HelenHayward

life writing

urgent vs important

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The distinction seems so clear on paper. Urgent things are things that have to be done no matter what: bills paid, broken glass swept up, emails returned, meals to cook, wet washing to hang out. Things which, were we to avoid them for too long, would topple our life from within. Important things are more personal and so valuable than urgent ones: a splintered relationship in need of repair, a baby project that needs cultivating, a adventure that demands planning.

Now that I’m between writing projects – between signing off on one and beginning another – I feel the pull between the urgent and the important more strongly than ever. Each morning, unless I’m careful, I do the bidding of the urgent. I take the vacuum cleaner to be serviced, even though a yellow warning light has flashed on and off for months. I return library books on time, something I normally dispense with. I plan meals a week ahead and chat to the butcher. I invite friends round for dinner and think about Christmas to come – all things which completing a manuscript had protected me from. I read ‘The Happy Puppy Handbook’ from cover to cover at the kitchen table, in readiness for our puppy who is growing by the day with a local breeder. I look at Counselling Courses on-line and seriously consider a normal job.

I first read Mihalyi Czikszentmihalyi’s Flow: The classic work on how to achieve happiness in 2008, when I was living in Melbourne with my family and contemplating a move to Tasmania. I liked it so much that I fantasised meeting Czikszentmihalyi over coffee, imagining what I might ask him; while accepting that it was probably better, for my own take on his ideas, that we never met. Engrossed in reading, I put pencil lines down the side of paragraphs I wanted to come back to and, when this wasn’t enough, took long-hand notes. Reading Flow helped me to think about what was important, and made the otherwise urgent things in my life less compelling.

Czikszentmihalyi became famous for one big idea: flow, a state of optimum engagement in an activity so absorbing that self-consciousness falls away, only returning after you’ve reached your goal and got feedback for it. It’s what my daughter feels on her surfboard as she paddles hard for a wave. It’s what I feel as I serve up dinner for friends. It’s what the guy who mows our lawn feels when he prunes our lemon trees. It’s what nearly everyone who writes a blog feels when they press the blue ‘publish’ button.

Reading Flow, for the fourth time, has helped me understand the struggle that I feel when I finish a big piece of work. It explains my desire to escape to the normal – by applying for a Counselling course – rather than staying with the discomfort of beginning a new writing project from scratch. Applying for a vocational counselling course speaks to my desire to serve others; to be legitimated and paid by them. It means joining a world of appointments and offices, where the guidelines and outcomes are fairly clear. All of which seems more appealing than starting a new project and continuing my job of looking after a big old house and getting on with my family.

One of the most illuminating findings, in Czikszentmihalyi’s Flow, is that most people experience more flow at work than at home, even though most people would rather spend more time at home than at work. They get more buzz from their work, than from time spent at home; they feel optimally engaged working towards a goal, when their skills are stretched and they’re credited for their efforts.

And yet I know I’m not the only one who gets a special kind of satisfaction from answering a call from within – from stretching myself creatively for no other reason than realising that what feels personally important is more lastingly valuable than whatever seems pressing and urgent.

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shame

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On holiday in Adelaide – ironic that I’ve ended up holidaying in my old home town – I went shopping with my daughter in the rain (it never rains in Adelaide, except when we visit). After two hours spent looking in fashion and surfing shops in the city mall, and buying a sweater for my son who wasn’t with us, I asked my daughter for ten minutes in a bookshop.

 

At the top of the escalator, it was a big bookshop, I headed for the business books, hoping my daughter would saunter off, which she did. I felt queasy, in need of water. Why are big bookshops so often airless? A sensible-looking woman, around my age, offered to help me find what I wanted. I smiled and asked if they had a pet section, which she pointed me to. We are currently on the list for a new puppy and, keen for it to be a happy experience, I thought a good book might give me some pointers.

 

Next to the pet section were the psychology books. After browsing various titles I picked up the only book by Brene Brown that I hadn’t read, I Thought It Was Just Me. The title was spelled out in big orange and pink capital letters on a dark cover, and though it didn’t have the word shame in the title, the quotes suggested that it was a book about the experience of shame.

 

How, I wondered, would Brene Brown open a book about a subject that most of us naturally avoid? ‘You can never’, she wrote in the first paragraph, ‘shame anyone into changing their behaviour’. With these nine words the author hooked me. Reading them, standing up in a bookshop, made me realise that I’d spent much of my marriage trying to shame my husband into changing his behaviour. I’d done it unwittingly, unconsciously even. And, as Brene Brown pointed out, it hadn’t worked.

 

Until I read these words, I wouldn’t have admitted to shaming my husband. Yet seeing this simple idea in print allowed me to accept it. It instantly gave me perspective and, yes, relief. It wasn’t just me. It isn’t just me. Lots of us get caught up shaming each other into changing behaviour.

 

What have I been unsuccessfully shaming my husband into changing? Working too hard, drinking and smoking. My own family’s medical history is pock-marked with conditions, mainly heart and cancer, that I have done my best in middle age to avoid. My husband’s family history is stronger than mine, which may be why he refuses to share my anxieties about his health. Whereas I apply the precautionary principle in avoiding risk factors, my husband, a philosopher, is more sanguine. He isn’t the only one. When I told my GP about my concerns for my husband’s health, he smiled. ‘Ah’, my GP said, ‘society hasn’t caught up with medical research in these areas, and contradictions abound’.

 

Last weekend, as I read Brene Brown’s book under the duvet in a freezing converted barn in the Adelaide Hills, I realised that I was guilty of putting my husband on the spot, of driving him into a corner from which he could only pull in his head. Reading this book, high above the plains below, I felt guilty. But I also felt absolved. Because until I read this book I’d unconsciously assumed that it was my job, my responsibility as a wife, to help my husband see the light. Until last weekend I’d felt sure that one day my husband would read an article in The New Scientist, or The Guardian Weekly, on recent medical research into alcohol and smoking and, that very day, would drink less wine and order a vaping kit.

 

But Brene Brown made it clear that complex human beings are not like that. Complex human beings, and I should know because I am one, need to be stroked not shamed. They need to be stroked and made to feel good about themselves. ‘Being nice’, is the way my husband puts it. Making someone feel bad about their behaviour backfires, Brown explains, because the experience of shame damages their capacity for change.

 

On returning from holiday I realised how simple my brief with my husband is. It’s to not be critical of him. Every day I wake up and remind myself of this. My job is not to make him see the error of his ways, any more than his job is to point out mine. His health isn’t my responsibility, just as my career isn’t his.

 

Perhaps this is what holidays are for. All that packing and unpacking, marshaling through airport security, and cliff-top walks, were for the purpose of seeing life from a different point of view. What felt intractable a week ago, my husband’s seeming immaturity and my own excess of it, now feels looser. Hopefully one day I’ll be able to look back and laugh.

 

 

my bed

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It started with a tiff over the way I use the steps of the stairs as a clutter collector, coupled with my bad darn of a favourite rug that I unthinkingly allowed my daughter to use a Stanley knife on. Small, domestic, trivial things. Not something to lose sleep over, or so I told myself as I lay in bed staring at the ceiling. My husband seemed to think so too, as he drifted into sleep with a light snore.

 

Having been with my husband for a good number of years I know that small, trivial things are rarely slight. They’re just the things that make me toss and turn at night. Which is how I found myself on the sofa bed in the spare room the following morning, where I woke under a cotton blanket.

 

My husband is a writer with a UK company, writing to tight deadlines. Often this means working late before waking early, with a nap late morning. My husband works hard, too hard really, though I do my best not to say so. I myself have given up working late at night. Whenever I can I’ll head to bed with time to read, my little ritual. I love this reading time, this me-time, particularly with a teenager in the house. With middle-age has come lighter sleep. I no longer sleep the way I once fell off a log into a slumber that the alarm fetched me from each morning. Mostly I’ll wake early and go out for a walk or to yoga, and bookend my day in this way. So that whatever happens in between, it feels like my day.

 

After that first night on the sofa bed, I found myself finding reasons which sounded like excuses to repeat it. I had an early start. I had a sore throat. I was worried about a deadline. My husband’s snoring got to me. I was grieving loved ones, even though years had passed since their deaths.

 

Over the years my husband, a Europhile and Scot, has lengthened his overseas work trips. He’s learned Italian and made Italian friends. He enjoys working in the same time zone as his partner in London. Having lived together in London and started a family  there, I understand my husband’s need for these trips, and support him in them. However this isn’t apparent in the days leading up to his departure , when I invariably feel like an abandoned child no matter what my grown-up self thinks.

 

Last year, when my husband set out on his annual trip, I realised that I had a choice. I needn’t feel abandoned in our big bed. Instead I could sleep on the sofa bed next door, and feel cosy and warm there. I could go to bed as early as I liked and wake up with the birds. I could relish the space and flexibility of sleeping on my own. I could lie in my single bed and feel continuous with my younger self, despite being middle-aged. Why, I wondered, hadn’t I thought of this before? Why was sleeping on my own such a big deal that in twenty-five years of sleeping with my husband I had never entertained it as a possibility?

 

Following my husband’s return from his work trip last spring, I didn’t leave the sofa bed for the big bed next door. I already had a bed. The big bed with my husband in it became the bed that I visited before returning to sleep on my own. Why, I asked myself, had it taken me so long to recognise my desire for my own bed? Had I just assumed that loving someone was synonymous with sleeping in the same bed? Not waking up in the same bed as my husband, not doing things as others did them, wasn’t this a betrayal of love? Wasn’t this cheating? Was I really allowed, in the middle of family life, to sleep alone? Yet no matter what questions washed through my head, as I lay in my bed, there was no denying that what had at first been a compromise now felt like a sanctuary.

 

Perhaps if I hadn’t become a light sleeper, perhaps if I was less sensitive and thicker skinned, perhaps if my husband hadn’t worked late or snored. Then again if I’d been a heavy sleeper, thicker skinned and insensitive, if my husband had come to bed without my nagging him, I’d never have discovered how much I enjoy the physical and spiritual act of sleeping alone, independent of the facts which led to it. For this simple change has liberated me. I don’t have to be divorced or widowed, or even unhappily married, before I can sleep alone. I can sleep in my own bed with my husband in his own bed, or even in another country in his own bed, and stay married. I can go to bed and wake up when I choose, just as I choose so many other things, like the weight of my duvet and the shape of my day.

 

As a young woman I felt sorry for Virginia Woolf, who slept in a narrow single bed despite being married to Leonard Woolf. I knew that she’d had a troubled girlhood and had suffered psychiatric problems. Perhaps, I thought, sleeping in a single bed was the price she’d had to pay for losing trust in others. These days however I don’t think this. These days I find myself imagining Virginia Woolf dreaming up scenes for her wonderful books as she drifted in and out of sleep in her single bed.

 

Usually I avoid telling friends that I sleep in my own bed. I feel sheepish about it, as if it’s something to be ashamed of, an admission of failure. Clearly for some it is, hence my sheepishness. Yet for me it feels closer to a kind of growing up, part of the messy process of finding out what I need to be me at this point in my life.

 

Sweet dreams.

 

 

 

deliverance

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A dog is never just a dog. A dog is a world. Pippi was the gel that held my funny family together, making sense of the whole, especially the garden. She never came when she was called. We stopped taking her to the dog beach because she was the second fastest dog, after whippets, and grew so excited fetching sticks from the surf we couldn’t catch her. She was the dog we never should have got yet had to have, had to love. She was the Kelpie-Collie who was asked to leave puppy training school because she was reactive. The dog who could skateboard, who loved hide and seek indoors, who would check on whoever spent too long in their room. The dog with whom I could never entirely relax and yet never felt lonely in her company. Part babysitter, part surveillance system, part personal trainer.

 

Pippi’s emotional antenna was so acute that she ran into the kitchen as soon as she felt she was needed. She could pick an unstable person on the street 100 metres away, becoming agitated to the point of lunging as they approached. Asian people reading their phones in the dark got her ire, especially if the hood happened to be up. She didn’t like children either, especially, embarrassingly, Asian ones, after being teased when young. She was a dog from the Pound who we looked after and loved for over five years until a dog trainer Pippi knew as a puppy came to the door the day before yesterday and, instead of eating her treat in the living room, Pippi nipped her bottom in the hall, snarling.

 

On Tuesday night, when Pippi wheeled around to lunge at a small dog on the opposite pavement, I did my best to reign her back. But my arm got caught in her mouth and she bit down. A cold night, I was wearing a thick coat, yet I still have teeth marks on my arm.

 

My mother, who grew up on a farm, always said we were crazy to get a Kelpie-Collie cross from the Pound. Yet friends were adamant. Why would you go to a breeder when there were already so many dogs in need of a good home?

 

And she did have a good home. For over five years I cared for her as devotedly as I did the rest of my family, just as in her way she looked after me. Thanks to her I had three walks a day, one long, two short, with her bouncing at my side, brightening everything around her, the wallaby at the next corner, the cat in the driveway, the starry sky above.

 

Pippi won over my dog-shy husband, their shared love of soccer becoming a bond. Pippi’s technical prowess impressed my husband who would do twenty kicks into different corners of the garden before, without so much as a by your leave, returning to his work.

 

The constraints that went with having a reactive dog were slow and incremental. The need to prepare visitors about her in advance, doping her before big occasions which she spent shut in a bedroom, the muzzle at the vet. But we didn’t mind, loving her as we did.

 

Even though Pippi was on Prozac there was a small part of her, no more than five percent, that wasn’t touched by medication. She’d always been anxious but increasingly her anxiety turned on itself until she became the aggressor, the looker-for-trouble. What was that black shadow on the street? The rustle in a bush?

 

The day before yesterday the dog trainer sat down at our kitchen table – all our big conversations seem to happen at our kitchen table – and within fifteen minutes, like a scene from a film, we were talking about ending Pippi’s life. She wasn’t sick, she wasn’t crazy, but she had the potential to harm and she couldn’t be a happy dog to think every new person was a foe.

 

Throughout her life Pippi went to day care. For five hours a day three times a week she played ball games, messed around, and slept on couches, all with twenty other dogs. The same dogs which, on a leash on the street or in the park, she’d snarl at.

 

The best and worst part of all this was the grace of the vet who sat down on a chair, when I visited the practice the night before last, and instead of talking me out of my decision, as I’d hoped she would, immediately said that it was right to put Pippi down. The right thing that felt like the wrong thing, for the rest of that night and into the morning.

 

On ending our conversation at the kitchen table the dog trainer offered to take Pippi to her vet, to alleviate the suffering of my daughter and me. But I demurred. Pippi was, I felt, my responsibility. And I’m so glad I did. That we had one more night together – one more walk with head-torches under a starry sky on our favourite bush track – and the chance to take Pippi to the vet in my own car first thing yesterday morning, and to hold her head in my hands as she crumpled under the double dose of anaesthesia the vet expertly gave her.

 

Sitting on the same headland last night, that we circled with Pippi on Tuesday, watching the sun go down behind the mountain, a thought ran through my head which I thought not to say aloud to my daughter. In heartbreak there is deliverance. Thank you Pippi.

 

monk mode

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For the last two months I have been in monk mode. In monk mode I go about my normal life, oh that it were, doing my usual things – walking the dog, writing, yoga, cooking dinner, cleaning the house, talking with my daughter – with one difference. I pretend that I’m invisible. I’m not really invisible. I don’t actively avoid people. I just don’t seek them out and, when a social event comes up that it’s possible to duck, I duck it.

 

If an editor from the US, sadly not a publisher, hadn’t put me up to the changes I made to the manuscript I sent her two days ago, I wouldn’t have made them. Having written my last book in the first person, I was dead keen not to do it again. But the editor won. My agent however wasn’t convinced. ‘What’, she asked, sounding worried, ‘another memoir?’ ‘You mean’, said my daughter with characteristic tact, ‘you are writing about you again?’

 

Who else but me would write an intimate history of housekeeping? A subject which, far from sexy, has been on my mind for thirty years. Although housekeeping is a bigger topic than housework, I did include a scene in our kitchen which opens with my daughter calling me Cinderella, and closes with me banging my shin on the dishwasher and swearing loudly, to which my son, his hand on my shoulder, says to me, ‘you’re not being horrible because you’re horrible’.

 

The manuscript I’ve just pressed Send on is about something more personal and interior than housework. It goes back to before I had children, to even before I swore I’d never have children. It goes back to a feeling that I didn’t have words for at the time. It goes back to my not feeling sure that I was worth looking after. Perhaps this is a feeling that many of us experience fleetingly, while growing up, a feeling which, if we have it, we suppress in order to get on with life.

 

One of the best things about writing about domesticity has been the little things that people told me along the way that made me realise what a big thing looking after ourselves really is. The home-made card from an acquaintance who declined to be interviewed about domestic life on the grounds that, ‘I hate housework’. The friend who convinced me that cooking is a performance and that loud music, a glass of wine and doubling the quantities are essential. The woman who, despite moving home forty times, longs to put down roots and would love nothing more than a bed by the oven so she could bake at all hours. The minimalist architect who can’t sit down to work at home until he’s cleaned up the kitchen and put on a load of washing. The woman who does all her cooking in a Thermomix and washes up before meals. The woman who travels a lot and needs only her cushion, lamp and mug to feel at home. The vegan opera singer who chooses her accommodation on tour on the basis of whether it has an oven in which she can bake which in turn allows her to say to herself, at the end of each concert, ‘Now I’m going home’. The young woman whose father wears a tea-cosy as a hat and sings to himself as he goes about cooking in his cold kitchen. The woman who gave me the idea of going outside to pick flowers to put in a vase as a way of drawing a line after cleaning the house. The friend who enjoys nothing more than a good steam clean in her pyjamas on Saturday mornings. The woman who took a month to go through her house from top to bottom, while working full-time, to cleanse it of her kids’ childhood and to make space for life to come. The woman who pointed out that when a home isn’t looked after, when the spaces aren’t loved, the only option is for it to fall apart.

 

None of these stories made it into my manuscript, the editor having advised against them in an earlier draft. On the other hand if my mind hadn’t been full of these stories I’d never have completed the manuscript. And I’d have been a heap more lonely in monk mode.

 

During these last two weeks, when not swimming with my daughter at the local pool, or sitting on the beach while she surfs, I’ve been standing up working at our metre-high kitchen bench, looking up as the lamp in the corner takes on square shadows late afternoon, wishing that a fairy would cook dinner, and ignoring our dog as she stretched out in puppy pose, begging for her dinner and a walk.

 

Last week I cancelled dinner with friends twice. I didn’t say I was in monk mode, but they got that I was. Knowing I needed to press Send before my editor, 32 weeks pregnant, had her baby, it was as if I couldn’t care about anyone or anything else, over and above immediate family. On Friday evening, despite having a few more hours up my sleeve, and disregarding the three pages of notes I’d promised myself I’d slip into the manuscript, I pressed Send.

muttonbird

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Drinking tea and writing in a local cafe, the barrista bends across the counter and asks if I’ve tried muttonbird before. ‘No’, I reply, surprised. ‘Would you like to?’ ‘Of course, I’d love to’. Kevin disappears behind a screen with some dark meat in a small plastic bag which I can hear him taking out and putting on a plate for the microwave.

A minute later Kevin reappears with steaming dark meat on a plate. ‘Try some’, he says, and I take a piece with my fingers and put it in my mouth. He disappears, offering the meat around the cafe. I chew the muttonbird meat in my mouth. It tastes of sardines and lamb and game meat all mixed together. It feels stringy yet oily and almost melting. It tastes like nothing I’ve had in my mouth before, a kind of meat-fish.

Kevin returns and I stumble my response. ‘It must be full of good things’, I say. ‘Yeh,’ he says. ‘My Gran, she took a teaspoon of muttonbird oil on a spoon every day of her life and she was never a day ill. Even today’, he says, miming his Gran, ‘she takes a drop and rubs it on her face and another on her hands’. ‘Doesn’t it smell?’ I ask. ‘Nup, not really. But my Mum, when I suggested she get some for her face’, and he laughs, ‘she gave me one’.

I put away my pen with the taste of muttonbird – a protected species on the islands north of Tasmania – in my mouth. ‘Truffles next’, I say to Kevin on my way out. ‘Sure’, he returns. ‘But you’re bringing them’. An hour later the taste of muttonbird – oily, gamey, all wrong yet delicious – is still in my mouth.

running errands

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When I’m working to a deadline at home there’s a moment, today it was just after breakfast, when everything else seems more important than my own work. The jobs I happily put off when I’m working in town start pressuring me to do their bidding each time I walk by. The school blazer that has hung in the broom cupboard for four months rebukes me as I open the door for the dustpan and broom. The iron which burst its fuse when I failed to fill it with water looks at me wanly, next to a pile of unironed clothes. Reminders for overdue books from the library blink at me when I check email. A bag of plastic and another of glass bottles, ready to take to the health food store for recycling, bulges. An empty jar of suncream needs replacing. Two of my jackets need to visit my favourite seamstress at the dry cleaner. The worms need a new blanket now the nights are getting colder. The back lawn, made scraggy by soccer games with our dog, could do with fertilising before this weeks’ forecast rain. A cardboard box of stuff in the basement is ready for the charity shop. A stack of magazines by the front door is waiting for a lift to the local doctor’s waiting rooms. A plane ticket for my son needs to be paid for at the local flight centre.

 

With my computer open I jot down a list of errands in my notebook, to stop them creeping into my mind like uninvited guests. For a while this keeps them at bay. However once the number of errands reaches ten I flip my computer shut, clip the leash to the dog, fetch the school blazer, jackets, library books, magazines, plastics and bottles, and jump in the car, thinking that I’ll make it a game to get my errands done in as short a time as possible.

 

The uniform shop is closed but the woman at the school’s reception kindly accepts the blazer, my last link with school life. The appliance repair man frowns at my Phillips iron which he says hasn’t been manufactured to be repaired, and agrees to text me later that day. The library is full of further temptations that I mostly withstand. The health-food shop has already accepted a large bin bag of scrunchable plastics that morning. The skin clinic is out of my suncream but agrees to call me once it arrives. The doctor’s receptionist is pleased to receive a stack of New Scientist magazines. The seamstress at the dry cleaner takes my jackets with a smile. The travel agent at the flight centre books a flexible flight for my son. And the dog is pleased when I’m done and can take her for a walk on a local track.

 

I could have gone on overfilling the charity box in the basement and ignoring the school blazer in the broom cupboard. I could have tossed the plastics and bottles and New Scientist magazines in the rubbish and recycling bin, as until this year I did. If I were properly single-minded in achieving my work deadline of early June I would not have allowed myself a two-hour distraction on a Thursday morning. I would be the kind of person who integrated their errands into their already streamlined day.

 

For hundreds of years the world ‘priority’ was used in the singular. Only in the last twenty years has its meaning included the plural. These days we’re able to have more than one priority, we have priorities. We’re so advanced that we’re able to care about more than one thing at once. We’re able to consign whatever isn’t a priority to the waiting room in our heads in order to concentrate on what really matters. Except for laggards like me who, unable to compartmentalise, feel a weight lift from my shoulders once my errands are run and I can sit at my desk with the focus that comes from being free from distraction.

Ageing well

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Around this time in the afternoon last Saturday, I called my favourite and only living aunt. When she didn’t pick up I called her back a few minutes later and spoke to a nurse who kindly took the phone to where my aunt was sitting in the sun in a corner lounge. ‘Are you coming?’ she asked, excited. When I explained that I was walking our dog on a bush track in Hobart, the excitement left her voice and we went on to familiar topics. My daughter was sailing in a Regatta near Launceston in the rain, my son’s ship was nearing the Shetland Islands; I was completing a manuscript and my husband was working too hard.

 

‘But’, my aunt said, ‘my second husband will be here any minute to take me home’. ‘Yes of course’, I said, knowing she’d been married only once. ‘Do you need to get ready?’ ‘No’, she said, ‘I’ll just wait here on the beach. He knows where to find me’. Getting wafty was nothing new. My aunt had been getting wafty for a few months now. What however I was never prepared for was her lucidity, which came and went at the same rate as her waftiness. ‘Mind you don’t let that daughter of yours get the better of you’, she’d say. ‘In no time at all she won’t need you’.

 

Last Saturday my aunt was extra lucid and super wafty. ‘What about those bandages on your legs?’ I asked, bringing her back to earth, knowing from chatting to the nurse that the sores on her legs were infected. ‘Oh, I don’t worry about them’, my aunt said airily, and turned the conversation back to my daughter. At that moment I wanted to call her back, to reach out physically through the phone to stop her slipping away. To keep her feet on the beach, on the reclining chair on the second floor of her nursing home. I knew I was being selfish. I knew perfectly well that if I was 91, sitting aimlessly through the afternoon with my legs bandaged from consecutive falls, nearly blind and unable to work the television in my room, eating food I didn’t like at boarding school hours, I too might feel that it was time to move on.

 

Every time I’ve ever called my aunt she’s sounded pleased to hear my voice. Thanking me for calling she’ll insist, in the next breath, that she couldn’t possibly be of use to anyone. My response, like a refrain, will be to point out how important she is to me and that she can never be replaced. However recently even hearing this from me isn’t enough to outweigh the soul-sapping losses that have accompanied her ageing.

 

On Wednesday afternoon, finishing up at my desk, I call my aunt. A man picks up. Confused, I apologise, thinking I’ve called the wrong number. After a couple of seconds I realise that it’s my cousin, my aunt’s only child. He quickly explains that Nina has lost consciousness and that the doctor reckons she hasn’t long to live. As we chat I imagine Nina in the next room – my mother died of pneumonia – and pray silently that her end, much as I can’t bear losing her, won’t be prolonged. Knowing my aunt’s wishes, and the presence of her family doctor next door, reassures me that it won’t be. I end the call, get up from the desk, leave my husband’s office and join the street, which seems a different street to the one I stepped out of a few hours earlier.

 

Refusing to decorate her room in the nursing home, my aunt always maintained, rightly as it turned out, that it wasn’t worth decorating because she wasn’t there to stay. She was going home. Every time I called she’d mention that she was waiting to be taken home; a taxi or her son might be arriving any time. It was as if in her mind her whole existence had become a clerical error. She had, as we say, lost her dignity. But more fundamentally she had lost her reason to live, taken off her like a visa at border control, leaving all those who her loved her looking on helpless and hoping like hell that such a fate doesn’t await us.

 

Like King Lear railing in the storm, my aunt refused to accept ageing – reality – as it is. Yet even as she railed, even as she agreed with me that she felt imprisoned on the second floor of her nursing home, she was capable, in her next breath, of radiating an emotional intelligence that I’d be proud to possess.

 

Thankfully, five hours after I spoke to my cousin on Wednesday afternoon, my aunt died.

 

There have been a finite number of people in my life who get me in the deep way that Nina did. She was able to see the good in me even when I couldn’t. She recognised when I’d been brave, and worried about my future. She was there for my kids too; her support of and interest in them was boundless. My husband too, though not as boundlessly.

 

Stuck in the limbo of not knowing what to do with myself in the hour after receiving news of my aunt’s death, I packed my bags and drove across the state to spend the night with my daughter who, in the middle of a long conversation largely unrelated to her great aunt, told me that she’d never been to a wedding.

 

Two days away from home work for me, even though they change nothing. Travel is perspective and there is much kindness to be found in others – especially when I don’t realise how much I’m in need of it.

 

Did my aunt, I wonder, as I walk around a neighbouring city, age well? No, not really. Was she good at living? Yes, absolutely, which is surely more important. Is she still with me? Yes and no. Certainly her spirit will live on, inspiring me to find time to draw and play piano and garden, and to embrace the transience of life.

 

Every writer needs an aunt who puts one of their books on the coffee table before a visit.

Thank you Nina.

 

 

momentous

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By the end of the afternoon, assuming all goes well, or even mostly well, my nest will be empty. The goldfish will circle their tank, wondering where my daughter is. Our dog will sniff her room, nudging her bedcovers in case she’s under them; longing for treats for playing dead and for scooting on the skateboard in the hall. My husband won’t know himself at not being teased at supper; no-one to tell him that his jacket is tucked into his trousers at the back, no-one to thrash him at cards.

‘She’ll be back at weekends’, my husband soothes. ‘Yes, yes’, I say. ‘But a thread has broken’, and I look at him knowingly.

I always knew that mothering wasn’t for ever, that one day I’d have to bow out and leave the main stage. Yet it was an abstract sort of knowing, easily deferred by being back-to-back busy, or by using a comfy conditional tense. Whereas now, counting down the hours before the bus leaves with my daughter on it, there’s no comfort to be had in deferral.

I’ve seen where my daughter will live; I’ve met some of the staff. On driving home from the campus last week I had to bite my tongue and push my sunglasses up my nose to prevent my daughter from noticing my tears. ‘Sometimes you win less than you lose’, was the song lyric that did me in, eyes on the road ahead, clocking up the miles and wondering what to cook for dinner.

I don’t want my daughter to go, yet sense that she needs to, even as it feels all wrong that she must. My heart rebels while my head accepts it. I know that my daughter needs to not need me, to make her mind up about life without me in the picture.

Where does this leave me? Rattling round a big old house wondering where all the years went? Shutting doors on empty rooms, circling our house like the goldfish in the tank, waiting for life as I’ve known it to resume? Texting my daughter needlessly to confirm my redundancy?

By what alchemical process did I become a walk-on part in my kids’ lives, no longer at the beck and call of whoever is in the next room; a move as seamless and reprehensible as the slip from present to past tense?

Whenever I take a plane flight I sit through the safety drill before take-off ninety-nine percent certain that I’ll never have to buckle up a life jacket and slide down a plastic chute to land on open water. Right now, seated gingerly on the edge of my near empty nest, I can feel the plane doors cracking open, cold wind rushing on to my face.

For years I told myself this would never happen. Only now do I see my mistake, and also how necessary my mistake was. A duvet, cutlery, bath towel and frying pan, thank you IKEA, sit packed into a bulging rucksack by the front door. The rucksack is real; it’s way too heavy to be a mistake.

No more endless laundry and snacks and pick-ups to organise my day around. No more hazy conversations in our parked car at dusk about possible futures. My freedom isn’t complete; work makes demands on me, my husband seeks company, our dog is active, and the house and garden never let up. And yet, and yet.

How I duck the main question, so big that it embarrasses me. How will I conceive of myself, after twenty years as the pivot around which my family swings, as just me? It’s not my identity I’m worried about; I know perfectly well who I am. It’s the way the woman I am has for so long meshed with my family relationships. Will this mesh dissolve, like stitches after surgery? Or will the weave slowly loosen?

How much time will have to pass before I start relishing – like the waitress in a local café suggested I would – there being less mess round the house? How many days will I  awaken to before, rather than feeling bereft on waking, I feel grateful for a clear horizon?

 

abide with me

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After scrolling through The New York Times headlines I flipped over to facebook – breaking my rule of no social media till late afternoon. A friend I’d often visited with my now grown-up son, when he was a toddler in London, had posted news of her divorce. Twenty-four years of marriage, which when I knew her was as strong as mine, had broken down after what she said the courts described as ‘fifteen years of psychological and financial abuse’. I reeled inside, knowing how much more complicated my friend’s story must be, and also that I risked missing a yoga class if I spent any more time on-line.

 

The morning after I got married, twenty-two years ago, I walked across Hyde Park with my mother-in-law. As she strolled along, in her shoes not made for walking, she told me how much better a job at marriage she was confident that I’d do, than she had done herself. Head to the ground she told me that she’d always done her best, and that this was all, in the circumstances, she’d felt able to do. Walking by her side I felt sorry for my mother-in-law, who after raising four healthy children with her artist husband, felt that she’d failed because her marriage had ended in divorce.

 

I didn’t empathise with my mother-in-law’s regrets. Perhaps thanks to my parents’ marriage, I felt confident that my marriage would work out, that I had it within me to make it work. Instead I blithely assumed that the difficulties my parents-in-law encountered lay inside of them. It was the peculiar alchemy of their personalities that had determined the trajectory of their relationship, two doomed planets crashing towards Earth. There was a poetic inevitability about it all. The fiery temper of my father-in-law. The submissive doggedness of my mother-in-law. The God in the middle who, despite my mother-in-law’s belief in infinite love, failed to hold it all together. All rolled into an after dinner story that Paul shared with friends round our kitchen table.

 

Walking across that London park, my mother-in-law at my side, I had everything to look forward to. I didn’t believe in happily-ever-afters, I’d spent enough time in therapy to convince me of this. Nonetheless something deep inside – a mix of youth, pride and inexperience – shielded me from my mother-in-law’s pain, the morning after I married her son.

 

These days, now that I have a few regrets of my own, I quicken to those of my mother-in-law’s. I can see that, like her, I’ve done my best; even though, as for her, my best wasn’t always enough. Like her I feel downcast when I view my marriage as a catalogue of errors, as riddled with bullet holes as a road sign after a teenage shoot out. However mostly I manage not to do this, preferring to see my marriage as a piece of metal lacework, as a thing of beauty wrought into intricate shapes at very high heat.

 

The morning after I married Paul, I had family on my mind. It was an easy fantasy to have: bedside stories before lights out, holding a little hand on street corners, jumping waves at the beach. Not for a second did my fantasy include sharing the dinner table with two teenagers as intermittently surly and acute as I once was, a spotty teenager seated at my own family dinner table.

 

Walking over Hyde Park, half a stride in front of my mother-in-law, I had no idea of the emotional fall-out that two healthy teenagers might unwittingly wreak on their hapless parents in their unconscious effort to free themselves from childhood. I knew nothing about being on the receiving end of the emotional shrapnel of family life, the casual teasing and constant belittling that even a happy family has to withstand if it’s to survive the changes brought by teenagers’ looming independence. I had no idea how brave and strong we’d all need to be in order to get through the joy and upset that family life would throw at us.

 

‘They fuck you up’, wrote Phillip Larkin, ‘your Mum and Dad’. Well, sure they do. However what Larkin, who never had children, failed to add, was that kids fuck up their parents too. My kids are far more acute on my flaws, and more unflinching in their critique of Paul and me, than even my worst self slander. They know us far too well, yet not well enough. Just as we, their parents, understand yet fail to understand them.

 

None of this harm is intentional. My husband and I didn’t set out to wreak havoc on our kids any more than our kids planned the havoc they wreak on us. In surviving family life I think that Paul and I, just like my mother-in-law and every other parent, deserve enormous sympathy. We don’t deserve a list of our errors read aloud in a court of law: I’m controlling, Paul is selfish, we’re both insecure. The fuck-up of my marriage now seems normal to me; it’s a sign of the messiness of existence, part of the way of things. It confirms my need for friends and family and Shakespeare and pop music and film; not legal process.

 

As it turned out, my mother-in-law was wrong. Mine has not been a marriage made in heaven. Paul and I weren’t made for each other. Never enough for each other, we’ve failed to make each other happy. More elusive still, we haven’t fulfilled each other. After thirty years of living side by side it doesn’t surprise me that our marriage contains a few cracks. Nor does it seem helpful to ascribe blame for these cracks on Paul or me. I’d sooner put the strains in our marriage down to the sheer difficulty of life, than to a list of our incompatibilities and faults.

 

The fact that Paul and I have let each other down doesn’t seem a big deal to me. I don’t mind having a few cracks in our relationship. They give me space to breath. Perhaps I’m being defensive, however the failures in my marriage seem beside the point. The real point is that Paul and I have chosen to stick together even though we’ve failed each other in various areas; even knowing that we’d do things differently if we had our time over – which we won’t.

 

Paul and I have done something more important than make each other happy (envious though I am of couples who can do this). We’ve abided with each other. The OED defines ‘abide’ in these terms: remain, continue, dwell; remain faithful to; encounter, sustain, suffer with; put up with, tolerate, wait for’. Though this word is only used rarely these days, for me it holds real value.

 

I feel sad that my friend’s marriage should have ended in heartbreak. It seems all wrong that justice should be meted out on a well-intended couple under harsh strip lighting in a courtroom. Surely there is a more gracious – a softer, more piercing and subtle – way to exit a long marriage? After years of trying to hold it all together, of getting three kids over the threshold of maturity, it seems all wrong to sully a marriage which, even if it hasn’t gone completely well, hasn’t gone entirely badly either. It seems all wrong that in a couple’s search for justice, the whole crazy unfolding richness of a life together should be cast aside by a prosecuting lawyer who deems it irrelevant to the case.

 

If I could retrace my steps, if I could walk back over Hyde Park with my mother-in-law the morning after marrying her son, I’d start by congratulating her. Who cares if your marriage ended in divorce, I’d say. Everyone who endures a long marriage – or any partnership – deserves a medal. You mustn’t take it to heart, I’d say, my hand on her arm. It really isn’t anyone’s fault. The fault is in the stars. The sheer difficulty of life gets us all in the end, which is why we should celebrate rather than be ashamed by our run-ins with it.

Before getting up the next morning and doing it all again.