helen hayward

life writing

painting the house

20230119_105720

‘Remember back to a time when you prayed for what you have now.’

Anon

‘You know’, said Dan, as he skulled the last of his tea from the mug I’d brought him, ‘I just heard on the radio that 1% of people in this country earn $12k an hour. Can that really be true?’

‘I don’t know’, I replied. ‘I’m terrible with statistics like that. I always get them wrong. But yes, some people do make insane amounts of money. Though $12k an hour does seem like a lot’.

‘Well’, said Dan, ‘I reckon it’s just them big fellas at the top of those mega corporations that make that big bucks like that’.

Then, as if nothing more was to be said on the subject, Dan handed me his mug and switched his attention to the painting job he was in the middle of. ‘I reckon I’ll start cleaning those eaves and gutters now, and let them cracks cure a bit longer’.

‘Great’, I said, hoping I didn’t sound eager to hear that he’d soon be getting his brushes out after 11 days of grinding ivy off plaster followed by filling cracks and holes with 20kg of mortar. I looked up at the scaffolding surrounding the side of the house, and then down at the garden, squashed by scaffolders, two storeys of scaffolding and lack of rain.

In recent months, there’d been a shift in my feelings about the house I stood beneath. It was no longer a house that I shared with my ex-husband. It was still a family house which I shared with my kids. However, these days it felt like my property. It was my joy and also my responsibility. A bit like my dog who, 3 years ago, was a family dog, but now feels like my dog. My kids still get the benefit of him – he’s a Labrador; but they don’t take responsibility unless I am stuck. Equally, nowadays I’m the one who makes the hard decisions on the house’s behalf. Thankfully, as the months come and go, I feel more confident about making them.

Dan the painter is my age – though he doesn’t know it. He often talks about his age. It’s a benchmark for him in a way that it isn’t for me. For him, age is a countdown until retirement; for me, it’s not. Dan has been up a ladder with a paint brush since he left school at 14. His father, a plasterer, did the same. Dan lives over the river on a large block with his wife whom he married when she fell pregnant at 18 and he was 19, along with various animals including ducks, goats and a group of wallabies who, on hot days, he leaves out water for so they can lounge around in the shade of his shed. As a young man, Dan bought a 1954 orange Cortina which a mechanic is currently in the process of replacing the engine of. Dan plays CD’s in his ute, has Foxtel but no internet in his house, and finds his way around Hobart via the houses he’s painted, inside and out, over the years.

Dan has a big tummy, a sun-aged neck and a dodgy back that, when it gives him grief ‘on the job’, he pops a few painkillers for. He drinks flavoured milk which he insists I should try, has 2 sugars in his milky tea and fetches a banana from his car mid-morning. As he works, he listens to his phone on a talk channel. And, for me slightly worryingly, he frequently chats to himself on the scaffolding.

Last night, at dinner, I told my kids that I’d heard Dan repeat verbatim what he’d mentioned to me at tea-time that morning, that he would be knocking off early to see someone about his tax. Ten minutes later, I heard him repeat this, as I made my bed upstairs after an early yoga class.

‘Sounds pretty normal to me’, said my son. ‘I talk to myself in the car after I’ve done something dumb’.

Often, at night, I’ll climb the three ladders that take me to the second level of scaffolding, put up at vast expense. From there I can see straight into all the upstairs windows, as a passing bird might. I can look down on the river below, unhindered by the leafy trees that obscure my view from inside the house.

Each time I top the third ladder and stand on the scaffolding, I feel a lift. As if, from one second to the next, I’m on the outside of my life looking in. Being up there gives me a perspective on the years behind me that I rarely enjoyed at the time. My mind slips back to how the rooms looked when we first moved into them, 13 years ago. Glimpses of the living that went on in them come back to me through the 12-paned windows. Standing up there, gazing out, I don’t want that time back, exactly. Even so, as I pad up and down the scaffolding, I do give it a small salute, thanking life for having given it to me.

As I descend the ladder, I try not to take in the smashed up garden beneath my feet before I unhook the hose and turn on the tap in an attempt to revive it. Then I head to the bottom of the garden to water the new trees that, in time, will screen out my grumpy neighbours, mentally counting to 30 as water pours from the hose on to the base of each tree.

life advice

FAMILY

‘How has it come about that we have been educated to have expectations

about life that are so likely to leave us feeling defeated?’

Adam Phillips, ‘Against self-criticism’

At the end of last year, The New York Times asked readers for the best life advice they’ve been given so far. Out of 600 replies they printed 20. Here are the 5 pieces that resonated with me, and why.

1. Intimacy isn’t something you have. It’s something you do.

Now that I’m on my own more, this advice seems especially apt. I can do intimacy with my dog – really I can – by chatting to him as I cook (he’s my sous chef), or playing hide-and-seek together on a hot day. Equally, I can use my phone to confirm everything that I’m missing out on during the tail end the festive period, or I can use my phone to reach out to others and do intimacy in my own way.

2. You cannot learn anything when you are talking.

As the ex-wife of a big talker, this seems eminently true. It may even explain how I learned all that I did.

3. Walk towards the monster (the pain, the scary thing, the grief).

This advice has been hard to follow these last weeks when, apart from teaching yoga, writing, walking the dog, cooking some meals and tending the garden, there has been little that I’ve had to do. (Thinking about it, I probably didn’t have to shampoo the carpets which, all the same, was very satisfying.)

New Year’s Eve was my monster – the evening that I couldn’t avoid, pregnant with possibility and what if’s that bubbled up from my unconscious. Did I walk towards it? Not exactly. I met it sideways. I chatted to people on the beach while my dog scavenged in the sand dunes for abandoned take-away food as we waited for the early fireworks – and then fed the dog non-stop treats as they exploded in the sky. Once back home, I watched the Joan Didion biopic which was as moving as it was fascinating.

So, not a monster at all…

4. Never take criticism from someone you wouldn’t go to for advice.

This seems salient, especially for someone like me who has a habit of bossing myself around from within by a superego that I’d never ask advice from because, like most superegos, it has a reduced and skewed view of who and what I am.

5. Give up all hope of changing the past.

Oh wow. This advice is sage and, perhaps for that reason, hard to follow. What I wouldn’t give to dart back to the past and change a few key coordinates so that I wouldn’t end up in the marriage-less state I now find myself in. And yet, and yet. Because when I can let go of this hope, there is such relief to be had in not trying to change what was never in my control in the first place – my life; and to realise that my desire to remake the past according to my wishes reflects a hard-won emotional truth, which is that ‘the pain of uncertainty is greater than the pain of regret’ (Amy Summerville). Not knowing how things will go in the future, in other words, is more stressful than wishing things were otherwise in the past.

Yet there is something very welcome about letting go of my fantasy of a long and happy marriage, like a helium balloon released into the sky, and instead to accept that I had the marriage I had, a marriage far too complex to describe in a paragraph or two, much less to pass judgment on, before clapping the book shut.

At the beginning of yoga class, the teacher will often ask us – our eyes closed following a breathing exercise – to set an intention for our practice. Recently, I’ve set the same intention: ‘Let me stay open’. This simple wish seems to cover everything – that I may stay open to whatever happens in the year ahead rather than defending against it. If I can do this, I tell myself, it’s enough.

clean, cleaner, cleanest

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I was telling my son about ‘The Comfort Crisis’, an audio book I’ve been listening to. It argued, I told him, that society has made life so easy that the challenges humans once met in the wild, which gave them strength and balance, have fallen out of daily life. The story unfolds during a trip to hunt caribou in the Arctic, at the end of which the narrator, Michael Easter, looks in a hotel mirror and doesn’t recognise himself before he takes his first hot shower in 5 weeks. It was at this point in our conversation that my son asked me a question.

‘What’s the longest period you’ve ever gone without having a shower?’ Not knowing the answer and not wanting to fib, I turned the question back on him.

‘Two weeks’, he said. We laughed, before the conversation veered off in another direction.

That night, I pulled down a Penguin hardback from the bookshelf, ‘Clean: the new science of skin’ by James Hamblin MD. Inside the front cover, as a protection against my lending habits, I’d written ‘Aug 2020’ in red biro. I knew that it was too late to start rereading the book. But I did read a few pages under the lamp in the hall, just enough to be reminded of why the book made the impact it did on me, changing the course of what I did and didn’t do in the bathroom.

Even as I read odd pages from ‘Clean’, I knew why I hadn’t answered my son’s question about how long I’d gone without a shower. I knew that the daily shower habit that I’d been in thrall to for most of my life had an equal grip on him, and that there was nothing I could say to him over dinner to make him change his mind.

Like everyone else, my son knows something about the microbiome that lives in our gut – you’d have to have lived under a rock, these last few years, not to have heard about that. Even so, I feel pretty sure he doesn’t know that our skin has a microbiome of its own, populated with just as big a variety of microbes, most of them good, as our gut. Skin microbes which, when left alone, know how to look after themselves. I also knew, again from experience, that if and when my son did find out about the ecosystem that lives on our skin – which, by the way, is our biggest organ – there are better sources of this information than me, his mother. Which is why I kept quiet as a mouse when he asked about showering at dinner, and steered our conversation into safe waters.

So far, I’ve been lucky with my health which, because of my family’s chequered medical history, I’ve never taken for granted. I don’t take health risks and I do just about anything to avoid medical appointments clogging up my day. My broad response to the challenges of getting older is ’less is more’: not too much stress, minimal testing and lots of time in nature.

Still, as I’ve gotten older my body has played a few tricks, one of them skin related. Twice, in a 15-year span, I visited my GP to show him a rash that appeared on my body – once under my arm and another time on my thigh. This rash didn’t itch or hurt. But the fact that it grew bothered me. What if it took over my whole body? On both occasions, my GP – different men in different states – laughed at my worry. Then, after a quick look at my rash, they printed out a prescription for a cortisone ointment and gave me a Latin name for the rash.

‘Don’t worry’, the first doctor said, ‘if the cream doesn’t work, the rash will fade away by itself. Although’, he added, ‘it’s likely to get bigger before it does’.

The second time I came home from the doctor with the same script, I Googled the Latin name I’d scribbled down on a piece of paper. Within minutes, I’d alarmed myself with horror stories of people whose red rashes had made them demented. ‘Well’, I thought, ‘I’m definitely not going down that path’. So it wasn’t by chance that my ears pricked when I heard an interview with one of my favourite ‘The Atlantic’ writers, James Hamblin, who, to prove his point that a daily shower is the triumph of market-led behaviour, stopped showering completely. I felt shocked when he said this. It seemed so extreme. Wasn’t it disgusting not to shower regularly? And how did Hamblin’s girlfriend put up with a smelly boyfriend? But I was intrigued, too. Because Hamblin didn’t give up showering just to prove that his skin could clean itself. He stopped showering because new research into the skin microbiome suggests that our skin stays in better condition when we don’t lather away the microbes on its surface that keep it happy.

Before long, I was listening to Hamblin read ‘Clean’ on Audible. I found it so interesting that I bought a copy to lend to friends. Then I took the next step. Initially, I experimented with not showering for a week. Just to see what – if anything – happened. I washed my face and what Hamblin described as my ‘moist bits’ in the hand-basin morning and night; so I didn’t smell or feel unclean. When a week went by and nothing happened, I extended the experiment. Still nothing happened. I found ways to clean my hair and scalp without lathering it under the shower. I saved a significant amount of time and a not insignificant amount of water. And, as one month turned into three months, my red rash faded away – never, touch wood, to return.

This next bit is delicate. However, for clarity’s sake I should add that while I don’t have a bidet in my bathroom (though would like one), I do keep a bottle of diluted vinegar which I wet the loo paper with after going to the loo, which solves that problem.

I’m not seeking to convince you, on the strength of a blog post, to ditch hot showers and luxurious lathers. Self-care is, after all, a very personal domain. However, it’s also more socially determined than most of us realise. Before homes were plumbed for hot water, the market for cleanliness exploded and kids played more outside than inside, people managed to stay clean. I’m not saying that things were better in the past. I’ve no doubt that self-care was a lot harder back then. Still, it does seem, from my reading of ‘Clean,’ that the ways people found to keep themselves clean in the past had less impact on their skin microbiome than the ways that modern bathrooms and clever marketers have made the norm today.

When I was young and living in London, I often visited a friend’s mother in Norwich on the weekend. Kirsten and her mother knew all about my daily hot showers. One morning, over breakfast, Mary gently suggested that my acned skin might do better with less washing. I took her point, knowing it was well intended. But I kept up my routine all the same. A daily shower was at that point so much a part of how I got from day to day that I couldn’t imagine my life without it.

A lot of water has passed under the bridge since then. However, recently, not much of that water has fallen on me. Because apart from a quick rinse after surfing and hot yoga and gardening, August 2020 was the last time that I stood under a hot shower lathering my body, fogging up the bathroom with steam.

another wedding

‘Loose ends can never be properly tied, one is always producing new ones.

Time, like the sea, unties all knots’.

Maria Popova, The Marginalian

Yesterday I went to a family wedding in the city I grew up in. My sisters helped to do the flowers which, by 3pm, were struggling in the heat. My younger sister, the mother of the groom who is my godson, coordinated the proceedings with the bride’s family. At 3.30pm, the celebrant called to attention the brightly-coloured crowd in the courtyard of the old Treasury building. The vows between the couple were sincere and heartfelt – so much so that the bride and groom stumbled over some of their words. They spoke of their deep love, of holding hands into old age, and of their devotion to each other completing them in a way that made them better as a couple than as individuals.

Returning to the city I grew up in is always a powerful experience for me. By chance, or, should I say, by that city’s logic, I went to primary school with the mother of the bride. When she drew up a chair, late in the evening, I was struck not by what she told me about the careers of various girls from school, but by her parting comment: ‘Perhaps’, she said, ‘it’s time that you came back here to live’. It was well meant, of course. Yet what I heard, behind her words, was a bigger story, a home-town story, in which family and friends band together to make life easier against the perplexities of an increasingly uncertain world.

Yesterday morning, before the wedding, I visited my godmother. As we sat on the pink chintz sofa that she’s had, in various flats, since I can remember, I asked her a question I’d been meaning to ask for a while, but hadn’t wanted to put to her over the phone.

‘How have you felt, Sue, over the years, about living on your own?’

‘Oh’, she replied, ‘that’s an interesting question. It’s something my friends often talk about. They either love it or hate it. They have very strong opinions about it’. She paused and looked at me. ‘But me? Well, I’ve always needed a fella’.

When I came away from the wedding reception, late last night, I felt two things. Firstly that in separating from my husband I’d strayed from the happily-ever-after story that my upbringing led me to expect from marriage. And secondly, more weird because sudden, I realised that now that my nieces and nephews were coupling up and having babies, that I’d been pushed, via social evolution, into the older generation. Standing in line for the toilet, I noticed a glazed over look of the younger women who, also lined up, had eyes for each other but not for me. Perhaps because I haven’t lived in my home town since I left, aged 21, this realisation didn’t creep up bit by bit, as it might have done if I’d stayed, but forcibly in one hit as I looked around at assembled wedding guests. It was the tummies on many of the men my age, and the wrinkles around eyes and necks of the women – including mine.

And yet, and yet. Mingling at the wedding, I also felt an ease that comes from being from a recognised family, with our particular strengths and tragedies. I felt wonder at seeing grown-up versions of nieces and nephews that I’d previously only seen at 3 to 5 year intervals; and I had a hunch that there was every reason to think that their lives would unfold with the same mixture of luck, inevitability and fate as those of my generation.

When my brother-in-law, father of the groom, got up to speak – by which point the speeches were already double the length of the marriage ceremony – his advice to the newly-weds was brief. ‘Compromise!’ he said, with a small boom in his voice. ‘Right’, I thought, shifting my weight from one high heel to the other, ‘that just about takes care of it’. Then Andy said something I found more interesting. Almost in passing, he said that his son was ‘an old soul in a young body’, which I took to mean that my godson was more responsible, more solid somehow, than his father had felt at the same age.

I am not, as a newly-separated woman, to be trusted to describe a wedding. Even so, attending it made me ask myself whether, even when I was totally in love with my ex-husband and walked down the aisle to him, I thought he would complete me; that he was ever, in my mind, my better half. I relied on him, I adored him, but he was never my Aslan (the lion king in Narnia). I didn’t need him to be me. I’m not suggesting that my godson needs his wife to be a better version of himself – although, some of his vows, and visa versa, brushed close to this.

Attending this wedding left me with an even bigger question, which is this: Has the uncertainty that characterises the modern world encouraged the younger generation to look to each other, within the couple, for the strength and security that seems lacking around them? This, it strikes me, is a lot to ask from love. It makes me hope that love can, in the years ahead, live up to my godson’s expectations. And that when he and his wife discover some of the difficulties that they banded together against in the world, popping up in themselves, that they have the wherewithal, and the support, to deal with them. Given the groundswell of love in the crowded courtyard last night, there is every reason to assume that they will.

And my parting comment? A giant wishing them well.

this fence

‘He who angers you, conquers you’.

Sister Elizabeth Kenny

‘What are you girls doing?’, asked Dan, as he craned over the rickety fence, due to be replaced next week, that divides our gardens. ‘Planting bushes?’

Anna, her nose pierced and black cap pulled down, looked up in surprise just as Tim, 6 foot 3, came into view, pushing a full wheelbarrow down the grass towards us.

            ‘Mind you don’t plant those bushes too close to this fence’, said Dan, changing his tone.

            ‘Yes, of course’, I replied. ‘They’ll be a metre and a half away. And they don’t have big roots’.

            ‘You do realise’, said Dan, ‘that the new fence will take a different line from this one.’

            ‘No’, I replied.

            ‘Don’t you read anything?’ said Dan. ‘I gave you the new survey I had done a year ago. Put it in your letterbox.’

            ‘Was that the paperwork that came with a copy of the Fence Act? Ok, yes, I did receive that. But I didn’t see a survey’.

            ‘Well’, said Dan, ‘there’s a bow in this fence line. And next week, when the fence people run a string-line from that brick pillar at the top, to that metal post at the bottom, we’ll be taking back the land that’s ours on to our side’.

            ‘Oh’, I said. ‘I thought the new fence was starting half way down, leaving the newer half of the fence in place. That’s what I agreed with the fence people’.

            ‘No’, said Dan. ‘We are paying for the top part and it will be our fence’.

            ‘But this is our fence’, I said, dropping my rake. ‘It’s a division. That’s what a fence is. And I’ve agreed to pay half’.

            As the conversation went from bad to worse, Anna and Tim busied themselves digging holes for the new trees. Little did they know that I was only out there gardening because I was flanked by them, and that I’d otherwise be too uncomfortable to garden alone within the direct sight of my neighbours.

            ‘I’m sorry Dan’, I said. ‘I just can’t have this conversation over the fence. I had five trees along the fence chopped down on Friday – just like you asked – and then spent most of Saturday cleaning up the mess. And now you’re saying things about taking down all the fence and a survey that’s news to me’. I picked up my rake, put my head down and went back to clearing away matted ground cover to make space for the new trees.

A minute later, Dan’s partner appeared and put her hand on the fence. From the start, Julie’s face was flushed, her words flying over the fence like angry darts. Perhaps because my mother would fly into tempers when I was a girl, I don’t do angry very well. Occasionally my ex-husband shouted at me; however because I didn’t shout back, things never went beyond a few repeated swear words and the stamping of his foot. Instead of getting angry back, I would freeze in place and wait for the noise to stop; or one of us would leave the room and end it that way.

Only Julie at the fence didn’t stop. The noise went on. As I stood there being shouted at, I felt like a character in a film. Forcing myself to speak, and hoping to calm Julie down, I said that removing the plum trees was a sign of my wanting to cooperate. I said that I really wanted to have friendly relations with neighbours. And then I said something about our all being human, which made Julie grimace; and also that I didn’t understand the way she and Dan were treating me. Although, I’m pretty sure that the boiling feeling in my head prevented my actual words coming out as cleanly as they’re written here.

But Julie would have none of my airy-fairy, beside the point-ness. She said that if I spent more time gardening, and being responsible for my property, that none of this (what’s “this?”, I wondered) might have happened. Then she leaned over the fence and pointed at the plum-tree stumps. She said that with the new survey line, the stumps would lie partly in their garden and so would need stump-grinding. And the ivy would need poisoning. She said that the two tall trees at the bottom of my garden would have to go too, glaring at me as if only an imbecile could love them. The 12-metre high elderberry in the corner, she explained in a disdainful tone, was a noxious weed, and that if one of her dogs ate its bark, they would die. And the one this side of it, which even I could see needed trimming, Julie said was just ugly. She said a lot of other things too. I remember how red her face went, and the way she thumped the fence to make her points. But because she grew increasingly angry, her exact words now escape me.  

Dan and Julie have a beautiful cottage garden which would be at home in a village in Dorset, Sussex or Normandy. On several occasions over the last months, I’ve made a point of telling Dan how beautiful his garden is. It’s clear to me how hard he works in it and I admire him for it.

Over the five years that Dan and Julie have been pulling their garden into shape, much has happened on my side of the fence – although little of it in the garden. Our garden has stayed as it’s always been – loose, a bit wild and, with recent rains, very green. A magical place to get lost in and dream. Every day I am thankful for it – and not a little amazed that it’s mine. Still, while I’ve felt compelled to admire my neighbours’ prowess in their garden – my mother was a strong gardener too – I haven’t felt drawn to the same in mine.

When, last night at dinner, I poured out my fence trouble to my son, he said that he was sorry and that I should have said and that I shouldn’t have to deal with it on my own and that he’d get time off from work to be there when the string-line was done – assuming, that is, that the fence people actually come to replace the fence they were booked to start putting up ten days ago.

‘What is it, anyway, about you and older male neighbours?’ my son then asked. I laughed but saw his point. Five years ago, another male neighbour, of a similar age on the opposite side of our garden, took to leaning a long way over our fence when I was out, to lop tree branches which he dropped into our garden. Just as Dan had started doing from his side of the fence, again with no consultation, over the last few months.

‘I really don’t know,’ I said, nursing the ankle that I’d sprained seconds after the blow-up with Julie that morning, when I’d tripped over my rake and fallen into the fence. ‘Perhaps they retire too early.’ There was a pause. ‘It’s just as well that James (my ex-husband) isn’t here,’ I said. ‘He so hated this sort of thing’.

After a stream of panicked texts to the yoga studio where I was booked to teach early the next morning, I went upstairs to plan a modified class. Sitting on the carpet on the bathroom floor, the wind blowing a gale outside, I came back to myself. As I stared at my lesson plan with my sore ankle stretched out, the light low and my phone set for 6am, it struck me that the following morning was the birthday of my elder sister who, 9 years ago, died at home the morning after getting off a transatlantic flight the previous day.

More than any other, this early death of my sister – and that of a close friend in the UK a couple of years before – have shaped my life since then. The wound has closed over but it a tenderness remains. My life has been thrown into relief by these deaths. They have taught me something so important that I don’t have words for it. Except to say that these women, my sister and my friend, are my guardian angels. Thanks to them I will always be brave enough to take flak from my neighbours, to teach yoga with a sprained ankle and to throw a drinks party on my own – and so many other things. Life goes on without my sister and friend in it. But to a different tune, another way of knowing.

Next morning, when I woke before the alarm around the same time that my sister died 9 years ago, my ankle, which I had to hop into bed on the night before, felt magically better. I didn’t demonstrate every pose in the class I rushed off to teach, but I didn’t have to hop either.

marshmallow test

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Choosing not to have whatever it is that we want now, for the sake of a greater good in the future, is an easy enough principle to understand. Share your toys, wait for sweet treats and take your turn – these are the basics of what we aim to pass on as parents to our kids. Until I listened to Walter Mischel read his book, ‘The Marshmallow Test’ on audio, I thought this about summed it up.

Intrigued by listening to the audio, I borrowed ‘The Marshmallow Test’ from the library, and soon realised that the psychology in the book was about a lot more than marshmallows. (And in case, like me, you’re wondering about marshmallows being offered as a treat to 21st-century children, M&M’s are now the sweets of choice.) Yes, this book is about self-control and our struggle to master it. But it’s about other things too.

What rang true for me came in a discussion of – wait for it – pension funds. The idea is that to the degree your perception of your current self is divorced from that of your future self (which Mischel describes as ten years older than however old you are now) you’re likely to struggle to withstand temptations in the present (a holiday, say) for the sake of a shadowy future good (a bigger pension in old age). As Mischel explains, MRI scans can now show that some people treat their future self as a stranger, as distinct from their current self. Why then, they think, put money aside for a relative stranger? Luckily for pension funds, others feel more intimacy with and compassion for their future self. For these people, ten or twenty years hence doesn’t seem that far off. And because they can imagine themselves as older versions of themselves, they’re naturally inclined to provide for that not so shadowy future.

Something similar goes on with the people that I teach yoga to. Most people come to yoga because they feel called to it. It might be a niggle in one shoulder. Perhaps it’s loose knee joints. It might be a sports injury or decades spent hunched in front of a screen. Some people react with annoyance at whatever brings them to the yoga studio. Their body has let them down; in a better world, their shoulder would know better and pull itself together on command. Others are more philosophical. For them, a dicky knee is part and parcel of getting older for which the best response is calm resignation, an acceptance of fate. Others assume that they’ll attend yoga class to rehab their shoulder/knee/lower back, in the same way they might have a few sessions with the physio, before returning to multi-day hikes and playing tennis under lights. Thankfully, there are also people who come to yoga and get it, if they haven’t already, straight away. They know that they’ll be strengthening their core, aligning their posture and reversing hours they spend sitting down for the rest of their life.

I used to think that the people who saw their yoga journey (or preferred strength training) as ongoing – as a single not a return ticket – were more switched on both medically and philosophically. Perhaps they are. However, reading ‘The Marshmallow Test’ made me realise that, compared with someone who treats their dodgy shoulder as a temporary annoyance, someone who embraces yoga (or other strength training) is often more in touch with their future self. Their future self is no stranger; but simply a more wrinkled version of the person they already are. Providing for themselves, by keeping their core strong and inflammation at bay, is their way of looking after the person they are on the way to becoming.

Recently, I had my own brush with the marshmallow test. At my last dental check-up, as usual, the dentist said very little when he inspected my teeth. But my hygienist who, after 12 years of cleaning and polishing my teeth I consider a friend, was less discreet. She told me that the enamel on some of my top teeth was eroding and that I needed to be careful if I wanted to keep them into old age. Lying in the dental chair, panicking, I tried not to show it. Lose some of my top teeth! How horrid and shameful that would be, I thought to myself.

It took a whole week before my panic subsided enough to ask myself a practical question. What was I doing in my daily life that might be wearing down the enamel on my teeth? It didn’t take long to twig that one of the things I was doing, and had done for years, was to drink a lot of green tea which, I discovered with annoyance, has a particularly high acid content. So, that could be one culprit. Another might be dark chocolate, often gulped just before teaching a yoga class. There was also my personal history of too much brushing and the luck of my genes. My first response to this bad news was flat denial. Give up green tea in the morning and dark chocolate at night? You have to be kidding. No way.

To cut a long story short, another week passed before I realised that it was up to me how I responded to the news that my tooth enamel was wearing down. I could frame my decision to give up green tea and dark chocolate as a sacrifice, as one more thing to be deprived of as the years piled up behind me. Then again, I could do something much simpler. I could draw a line and just step over it. I could choose not to make a fuss and to substitute green tea for a tea that isn’t acid forming, to switch out dark chocolate for carob, and to thank the stars above that with any luck I’ve acted in time.

Thankfully, apart from the missing caffeine hit, Rooibos tea ticks the boxes for me. I can drink it happily in the morning – as I write this in my notebook – knowing that by swapping out my teas I can stay on good terms with my future self; and that, whatever happens to my health in years to come, I’m walking towards my future self with eyes open.

Lucky, I suppose, that I’ve never liked marshmallows.

when friends leave

It was towards the end of dinner with friends who’d cooked a roast vegetable pasta dish to thank me for looking after their stick insects while they were overseas. ‘Did you hear about those friends of yours’, asked David, ‘you know, the lawyer and her writer partner, who have moved to Sydney?’

‘Which friends?’ I asked, sifting through my mind and trying not to panic.

‘You don’t mean Anna and Zac, who’ve moved to France with their kids?’

‘No’, said David, ‘the ones in West Hobart with the pink camellia bush out the front.’

‘Oh’, I said, ‘That must be Sue and Tom. No, I hadn’t heard that. Just goes to show how out of touch I am.’

That night in bed, I flicked through my notebook to find the list that I made a month ago of friends who, just this year, have left Hobart. After adding Sue and Tom to the list, I counted up 12 names. ’12 friends’, I thought, trying not to make a big deal of it. ‘That’s a lot of friends to lose in one year in a place the size of Hobart’. I stared down at the list. Covid, I thought, had a lot to answer for.

But of course it wasn’t just Covid. Wherever you happen to live, change is real and inevitable, even when it’s unwelcome. Our lives are made up of so many moving parts that it’s impossible to ascribe one cause to the rippling changes that follow from one person putting one foot in front of the other; let alone if that person is part of a couple or family.

Not wanting to feel melancholy before sleep, I shut my notebook, opened up my book – Heather Havrilesky’s quietly brilliant ‘What If This Were Enough?’ – and, after reading an essay or two, found refuge in sleep.

Next morning, I opened my notebook to check that there really were 12 names on the list, and that the mass departure of friends hadn’t been a bad dream. But no, there they were, 12 names staring back from my lined notebook, and this even without including partners or adding my ex-husband to the list.

It wasn’t until evening, walking my dog on the beach, that I had enough headspace to think about this again. Why, with no warning, this sudden exodus? Did the friends who’d left Hobart know something about the place where I live that I don’t?

At the beginning of winter, when I drove Jodie home after dinner at my place, she told me that she’d been offered a new post in Sydney. I wished her well, knowing that it was the right thing for her, although not necessarily for her cats. When Anna – a magazine editor who commissioned 4 stories from me – and her family moved to Europe for her kids’ education, I congratulated her on a brave move. When Tessa, a friend who spent 2 years working for a bank from home, was lured to Brisbane for what we hope will be a dream job, I cooked her dinner before she left and told her, in a follow-up text, that good friends didn’t have to stay in touch. When Natalie gave up trying to make Hobart work for her, after a tricky death in her family, and moved to Eastern Europe (happily, if her Instagram posts are to be believed), I felt relieved that she’d found an existential answer to an impossible situation here. When Phoebe – my first yoga student and now firm friend – and her partner moved to Sydney to return to her roots in Balmain, leaving me with a peony bush which thankfully is thriving in a pot by my front door, I reassured her that she was doing the right thing. And when older ex-neighbours, Missy and Geoff, moved to the north of the state to build a modern house on the banks of a river, I asked them around for dinner so they could show me the plans of their new build.

Still, it’s been hard not to feel the loss of these friends, and four others. Especially when I go on to create a sub-list of friends who, during my marital separation, stayed loyal to James over me (though I vowed friends wouldn’t have to choose between us, some did anyway). I don’t blame anyone for this. It seems to be something that happens among friends in the confoundment that follows an unexpected break-up.

The departure of 12 friends from Hobart might matter less, I tell myself, if Hobart were a bigger place. Except that the sadness I feel, at friends leaving, really has little to do with the scale of the city I live in. Certainly, when Paul and I left London, a truly vast city, and then 8 years later Melbourne, another sprawling city, our friends at the time made it clear that our departure was their loss too.

None of us own our friends. We can’t make them like us any more than we can make them stay near us if they do. Not even a good friend makes life choices based on the impact their leaving-taking will have on us.

When I’m in a self-pitying mood, I can make the leave-taking of friends into a drama; with me, of course, at the middle of it. However, mostly I don’t do this. Mostly I don’t feel that I’ve been forsaken for better places, for better things. I know that life is more like standing on the shore, watching the tide come in or out, while boats sail past, than it is like standing at the front of an orchestra, wearing black and waving a baton. The fact of friends leaving for elsewhere seems tidal, a fact of life and not some paranoid conspiracy designed to leave me feeling friendless. Besides, I know that the various elsewheres that friends have left for aren’t better than the place I call home – and that I’m not just stuck here because this is where my kids and I happen to live and I’ve convinced myself I’ve put down roots.

Some people, I imagine, are never prey to doubts like mine. They stand on the seashore, alive to the comings and goings of the people they care about, without taking it personally. Or they stand at the front of the orchestra, gesturing to the strings at the side and bassoon at the back, shaping their life in their own image. However, I suspect that many of us stand between these two positions. We’re affected by the life choices that friends make, carrying around the impression they’ve made on our souls when they go. But we don’t let on about this, preferring to stay quiet; not wanting to get in anyone’s way and choosing to cheer from the sidelines. And we say, on hearing the news, ‘How exciting!’ without feeling anything like excitement ourselves.

A few days ago, something happened to jolt me out of my introspection. Just as I was worrying that life might be passing me by while I had my head down gardening, writing, cooking and teaching yoga, I received an email from the manager of the big yoga studio where I practice most days, and where I teach the odd class when a teacher can’t make it. For the last few weeks, I’ve hatched the idea that the truth – that I’m not a very good yoga teacher – had filtered through to the studio manager, and that this is why she hadn’t contacted me lately. But no, in the email, the manager asked if I could teach a regular class – 7am on Wednesdays – when the current teacher, who has far more experience than I’ll ever have, goes interstate. Registering the irony, that I was benefiting from this teacher leaving Hobart, I replied straight away to the manager and, in pressing Send, changed my own little world for the better.

on having enough time

“It’s not that there was a time when we could have everything; but there was a time before we had to commit ourselves and thus confront our losses.”

Keiran Setiya, Mid-Life

The strangest thing has been happening in my world. Most days, I have more time to play with. And it’s not just the result of the start of daylight saving. Because nowadays, fewer external demands to field, I feel as if I have more hours in my day.

I still drop everything when my son has a mountain bike accident (he is okay), or when I have a gardening accident (I’m okay), or when my daughter arrives unexpectedly (she always arrives unexpectedly, a human whirlwind). But still, in between having the dishwasher fixed and arranging to replace fences with three neighbours and teaching yoga and walking the dog and maintaining the house and garden and trying to write, I have tracts of time that simply weren’t there even a year ago.

When my kids were young, I had hardly any time to myself. As they got older, it was just weekends and school holidays and days when they were sick that I didn’t have enough time. Although, in those days, I anyway thought in terms of ‘we and us’ rather than ‘I and me’. (I didn’t ask myself whether I felt like going on a picnic, because it was we that went on it.)

These days, the pronouns are less clear. It’s not so obvious where ‘I’ start and ‘we’ ends. Everything and nothing has changed. Now that my daughter and ex-husband have left the house, and my son is planning a long voyage, the signposts have been flipped around to read backwards.

Having enough time is not the same as having too much time, which I don’t possess. Having enough time – after 25 years of not having enough of it, coinciding with my years of active mothering – is just that, enough.

Next month, I’ll have been writing this blog for ten years. Every fortnight or so, I’ve carved out time and space to write a post. I often find myself recommending starting a blog to new writers, to flex their writing muscles. ‘Just do it’, I urge, knowing how much more of a push they’ll need to start a blog than just these words. As I well know, it’s an act of temerity to make a demand on another person’s time by having them read a post on wordpress. And yet it is small acts of creativity like these that tell the world, and importantly oneself, that making sense of one’s place in it is a priority. Writing a blog is a tiny act of legitimation in the face of the overwhelming nature of life.

Yes, you need enough time in order to be creative, in even the smallest of ways. But it’s not just time that you need. You also need to find a medium that expresses what you care about most. For me, this medium is the written word, I think because it’s when I write that I affirm my life-long gut feeling that it’s the quality of our inner life that matters most.

I end where I began. It’s not that there was a time when I had everything I wanted. I’ve always been too lacking in confidence to even know what that would be. However, now that I have enough time, I‘m in a position to want what I have.

question

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‘If someone took control of your life tomorrow, what is the first thing they would change?’

When I first stumbled on this question, by Atomic Habits author James Clear, I felt hooked by it. It seemed obvious that anyone stepping into my life, from the outside, would want to change something big before they even sat down and had a look around. This new broom would not stop at one significant change – like getting out of bed on time in the morning. My new CEO would look around at the lack of structure, up-and-down rate of productivity and hit-and-miss approach to my ‘big rocks’ and clap their hands in anticipation of all the sweeping changes to come.

A month has passed since I happened upon James Clear’s question. Since that time, I have been thinking and reading, not about motivation and getting things done, but about kindness and compassion – both of which have a very different trajectory to that of self-evaluation. Kindness and compassion are founded on a withholding of judgment, on a refusal to give one part of oneself the job of evaluating another part. Such that what seemed like a fantastic question a month ago (If someone took over my life tomorrow, what is the first thing they would change?) now reads like a recipe for mental illness. Why on earth, I ask myself, would I want to invite someone in that I don’t even know to do an audit of my days?

I’ve spent way too much of my life in conflict with myself. Looking back, I can see that much of this conflict was founded on my assumption that someone else – mother, father, conscience, therapist, supervisor, agent, editor, grown-up kids – was in a better position to know me than I was. Mostly this conflict wasn’t conscious. On the outside, I believed in democracy, feminism and free-will, just like everyone else I knew. But in times of insecurity, indecision and self-doubt, I fell back on the belief that someone else was better placed to advise me than I was.

Often this fantasy took the following form: if only I was more single-minded, self-directed and goal driven, I would feel less pulled about by the needs and demands of others. If only I could reach that quiet, still place that meditators speak of, all would become clear. However, I’ve never reached those sunlit uplands in any kind of reliable way – fleeting moments, enough to know they’re there, is all.

Lately I’ve been drawn, not to the sunlit uplands, but to the grassy lowlands. I know when I’ve reached them because, when I look around, I can see that my life is fine as it is. I don’t need to ask someone else to tell me what I should care about or what I should do, because I already know this for myself. I don’t have to keep striving onward and upward, because I’m already where I want to be.

Every night, before I open the book that I’m reading in bed, I open my notebook and write down in a loose column the main things I did that day. When my ex-husband left for Italy, I started this green notebook – a present from a niece – to make it clear to myself that the rest of my life was beginning and not ending. Although I rarely look back at my entries, I like having this record. Writing each entry helps me to let go of and say goodbye to my day. Opening this notebook is part of my evening ritual, a way of handing over my bag at the gates of sleep.

‘All the misery in life’, wrote Pema Chodron, ‘comes from the gap between how we would like things to be and how things actually are’. Without this gap – without this marshaling of one part of oneself to adjudicate over another part – most of our conflicts fall away. When we cease to call up the judging part of ourselves, the part that calls out our failings and ‘could do better’s, we are just as we are. Or, as military officers like to say once they’re done giving commands to their subordinates, ‘As you were’.

smile

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After a certain age, the saying goes, you get the face you deserve. The idea, I suppose, is that you grow into your face, that the lines on it in some way follow the contours of your fate. I’m now old enough to have the face I deserve. There are certain lights which don’t flatter me, mirrors that I choose not to stop in front of. Yet I know how lucky I’ve been in life, how much harder it might have been and is for others. I haven’t got everything I wanted, but I’ve got much better at wanting what I have.

I’ve never sought out the camera, but rather shrunk from it. When people I’m with look straight into the camera, and smile broadly, I move to one side and look on with envy. It’s always been this way for me. The day my mother organised family photos, when I was a teenager, I was in agony before the shoot. ‘Just look natural’, said the photographer. ‘What’s that?’ I thought to myself. If, by chance, I am friends with the person taking the photo, I’m okay in front of the camera, but with anyone else I freeze.

I could go into a deep psychological explanation as to why I shy away from cameras; but actually I wonder if I’m just not that good at smiling. Standing in front of a yoga class, I find it hard to smile. I can give quick smiles, just not relaxed big ones. At moments, I feel as if I’m on display, in a ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ sort of way. I realise what a privilege it is to lead a big class in a beautiful studio, yet part of me wonders how I landed up there – how the shy girl from the back of the class got to be a mature woman in lycra at the front of it.

As we get older, most of us become less flexible. There’s no mystery here, nothing to argue. Our glutes stiffen along with our lower back. So, it turns out, does our face – one of the many things about getting older no-one ever told me. The however-many muscles that need to coordinate for our smile to happen have to be exercised, like the rest of our body, if we’re to maintain an easy smile as we age. There are even face yoga routines that you can do – one involves biting on a pencil and jutting your lower lip over it – to keep your face muscles active and supple.

There is also an existential layer to my smile problem. If I am to smile deeply, and not just return the smile of others, I need to feel confident that good things lie in my future. This is achingly, embarrassingly, obvious. I have to make peace with the end of my marriage and move forward hopefully even without knowing what comes next. And to do this with a smile, a real smile, my smile. I tried so hard, for so long, to get my marriage to work, that somewhere along the way I must have lost my smile. I didn’t mislay it, exactly. I always knew where it was. I just couldn’t access it. I couldn’t bring it to my face.

While I may have to wait a bit before my smile returns in a reliable way, there are moments when I do smile. I smile after yoga class when I’m relieved that it’s over and students come up and thank me. I smile when my dog gallops up the beach, his Dumbo ears flapping, after I bring my arms up into a semaphore to signal ‘Come!’ I smile when my son tackles me, or tries to stick a lump of butter in my mouth. And I smile at unexpected beauty, when I see things like this cardboard cut-out hanging in a gallery window on the edge of a busy motorway.