdly privileged to be able to do this. I like getting up in the morning, doing a bit of yoga, and taking our dog to the local beach. I’ve found real focus working at a picnic table at the local reservoir – sitting at tables that were there way before any pandemic but that I’d never thought to use. I’ve enjoyed getting to know my kids as adults – when they’re not teasing me, that is. Although, even this I know I’ll one day miss. It seems a blessing to have had this extra time with them.

 

When I was growing up, I was encouraged to choose a career that would lead me to be of service to others. And, for periods of my life I have done just that. However, these last few months have been a reminder of just how inessential the writing I currently do is to others. Society can get on quite well without me. I am not at the front line of anything. This is not a good or bad thing, it just is.

 

Three months ago, social distancing felt like a game. I didn’t like the rules of this game, but nor did I feel that it was my right to argue against them. Now that time has gone by and I’ve accepted the rules, I struggle to imagine my life without them. Have I grown used to the bars of my cage?

 

But I don’t think it’s that. It’s something very simple. I have enjoyed feeling less stressed these last few months. I like wearing fewer hats. I have just as much to do – I’ve never done more cooking, housekeeping and home psychotherapy – but I’ve had more time to do it in. The simplicity of paring things down suits me. Raking up piles of leaves because it’s autumn. Making chicken soup because it’s cold and wet. Hanging up washing because it’s sunny outside.

 

I feel nervous of returning to so-called normal life. I fear the return of things that I feel certain I should be doing. The emails I need to send, there are many of these. The people I imagine I owe something to. The work plans I need to make. The whole head trip, as one of my yoga teachers calls it.

 

I didn’t experience an enforced lockdown. I’ll be terrible at this, if I ever have to. Yet I have got something from this shake up. A feeling that perhaps what I have is enough. And this feels like a good thing to have realised.

my yoga philosophy class on zoom

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Most of my daylight hours, the weekend before Easter, were spent kneeling on two yoga blocks in front of a Zoom meeting discussing yoga philosophy – the third weekend of a yoga teacher training course that began before the coronavirus stopped just about everything. The morning class had started when I sent through a request to enter the meeting. I’d failed to do the class reading and was eating muesli as I scrambled to pull myself together before switching on the camera of my computer.

 

The yoga philosophy teacher, who I hadn’t met before, was explaining to our group of 24 students that the ideas which inform the practice of yoga are not philosophical in the Western sense. In yoga, she said, there is no mind-body split. All yogic knowledge is embodied knowledge. Because it’s experiential, it can’t be known abstractly. It can’t be held on to, only glimpsed. The aim of yoga, the smiling face on the screen was saying, is to smooth out our energy levels and so to manage the mind. My ears perked up. Manage my mind, I thought, how I’d like to be able to do that. But, the curly headed woman on the screen then said, as if she could hear me thinking, yoga practice isn’t aimed at managing the mind.

 

According to yogic thought, the teacher said, each of us is a spirit that, once born, comes into the material dimension. During childhood, our unlimited spirit becomes trapped by material conditioning (the food we eat, our parent’s values, our school friends). No matter how well-intended our parents, we become covered by an obscuring layer of dust that the practice of yoga seeks to lift. Through regular yoga practice, we free ourselves from ‘maya’, from illusions of the ego that form our greatest bondage. The transformation that occurs, via deep yoga practice, helps to realign us with our true nature. In this way, we recondition ourselves. And this in turn frees us to ask the most important question: What do I want to achieve in this lifetime?

 

Hmm, I thought, sipping green tea as I watched the teacher’s face on the computer screen. Half of my group, whose faces appeared like postage stamps along the top of the screen, nodded and gave a thumbs up.

 

Next, the teacher moved on to explain Raja yoga, the intellectual branch of Hatha yoga. In this practice, she said, there are no poses, just sitting, chanting and the reciting of sanskrit verses. I wriggled on my blocks, recalling the hour I’d spent chanting in the opening ceremony of our training, during which one foot had gone to sleep so badly that it was a struggle to get up to light a candle on the flowery altar. On returning to my seat in the circle, I’d looked across in wonder at the other cross-legged students who, eyes closed, seemed in a trance as they chanted a four-lined sanskrit verse 108 times. The sound of the mantra had not – as the philosophy teacher was explaining on Zoom – manifest its meaning in me during chanting. Perhaps I was too defended, I thought to myself, as I tried to get comfortable on my blocks.

 

The teacher moved on to the subject of memory. Your memory, she said, isn’t to be trusted. While every experience that we have becomes embedded in memory, these impressions – these samskaras – form a covering like dirt over us. Yoga, she said, aims to clean away this dirt and so to still the mind. There is no other aim in yoga. There is no religion, no dogma, no bible, no ethics, no single god. Instead, in the Indian yogi tradition, there are multiple texts and countless teachers. And all of them are valid.

 

Centuries ago, the teacher told us, Patanjhali wrote down what he called ‘complete instructions’ for yoga practice, from cleansing practices (like the nasal neti pot) to detailed instructions for the asanas, or postures. But however demanding crow pose may be for you, the teacher said, it’s significantly easier to get into a yoga posture, than it is to change the workings of your mind. The aim of yoga, the smiling face on the screen said, is not to tighten pelvic floor muscles, but to clear away mental clutter to allow prolonged periods of meditation.

 

Oh great, I thought. That means that for the 20 years I’ve been doing yoga, I’ve been doing it for the wrong reasons. I’ve doing yoga to stretch my body, not to prepare myself for meditation. I’ve being doing yoga to ease my anxiety about life, not to achieve a higher state of consciousness.

 

The teacher continued. Clearly there was still a lot of material to get through. I wriggled on my block and tipped the last drops of tea from the pot into my mug. The aim of yoga, the teacher said, is to block the mind, by consciously stopping those mental activities that are identified with the external world (reactive thoughts, complaints, rumination, excitement). The aim of yoga practice is to create a state of mind that doesn’t fluctuate, that doesn’t go up and down, that is at peace with itself. Yes, I thought to myself, catching myself nodding on the screen, that sounds nice.

 

So, the teacher said, this week your homework will be to observe the workings of your mind. Even one minute of total awareness, she said, will be an achievement. Fifteen minutes, for a beginner, would be amazing. During these periods of awareness, I want you to step back from your assumptions, even to catch yourself before they happen. I want you to avoid the head trips that we all make, the inner chit-chat, the making mountains out of molehills, and our reflex criticism of others. I want you to stop all the unreality that washes through our heads on an hourly basis. Lastly, the teacher said brightly, I want you to journal about this experience in long-hand, take a photo of your page and email it through to me.

 

If you can achieve this, the teacher said, if you can sit back and observe the workings of your mind, you’ll be in a position to do every other thing that a yoga training demands of you. Quite apart from smoothing your relationship to every person you know.

 

Is this clear? asked the yoga teacher. Are there any questions?

yoga

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I do yoga to smooth my rough edges, to help me feel at one with the way my life is, to give me permission to write, to give me perspective on family life, to strengthen my core and my lower back. I’ve been doing yoga for these reasons and more for over 20 years, never with a view to taking my practice further.

 

Until last weekend, when I started a yoga teacher training course. Applying for the course, four months ago, I felt confident that a training would challenge me in good ways. It would push me into the next phase of my life, whatever that would be, give me a break from the toils of writing, and fill the hole left by the departure of my kids. That was four months ago. Looking round today, there are no empty holes in need of filling, no windy spaces. My life is just as busy as it ever was, plus yoga course requirements to complicate my days.

 

Over and above the other things that I do to stay sane and to keep the wheels of my life turning, I now meditate for ten minutes each afternoon. I do 10 minutes of yoga most mornings. I attend two yoga classes a week. I sit in on other yoga classes and take notes on the way the teacher cues and sequences, sitting on a bolster in the back of the room.

 

Already I feel differently about the yoga poses – 84 asanas with Indian names to memorise – than I did a week ago, when I went to yoga to let the steam out of the top of my head, so to speak. Back then I went to yoga just for myself, to zone out in a way that made me brave for the rest of the day. Whereas now I’m doing yoga – if I pass the course – to be of service to others, or so my teacher tells us.

 

Doing surfer’s pose in class this morning, struggling to move from squatting into one knee then over to the other without putting my hand on the floor, I gave up my wish to be a yoga teacher. Squatting on my blue mat at the back of the room, my usual spot, I realised that my need to do yoga for my own peace of mind and core strength, was greater than my desire to become a yoga teacher. I knew, in that moment, that I didn’t want to have to care about how my asana looked in the mirror of the studio’s hot room, a room that I usually avoid for the searing heat which reminds me of hot summers from childhood. Nor I did I want to turn yoga into an asset on my cv, when really I needed yoga for my sanity and flexibility.

 

There’s another reason why I gave up my wish to be a yoga teacher this morning. I gave it up because I didn’t want to be the course contrarian. I didn’t want to be the ‘yes but’ older student at the back of the room. I didn’t want to spend the next three months of a 200-hour weekend course comparing myself to other students. I didn’t want to catch myself entertaining the thought that, at a pinch, I’m similar in age to some of the other students’ mothers. I didn’t want to be thinking critically, when I should be meditating, about the naivety of some of the group’s ‘shares’, and so feeling emotionally grubby.

 

What, then, do I want from a yoga teacher training course? I want to challenge myself and to see where this leads me. I want the course to complement the life that I’m leading, rather than to transform my life it into something newer and better. I want to develop curiosity for my practice, to enhance it from within rather than correct it from without. Ultimately I want to find out if the mind really does follow the body, rather than the other way round, which is what my education up till now had me believe.

 

It’s great to have more knowledge about a practice that I care about. However, I’m not looking for a guru. I didn’t apply to the course in a sideways plea for therapy. I’ll never fly to India to sit at the feet of a smiling, jiggly-headed yogi for a month-long intensive. Nor will I buy a big wardrobe of Lululemon leggings and tops. I don’t even want a new yoga family – right at the moment, one family seems plenty to be getting on with.

 

I’ve come full circle, back to my original desire, the one that got me over the line when I applied for the teacher training in the first place. Curiosity. It’s that simple. ‘Don’t overthink it’, says my daughter, when I try to describe my mixed reaction to starting the yoga course. Perhaps now I won’t.

learning to draw

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Ted, the course coordinator, wore a white linen shirt over blue jeans. Fifteen prospective students, including myself, stood in a loose group in the drawing studio, one floor up from the footpath. ‘This course’, said Ted, ‘is going to change your life. By the end of the first semester, you’ll be looking at the world differently. Even looking out the window, you’ll be looking through it as an artist. But don’t come expecting a holiday. Don’t come treating it as a break from work. You’ll be working harder here than you’ve ever worked before. And it won’t just be drawing, in the way you’ve done up till now. You’ll be taking photos. You’ll be going to exhibitions and reporting critically on them after. You’ll be completing assignments late at night, or on Sundays when you’d rather be at the beach. And in this way, week after week, you’ll be training your eye to see the world as it really is, and not as you want it to be.’

 

I stared out the arched window at the footpath below, and then back at the group. ‘I can guess what you’re thinking’, said Ted said. ‘How can a three-day-a-week course in drawing take over your life?’ He looked across at Julie, the other teacher on the course. Julie laughed. ‘Look’, he said, ‘this course used to be run as your typical adult education course. Classes were held mainly at night. There was no formal assessment. There was no expectation that students would return for a second year. But we’ve changed all that. These days, unless you’re in the running to become an artist, you won’t get a place on this course. Your place will go to someone who is ready to make a move into the art world. There just isn’t enough room, on this course, for hobby artists. This course is about training your eye in a way of looking at the world that will make everything in your life, so far, fall into place’. His blue eyes darting, Ted looked from one applicant to another, making sure of our attention.

 

‘Any questions?’ he asked. One woman asked a question about the portfolio required for the interviews, to be held over the next few days. Another asked about fees, and another about electives. I asked whether it was possible to do the course over two days, rather than three, and Ted frowned his reply. Then he clapped his hands to signal the end of the meeting. ‘See you at your interview’, said Ted, and left the studio with Julie.

 

Two days later, at my interview, Ted flipped through my sketchbook. ‘And did you do all these drawings at the same time?’ he asked. ‘No’, I said. ‘The main ones were done over a couple of years, with the bulk done during my recovery from illness in my late 20s’. ‘Sure’, he said. ‘Who is this?’ he asked, stopping at a line portrait drawn from a photo. ‘That’s Robert Lowell, an American poet’.

 

Ted snapped the sketchbook shut. ‘Look’, he said. ‘Your drawing is fine. It’s your dedication to the course that I’m worried about. You asked, at the end of the introductory meeting, about doing the course over two days a week. What’s all that about?’ ‘Well’, I said. ‘I was hoping to keep my writing projects alive, alongside the drawing course’. ‘Oh’, interrupted Ted. ‘That’s not going to work. We need total loyalty here, total commitment’. He tapped the table with his finger of his left hand and jotted a note on his pad with his right. ‘This course runs over three days. But really it’s a full-time commitment. Otherwise’, he repeated, drumming his long fingers on the table, ‘it’s just not going to work’.

 

‘Ok’, I said, ‘I hear you. I’m willing to commit. I do see your point. I’ll have to make arrangements for my puppy, but I can do the three days. The writing can wait. I’ve always wanted to draw properly and now, with my daughter away, I can do it’. ‘Right oh’, said Ted, ‘we’ll be in touch with an answer by the end of this week’.

 

The street looked different to the street that I’d left an hour before, as I rushed into the art school for my interview. If I got a place on the course, I thought to myself, there’d be no more morning yoga and there’d be less time for housekeeping. If I was organised before, now I’d have to be super organised. But it would be worth it. I would be doing what I’d always secretly wanted to do. Only now it wouldn’t be secret.

 

When I got home, I went straight into the garden and started cutting back plants. When it started spitting with rain, even the dog took refuge inside. ‘Are you sure you should be cutting those plants back as hard as that?’ asked my daughter, appearing at the back door with a worried look. ‘Sure’, I said. ‘I asked a gardening friend, who said that these respond well to being cut back’. By the time I’d finished gardening, the bricks below the side bed were carpeted with green. I was wet with sweat and rain.

 

My world was about to change and I felt free. I was reinventing myself, following my own lead. My daughter was leaving home for college. But I wouldn’t miss her because my days would be busy just keeping up with my commitments, and seeing the world through artist’s eyes.

 

‘Dear Helen’, the email began. It was a no from Ted, the course coordinator. The course, he explained, was oversubscribed and they were unable to offer me a place. Would I like to apply again the following year, once I’d spent more time drawing and was ready to commit fully to the course?

 

I knew, from the email in front of me, that two-thirds of the applicants for the course hadn’t got a place. But in my heart the rejection felt personal. I had paid a price for being cocky. I’d mentioned my PhD and three books. ‘Big deal’, the rejection email said to me. ‘We don’t care about any of that.’ I felt clumsy, naïve. I had misjudged. I was keen to work in a drawing studio. I dearly wanted some instruction. But I’d been vain in thinking that Ted and Julie would want me over other applicants. I had other opportunities, as the rejection letter politely suggested. Why should an oversubscribed art department offer me another?

 

I looked up from the computer, away from the unwelcome email. I’d been shown up as the self-centred dilletante that I really was. I’d been seen through. The side garden that, five days before, I’d tamed in the rain, now looked hacked at, messed about with. Why couldn’t I do anything properly? Why was I forever making things up as I went along? Would it always be this way?

 

My daughter, already practised in missing out on things, having recently left school, gave me a hug. ‘It’s nothing to do with you’, she said. ‘You’re just a name on a list’. Perhaps she was right, I thought. But in the days after I made up my own story. I’d been passed over because I wasn’t serious about art. And possibly for another reason. The course coordinator, on hearing me say that I wanted to write about my experience of being a student again, had arched ever so slightly. Why, I imagined him asking himself, would he want to be described in his crisp white shirt by a middle-aged female student keen to reinvent herself through art?

 

Then again, from Ted’s point of view, I could be seen as a financial risk. Perhaps the government would give his department a smaller subsidy for my place, than if they gave a place to someone on a welfare benefit. Perhaps my daughter was right. I was just a name on a list and it was a numbers game.

 

For a few weeks I didn’t pick up a pencil to draw. It wasn’t a decision that I made. I just didn’t get round to it. Was I proving Ted right, that I wasn’t dedicated to art? Perhaps. But the conflict felt bigger, and possibly simpler, than this. I had applied to the drawing course to take my drawing to the next level, not to become an artist. I was fine with my identity as it was. I didn’t want my view of the world transformed. I didn’t want to take on the mantle of the artist. Writing was hard enough, why choose something even harder? I didn’t draw because I was cross with Ted for telling me that I had to become an artist if I wanted to learn to draw.

 

Until one morning I visited the local art shop and sketched my story about the drawing course to the woman at the till, who was supporting her own creative practice by working weekends at the art shop. ‘I wouldn’t worry’, she said. ‘That course has changed a lot. Just get back to your own drawing’. ‘I was thinking’, I said, ‘of doing a drawing a day, and of going from there. Only I don’t want to make it into a chore, into something I have to do, to tick off a list’. ‘Yes’, she said, ‘of course you don’t. What about if you take a small pad? That way you can do a drawing most nights, as a way of unwinding, and look forward to it during the day’. ‘Okay’, I said, ‘that sounds good. What about if, in a couple of months, I come back and show you what I’ve done?’ ‘I would like that’, said the woman, smiling.

 

It was a hot day and I was glad to leave my dog in the car in the garage next to the art shop. An hour and a half later, I returned to the car to find the garage door pulled down. Knowing that my dog was locked in the car in a garage which wouldn’t open until Monday morning, I panicked. As I was speaking to the after-hours security, agreeing a sizeable call-out fee, the woman who’d served me in the art shop appeared jangling a set of keys. Her face was red. ‘I only stayed back’, she said, with quiet fury, ‘because I saw a dog in the car’. ‘I’m really sorry’, I said. But it made no difference. The woman was fuming. ‘There are so many things that I have to do this afternoon’, the woman said, fumbling with the keys in the roller door. I said nothing in my defence. I had no defence. I had used the art shop car park while I went to a shoe shop – I had a shoe box under my arm – and then to a bookshop. ‘Oh God, I do apologise’, I said, trying a second time. ‘And you were so kind to me this morning’. But it was no good, the woman still frowned. And so I jumped into my car and drove away, as if from the scene of a crime.

 

After a week or so, I took the small drawing pad out of the cupboard. My daughter was away and there was a gap to fill, which was just the right size for drawing in. I lit an oil burner and dimmed the lights. But no music. The quiet was better for drawing. I put the flowers that I’d picked out walking the dog before dinner under the arc table lamp of the kitchen table.

 

It was the same the next night. I waited until after dinner and the house was quiet. I put whatever I was going to draw – usually flowers, but not always – under the lamp that pooled light on the table. Then I’d just look at the plant, fiercely at first, until I decided which part of the plant – or object – to draw. Sitting there, in the quiet, it became obvious which part of the plant I’d focus on. Like cropping a photo, I left out most of what I could see and focused on just a small area.

 

Once I started drawing, that small cropped area came alive. Details of foliage and shadow, of colour and depth, that I spent my days brushing past, as I headed for the fridge, now spoke to me. Head down, a clutch of coloured pencils in my left hand as I drew with my right, I let the drawing become my world. I focused on the plant, not on the page. As I drew, I was struck by the strangeness of nature, the peculiar shape of a flower, in a more concentrated way than was possible when I brushed past the plant out walking my dog. I never looked at my watch when I drew, so I don’t know how much time went by. I tried not to stop drawing to look at my drawing critically. And I was always glad that my pad was small so that I could finish my drawing in one go.

 

Every time I started drawing it was the same. There was a hump that I had to get over before I got into it. I never started out feeling confident. It was more curiosity that drew me in. Curiosity for the plant I was drawing, which I’d never looked at properly, and for the drawing that might come out of my staring at the plant hard enough. And though I never truly captured what was in front of me, I did capture something else, a glancing likeness that satisfied me.

 

on caring about things I don’t care about

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On Monday afternoon, a public holiday, I made a swoop on my wardrobe, removed eight unsuspecting garments and took them straight out to my car where I laid them on the back seat. Perhaps I’d have worn these clothes again. Perhaps I’ll regret my impulse. However having wriggle room in my wardrobe seemed worth the risk of any future regret. Having enough space between the hangers to be able to push clothes across the bar to slot in a jacket without squashing flat the clothes either side of it, seemed a privilege.

 

Someone else might not care about an overfilled wardrobe. Personally, I’d like to be the kind of person who is above caring about such things. The kind of person who doesn’t notice when their barbecue stops working. The kind of person who shoves overdue library books to the back of a cupboard, and who keeps on using their dishwasher even after noticing that the catch is missing on the arm on the floor of the machine. Instead, I am the kind of person who is unable to receive email on her phone because, on New Year’s morning, I removed the email app from my phone to free up space in my mind. Which was all very well, until yesterday, when I realised that without email on my phone boarding a plane this weekend would prove tricky.

 

We’re supposed not to care about the little things, the trivial things which stop us from concentrating on more important things. My husband is particularly good at this, at compartmentalising. He can shut out everything from his mind, bar toothache, in order to focus on a work deadline. Sadly this skill eludes me.

 

Whenever I edit a manuscript, I use an orange pen to make corrections. I find the orange colour satisfying against the black typeface, and enjoy making messy notes in the margins. When I work in a cafe, which I often do in the morning, I’ve learned to keep my diary in my bag so that I can jot down things that I need to do once I get home – emails, errands, chores. Writing these things down really works for me. I can note them down, knowing they are safe in my diary, and then return my thoughts to work. However, lately my resolve has loosened. There are just too many orange notes in my diary. And so, instead of concentrating on work, my mind strays to the plants I’ve left to dry out in their pots, the household budget I’ve promised myself to start, the barbecue that isn’t working properly and the broken dishwasher arm that needs replacing.

 

Try as I might, I’ve never managed to get interested in the workings of our domestic appliances. I know how to unclog the drains of our dishwasher and washing machines, simply because I find it agony waiting for a technician to come and fix them for me. However my relation to our barbecue has always been fraught. I love it when I can put kebabs on its hotplate and go off for a walk and return home to a cool kitchen. But I hate cleaning the hotplate and find the gas canister annoying. Is it about to run out? Why is it so hard to connect?

 

I know it’s ridiculous to be complaining about domestic appliances. It isn’t a serious problem. (Australia is burning, I know.) My barbecue problem is a first world hassle. Except, what if my reluctance to get our barbecue and dishwasher fixed is in some way linked to society’s neglect of the planet? What if I’m among a whole generation of people who would prefer to chuck their broken barbecue, or go without one, rather than drive to an out-of-town outdoors store to get it fixed? What if I’m one of many who doesn’t want the hassle of taking a photo of their offending dishwasher part before contacting the distributor to replace it? What if I choose not to care?

 

On Monday afternoon, after putting in my car the clothes that I didn’t want because I wanted space in my wardrobe more, I disconnected the barbecue and put it and the empty gas canister into the boot. Then I gathered a stack of library books and put them in a bag on the front seat. Next it was a bag of glass bottles and jars to take to the health-food shop for reuse, and a third bag of clean plastics for recycling. I even got the mascara wand that MAC cosmetics claims to recycle, and slipped it in my yoga bag, so that, after class the next morning, I could visit the department store to exchange my mascara wand for a new one, and then on to the phone shop to reinstall the email app on my phone.

 

These things are trivial. Of course they are. Ultimately I don’t give a damn about any of them. And yet things like these prey on me. Because if I don’t care about recycling beauty products, I say to myself, why should anyone else care about them either? And since I don’t want to live in a world in which no-one cares about the life cycle of plastics, the next morning I take my mascara wand back to the cosmetics lady who gives me a stamp on a card which – after five more stamps – will result in a free mascara wand. Oh joy. And the barbecue, I find out after driving out of town and returning home again, requires no more than a $3 cap – plus two 40-minute return trips to drop it off yesterday and pick it up today.

 

‘Good’, I read somewhere last week, ‘is the overcoming of inertia’. This seems right to me. Goodness isn’t about not sinning. It’s about getting over the hump of my own reluctance to do those things that make a difference to my life, and that of others. It’s about having the kind of energy that allows me to tick off tasks that unconsciously I don’t care about but consciously do care about – damn it.

 

Now all I have to do is attach the gas canister to the barbecue and put six sausages and three potatoes, cut into wedges, on to the hotplate before walking the dog before dinner. No worries!

too many holidays

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This may sound like humbug. It is humbug. But the fact is that I didn’t want all the holidays thrown my way over the Christmas and New Year period. Christmas Day itself was nice, special even. Boxing Day was good too. But the week between Boxing Day and New Year seemed to go on and on until I had no idea what day it was. After which, because New Year’s Day fell on a Wednesday, most things in our city – department stores excepted – were closed till the following Monday.

 

Admittedly I don’t work full time in an office 40 weeks a year. If I did, I’d be only too happy to have a chunk of time off at the end of the year. I’d consider it my right. The other thing that makes me a bit of an exception is that my family lives interstate and I choose not to visit them over Christmas, finding it hot and stressy there at that time. Still, I figure I’m not the only one who loves their work and who feels that public holidays are thrust on them willy-nilly, whether it suits them or not. I can’t be the only one to find a dead quiet city at a festive time of year a little eery, especially when the period is overlaid with scary bushfires on the mainland. I can’t be the only one who, working creatively, misses the comfort of routine and feels disconcerted when it’s taken away with the unspoken mandate to ‘have a good time’ for 12 days straight.

 

Sandor Ferenczi, an Austrian psychoanalyst and colleague of Sigmund Freud, once wrote a paper called ‘Sunday Neurosis’ in which he described a surge in neurotic conflict in patients who didn’t know what to do with themselves on Sunday afternoons. Like those patients, my unconscious seems to go into overdrive when I’m forced to stop working in order to take an extended holiday without actually going anywhere. ‘Why don’t you go camping?’ says my daughter, rolling her eyes, as if not wanting to strike out into the wilderness with a tent is a sign of senility. But I don’t want to go camping. I do however go hell for leather emptying out cupboards on a couple of hot days, and feel pleasantly satisfied with my efforts.

 

People like to say that their family drives them nuts over the Christmas period. But what if, like me, you experience all the unconscious activity of the festive season bubbling up inside without an extended family to project it on to – to blame it on? Instead of sitting round eating mince pies and chalking up my achievements for the year, there were times during this period when I found myself mired in self-doubt and other unpleasant feelings. Even the yoga studio was closed, so there was no relief there either.

 

As it turned out, the dog beach was my salvation. Every morning I went along with my Labrador puppy. Often I’d hit the sand feeling a bit resentful at having to exercise my dog, knowing no-one else in my family would. Yet every day I left the beach thankful of it. The chance encounters with dog owners. The sheer beauty of the sea and sand, quietly stunning. Even the blessed routine of being there.

 

On New Years Day the smoke was thick when we arrived at the beach. The sky was smudged brown and red. The wind was angry and blustery. Ash was flying about, just in case the apocalyptic tinge escaped anyone. But a dog is a dog. And a dog knows nothing of public holidays or bushfires.

 

I never completely relax on the dog beach. I am ever alert to what my puppy might do. At any moment he may veer off in a circular sprint that takes in the sand hills. He may bite the collar of or, his favourite, the harness of another dog. He might even swallow another dog’s poo, my personal detestation. Generally he doesn’t do any of these things. Mostly he trots alongside, comes when I call, and then careers up the beach at the sight of the next interesting looking dog.

 

On New Year’s Day, a guy who has taken to building a cairn of stones on a rocky outcrop on the dog beach, did himself proud with an arc of stones. As soon as I saw it I read it as a sign of hope for a new decade, silently defying the smoky skies. Things are bad right now, said the stack of stones. But they’ll get better. Just you see.

 

By the time my dog and I left the beach that day, just as the stones had suggested, the wind changed and the smoke lifted. Life seemed possible again. Mankind hadn’t wrecked the planet, yet. There was still a window of clear skies in which to put things right. There is a still a window of clear skies in which to put things right. Let’s hope enough people are listening.

on having enough time

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I thought I knew myself pretty well. But then, three months ago, my daughter went overseas and I discovered that I didn’t. Having spent 22 years being an active mother, I knew myself mainly in relation to family. Writing and teaching took me away from family. But never very far. As soon as the school phoned up, or one of my kids were sick, there I was, on call. There was a comfortable familiarity that went with this. I liked knowing that I was needed, that I was making a difference to the family I loved. I didn’t mind my day being structured around the needs of others. There were times when I moaned about this. But I liked the way it took me outside myself and into the world of others.

 

I’d known for a while that my daughter wanted to travel. I knew that she needed to prove her independence. I wanted this for her too. But until farewelling her at the airport, I didn’t believe that she could leave without a backward glance. My son had travelled for three years, so I understood what her absence would mean intellectually. My husband traveled regularly too, something I’d accepted as part of the order of things. But the absence of my daughter, with whom I’d spent way more time than I had my husband or son, was harder to absorb.

 

I thought I would hate the late afternoons, when my daughter and I normally walked the dog. But within a few days of her being gone, I realised that it was something else I felt. It was a kind of wonder. Now it was just my husband and dog who needed me. However their need for me felt less continuous than my daughter’s had felt. My husband and my dog weren’t emotionally present to me when they were elsewhere, as my daughter until that point had been. I didn’t feel beholden to them in the same way. Besides, my husband worked insanely hard and my dog was a puppy with needs I’d long known I couldn’t meet.

 

Feeling off the hook, as a mother, was another thing entirely. It took me a few weeks to register the difference. For the first time I could remember, there seemed enough hours in the day. I still ran out of time. I still had the feeling that I couldn’t fit everything in. Supper was inevitably late. However I had an increasing sense that things were, to a greater extent than before, up to me. I could now do things that just hadn’t been possible when family concerns had washed through my mind, like the extended drying cycle on the clothes drier.

 

I thought I’d feel adrift, lonely. Actually, at certain points I did feel lonely, achingly so. But I also felt moments of exhilarating freedom. The flip side of loneliness, I discovered, was freedom. And I could only access the freedom that I’d been longing for without knowing I’d been longing for it, by enduring some loneliness. This loneliness didn’t hurt. It wasn’t painful. But it did feel strange, to be on my own without a child to look after. It was almost unearthly, the way loneliness sprang on me when I least expected it, and left no mark.

 

Eventually I realised that loneliness had something to teach me. Either I could babysit myself, by filling up the windy spaces with podcasts, on-line news and trips to the cinema. Or I could flick shut my laptop and work out what I really wanted to do with the new bits of time that life had afforded me. If I so chose, I could pick up interests that were but faint memories, glowing embers. Initially this was uncomfortable. I’d sit at the piano and feel like a 7-year-old practicing my scales before dinner. I’d do a drawing and become self-critical of my efforts. I spend time in the garden, distracted by all the other things I should be doing.

 

After a few weeks I relaxed, realising that I had two and a half months of aloneness ahead of me. My daughter wasn’t gone for good, this time at least. Yet I knew that one day, any day, her absence would be permanent. On that day my daughter would move out of home and into her own orbit. These three months, then, were my trial run. A chance to be the centre of my own universe. What was I to do with it? Would it be an opportunity or a curse? Was it the beginning of the end, of everything-is-downhill-from-here? Or was it the beginning of something that as yet I had no words for, something that I’d been longing for without knowing it?

 

I tell you what I did. I went to the newsagent and bought an A2 sheet of cardboard and a packet of star stickers in five colours. On the cardboard I drew, in pencil without a ruler, a 6-week calendar – which I’d read somewhere is the length of time needed to create a new habit. In each square of the calendar, at the end of each day, I stuck a star for each time I did morning yoga, practised sight reading at the piano, and did a drawing after dinner. It sounds childish. It is childish. But mostly it worked. I needed an external marker for my efforts, to help me over the hump I had to overcome when faced with activities that I wanted to do, but didn’t have to do. Easing into a distraction was eternally easier than getting myself to play the piano, or to sew. Who would have thought that it could be so hard to sit down on a piano stool or to take out a pad of paper and pencils after dinner? Doing yoga, thankfully, was a little easier, perhaps because I’d been doing this for longer and so resisted it less.

 

My daughter has been back for five days now, and the squares on my star chart for these five days are empty. She, of course, laughs at my star chart. In the most natural way, she plonks her I-am-the-centre-of-the-universe way of being into the middle of my mind. I can no more ignore her presence than the surf wax, leg ropes, wet suits and shells that are strewn through my previously tidy house. Meanwhile my husband goes about his work, barely affected by her return. And the dog accepts her back as if she left the house the day before yesterday. I, meanwhile, am no longer lonely. But I’m not free either. Time I got back to putting some stars on that chart.

too much pleasure

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The front door clicked shut. Standing in front of my laptop at the kitchen table, a new habit of mine, I sank into a piece of writing.

Ten minutes later, my phone rang.

‘Did you get cheese for tonight?’ Paul asked. To anyone else, this question would be innocent. Only Paul and I had been together for 30 years, and we left innocence behind long ago.

‘Actually’, I said, ‘I thought I’d serve dessert instead of cheese this time.’

‘Couldn’t we have both?’ Paul asked, with annoyance in his voice. ‘Or would that cause too much pleasure?’

For a few seconds neither of us spoke.

‘Tell me’, asked Paul, ‘what exactly is the problem with having cheese?’

‘Well’, I said, sounding defensive, ‘I was trying to keep the food simple. You know me.’ I waited for Paul to reply. When he didn’t, I tried again. ‘I wasn’t sure if we’d have enough plates and cutlery and would rather not have to wash up between courses. Besides I’ve already got dessert, won’t that be enough?’

The phone went dead.

I gazed out the kitchen window, shrugged inwardly, and tried to get back to my work.

 

*     *     *

 

‘I just want to make myself some lunch’, said Paul, coming into the kitchen 15 minutes later. ‘Of course’, I said, moving my papers off the kitchen table. But even in my study I couldn’t think straight, and went back into the kitchen.

‘I guess’, I said. ‘I guess I’d hoped that the counselling we’re doing might help us see tensions like these differently. Rather than fatal, perhaps they’re inevitable. I don’t know’, I said, waiting for a response, ‘they might even be interesting.’

‘You’ve got to be kidding’, said Paul, on the edge of shouting. ‘I have zero interest in conflicts like these. Look’, he said, exasperated. ‘It’s my birthday. I just want to have a nice day and get some work done before tonight.’

‘I know’, I said. ‘Of course. Except it’s on your birthday that this often comes up. Wouldn’t it be better to talk about it now, than risk it blowing up just before friends arrive tonight?’

‘I’m really not interested in discussing it’, said Paul, shouting now. ‘I feel like you’re setting me up to look bad. And it’s only with you that I’m like this.’

‘I’m sorry’, said, trying not to frown. ‘But we’re married and we just do impact on each other in ways we can’t fix’.

‘Oh, this is so boring!’ exploded Paul, peering into the saucepan to check if the water was boiling.

I left the room. Five minutes later I returned. Paul was eating large pockets of ravioli, smearing them with butter as he ate. I felt hungry. Had I come back, his glance asked, to spoil his lunch? I opened the door to go out and then closed it again.

‘Can’t we do better than this?’ I asked. ‘We only have one life and I don’t care if you hate me sometimes. I know I can be annoying. I know you think that I spoil your pleasure and make you feel complicated about yourself. But can’t we get beyond that? I know you think I don’t do indulgence very well. That I care too much about health. But so what? We already know this. Is this what really matters? Can’t it be something that we accept and move on from? I can’t make that part of myself go away, any more than you can make the pleasure loving part of yourself go away.’

There was a brief silence.

‘Maybe we’re not very well suited’, suggested Paul flatly.

‘But we already know that’, I said, impatient. ‘Of course it would be good to be better suited. But I don’t care that much that we’re not. Isn’t our life together more important than our differences? For me, our efforts to get on with each other are valuable because it’s so not easy’.

Paul put his plate in the sink.

‘Perhaps we’re both nervous’, I offered.

‘I’m not’, he said. ‘I’m excited about tonight. At least, I was until 30 minutes ago’.

‘Ok’, I said, looking at my watch, ‘good for you’, and grabbed my car keys and headed out the front door.

*     *     *

The dinner went well. None of the friends who came would have guessed that Paul and I had shouted at each other in the kitchen earlier that day. One friend arrived early to help in the kitchen, which meant that I could leave the pans on the hob and change my clothes, without burning the food. By the time I got the main course on the table, the food was a little cold, because I couldn’t think of a way of keeping the meal hot until we were ready to eat it, without turning off the oven. But no-one seemed to mind. John served a cheese course. A friend insisted on lighting candles with dessert and singing happy birthday. The conversation round the table broke up into groups and everyone seemed to have their say. I cleaned up in the kitchen as the dinner went along, with intermittent breaks in the kitchen with the dog, which meant I didn’t feel overwhelmed by mess when the front door closed for the last time. Paul drank too much but not too too much and was genuinely funny, in a way he loves to be, towards midnight. And this morning we got some genuinely appreciative texts from friends.

you can never get enough of something that’s not quite enough

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Early evening, when I have nothing else on and have housekeeping to do, I’ll click on The Guardian and The New York Times websites. I’ll just read a few stories, I tell myself, before getting on with emails, housework and cooking – and whatever else I should be doing. I deserve a break, I tell myself. And I’m curious at what has happened outside my tiny bubble during the day. I might stop scrolling for a moment, to drain overcooked rice, or to feed the dog. But for up to an hour, most evenings, I’ll stand at the kitchen bench, clicking on news stories. It’s my new bad habit.

 

I know that it’s impossible to get enough of something that’s not quite enough. I know this because last night I read Tristan Harris’s talk about tech addiction. However, early evening, night after night, I act as if I don’t know this. My addiction isn’t a vice, I say to myself. It doesn’t harm any organ of my body. Unless, that is, my soul is an organ.

 

Initially, scrolling through news sites, I feel pure escape. What, I wonder, has the rest of the world been up to, while I’ve been writing and housekeeping and walking the dog? Within seconds, I’m immersed in stories about people I’ll never meet, in places I’m unlikely to visit. Yet this scrolling, reading, and scrolling some more, is oddly stressful. It’s not one bit relaxing. Last night, I oggled at the fleshy chins on Prince Andrew, pondering all that privilege gone wrong. I asked myself what the Hong Kong riots were really, deeply, about. I ached at climate events – at the description of a man who, facing a galloping bushfire, threw himself on the ground in the dirt until it passed.

 

After ten minutes, which feel like three, of reading in this way, I could feel myself wearying of a world that was so messed up that even the headlines made my stomach churn. However beautifully the NYTimes journalists wrote, ultimately they, and I, were part of the same problem. We were all part of the spider’s web that had me scrolling at the kitchen table, rather gardening or housekeeping or walking the dog. We were all part of a problem which appeals to a baseness in our nature. The websites were designed to encourage me to click on stories despite myself, and then come back for more, never quite satisfied. Stories that made me feel grubby, scratching me in ways that left me thinking less of myself for engaging with them.

 

But the real question was more confronting, more intimate. If I didn’t give away this hour, early evening, to engrossing journalism, what else might I do with it? With both of my kids away, I face a strange, new vacuum at the end of my day. After 22 years of juggling homework, activities and the prepping of food, now there’s a lull early evening.

 

I deserve this time, I tell myself. I’ve worked hard for it. I’ve longed for it. And there are nights when do I love it, relish it. But other nights it comes on me unawares, stalking me into darkness. It leaves me at a loose end. It feels all wrong. Where, I ask the dog, is everyone? Why is it so quiet?

 

Last night, by the time night fell, inky black staring through the windows where the garden had just been, I’d given up trying to make something of the hour before dinner. I may as well read a few more stories, I told myself, before walking the dog round the block. Just one more story, I said to myself. ‘Oh yeah’, I heard my soul reply.

 

As if under a spell, I leaned on the kitchen table, reading beautifully edited, often thoughtful news stories. As I read, the world around me expanded and shrank. I didn’t sit down. Because this would mean admitting an intention which I wouldn’t allow myself. For I knew that I had better – or just other – things to be doing. Just as I knew, deep in myself, that I could never get enough of something that wasn’t quite enough. But, then again, nor did I feel lonely.

 

The dog settled patiently on the rug, waiting, as he does every night, for my daughter’s return from Africa. Until, hearing him sigh, I clapped the laptop shut. I felt cross with myself at having thrown away an hour of my life to on-line what ifs. Poof! Gone, just like that. In 15 minutes’ time, my husband would come into the kitchen expecting dinner – thankfully I’d cooked the rice and prepped the meat. Still, I’d done it again.

 

The dog looked up, hopeful. He didn’t mind walking around the block in the dark, rather than taking a bush track at dusk. He knew no better. But I did. I knew that I wanted more than I ever got from reading news stories on-line. I knew that clicking and scrolling left me feeling dissatisfied, fed up with my will-lessness and powerlessness to change anything in the world a meaningful way.

 

Perhaps tonight will be different. Except I know myself well enough to know that hoping my tech problem will just go away won’t work. However, blocking The Guardian website from my desktop, just might.

 

 

 

 

 

housekeeping story

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‘So’, asked a friend, ‘now that you’ve finished your project on domestic life, what have you found out about it?’

‘Well’, I said, ‘It doesn’t fit on the back of an envelope. But I’m getting closer. When I started thinking about domestic life, five years ago now, it was because I was in two minds about whether the time I spent looking after myself and my family was time well spent, or time wasted. I couldn’t work out if the benefits of a well-run home outweighed the effort of keeping it that way. And it was this uncertainty, this doubt, that drove me to asking other people how they felt about their housekeeping story’

‘What do you mean by their housekeeping story?’ asked Tina.

‘Oh’, I said, ‘that’s shorthand for everything we do to keep our home life ticking over so that we can thrive in the world. It’s everything from washing bedlinen to food shopping to celebrating a family birthday. It’s the big and little things we do to show ourselves, and the people we’re close to, that we’re worth looking after, that we belong on this patch of earth and are loved no matter what. This sounds completely obvious. Of course we’re worth looking after. But what I’ve discovered is that, in our unconscious, there’s a bit of confusion around this. It’s not that we secretly think we’re bad, and so undeserving of being well looked after. It’s more that even when we’re doing pretty well, day to day, our experience of life is of constant, just-beneath-the-surface struggle. And this is why we thrive on being given plenty of signs that we’re loved and wanted. We show this in the simplest of ways, by spicing up a pumpkin soup, or icing a cake for a friend. In our distracted and overfilled world, love is something that we do, and make time for, as much as something that we feel’.

‘And what else have you found out?’

‘I used to think that it was just me that got easily stressed at home. Other people, I thought, didn’t need to feel on top of their home life in order to feel good about opening their front door late afternoon. I was the only one who felt overwhelmed when I had no idea what to cook for dinner and hungry faces kept appearing at the kitchen door. Whereas, I now know lots of people feel this. We like to have some control over the day-to-day running of our homes. Given how much of our life is outside our control, we like to keep a hold over the bits that we can.

In the old days, housekeeping was about meeting social expectations, maintaining hygiene standards and observing nutritional guidelines. It was about satisfying the needs of a household’s inhabitants and keeping dust and roaches at bay. Housekeeping still involves these things. But nowadays it’s expanded to include our well-being. We’re less concerned about rodents in the flour sack, than in achieving peace of mind in the hour before sleep.

‘Why do you think people find domestic life stressful these days?’ asked Tina.

‘Hmmm’, I replied. ‘Five years ago I thought it was just me who avoided spending long periods at home, for fear of the demands that my home made on me when I did. But as it turns out, lots of us feel this. I think this is because until we sort out our housekeeping story – until we reconcile ourselves with how much of our life is given over to looking after ourselves – we’re likely to feel stressed at home. Everyone multitasks, of course. And everyone refuses to accept that household tasks take 50% more time than we think they will. And then there’s the puppy problem.’

‘What’s that?’ asked Tina.

‘We all loves puppies’, I said. ‘Yet every adult knows that giving in to the desire for a puppy puts in train a string of demands that the child in us shrinks from. And it’s the same with everything that comes through our front door, from a must-have household gadget to a new baby. We want to have it. Reality conspires and gives it to us. And before we know it, hey presto, we’re responsible for looking after it. This is the puppy problem. It explains why minimalism, living clutter free and not having children are all so appealing. Because choosing to live with less means there are fewer people and things in our life to demand our attention and make us do their bidding.

‘Yeah’, said Tina, ‘I get that. But I still don’t quite get the housekeeping story’.

‘Sure’, I said. ‘It took me ages to wrap my head around the idea that our thoughts shape our feelings – that thinking makes it so. It seems counter-intuitive that we create our world twice, first in thought and then in reality. But now I think that this is at the core of every housekeeping story. If we choose to act in a nurturing way, it’s because, given our understanding of the struggles of life, value looking after ourselves and others in loving ways. Believing in practical loving, nurture and creativity leads us to create a home life based on these values’.

‘Okay’, said my friend. ‘But are you at risk of being taken for granted by people close to you, if you look after them lovingly and they don’t reciprocate?’

‘I don’t think this is something that you can be right or wrong about’, I replied. ‘It’s like proving pacifism or vegetarianism. It’s stems from personal belief, not facts. It’s a decision that you arrive at from within, not without. Whether acting in a loving way adds or subtracts from your life can only be answered from within. For me, it’s worth the risk. Because even if I get taken advantage of – which is anyway a matter of interpretation – my life is richer for living it in line with a belief in practical loving.’

‘Oh’, said Tina. ‘I think I see’.

‘There’s one last bit to the housekeeping story. Which is that before we can tell it, before it can hang together as a story, we have to know who we’re housekeeping for. Am I looking after myself and others to please a Big Other – a partner, social convention or some nameless fear of sliding into chaos? Or am I looking after myself and others, as well as I can, in order to uphold a personal ideal, never quite attained, of a life that I feel good about living? When we’re housekeeping for ourselves, our acts of loving spring from a desire to live our best possible life. We’re inspired not by fear of a disapproving other, but by a desire for something closer to Keats’ ‘beauty, goodness and truth’. For me, today, there’s no question that the benefits of living in a well-run home outweigh the effort of keeping it that way. Having spoken to scores of people on this subject – and interviewed 50 – I know that many others think this too’.

‘Thanks’, said Tina. ‘Now I get it.’