A good friend, keen for people to share the intimate meaning of their life with others, asked me to take part in her facebook page, TheKeyof3, by answering three questions. Here goes:
1. What is something important that you have learned in your life?
I have learned that an embarrassingly large part of my mental life is given over to resisting things – to putting them off. As I write this I can picture a sizeable cupbard in my mind, stuffed with things that I don’t want to do. From a 3-month-overdue letter to my mother-in-law, to niggly household admin. There is nothing new or surprising about this. Most of us feel nagged by the things we know we should do. However, where once I chastised myself and wrote admonishing lists, now I shrug and move on. I still keep a list. But I measure success differently. (Even ticking one item off my list each day feels like success.) For I have learned that I will never overcome my resistance to the things I don’t want to do. But nowadays I’m able to distinguish my resistance to writing to my mother-in-law (in my head) from picking up a pen and writing to her (in reality). Increasingly, but not always, I’m able to push myself over the hill of my resistance and to see tasks for what they are. What a relief!
2. What act of kindness has most profoundly affected your life?
For nearly 20 years I lived in London, after growing up in Adelaide. Although I flew to the UK in a plane, there is a way in which, existentially, I fled there after my father died. I didn’t feel at home on my childhood home, and decided that I may as well live on the other side of the world. I will ever be grateful to the people who befriended me when I got to London, who saw in me something that I couldn’t see in myself, probably because I was in flight from it. A young Australian in London, I was welcomed into many people’s homes – for a weeknight dinner, a weekend on the coast, an Easter-egg hunt. Countless kindnesses – little things that felt like a very big thing – were shown me. So powerful was this experience that I have spent the rest of my life returning my own kindnesses to others.
3. What have you done to overcome a significant challenge in your life?
This year I completed a yoga teacher training course, along with 22 others. I took the course as a dare. It was my way of preparing myself to age gracefully. It wasn’t planning to become a yoga teacher. However, the effect of the training was to plant the seed of a desire to teacher yoga to others, as a way of passing on something that has been of immense sanity-keeping value in my life so far. The average age, among the trainees, was 28, and I am well into my 50s. Mostly, during the 5-month course, I ignored my age. But despite doing handstands and the occasional wheel, the more I ignored my age the more it wouldn’t go away. My challenge, on completing the training, was to put aside the teasing of my grown-up kids and to book a studio, not knowing if anyone would come to my yoga class. I overcame this challenge, this fear, by trusting in something deeper than my conscious doubts, and by using as my mantra the phrase, ‘This is the yoga’, whenever blind fear breaks through my faith in something deeper. This is the phrase that the lead yoga teacher used as a refrain whenever obstacles – COVID, injury, any contingency really – came up. Because obstacles do come up. Doing this course taught me that I overcome obstacles by doing the scary thing anyway. And just maybe this, rather than success, is what matters.
Lately I’ve been too busy to make bread. Last week, if any week can be described as typical, was typical. On Monday, the 25-year-old fridge which was in our house when we bought it, gave up the ghost. On Tuesday I sent off a manuscript. On Thursday I started teaching a yoga class. Add to that our dog has caught a nasty parasite requiring daily treatment. Then there is my 10-year-old computer, in the process of conking out, which refuses to send email. And two weeks ago, my daughter turned 21. All normal, everyday things which don’t allow much time for breadmaking.
Yesterday morning, as a form of therapy, I made myself make bread. Not because I felt like it. I never feel like making bread until after I start making it. But because it was Saturday, and Saturday, until recently, has always been my breadmaking day.
First, I poured out some starter from the pot which I refreshed and returned to the bar fridge that we borrowed from a friend. Next, I boiled the kettle and dissolved a teaspoon of sea salt and a halfish cup of linseed (I never measure) in a large bowl. After that, it was time to mix the dough. When I finished mixing, concentrating on the bowl that was balanced on a stool in front of me, I glanced up at the table and spied a glass jug full of starter which I’d clean forgotten to add, which required extra flour to get the dough to bind. Pant. This I did.
I never mix bread dough with my fingers. I use two plastic scrapers to mix the flour mixture until the dough comes together into a fat but flat ball. Before this point, the dough just sticks to my fingers and between my fingers in an annoying, hard- to-clean-off way.
For the rest of yesterday, the bowl of dough sat on the windowsill in the kitchen. Now and again, as I passed by, I washed my hands in the sink before kneading the dough, spraying the bottom of the bowl with water to keep the dough from sticking.
On entering the kitchen this morning, I noticed that the teatowel draped over the bowl was puffed up with the dough underneath, like a mushroom cloud. Surprising even me.
Making bread isn’t easy. If friends tell you otherwise, don’t believe them. Nothing important is easy. Nor is there a right time in the day or week in which to bake. When it comes to breadmaking, as with other important things in life, you have to make time for it, carving it out almost forcibly until it becomes habit.
I trick myself into baking by doing it step by unthreatening step. After breakfast on Saturday, I get the bread starter from the fridge. I do this because it’s Saturday morning, and not because I feel like baking. (When would that be?) I don’t let on, to my unconscious or to my ego, that I am making bread. Because my unconscious doesn’t think that I can make bread. And my ego insists that I haven’t time for it.
I make bread to prove to myself that I can. I make it to fill the kitchen with the smell of baking bread. I never make enough bread to last a family of four for a week. Still, as a gesture, it’s important to me. And the reward – of cutting off a crusty end of bread before plying it with butter and putting it in my mouth – is, well, like other important things in life, amazing.
My dog is recovering from canine coronavirus. A year ago, this would have been unremarkable. Pre-covid 19, canine coronavirus was one of a handful of viruses that young dogs were liable to pick up playing in the park or on the beach. Especially when that dog is a Labrador puppy who eats everything his nose tells him might be worth gobbling, in the hope that it tastes good.
As that Labrador puppy’s owner, I cheat. Twice a week, Digger lets off steam with 20 other dogs at kennels in the country, a 20-minute drive from my home. This is by far the most exciting part of Digger’s week. And, if I’m honest, it comes pretty close to mine too. Like dropping off a toddler at daycare, on Tuesdays and Thursdays I don’t have to think about my dog between 8am until 5pm. I can go to a yoga class, put compost on the garden, and work in my study in peace.
But not at the moment. A month ago, Digger started having poo explosions outside his crate in the morning. I would be half way down the stairs, rushing to get us both in the car to arrive at the kennels by 8am, and I’d smell that smell. And my heart would sink at having to pay the price of owning a dog who, though we love him to bits, eats, well, pretty much anything. And I mean anything.
After the third explosion within a month, Amanda, who runs the country kennels, pushed me to have Digger checked out by her vet. ‘He’s great’, she said. ‘If anyone can sort out Digger’s gut, it’s Dr R’.
A week later, I was working at a picnic bench, with Digger waiting for a walk in the car, when Dr R called me. ‘The poo sample came up with canine coronavirus in your dog’s DNA’, he said.
‘Oh’, I said, wanting not to hear what he’d just said. ‘Is that bad?’
‘It’s actually pretty common right now’, said the vet. ‘And it would probably be more common if more dogs were tested for it. But it does mean that Digger will need to stay away from kennels for a while’.
‘Oh’, I said, ‘of course’.
‘And then, in two to four weeks, you can bring in another poo sample for testing, and we can go from there’, he said.
‘Sure’, I said. I thanked him and we ended the call. I stared out at the sea, over the top of my computer screen. ‘Great’, I thought. ‘I have Digger at home for a month. Just like at Christmas time.’ Then I got cross with myself. ‘What a stupid middle class problem to have’, I said to myself. ‘Every day there are 10,000 new covid cases across France, and here I am worrying about how to get my work done with my boisterous puppy alongside’.
It took me a good 10 minutes to look on the bright side. ‘At least the poo test didn’t turn up some hard to treat parasite’, I told myself. ‘I should be glad about that’. And I was.
Right now, it’s early on Saturday morning and I’m writing this in a local café. My kids are away this weekend, and my husband is working in his ‘office’, a wooden shed at the bottom of our garden. Digger is at home alone, extracting his kibble out of his red plastic Kong, a feeding toy with a hole in the side. Across the hole of his red plastic Kong, through which the kibble spills when he pushes it across the courtyard bricks with his nose, I have stuck a bandaid. Why so? Well, the bandaid reduces the size of the hole of the Kong, and stretches the time that Digger takes to extract the kibble to a good half hour. Then, when he is done, Digger will nudge the back door open, which I left ajar, come inside and sit on his chair in my study until I reappear. How do I know this? I know it because I have set up this routine with him over the last year or so, to buy me time to work in the morning – my favourite time to write.
Some people, a lot of people, have dogs who they leave at home for most of the day while they’re at work. They have no choice about this, and their dog accepts it. And they don’t bother with bandaids to reduce the hole of their dog’s feeding toy.
‘You treat that dog like he’s your third child’, my son tells me, not for the first time. There may be some truth in this. I really do care about Digger’s well being. I treat him as if he has a soul. Without saying it aloud, I think that he depends on me to create the conditions in which he can thrive in the short time he spends on this earth. As I say, I don’t say this to other people. Digger is a dog, after all. But I do feel it.
But it’s not just altruism. I also fear the havoc that Digger could wreak in my life – he’s a large dog – if I don’t treat him well. At any time, he could start barking and annoy the neighbours with his booming bark. He could get bored and find compost or other inedibles to eat – leading to big vet bills. Or he could become withdrawn and lose his sociability with young and old – which would be sad for us all.
So you see, I’m not a relaxed dog owner. I know what can go wrong, having had to put our last rescue dog down after she became reactive and threatened to bite people. In part, this is why we got a Labrador, to reduce the risks of this happening again.
However, a Labrador puppy is not a King Charles Spaniel. A Labrador puppy is not a West Highland Terrier. It is not a poodle. A Labrador puppy has buckets of energy – ‘buzz’, we call it – which he needs to release every day in order for him to relax later. When Digger and I are on the beach in the morning, and he is trotting along off lead, he’ll stop trotting and do these huge wheeling circles around other dogs, whether in excitement or in fear even he may not know.
When Digger looks at me in the morning after breakfast, with his ‘Is it time for the beach now?’ expression, I find it impossible to ignore him and to put my own work first. Instead, bar Tuesdays and Thursdays, I arrange my morning work routine around him. After a burst of housekeeping, the two of us head for our local beach.
Even in winter, even when it’s raining, this is a lovely time of day for me. Every time, as we walk back to the car, I silently thank Digger for making me take him to the beach. How lucky am I, I think to myself, to start my day this way? After our walk, Digger will snooze in the car while I write at my computer at a picnic table or, if the weather’s bad, in a cafe. Then we have a second walk before coming back home for the afternoon, during which Digger lies on the back doorstep doing nothing very much while I do my thing inside. Digger can hear me cooking in the kitchen, or tapping the keys in my study. I can hear him shuffling around next door, finding a comfortable spot in the sun to plonk down himself down in. This is our unspoken agreement, our understanding about how our day together works best. And mostly, it does work.
This morning on the beach, Digger and I are rewarded with perfect spring weather. Cold and sunny. Good to be alive sort of weather. When we get to our destination, a pebbly beach, an older man is already on there with two black Labradors. He introduces his dogs as Gus, the elder dog, and Blue, the younger. Digger plays with Blue in the water until, tiring of each other, Digger wanders off, nose the ground, sniffing.
John, the dogs’ owner, is keen to describe to me the white house that he lives in, overlooking the beach I’ve just walked along. ‘Oh yes’, I say. ‘I know it. I park my car near there most days’. Our conversation meanders on, and John tells me about his grandchildren, and the fact that he’s been unable to see them since January. ‘Oh’, I say, ‘that must be hard for you all’.
There’s a pause as John throws a stick into the water for Blue, the younger dog. John turns to me. ‘And you’, he asks, ‘do you have any grandchildren?’ My hand freezes on the stick I’m about to throw. ‘I beg your pardon?’, I want to ask. But I don’t ask this. I instead I laugh, as if it’s a completely normal thing for me to be asked whether I have grandchildren, rather than the gaping existential hole that it feels like from my side of the conversation. ‘Er, no’, I say, ‘my kids are still in their early 20s’.
Perhaps, I thought to myself, it’s the hat and sunglasses that I’m wearing. But no, of course it’s not the hat and sunglasses. This man throwing sticks to his dogs really does think that I could have grandchildren. Just like him.
Walking back along the beach in the sun, nodding to people as I pass, and stopping to let a little boy pat Digger, I consider John’s question. Technically, he is right. I am an age at which, had I had my children younger, I could have grandchildren. From John’s point of view, he was asking a friendly question. In a slightly clumsy way, he was reaching out.
I walk on, drinking in the sun and the breeze. Until this morning, I’d managed to get the world to play into my fantasy that I wasn’t growing older. I was going to stay in my 50s for ever. My kids may leave home, as they’ve both done. But they would keep coming back, as they’ve done. For ever and ever.
However, the man on the pebbly beach with his dogs made it clear that one day, sooner than my fantasy allowed, I might be holding the hand of a grandchild on the beach. If I got lucky, and if life was kind, just like this man, I’d be a grandparent. I too would be chiding a toddler to put a hat back on their head. Or zooming on birthdays during lockdown.
I’m no exception. Like everyone else, I’m on the conveyor belt of life. It doesn’t matter how much flaxseed and kale I eat. Because I’m still wrinkly enough to be mistaken for a grandparent on the beach.
And there I was, worried about some virus that Digger picked up, sniffing around on the beach or the park.
I’ve never done my 10-minute morning yoga practice and then wished I hadn’t done it. I always thank myself as I roll up my mat. And each time I do, I wonder why I had to mentally force myself to unroll my mat before starting.
I blame the clock in the bathroom. No matter how obediently I turn off bedside alarm, count up to 20 and push of the covers, by the time I brush my teeth in the bathroom across the hall, peaking out the window to see what kind of morning it is, the clock on the bath tells me that 20 minutes have passed since I woke up. How, I wonder, can that be? My alarm went off at 6.30am, as it always does. And yet the clock on the bath is telling me, seemingly three minutes later, that it’s 6.50am.
Despite my befuddled waking, I do a short yoga practice nearly every morning. I do it because my body needs it, and because my day goes better when I do. I think of it as pre-yoga. Now that my body is middle-aged, doing yoga in the morning isn’t optional. It’s basic maintenance. To the point that when I don’t do it, my body soon tells me. And it certainly isn’t ready for the kind of yoga that awaits me in the yoga classes that I attend twice a week.
Habits are hard to make and easy to lose. Luckily, I cemented my yoga habit a few years ago, well before my yoga teacher training. It was a habit that arose out of necessity. I didn’t mind that, every year, I was getting older. But I did mind feeling less nimble, less flexy. I minded feeling less Tigger-ish, less bouncy. Doing yoga helped hugely with this. It helped me to stand up straight and to look life in the eye – an especially good feeling to have once my kids’ grew taller than me and started looking down at me from above.
10 minutes of yoga each morning, with or without a mat, is enough for me to bend with straight legs when I’m gardening. I even enjoy bursts of housework when I can throw myself into it, knowing that it will soon be over. Often, I’ll pull on yoga leggings before gardening and housekeeping. Because wearing them lets me bend into corners and down into a squat, without stretching the knees of my trousers. Plus, they’re easy to launder.
But then along came yoga teacher training, and lots of things went out the window to make way for it. The gardening and housework still got done, sort of. I still bent from the waist and felt fairly agile. However, once the training started, four months ago, my 10 minutes of yoga first thing had to compete with a lengthening list of morning must-dos.
Over the final assessment weekend of teacher training, I attended 8 sessions led by fellow students, not including my own. We were all nervous. But somehow we overcame our nerves to teach a good class. When my turn came round, I’m not sure if I overcame my nerves, or just kept up with them. During that hour I felt slightly out of control and, well, weird. That said, the final weekend was a positive experience, at the end of which I felt relieved, glad and a bit sad.
The day after the course ended, I felt a twinge in my hip which I thought nothing of. Too many standing balances, I said to myself. Too many mornings spent sitting crosslegged outdoors in front of my computer, during my son’s home quarantine. None of these things did I consider a problem. The osteopath, who I saw a week later, disagreed. Frowning, he gave me a complicated term for the sore spot on the top of my thigh bone and told me to rest it.
Looking back, I realise that the quiet hysteria surrounding the completing of my yoga teacher training course – of getting into the studio every other weekend by 7.30am and remaining there until 5.30pm – meant skipping the morning yoga that makes my body strong enough to do challenging yoga poses. Instead I’d been freewheeling tricky poses – crane and lotus and handstands – that assume either youth or a strong core.
So now I am back at square one. I am a green yoga instructor with a small bursitis at the top of my right femur. It is healing. I am taking turmeric, vitamin C and omega oils. More importantly, I am doing my 10-minute pre-yoga practice most mornings. I now know a lot more about yoga, and understand myself a bit better. ‘This’, our yoga teacher was fond of telling us, ‘is the yoga’.
We spend a lot of our life waiting. For a test result. For an important email. For onions to cook. For dawn to break.
The thing about waiting is that, often, we don’t know when it will end.
My current waiting began last Tuesday, when I asked three friends to read two chapters of a manuscript that I’m soon to send to my agent, who I feel sure will say that Housekeeping: A journey is too memoirish for her to sell in the current market. I asked three friends for feedback because I wanted a sympathetic response from readers who ‘got’ the ideas I’ve written about, before I get all defensive in my attempt to describe, in a back of the envelope sort of way, what my manuscript is really about for the publishing world.
Five long days after sending this email to three friends, one of them got back.
‘Enjoying your ms a lot’, she texted. ‘What is the take out?’
I texted back. ‘The take out is that housekeeping grounds us and, when we do it in the right spirit, it makes us feel good about ourselves’.
‘Okay’, she texted back, sounding unconvinced.
I tried again. ‘Housekeeping is caring about countless things that we otherwise wouldn’t care about for the sake of a well-run, pleasant home.
‘More personal!’ she texted back.
‘Maybe just read the introduction’ I texted, and we left it there.
My manuscript is written in the first person, which makes the waiting for a response to it that much harder. Because if a reader doesn’t like my manuscript, I’m likely to feel, in an ungrown-up part of myself, rejected, disapproved of. This is awkward to admit. It makes me sympathise with Virginia Woolf, who used to fall apart whenever she finished a manuscript and posted it off to a friend to read. Except that I don’t write as well as Virginia Woolf. And I am, as far as I know, mentally stable.
The three women who I asked to read part of my current manuscript have all replied to me, promising to read and respond. Each time I received one of their emails, I emailed back, thanking them for their support and stressing that there was no urgency, and should take as much time as they liked. The ungrown-up part of me thought this reasoning of mine was very bad. Why should I feel sympathy for the busyness of my friends’ lives when I was desperate to know if my manuscript was readable, acceptable, interesting?
However, my grown-up self, knowing how easily my request for a favour from friends could feel like a demand, managed not to ask them to hurry up and respond.
Instead I wait. I distract myself with projects at home. I shampoo the carpets. I dig the garden. I write this blog, confident that the three friends who I asked to read my manuscript, don’t read my blog. I catch up on the work that I put aside to finish Housekeeping: A journey and my recent yoga course. And I wait for my son’s quarantine to end, counting down the days (three) before I’m allowed back into the yoga studio and am able to invite friends for dinner.
My agent has left Sydney for good, after living in the same inner city flat for thirty odd years. Last week, she taped up eighty boxes and headed for the mountains. Only the packing up proved so stressful for her that she landed up in a country hospital with an acute infection. This prompted a sympathetic email from me, telling her to let me know when the coast was clear, at which point I’d send through to her my manuscript for her to read. After all, I reasoned, how could reading my manuscript compete with leaving your home, your friends, and recovering from an acute infection?
From the outside, waiting is a pause, a hiatus. From the inside, it feels like a thing that I am doing. I am not twiddling my thumbs. I am not writing messages across the sky. I am waiting.
‘So’, asked a friend, ‘what have you learned from that yoga course you’ve been doing?’
‘Well’, I said, ‘it’s really three things. And none of them have anything to do with yoga poses. The first is psychological. Doing the course has made me realise how much mental energy I give over to resisting things that I have to do in my daily life. Whether it’s doing my morning yoga practice, filling the dog’s food container from a bin in the basement, or getting supper on the table on time, I’m incredibly resistant to the parade of tasks that punctuate my day.’
‘Ha’, said Kate, ‘tell me about it.’
‘Perhaps’, I said, ‘if I sat on my yoga block for 25 minutes a day, as suggested by our yoga teacher, I wouldn’t struggle as much. But I don’t sit on a block nearly that long and I do struggle. For now, I’m just aware of how much I resist things. And occasionally I rise above it.’
‘Another thing I’ve learned is to accept things as they are. Things are not good or bad, they just are. I knew this before the course. But I hadn’t lived it. And living it makes all the difference. I don’t find accepting things as they are easy, it goes against the grain. It goes against all my instincts, which I now understand – like most of my thoughts – can’t be trusted.’
‘These days I find it easier to zoom in and out of my experience. When something gets to me, I try to stand back from it. I leave it alone. I don’t add to a problem by layering my own stuff on to it. It’s the mental equivalent of strengthening my core. It doesn’t come naturally to me. I have to practice not reacting again and again. But when I do manage it, it really helps. Because not reacting buys me time. It means that I can be in the middle of a situation and also observe it. And this gives me breathing space.’
‘Yeah’, said Kate, ‘anything is better than getting stressed’.
‘Yes’, I said. ‘Stress is horrible. Which leads me to the last thing I’ve learnt from the yoga course. Doing nothing, I now accept, is doing something. Taking time out – whether it’s switching off the wifi, walking on the beach, eating lunch on the grass, sitting on a yoga block – is equivalent to lying on the floor at the end of yoga class. It’s a positive sort of nothing. A yielding to the day, to life, to fate.’
‘Is that it?’ asked Kate. ‘I thought you’d have lots of good habits from the course’.
‘I guess I have a few’, I said. ‘I already knew, before I did the course, that there’s no freedom without discipline. But doing the course confirmed this to me. In the morning, I now do Indian cleansing practices in the bathroom. I book yoga classes a week ahead of time. I use my diary to keep track of meals, shopping and must do’s. I keep a gratitude journal and write down three good things from each day before sleeping. My phone screen is grey scale, to make it less appealing. And every week I try to do one thing – even when it’s inconvenient, and it’s always inconvenient – for someone outside my family.’
‘Really?’ said Kate, drily. ‘You sound like a saint.’
‘Sorry. I must sound like a prick. But really I’m exactly the same person I was when I started the course four and a half months ago. To be honest, Covid has probably had more impact on my life than the yoga course has. Although perhaps, after my assessment next week, everything will fall into place and I’ll find perfect peace!’
I used to carry a phone so that the school nurse could contact me if one of my kids fell off the play equipment. It made me feel safe, knowing I was connected, out of sight not out of mind.
These days, when I go out in the morning, to walk the dog and to work outside, I leave my phone in the boot of the car. I do this so that I can be in nature and focus on my work. And to prevent my good energy leaking away into the innards of my phone.
I think less of myself when I keep checking my phone during the morning. Each time I do it, a bit of my life force seeps away. With each click on a New York Times story, my preferred poison, I feel my morning draining away. It’s not just time that I lose when I do this. It’s also self belief. How can my own writing compete with the slickly edited stories of weighty world events? But mainly it’s time that I lose. The number of minutes that I spend reading New York Times stories has to be doubled to reflect how long it takes me to get back to my own work, after reading on-line. It takes this long to silence the self-doubt that invades me when I read other people’s beautifully edited stories.
Last week, fed up with wasting time on my phone, I went into System Preferences, clicked on Accessibility, and faded the screen to grey. Then I wobbled into oblivion those apps that stole my time when I tapped on them compulsively. And I hinted to my family that I might not see text messages they sent during the morning.
I always assumed that one day my kids would pack their bags and leave home. And that, when they did, I’d feel inconsolable and useless. I’d feel left behind, like the family dog waiting in vain for the front door to open. But now I think that something else might have to happen before my kids leave home. I might have to leave my kids first, to give them unconscious permission to leave me.
I used to think that motherhood was all about surviving my kids unconscious attacks on me. Their taunts and criticisms were, I felt, their way of projecting on to me what they couldn’t bear about themselves. I had to appear stupid so they could be clever, that kind of thing.
I was right, I have had to survive my kids’ attacks on me. But now I face something just as hard, perhaps harder. I have to communicate to them, at a deep level, that I will be fine without them, without being sure of this myself. Going out without a phone, or at least having it switched off in the boot of my car, proves to me that I am fine on my own – just as my kids will one day be without me.
But perhaps the most important part of being out without a phone is that it gives me a freedom and spaciousness that I thought may never be mine again.
It started out as a new year’s resolution, of a kind I felt up to making. This year, I told myself, I will redo my website.
For a month I did nothing. The bushfires raging across the country burned a hole in everything. What a vain, shallow thing to want, I thought, whenever the idea of a new website crossed my mind. Besides, I reasoned, I still like my old website. It’s still beautiful. And who but me would know that the photo of my daughter, on its opening page, was taken seven years ago?
Me. I knew that the photo of Emma in a Scottish landscape, wearing a woollen beanie with donkey ears, was long out of date. Just as I knew that eight of the stories on the ‘other writings’ page were taken from a magazine that died eight years ago. Even if no-one else cared about this, I did.
At the start of February, my writing coach put ‘new website’ on my list of things to do before we met next. I nodded. I had in mind what I wanted the site to look like, and felt sure that I could find someone to do it without paying over the odds. Sitting outside at a café, that late summer morning, a new website seemed doable.
A month later, in the middle of mentoring an accomplished writer with a project of hers, she mentioned that she’d created websites for clients in her old job. ‘Really?’ I said. ‘Would you be up for making one for me?’ ‘Yes, of course’, Susie said, her eyes lighting up.
Then came lock down and we switched our meetings to on-line. Susie was upbeat. She liked not losing time to traveling and spending time on zoom. Besides, she pointed out, it would be just as easy to create a new website via zoom, as in person.
Having taken the lead in our writing workshop, I let Susie take the lead when it came to discussing my new website. Luckily, we agreed on most things. I needed a modern, fresh site. I needed google analytics to help me reach a younger, busier audience. I needed a user-friendly mobile app. I needed to promote my blog and to downplay the fact that the publisher of my last book went bust a month after publishing it. And yes, I probably did need to start a newsletter that drew more readers to my work.
The next day, walking my dog along the beach, I felt less certain. Did I really want to write a newsletter, and about exactly what? Or did I just think that I should want to write one?
As promised, Susie emailed a mock-up of my new website a week later. I clicked on the link on my mobile. It looked great. I texted Susie, thanking her warmly. The site looked different from my old one, in a good way. With this new website, I thought to myself, I’d be free of the old me. The dead magazine story links would be dust. My work would be fresh on the page. What a relief.
Busy with my yoga course, three days went by before I opened the website link again, this time on my computer in the kitchen. It was Sunday afternoon and the light was fading in the garden.
‘Take a look at this, will you?’ I asked Emma, who’d wandered into the kitchen. ‘It’s my new website. I think I like it, but I’m just not sure’.
‘What about these uneven margins?’ Emma asked, peering over my shoulder and pointing at the screen.
‘It’s still a draft’, I said, feeling defensive on Susie’s behalf.
‘And why are the fonts on this page all different?’ she asked.
‘Oh, come on’, I said. ‘There’s lots of time to change things like that’.
‘How much are you paying Susie for this?’ she asked.
‘$50 an hour’, I said.
There was a pause.
‘I reckon I could do a website for you’, she said. ‘I’ve got nothing on right now. And it will cost you less’.
‘But you’ve never done a website before’.
‘Actually, I’ve been looking at websites for a while. I think I know a site that might work for you. It seems pretty easy to work with’.
There was another pause.
‘Okay’, I said, rising to her dare. ‘It’ll be awkward with Susie, who may not forgive me. But I’m happy for you to give it a go. I bet you can do it. How long do you need?’
‘I dunno’, she said.
‘How does three weeks sound?’
‘Yep’, she said, and left the kitchen, her phone buzzing in her hand,
I sent an apologetic email to Susie, explaining that Emma had put her hand up and that I wanted to support her. When, the next day, Susie emailed back, she couldn’t have been nicer about it. Yet I knew that what she was feeling must be more complicated than what she said in her email. ‘Good for you’, I thought to myself.
The next Saturday, coming in from walking the dog, I found Emma slouched at the computer on the kitchen table. ‘Why does this software have to be so annoying?’ she asked. ‘What can they be thinking?’ Refusing to be drawn in, I started getting dinner, confident that Emma would find her own way through if I didn’t interfere.
But she didn’t. Emma hated the time that she spent making me a new website, as much as she’d once hated doing school homework. From her moans it was clear that it felt closer to a chore than a newfound passion. ‘Forget it’, I said, coming in from gardening one day to find her slouched yet again at the computer. ‘I can ask Jo, my old web designer. She might be able to do it’. ‘Would you?’ said Emma, sounding relieved. ‘I’m so sorry, but I just can’t do this right now. There are too many other things that I want to be doing’. ‘Fine by me’, I said, lying.
If Emma hadn’t wiped my old website from the Internet, I might have done nothing for a while. Instead, I emailed Jo that night, who got straight back. She had, she said, stopped doing web design. But as it happened, a friend of hers had just had a good experience creating a website with wix, and it had made Jo curious to try it. If I didn’t mind waiting until she got the hang of using it, she was game.
The next morning, I sent through the website material to Jo, and told her not to hurry with the site. And week later, she sent through a mock-up. I was thrilled. The site didn’t look modern. It wasn’t attention-seeking. Even better, it looked like my website. The only downside was that there were too many photos with me in them. However, I decided to let Jo make the call on this.
But still I worried. ‘Is a new website just self-promotion?’ I asked myself. ‘No’, I said, silencing my inner critic. It wasn’t about the me who wondered what to cook for dinner, or who did yoga in the bathroom in the morning. It was about something else.
A few evenings later, clicking again on the link Jo had sent, I felt less sure. Lots of small things that I wanted to change jumped out at me. How had I not seen them before? Was I being a fuss-pot? ‘Don’t overthink it’, said Emma, filling a hot water bottle at the hob. ‘But’, I said crossly, ‘I am thinking about it!’
That Friday, I sat at Jo’s side in her study, a novelty after two months of lock down. It was a relief to be able to point out the little things that I wanted her to change, and to sit by as she made the changes. One by one, Jo fixed everything that had bugged me about the site. As she worked, she never said, ‘Oh Helen, what does it matter if these paragraphs are merged or not?’ She never said, ‘Who cares if that photo margin doesn’t match the text margin?’ Nor did she say, as she must have felt at 3pm, ‘I’m hungry, it’s time to stop’.
Three more times, in the following week, I sent through further changes. Each time, Jo made the changes, emailing me back when she was done. During this time, I stopped feeling like a fuss-pot. It was okay, I told myself, to care about what my new website looked like, and how it read line by line. It wasn’t about being a perfectionist. It was about paying for a service and wanting a good job.
Even if I had the skills to create a new website, and even if I had photoshop on my computer, I wouldn’t have been able to create my own website. I needed Jo’s help, her emotional support along with her technical skill. The resistance and self doubt that creating a new website provoked in me was huge. There were moments when I hated the whole business of creating a site. At other times I marveled at the options that the software threw up.
Having Jo at my side gave me permission to create a new website, making it possible – just last Thursday – to press ‘publish’ on http://www.helenhayward.net. At which point I posted a link to the site on facebook, hung my ego on a peg, and sighed.
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.
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?