helen hayward

life writing

@ home: intro to new project

20220520_144712

Dear Reader, this is crazy long for a post – it’s the introduction to what I’ve been working on for ages, a project about how 35 different people feel about their home life – if you do make it to the end (a 10-min read) I will be super grateful, and if you don’t, thanks for dropping by!

INTRODUCTION

Most of us spend up to a quarter of our waking hours keeping our home life buoyant: cooking, cleaning, organising, shopping, maintaining things and running errands, plus whatever we do to unwind from this. We appreciate opening the front door, on returning home, to clean and pleasant living spaces. Yet rarely do we credit the time, creativity and effort that go into keeping our home in a way that we want to come back to it. Domesticity lies at the heart of a smoothly-running life. Still, we consider it nothing special, hardly worth mentioning. It lives on the edges of the important stuff of life.

This may be why we know so little about each other’s home lives. Few of us would ask even close friends how they feel about looking after their home, themselves and the people they love most. It would seem nosy to ask after the atmosphere they are seeking to create there. While domestic life takes up a significant chunk of our existence, it’s largely a private experience.

For all this, most of us are drawn to homes that are well maintained and cared for. Good food, cosy living spaces and fresh bedlinen – we naturally want these for ourselves. Here lies our dilemma. Most of us aren’t convinced that the time and energy that a well-looked-after home demands is time and energy well spent. We’re in two minds about the value of a pleasant home. We struggle to feel that our domestic efforts – cooking for friends, planting salad greens and pegging up laundry – add up to an overall sense of worthwhileness. Even though at the end of the day, with hand on heart, we feel sure that it does.

When I first sat down and asked 50 people, one by one, how they felt about their home life, I was expecting similar responses. And not the wildly different ones I actually got. It was as I listened to one woman say that she vacuumed her cream carpet every day ‘so the crap doesn’t get ground into it’, and another speak glowingly, almost reverently, of the ‘lift and freshness’ that her cleaner left in her wake, that I realised how emotional our relationship to housekeeping is. We have this whole other life made up of thoughts, feelings, fantasies and fears relating to home, that’s distinct from the tables, chairs and spaces we live amidst. And it’s here, in the theatre of our mind, that we do battle with the dragon under the stairs – our resistance to household tasks. Our collective whine, ‘Do I really have to vacuum the floor/cook dinner/take out the rubbish?’ – is something that we hug to ourselves.

This project, into the value of domestic life, wasn’t undertaken by a team of well-funded researchers with clipboards and weekly review meetings. It was sparked by a single, very personal question. How, I wanted to know, did other people keep their home life on track without it falling off the rails? Before long, other questions joined this one. Housekeeping, after all, involves a lot more than housework. There’s a creative side to keeping house that redeems the housework that just has to be done. Pride in the home is real. It’s not just me who feels this. Many of us, I discovered, find meaning and validation in what we get up to at home – even if we don’t go around talking about it. This is why, rather than ask people how they felt about domestic chores, I chose to ask what they found satisfying at home. Because at the end of the day it’s our satisfactions, our little joys, that make the labour of love that every pleasant home assumes feel worthwhile.

I would be fibbing if I didn’t admit straight out that my quest to understand the highs and lows of home life goes deeper than curiosity. It came about when I faced a crisis in my life that was triggered by my kids reaching adolescence and my husband traveling for work. As I rushed round the kitchen, my kids would give me a ‘Why do you bother?’almost pitying look. They meant well and mostly appreciated my efforts – as did my husband. However, perhaps to minimise their dependence on me, my kids would say, as a statement of fact, ‘You care too much’. My husband, meanwhile, offered to pay half for a weekly cleaner. I felt tested.

From where I stood, it went without saying that I bothered to keep our home pleasant because I wanted the best for my family and me. I doubted many things, but not the value of my domestic efforts. However, faced with my kids’ enquiring faces, and my husband’s suggestion of a cleaner, I drew a blank. On the one hand, I wanted to celebrate domesticity, by drawing attention to the love that I felt for home. It was this love that inspired me to care for my home in a way that, without it, I couldn’t have done. And yet increasingly there were days when I wanted to trample domesticity underfoot, and to never have to clean anything ever again. On these afternoons, I’d clean the house with a ‘Why do I bother?’ look, all of my own. This went on for months. Locked in ambivalence, unable to move. Perhaps, I began to think, this was just the way home life was for me. Without saying anything, I gave up the hope that it could be better.

One night, things came to a head when I went to a lecture at the medical school about Alzheimer’s disease, given by a South American neurologist. Towards the end of his talk, the researcher listed the categories of people who are statistically more susceptible to brain degeneration – specifically, calcification – in later life. At the top of his list was sportspeople who’d received multiple blows to the head. Second on his list came all those people who live with more than one chronic illness. And third on his list came manual labourers and housewives. At question time, I put up my hand. ‘Why housewives?’ I asked. Well, the researcher explained, it’s because they tend not to use their prefrontal cortex in ways that guard against its degeneration by increasing the complexity of their neural pathways through intellectual work, a process he called ‘busheling’.

I am a writer, not a housewife. All the same, that night I felt offended on behalf of all the women, across time, who have devoted themselves to home; women who, according to this researcher’s data, hadn’t used their minds to full capacity. More personally, I felt pricked by the thought that during the quarter of each day that I spent housekeeping my brain wasn’t fully firing, was just idling. Was this true, I worried?

In essence, my domestic dilemma was simple. I was spending a chunk of every day engaged in housekeeping tasks that sometimes I questioned the value of. I wanted to feel that my domestic efforts were valuable and life sustaining. And yet the social messaging swirling around me suggested that looking after a home involved one repetitive, boring task after another, of the kind that no-one in their right mind would take pride in doing.

A month later, I banged my shin on the open door of the dishwasher at home. Swearing loudly, I realised that my determination not to turn into my mother had been in vain. I didn’t trip over schoolbags in the hall, or slam cupboard doors in the kitchen, as was once Mum’s habit. Instead I’d used the f-word, prompting my daughter to scold me from the top of the stairs. Standing in the kitchen, as I bent down to rub my shin, I felt an abiding kinship with my mother.

‘Don’t be ridiculous’, said my husband, fresh from the shower. ‘You’re not a bit like your mother. You have a PhD. You’ve worked as a lecturer and therapist. You’ve published three books’. ‘I know’, I said, my eyes red, ‘but I’m still just the housekeeper’. Paul sighed. ‘No-one but you’, he said softly, ‘thinks that’.

Needing some air and the sky above, I clipped on the dog’s leash and drove to a bush track. Walking along, I soon lost myself in thought. By what magic was I living a life in which a significant chunk of my day was given over to household tasks that seemed to count for so little? But also, what really was so bad about housekeeping? God knows I’d had plenty of worse jobs in the past. Besides, I felt proud of staying abreast of running my home, and I enjoyed its creative side. Why then did it sit so awkwardly with me? Did I think I was made for better things? Did I rue the family roster that I’d never had enough mettle to enforce? And how on earth, I mused, kicking a stone up the path, did other people manage the many-tentacled octopus that domesticity had become for me?

As I bent down to move a branch off the path, I remembered a visit I’d made to my mother’s beach-house in my late twenties. I was visiting from London, and was spending time with my sisters and their kids. It was a hot day and we’d just had lunch. Rather than play Lego, I suggested to the kids that we all do a drawing. As we drew, the kids fell quiet. I found myself listening in to my sisters who, as they washed up and wiped bench tops, were discussing their kids’ food preferences for dinner that night. With pencil in hand, I felt smug. I was confident that I’d never be distracted by shopping lists and bedtimes. I would stay true to my London life, to the life of the mind and my career. As I pushed my pencil across paper, it seemed as simple as black and white.

Caught up in memory, I turned back on the track, yanking the dog in the direction of home. I laughed aloud. How wrong I’d been. Little had I known, back then, that as soon as I had children of my own I’d join my sisters in wiping down bench tops and juggling food preferences. Like them, I’d seek out a warm and functioning home with regular mealtimes, folded laundry and a pleasant kitchen. I’d join them in the labour of love that is a warm and pleasant home, of the kind that encouraged my family and me to make the most of our life together. Except that this assumed a big unspoken: that someone in the background, usually me, would have the job of keeping that home ticking over.

By this point in my life, I knew that my experience of domestic conflict was emotional before it was intellectual. Beyond that, it was a mystery to me. Yet as months passed, slowly and quietly, an answer came to me. The reason why I had no easy reply for my kids, my husband and society at large, when it came to the value of housekeeping, was that the conflict I was living was rooted in my childhood. It decades-old. It was so embedded in me, so rusted on, that the only way I could express it was through ambivalence and stuckness.

The feelings that fueled my experience of domestic conflict were rooted in scenes from childhood that went something like this. Most afternoons, when my sisters and got home from school, we’d troop in the back door and dump our bags just off the kitchen. Now and then, our mother would trip over one of these bags and fly into a rage. ‘You girls treat this house like a hotel’, she’d shout, stamping her foot. My sisters and I would grin at each other and make ourselves scarce until Mum’s mood blew over. In those days, I didn’t hear Mum’s frustration for what it was – letting off steam at running a big house for a large family. I would need teenagers of my own who left dirty laundry in the hall, as if awaiting room service, before I understood something of my mother’s frustration. I would need a husband who returned from tennis, dripping with sweat, to shower in the bathroom I’d just cleaned, before I got how she must have felt. But also, I would need a home of my own that I loved and took pride in before I experienced the flipside of domestic frustration. Decades would have to pass before I felt the love that made all my efforts at home worthwhile, plus gratitude for a life that rushed by faster than I could catch it.

Life is what happens when you’re busy making plans. Twenty-five years after visiting my sisters and their kids at my mother’s beach-house, my mother died. As I sat at her funeral – a 40-degree Adelaide scorcher – I made myself a promise. Rather than treat domesticity as an extra, after more so-called important things, I’d put it front and central until I understood it better. Rather than sidelining housekeeping and feeling stressed when, in the scheme of things, it didn’t stack up, I’d treat it as a subject worthy of my interest.

For years, I’d looked out for intelligent, hopeful books about housekeeping – and only found a few. So I knew the inspiration that I sought was unlikely to come from a book or website. Instead, on the flight home from my mother’s funeral, I made a list of people – mainly acquaintances from my time as a magazine writer – who might open up to me about their domestic life. I imagined asking them how they stayed on top of home life, along with what they found creative and satisfying. I would ask them to shine a light on a side of themselves that they rarely talked about. The same side of myself that – sitting in the plane waiting for the seat-belt sign to flick off – I regretted spending too much of my life feeling complicated about.

When I approached the people on my list to ask if they might chat to me about their home life, a few looked surprised. ‘A whole hour?’ they asked, as if what they had to say might be whittled down to five minutes. Mostly, I sat down with people over coffee, with a few zoom chats with people far away. In the end, I sat down with 40 women and 10 men. (While gender wasn’t a factor, more women then men were keen on the project.) Thankfully, even those people who were initially shy, soon found plenty of words. Others threw caution to the wind, expressing their thoughts and feelings from the get-go, as if we were old friends. Frequently, once someone did open up this strong yet vulnerable part of themselves, I found it hard to close them down again.

It was easy to come up with my questions. I’d been wanting to ask them for years, but had always thought better of it. What I really wanted to know was how people felt about looking after their home, themselves and the people they loved most. Ultimately, I wanted to know how we can get better at living. But this seemed too bold and unwieldy a thing to ask directly, so instead I asked these questions:

Is your home expressive of who you are?

How did you first learn about housekeeping?

How do you keep on top of your home life now?

Do you like being in the kitchen?

Have you found ways to be creative at home?

Do you enjoy spending time alone at home?

How do you like to unwind?

Are you aware of your environmental footprint?

Do you have a home tip, anything you wish you’d known when you were starting out?

And lastly, where and when do you most feel at home?

Initially, I hoped that people’s responses would back up my hunches, my unspoken agenda – my prejudices. But I soon dropped this. Again and again, I was surprised – at times shocked – by what people told me. Especially when someone shared something that they hadn’t shared before, giving their words a freshness that stayed with them even after I’d written them down. Overall, I didn’t talk to anyone who hadn’t undergone some kind of struggle – some sea-change – in relation to their home life. It was also striking how many people were introduced to the domestic arts by someone in their childhood – a neighbour, an aunt or a cleaning lady – who in spirit was still with them. Importantly, I didn’t speak to anyone who didn’t feel challenged by home life. I lost count of how many people spoke of feeling overwhelmed, of having too much to do in too little time. Their shrugging shoulders and rolling eyes made it clear that what we feel compelled to do at home is always greater than we actually have time for. Lifestyle heroes like Marie Kondo, Jamie Oliver, Martha Stewart and a bevy of Instagrammers are all culpable in this, in seducing us with fantasies that assume a full-time staff to realise.

On opening these conversations, I said a little but not a lot about myself. I mentioned that I’d always found housekeeping challenging, that I’d grown up convinced that career was more important than home life, and that I worried about the mixed messages I was sending my teenagers about the value of home life. After fifteen or so of these chats, realising confidentiality was an issue for some, and wanting people to feel free to be frank, I started changing people’s names on writing up each story.

Before long, I was under the spell of this project, this very personal quest. I think it was because talking intimately to people about their home life was giving me insights that I never could have arrived at on my own. It left me wondering why so many of us downplay its role. Especially when, given the chance, we have such a lot to say about it. It was only after my fiftieth conversation – sadly, as I’d have happily continued – that I was able to think about housekeeping in the round. I still didn’t understand everything about it. But I had a far better picture of what goes on behind closed doors than before I started.

Prior to these conversations, I felt a bit alone as I headed into the kitchen to prepare dinner, heave-hoed a basket of damp laundry to the washing line, or got out my pencils to do a drawing. But no longer. Just knowing that I’m in good company as I go about housekeeping, has made a real difference to me. These days 50 voices in my head cheer me on. I have that golden thing – hard to put in words yet unmistakable to feel – an imaginary audience. I’m not doing nothing in front of nobody when I housekeep – my girlish fear. I’m engaged in a practice, shared by countless others, that makes possible a life I appreciate waking up to each morning. Housekeeping no longer feels like a sacrifice I worry that I’ll spend my old age regretting my investment in. It’s a rich, both-and experience – a joy and a bane. As such, I embrace it.

Also, I now have proof that I’m not the only one who feels a ragbag of emotions, from sheer delight to dull despair, faced with household tasks. Like so many others, I don’t have much choice when it comes to cooking, vacuuming and laundry – bar, I suppose, refusing to do them. Still, recognising that it’s up to me how I feel when I’m doing them, and that in the right frame of mind they can be empowering, has been liberating. Importantly, now that I accept it’s up to me to find the time – and the spark – to be creative at home, the onus is on me to do this.

Commonly, when the subject of domesticity does get discussed, it’s in terms of endless, thankless chores. And yet this wasn’t the story that people told me. It was the upsides of housekeeping that they were keen to share. Often, it was a particular task that loomed large in someone’s mind. It might be a cupboard in need of a clear out, a chaotic spare room or a full-blown spring clean. The euphoria that people felt after completing such a task seemed as real as the pleasure they got from their well-ordered pantry or spring-cleaned flat. These weren’t just anecdotes that people relayed to me, it was pride and amazement in a job well done.

‘And once your chores done’, I asked, ‘have you found ways to be creative at home?’ Of all my questions, this one aroused the most colourful responses – from reading cookbooks in the sun, making lino prints in a garden shed, picking up a guitar to remember a song, ripping the garden apart, to plotting a next holiday. Time and again, what I heard people say was that it was the little things they got up to at home that gave meaning to their domestic efforts. It was their joy in small domestic wins that shone through, whether it was planting seeds, making a tart, renovating a tired room or folding laundry straight off the line. The more people I spoke to, the more easily I connected the dots between someone’s enthusiasm for cooking, renovating, gardening or decorating and their overall contentment at home.

What comes through, in all these stories – 35 of which are told here – is that our attitude to home life is just that, it’s an attitude. And across our life, this attitude changes. Frequently, someone’s story would open in disenchantment, as they are thrust into the world to fend for themselves. Years might pass before this grudging tone lifted. Until, one day, their annoyance at having to clean the bathroom yet again, makes way for a sneaking appreciation for its grounding pay-off. Such that with a small leap of faith, and maturity, the same task that someone avoided in their 20s became a blessing in disguise in their 40s and up. Order, rhythm and comfort – the very things we left childhood to escape – often end up giving shape and rhythm to our days as we grow older.

When I first compiled these stories, I wrote myself out of them. I wanted each story to shine like a star in the sky, the brighter for being unembellished. But then I realised that something was missing. The stars hung loose in the firmament. What was missing from the collection was my own search for domestic wisdom, linking the stories together. And so, after each encounter, following a few of my thoughts about it, I added what stayed with me, the thing that each person unknowingly gave me. These thirty-five gifts have made a real difference to the way I live my home life, making it shine that much brighter.

Have these gifts made me better at living? Perhaps.

chance meeting

20220425_085925

Two mornings ago, a woman sitting with a puppy in her lap outside the café I often write at, introduced herself to me. It was a typical pavement scene. A man in a grey hoodie was strapping his 2-year old into a car-seat, a take-away coffee on the roof of his car. A painter in splodged overalls was chatting to a barista as he chained his bike to the pole that her dachshund was tied to as she waited for her coffee. And all the while the morning traffic was slowly parading past.

‘I’ve been reading your blog’, the woman began. ‘I found it through the local newsletter via the ad for your yoga class.’ ‘Oh, yes’, I replied, conscious that this friendly woman, who has lived a few streets from me from me for 12 years without our meeting, must know a good deal more about me than I would ever know about her. ‘Yes’, she said. ‘There were things that you wrote about that really resonated with me’. ‘That’s good’, I said, feeling relieved.

After a few minutes of chatting, the woman – I’ll call her Anna – told me about a dilemma of hers which reading my blog seemed to have inspired her to confide to me. In a few days’ time, she was, she told me, taking a flight with her puppy and youngest daughter to meet her husband for the trip of his dreams – a 4-month road trip in the north of Australia. Two things about this trip were bothering her. Firstly, that it was her husband’s dream and not hers. And secondly, harder to put her finger on, a feeling that what had been for years her stable ‘do-everything-together’ family of six, seemed to be breaking up before her eyes. Was this to be, she wondered aloud, their new normal?

At this point, Anna revealed why she was speaking so openly to me, a relative stranger. Reading my blog had awakened her memory of writing her own blog, years ago, when she too had made sense of her life by writing about it. Perhaps, I could almost see her thinking, she could do this again, now. Perhaps, if she could bring herself to write about her adventures, if she could pin them down and hold them up to the light, she might feel less at odds with what she was about to embark on.

As soon as I realised where Anna was heading, I pushed. ‘Of course you must start up your blog again’, I said. ‘a long road trip is just the kind of thing that people love to read about. Especially given that you aren’t sure how it will turn out’. ‘You think?’ Anna asked. ‘It’s been so long since I’ve written for an audience’. ‘Start with what you’ve just told me’, I said. ‘Start now, today. Write a post about the hassles of getting away – the planning, the provisions, the getting your one of daughters off to stay with friends, and the headache of leaving your house in a state that you want to come back to it. Because when you get on that plane on Monday, you’ll forget all that stuff. You’ll be excited and nervous. But you won’t feel stressed in the way you do now’.

I knew I had no business telling Anna what to do. Fortunately, she seemed fine with it; relieved, even, at telling a neighbour how she was actually feeling, rather than the excitement she sensed she was expected to feel.

As we chatted on the pavement, it became clear – without either of us saying anything – that Anna was feeling complicated about the prospect of putting her life on hold to live in a van for longer than she could at that moment contemplate. She knew that being in a van, with her down-sized family and puppy, would have its ups and downs. And that while she would like to describe her trip as exciting, and leave it at that, we both knew, as night follows day, that it would involve a lot more than excitement.

Even as I suggested to Anna that she write a blog about her road trip, I knew that it would be easier to follow her on Instagram, via photos of white beaches and dreamy campsites, than it would be to read about her emotional ups and downs on WordPress. Even so, in my pitch to her, I said that people like me really would like to read about her life on the road. And that if she could bring herself to write about it, that it would make her life, and the lives of her readers, richer.

‘When you get in that van’, I said to Anna, as her puppy wriggled off her lap, ‘have a notebook with you. But don’t write in it from inside the van. Take a walk and sit under a tree. That way you’ll have a bit of distance from your life on the road, and what you write is more likely to come out whole. And I guarantee that if you do this, lots of people will want to read your posts. Because, like me, they’ll want to know what happens to you next’. At which point, Anna and I smiled and went our separate ways.

friends’ wedding

20220423_164609

‘You must never think that what you haven’t got isn’t worth having.’ Virginia Woolf, Diary

An hour before I needed to leave home for the wedding of friends, I was on what I call the Pebbly Beach, chatting to a woman I didn’t know as our dogs played in the shallows. When I mentioned the ceremony I was about to attend, she said that in all her life she’d only been to four weddings. And nearly all those friends, she added, had since divorced. I smiled and, despite feeling reluctant to add to her list, admitted I was newly separated. After a few more exchanges, I checked my watch and farewelled the woman, knowing that I needed to get home and change out of my jeans. ‘Shall I wear a dress?’ I called back to the woman from further up the beach. The woman shrugged, threw a ball to her dog, and said, ‘Just wear what makes you feel good’.

The church, in the middle of school grounds, was plain in the way Catholic churches often are; religious objects, resplendent in their day, looked faded, in need of a touch up. The groom, in a new suit, looked boyish and serious. An old friend who joined me in the pew next to me immediately looked through the order of service and whispered that it would be a full Mass. My heart sank, imagining my afternoon swallowed up by a service that, 25 years ago, I’d stood at the altar in the spirit of ‘till death do we part’.

When the bride arrived, beaming, she was led down the aisle by her brother, who I’d heard a lot about over dinner but never seen. As they passed the front few pews, I realised with a jolt how many family members of the bridal couple had taken long flights to be there. This service, I told myself, was not about me; I hadn’t been invited for the sole purpose of being silently rebuked for the failure of my marriage. I knew that my soon to be married friends – who just happened to come round for dinner the night before James and I broke up – must have considered the possibility that I might feel complicated to be there. Still, they had invited me anyway, and I had put on a dress and wanted to come.

Usually, at Christmas and Easter, I attend a church service. I do it for spiritual rather than religious reasons, if that’s a distinction I can make. I like being surrounded by other human beings and, for an hour, to transcend my ordinary life. Sitting in a church contains me. Also, I like to sing. It quietens my inner chatter and allows me to think back through time to all the people I have known and loved, some of whom have died. However, since Covid, I’ve avoided church services. Which may explain why I found it strangely welcome to stand and sit at the direction of the priest, as we celebrated the love between the couple before us.

When it came to the moment when my friends exchanged vows, the feminist in me couldn’t help but pick holes in them. Except that, even as I sat in the pew, I knew this was a defence. And that, even more, I felt the pull of what these friends were offering each other, so nakedly and honestly – lifelong commitment no matter what. The very thing that, until 8 months ago, I’d thought I had but turned out not to have.

It wasn’t comfortable for me to watch my friends marry. Even so, beneath the level of my ego I found it reassuring, healing in a profound way. I liked being witness to the courage of my friends’ commitment, within a church that makes that commitment possible. I don’t have that kind of religious faith myself, but I’m glad that others do. I feel heartened that these traditions still have their place, and that I can stand in a congregation and hear a priest use phrases like ‘Let no man put asunder’.

Life goes on. I am not the centre of the universe. Things change. And so do I.

my will

IMG_1062

‘We don’t tend to think of ourselves as wanting to be what we are already.’

Adam Phillips, On Getting Better

I thought that revising my Will would be simple. At least, I thought it would be easier than the admin I’ve done recently when, by some divine fiat, so many of the things that hold my life together have needed renewing or changing: computer, phone, bank, husband, passport, insurance, utilities. You name it, I’ve made a phone call, had an appointment, sent an email or chased paperwork for it.

Initially, I treated revising my Will as one more item on my to-do list, as one more thing to avoid. But I was wrong. Revising my Will was on another level from renewing my driving licence. Which is why, for months, the paperwork I brought home after my appointment with the lawyer sat in a folder in my study, awaiting the right moment I had a hunch would never come. Now and then, I entertained the task ahead of me. I knew the fairies wouldn’t come and do it for me. I was conscious that I had to ask someone to be my executor, and that I had to sign off on my kids, acting on my behalf, putting me in a facility should the day come that I lose my wits.

Three months of sitting on my hands passed by. Then two things happened. A close friend’s long-lost adopted sister took my friend to court to contest their parents’ Will – an amazingly painful experience for my friend. And I picked up a book called Legacy in the library, written by an estate lawyer, which set out the complications that can befall a family when a loved one’s Will isn’t clear and binding.

Twelve years ago, when we moved as a family to Hobart and bought the house that I now live in, I revised my Will. It was an ‘if-I-die-everything-goes-to-my-husband-and-children’ sort of Will. There was no mention of pets, assets or computer passwords. This time round, the form I was asked to fill for my executor was 8-pages long and included utility accounts, email addresses of anyone with a key to my house, car details, internet and social media passwords, policy numbers, direct debits, plus resuscitation and funeral wishes.

Two hours before my appointment with the lawyer to sign my new Will, I took the 8-page form to my local café and treated filling it in like an exam. With less than two hours before my appointment, there was no escape. I emailed my cousin and sister, asking them to have Power of Attorney. I texted a dog trainer I know, to ask her how I might leave things for our dog. I rushed back home to ransack my files. And I racked my brain recalling passwords that my superego admonished me for not having written down in one place.

I failed the exam. When I got to the lawyer’s office, a few minutes late, some of the spaces on the executor’s form were still blank. All the same, most of the squares were filled with my messy handwriting – especially messy, for some reason, were the numbers 4 and 5 which I had to correct repeatedly with black pen.

A month ago, I assumed that the half of adult Australians who haven’t signed a Will were irresponsible. Now I know better than to think that. Because if my fellow countrymen and women feel only some of the resistance that I felt toward being frozen in time, and having to account for myself as ‘what I am already’, and no more, it’s surprising that any Wills get signed at all.

I’m not going to say that I feel better for having faced my mortality. Because I don’t. But I do feel different. I feel locked into my life in a way that two weeks ago I didn’t. It’s as if I’ve lost my innocence. I’ve crossed the Rubicon. I don’t know how others will think of me when I’m not here anymore; this isn’t for me to know. However, signing this Will has made me realise, in a way that has sunk in, that one day I’ll be a memory. Perhaps this will fade and I’ll feel immortal again by next weekend; but right now it feels peculiar.

When I arrived at the lawyer’s office, after waiting in a stately reception area, I was ushered into a cubicle similar to the ones used to interrogate at the police station. What might have been intended as an open-plan office had been cut into oddly-shaped windowless rooms lit by strip fluorescent lighting.

Even though the act of signing my Will took all of five minutes, the whole process exhausted my stores of maturity. In the days after, I avoided my study so as not to have to think about the papers piled high on my desk. Until, last Sunday, faced with a choice between painting the basement or clearing my desk, I got a second wind. I turned on the printer, got out a second pile of papers that I’d failed to file since I switched to direct debits, and started sorting.

I didn’t tell myself what I was doing, which would have scared me off. In no time at all, the desk was sprayed with papers. This meant that the only place left for me to open my files, bar the floor, was the seat of the chair. So, no sitting down. Then, surreptitiously and in parallel, I started on a task I’d been planning for months. Into the clear plastic sleeves of a black folder, bought for this purpose, I slipped copies or originals of all my important documents: family birth certificates, citizenship papers, house utilities, insurance policies, copies of passports and, of course, my Will.

Mind you, this process took the rest of the afternoon, during which my dog looked on, moon-faced, from his chair in my study. Standing at my desk, I let unwanted papers fall to the floor like autumn leaves. I called up my car breakdown insurer to check I was still a member. I pulled out my driving licence renewal and made a list of other ‘must-dos’. And throughout all this I felt so focused, so quietly stressed, that answering my phone and eating lunch didn’t occur to me.


Filling a rubbish bag with redundant papers was satisfying. But even more satisfying was tying a red ribbon to the outside of the black folder, now swollen with documents, and pointing it out to my son when he came in from sailing. Tick.

plan b

20220307_151925

Mary Oliver once asked a question that, when I read it, I immediately wrote down. When we reach our last days on earth, she asked, and look back over our life, what will we wish we had done on this day that we are now living?

I often think on this question when I have what I call a plan b moment, which is the gap of time that opens up when my plan a, for whatever reason, falls through. Whenever I have a plan b moment, there’s no warning. Last Friday, it went like this. I was going about my morning, getting meat out of the fridge to bring it to room temperature so that, after returning from writing in a local cafe, I could brown it for the slow cooker (my answer to just about everything culinary). An hour later, when I got back to my car, after writing and shopping, and looked at my phone, I saw that one of the friends I’d invited for dinner night had left a message explaining that she was exhausted from work and was heading home up the coast. She would, she said, be a terrible guest and may even fall asleep at the table. I texted back that she wasn’t to fall asleep at the wheel and that I didn’t mind a bit, which I didn’t. Then I texted my second dinner guest, telling her what had happened. Within the hour, Di replied that she was taking her brother home after a cancer surgery and may need to stay at his place that night. ‘Of course’, I texted back, adding how lucky her brother was to have her as a sister.

In my current unmarried life, one of these plan b moments happens two or three times a week. My kids promise that they’ll be home for dinner, and then go sailing. I’ll arrange for someone to help me in the garden, and they don’t appear. An event I’d been looking forward to is canceled. Experiences like these happened when I was married and had kids at home. But somehow, with more holding me in place, I didn’t notice them so much. To the extent that I did, I was glad of them. They were a windfall, a rush of grace. When a plan of mine was aborted, I was thrilled; suddenly I had an unclaimed pocket of time that five minutes before I hadn’t. However, now I really notice it when my plans change, because now there are more windy spaces in my day. I have just as many balls in the air, possibly more. Yet somehow they don’t have the same weight as the old ones. Nowadays it feels confronting, a bit embarrassing, to realise – in the wake of a plan b moment – that I need others more than they need me. It’s not that other people don’t care about me; I know that they do. It’s just that when I was married and had kids at home there was always someone in the wings to fall back on – to go for a walk with, to cook dinner for. My son still lives at home; I’m not living alone yet. However, he’s busy with his life and I make it clear that I don’t count on him being around, though am happy when he is – an arrangement which makes cooking dinner interesting.

Lately, when a plan b moment arises, and I’m at home, I’ll sit down at the piano and centre myself that way. Or I’ll take my dog for a favourite walk, and relish the cooking that I suddenly don’t have to do. Or I’ll make dandelion coffee and break off dark chocolate and sit on the back doorstep, as I decide which renovating task to invest my newfound time in.

I never see a plan b moment coming. It’s always a surprise. Still, I’m getting better at keeping a mental list of what these moments give me the opportunity to do. I’m getting better at bringing Mary Oliver’s question to mind, and at seeing the silver lining which is on the flip side of not being needed by my family. Yes, it’s sad not being on call to my family 24/7; but it’s also revelatory. It feels miraculous to have fate tap me on the shoulder, after 25 years of being ‘it’ for the four of us, and for her to say to me, ‘and by the way you don’t have to cook tonight’.

As with other deep experiences, my plan b moments are ‘both/and’. They’re exhilarating and mortifying. It’s exhilarating to be off the hook, in terms of endless domestic demands; but it’s also chastening to realise that I don’t matter to others quite as much as I did before. Now and then, one of these plan b moments will catch me so completely that, for a few seconds, I’ll feel vertigo. How, I ask myself, as I stop in my tracks, can this have come about?

There are evenings when I take my dog to the beach and find myself glancing enviously at couples holding hands while, in the next breath, reveling in not having to be at home supervising school homework. ‘How did that happen?’ I’ll ask in wonder. ‘This thing called separation is really happening’, I’ll think to myself, as I head back up the beach. ‘And it’s happening to me’.

This is not a ‘woe is me’ experience. I do know how deeply lucky I’ve been in my life so far. I mean something more existential. It’s as if, for a second or two, I can feel my life changing direction. And then I fall back into annoyance with my dog who, for the umpteenth time, has fallen behind on the beach to sniff something.

I don’t always make the best use of my plan b moments. Last night, when my son went off to have dinner with my ex without warning, I was quick to respond to my plan b moment. ‘Here it comes again’, I told myself, as I sat down at the piano and forced myself to play the notes in front of me. Then I ate enough dinner for two at the kitchen table and proceeded to read The Guardian Weekly from cover to cover – which given the tenor of world events was riveting and disheartening.

So I guess that, before long, I’ll be an old hand at responding to sudden changes of plan.

old photos

IMG_9196

‘You can’t go back and change the beginning,

but you can start where you are and change the ending.’

C.S. Lewis

One night last week, after friends had to cancel dinner, I sat at the kitchen table, reveling in not having to cook. When that feeling passed, I brought up the photos on my computer, to create a file for a project I’m working on. For some reason, my photo library opened at our house renovations twelve years ago. The images before me showed no signs of age; bar the fact of the intervening years, they could have been taken yesterday.

A number of photos were of the side garden, which I’m currently corralling into some kind of order. In the 2010 photos, the garden beds looked virginal, covered in an even layer of compost. There was no sign of the tangle of salvias, ivy, rabbits ears, weeds, maiden hair, westringias and hellebores that lately I’ve been doing battle with. Even the façade of the house looked pristine, as if just painted – which it hadn’t been. How, I wondered, can the camera do that?

Forgetting my project, I fell into a search for something that had disappeared from my life yet was present, in hallucinatory form, on the screen in front of me. I was searching for a promise that I seemed to have mislaid, so taken up have I been with making it from one day to the next.

These old photos were innocent of my projections on to them. Like the younger version of me, captured in some of them, they had no inkling of what lay in store. There were photographs of the back courtyard, with my son pulling his hair out as he swotted for exams, watched over by our rescue dog who, despite her beautiful soul, would later be put down by the vet for biting a stranger. There were photos of my ex-husband, smiling at the camera, caught on his well-worn path from his writing hut at the bottom of the garden to the back door, his laptop tucked under an arm. There was a photo of my daughter testing out a new sailing jacket in a burst of summer rain. And there were photos of me, an unwrinkled smiling woman, snapped by one of my kids, wearing clothes that are no longer part of my wardrobe.

These, I realised with a silent gasp, were pictures of my family life working; in a way, they were proof of it. There was a shot of James helping my daughter carry her first boat from the back garden to the street, following minor repairs. Another of my son gluing together his umpteenth model plane, head bowed, on the outside table. There were numerous shots of James kicking a ball to our old soccer-mad dog. And there were many more of renovated rooms, taken by me in just the right light.

IMG_9411

When I looked up from the laptop, the light was fading and I was hungry for the dinner that I hadn’t cooked. I glanced out the window at the side garden, at the survival-of-the-fittest bean fest that had once been thoughtfully planned, and felt a small body blow; even though I knew that the even layer of compost that I’d caught on camera, a decade ago, was only centimetres thick, and that beneath the chocolatey veneer was rocky earth no weekend gardener could enjoy digging into, and that there was some credit in my willingness to work with rather than against the soil I’d been given.

I flipped shut my laptop, sensing that, even more than food, I needed perspective. Only when I was halfway along our local beach did it come to me why looking at the old photos had felt so jarring. My life, the one that I’d lived in my head and my heart, was missing from the images I’d been lost in. There had been no setting on the camera for my feelings, only for how things looked; which meant that half of my experience of those early years simply wasn’t there. The photos had the clarity they did precisely because they lacked the messy richness of the life that I’d actually lived.  

I threw a treat on the sand for my dog and swallowed tears for the life that these photos had dropped me back into. It seemed unacceptable to me – a kind of existential error – that this life was gone for good. It was also galling to be vividly reminded that the demands of the house and garden that I’d lived in all this time had always been greater than my capacity to meet them.

Still, there was something about these old photos that didn’t add up. There was an innocence about them that had never been part of my experience. Because even as I’d stood wondering how to fill those virgin garden beds, I was also rushing to hang up the washing and reminding myself to pick up dog food on the way to school pickup. I never stood by, coolly calculating how I might bring out the best in the beds; instead, I’d asked myself what I could get away with planting that wouldn’t involve employing a gardener or installing a watering system.

IMG_8581 2

Even so, the old photos did capture something that, in the maelstrom of my kids’ teenage years, and the so-incremental-I-didn’t-notice-it unraveling of my marriage, I’d lost touch with. What these photos conveyed, with silent dignity, was the beauty of the house that we’d taken on and the honesty of our efforts to live up to it. This beauty, this effort, was something I’m still living with, still living up to. ‘We shape our buildings’, Winston Churchill once said, ‘thereafter they shape us’.

So it has been for me. The house that we took on, bravely and naively, has played a big role in making us the family that we went on to become: the ex-husband who ultimately had to leave in order to find himself; the daughter who lives elsewhere but insists her bedroom stays unchanged; the son who stores boat stuff in the front hall as if it were a garage; the dog who holds us all together emotionally; and me, who oversees everything and who pulls on overalls at the weekend to repaint well-scuffed stairs.

I could be plain sad about the passing of time, and about a phase of family life that has come to an end. And I am; of course I am. But I also realise that when we took on our big old house, I wildly underestimated how much time, energy and imagination it would require from me, and that this demand would clash with heading up a growing family. So that once we’d taken on the house, I would rarely be idle; and I would never have nothing to do.

The two biggest risks that I’ve taken in my life so far have been my marriage and the house I now live in. These gambles have made me into the woman I am. I’m still myself without them; obviously this is true. Even so, there’s a way in which, as my kids grew up and away and, simultaneously, James uncoupled from me – driven by internal pressures I was too busy to grasp – our big old house, like the dog that trots by my side, became part of my own fabric. Without anything being said, what for so long was our house, our dog, became my house, my dog. Surely, I thought to myself, as the dog jumped into the back of the car and I wiped sand from my feet, there’s some magic in that.

what do I really like?

20220211_104652

Before I started my on-line design course, bed sheets were just sheets. But then, encouraged by the course, I joined Instagram and, quick smart, my feed filled with images of bedlinen. These linens weren’t just sheets. They were a feature, a statement, even a playlist.

Occasionally, during my latter years in London, when I wasn’t wasting time flicking through the Boden clothing catalogue – and wondering why none of their models were over the age of 25, I was studying the The White Company brochure, waiting for the yearly sale which made their high-end bedlinen temporarily affordable. Even then, I didn’t buy real linen sheets, but white cotton ones. On moving to Melbourne, I switched my loyalty to IKEA, whose cotton/linen blends saw me through the next fifteen years of family life. My kids had coloured duvet covers on their beds, but otherwise our laundry consisted of whites and neutrals.

Within weeks of starting my design course, I lost my innocence in relation to bedlinen. Why choose white sheets, we were schooled to think, when they’re hard to keep bright without resorting to bleach? More importantly, why choose boring old white sheets when niche companies offered an explosion of coloured linens?

Recently, I invited friends to stay. When they accepted, I promptly bought a double bed from Marketplace. That same week, I fell down the bedlinen burrow on the Internet. Within half an hour, a simple search for ‘linen sheets on sale’ found me in an existential morass – not helped by the fact that I hit the search button when I should have been cleaning up the kitchen before bed. There is, I discovered, no such thing as cheap linen sheets. Linen flax – like cashmere and truffles – is expensive to produce. It lasts longer – some say a lifetime – than do cashmere and truffles. However, unless they’ve fallen off the back of a truck, linen sheets just do cost.

‘Wait a minute’, I said to myself, rubbing my eyes and looking up from the computer screen. ‘Do I even want linen sheets?’ Realising that my search had left me feeling seasick, I gave it up and went to bed. After scrolling through pictures of countless beds, made up by ‘bed stylists’ and shot by accomplished photographers in just the right light, I’d started to feel anorexic about bedlinen. Never again, I thought, as I poured myself into bed, would I try to buy sheets on-line.

Last Sunday, after visiting the farmer’s market, I tied up my dog to a pole next to the bookshop and entered the homewares store next door. Inside, I made a beeline for a table of half-price bedlinens, and flicked through white, pink and grey sheets. Within ten minutes, I left the shop with a packet of white linen sheets under my arm. Even as I greeted my dog, I knew that my purchase had been driven by impulse. Still, I asked myself, what was wrong with that?

Half an hour later, in the grip of second thoughts about buying white sheets when coloured sheets might have been a more interesting option, I returned to the shop. First I stared at the grey sheets, wanting myself to like them. However, the inmate-grey shade did nothing for me. What about the baby pink ones? ‘We’re closing in five minutes’, called the manager from the till. I knew that pink sheets weren’t the best possible choice. Even so, they were half price, they were lovely and they were different. In that moment I felt a rush of confidence that I could make them work. With a short breath in, I picked up the pink sheets and exchanged them for my white ones at the till. On arriving home, I pulled the linen sheets from their turtle-strangling plastic and put them straight into the washing machine, wanting to make my purchase irreversible.

Later that day, before going inside after turning off a sprinkler, I visited the pink sheets that I’d pegged to the line. Perhaps because I’d never seen coloured sheets on my line before, they looked pink as pink, to the point of clashing with the garden behind. But, I reassured myself, the fabric was still wet; so perhaps it was hard to tell. Next morning, the sheets looked no less pink. In themselves, they were lovely. The quality of the linen was clear. They were the kind of sheets that you could tie together and climb down from a top-floor window during a house fire on. Still, no matter the quality of the linen, the sheets were too pink. I didn’t want to have to style a whole room around pink sheets. ‘Damn it’, I said to my dog, who looked at me unperturbed. I just wasn’t a pink sheets person. I’d fantasied that I might be, that I could be. But I wasn’t.

Standing at the clothes line, it struck me that I’d spent my whole life caring about the kind of things that, in the grand scheme, don’t really matter. And there was every chance that – short of a labotomy – I would spend the rest of my life caring about things like the colour and quality of bedlinen. I looked back at the dog and laughed, feeling sick in the pit of my stomach. Just as I’d painted my ex-husband’s study three different colours before working out the right colour for the room, I’d made another expensive error in relation to what I really liked. Instead of listening to my inner voice, I’d overriden it in a quest to reinvent myself and to be modern. To be pink.

As I looked at the sheets billowing on the line, I knew that I wasn’t interested in things being different for their own sake. Besides, if I really did like coloured sheets, I’d have worked that out by now. I was too far into my life to change my preference from neutrals to pastels. My son, who’d raised his eyebrows in surprise when I’d mentioned buying pink sheets, had been right. Damn it!

What to do? Pretend I like pink sheets? Sell the sheets on Marketplace? Dye them? Or push them to the back of the cupboard and regret at leisure?

After my next yoga class, I searched ‘textile dyes’ on my phone. I wanted to know if the process of home dyeing had improved since I last failed to dye something in my washing machine. Half an hour later, I stood with my back to the sewing patterns in a vast homes store, staring at a rack of dye colours. Trying not to think too hard, I picked up a washing-machine pod of ‘flint grey’ dye and took it to the till. Two hot washes later, my pink linen sheets were back on the line. They weren’t perfectly dyed; there were spots where the dye was a bit darker. But they definitely weren’t pink, and nor were they inmate grey.

When I returned to the clothes line at dusk, I did a double take. Now that the sheets were dry, they’d turned a beautiful flint grey that I loved all the more because of everything that had gone into creating them. Phew.

the way things were

IMG_7113

Last week a neighbour sent through a text, offering to buy my house. For ten minutes, as I cleaned up the kitchen, I contemplated selling it to him. Then I declined the offer, explaining that I felt I hadn’t finished my life in the house.

My ex-husband, who gets a share of the house price if I sell, would probably like it if I sold sooner rather than later. My kids’ path into a crucifying property market would definitely be eased if I sold. But I promised myself to make no big decisions for a year after James left, so it felt simple to decline. So simple that I felt unsettled for days after.

Last weekend, catching myself ruminate at the end of a paint-roller, I called an older friend who recently returned to live interstate. I knew that I needed to talk to someone like Kate. Not about the house offer, which was still on my mind, but about the arrival of another friend who’d just flown in from Europe to work for six months.

‘Have you a minute to talk?’ I asked Kate. ‘Yes’, she said, ‘fire away’. ‘Well’, I said, ‘it’s about Clara’. Clara, I explained to Kate, is a German friend who went to university in the UK with James. Clara is Catholic, a lawyer and mother to a little girl. She’s also godmother to our son. Then I described to Kate how, before Clara left Hobart, 18 months ago, she and I stole a day away from normal life and spent it on Bruny Island. Sitting on a beach, as waves rolled in, Clara schooled me in a sisterly way to do everything that I could to mend my marriage which, I’d just confessed to her, was showing signs of wear. Apart from the emotional pain of separation, which went without saying, Clara warned me of the financial stresses that had befallen all of her separated friends. If James and I broke up, she said plainly, I’d never be compensated for everything that I’d put into family life, and would have less money when I was old. Sitting on the beach, I felt shocked that Clara had taken the strain in my marriage a big step further than I, even in quiet moments, had taken myself. I got up off the sand, brushed myself off, and assured Clara that things were, even if not rosy between James and me, basically fine, and that I was confident that we were in our marriage for the long haul.

Clara, I explained to Kate, was a dear friend. But now I was worried about seeing her because I knew that she felt let down by my separation from James. And there was something else that was upsetting me. I was, I said to Kate, beginning to feel like I was moving on, finding a way forward. And I didn’t want to be dragged back into swirling eddies, to face down questions that I couldn’t answer.

‘Just tell Clara that you’re feeling vulnerable’, advised Kate, ‘and leave it at that’.

‘Yes’, I said, ‘that sounds right. Thank you.’ Then, curious, I asked Kate another question. ‘How long did it take you to get over the end of your first marriage?’

‘A couple of years’, she said. Then she paused. ‘Perhaps a lifetime’.

‘Oh God’, I said, ‘I hope you’re wrong about that’.

It’s not my experience that grief comes in stages. What I do know is that I can be ambling along, writing in the morning and renovating in the afternoon, teaching a bit of yoga, doing good things in the garden and inviting friends round for dinner, when ‘Boom’ – I hit something hard that sends me reeling. And all at once, any strides that I’ve made seem at risk of being swallowed up by the arrival of an old friend who I know only wants the best for me.

Earlier this week, when I finally met Clara and her daughter on the beach with my dog – after her husband recovered from Covid and her family was released from quarantine – she kept the conversation light. Right up until Annie, Clara’s daughter, handed back my dog’s lead at the top of the beach steps, I thought that I’d gotten away with it. During our walk up and down the beach, there had been no glitchy moments between Clara and me, no muddy pauses. Perhaps a studied glance, but no more.

However, when it came time to say goodbye, there was a lull in our chatter that even Clara couldn’t fill. Previously, we’d have filled this gap with a hug or a chatty farewell. But with Covid hanging in the air, a hug was out. And with the breakup of my marriage, neither of us knew what it would mean to meet ‘en famille’ – roast chicken is her favourite for me to cook – as we’d done so many times in the past.

‘See you soon’, I eventually said to Clara and Annie, as I turned and headed for my car. And as I did, glancing down at my sandy feet, I yanked at my dog who was licking fallen icecream off the pavement.

That night, I had a dream about James. I was walking back up the garden – just as I had earlier in the day, after picking up summer plums before my dog gorged on them – as James walked down to meet me, hugging whatever he’d come back to the house for, books perhaps, against his chest. Neither he nor I spoke in the dream, which was short. There seemed no need for words. I could see in James’ face that he was sorry. It wasn’t, ‘I’m so sorry and I want to come back’ that I read in his eyes. It was closer to tenderness than love – even if I know, and I’m not sure that I do, what love is right now.

Waking from the dream, I lay in bed until it was time to get up. I knew that I didn’t want James to come back if he didn’t love me. That made no sense. But it did make sense that I might want my old life back, and that I might want the lack of awkwardness that went with being in a ‘till death to us part’ marriage. Except, of course, I couldn’t have back something that was gone – neither my marriage nor the life I lived around it. Besides, I’d wanted James to be able to break free of me if that’s what he needed to do. And I definitely didn’t want to wait for death to part us if, in his heart, James had already parted ways.

Lying in bed, listening to cars start to pass under the window, I knew that waking up to the way things were before James left wasn’t the answer. ‘Probably just as well’, I thought, as I got out of bed and pulled up the blinds, ‘that life can’t be wound back’.

ideas I live by

IMG_8886

Over the years, lots of big ideas have come my way. Yet only a few of them have stuck. I will ever be grateful for the ideas – and the people who conceived of them – that found their way to me when I was open to them, and that have kept me company since. Here is my current stock of them, a pantry list of ideas that help me to make sense of life:

1. Three quarters of the way through Downton Abbey, Maggie Smith, who plays the Dowager Countess, has tea with her granddaughter Edith, who awkwardly confesses that she is an unmarried mother. Pleased to be told something that she’d long suspected, the Countess takes Edith’s hand in hers. ‘Life,’ she tells Edith, and here I paraphrase, ‘is a series of problems. You solve one problem and another one immediately comes to take its place. And then, when you get to the end of all your problems, you die’. On the surface, these words sound mawkish and reductive. Quite possibly, from the mouth of any other actor, they’d fall flat. But by this point in the series, Violet Crawley, the Countess, has earned the respect of her audience for her sage and ironic wit.

For Edith Crawley, her grandmother’s words are a revelation. For the Countess, they merely state the obvious. Positioned as I am in age, somewhere between the younger Edith and elder Violet, I feel drawn to the Countess’ viewpoint. I too think that the problems we face in life tend to throw up the things that we most need to learn, and that no-one else can teach us. We may seek to banish our problems, or find a crutch for them. But ultimately it’s our willingness to sit with a problem – to lean into its discomfort – that gives us strength for the next problem that comes our way, as it surely will. More than this, it’s our ability to meet challenges – partly by sharing them undefensively without pushing for a fix – that adds up to what we call our character, which could be described as the sum of every problem we’ve ever faced and overcome.

2. The second idea that fortifies me, when life goes awry, is taken from Brene Brown’s TED talk ‘Listening to Shame’. (Who’d have thought that one of TED’s most-watched talks would be about shame?) Brene Brown, a master storyteller, spins her talk around her first summer camp, which she turned up to with a suitcase full with books that she spent the next four weeks pretending weren’t locked up under her bunk. In her summing up, Brown makes an impassioned plea – which I make from my memory of listening to the talk at least twice. ‘Each of us’, she says, ‘has a suitcase of precious things that we keep locked up under our bed. Especially as we grow older, and fall short of our ideals and expectations, it’s beholden to us, as the unique individuals we are, to open up our suitcase and to share what lies in it with the world’.

3. A few years ago, Adam Phillips, a British psychoanalyst, gave the BBC Reith Lectures, one which was called ‘On Being Too Much For Ourselves’. Phillips’ message, in this talk, is that while few people would admit to it, most people, at certain points, find their emotional life unmanageable. Nearly all of us go through periods of emotional rumbling that come from deep within, from a disquieted part of ourselves that we can’t directly access yet sense is there. This intensity is something that, being unwelcome, we seek to distance ourselves from. We might distract ourselves from it. Some of us addict ourselves. Bar a few saints, we all, now and then, project unwieldly feelings on to the people we love most, only to despair when they don’t meet our demands. We do anything other than sit quietly in a room – like Pascal in lockdown – and wait for this too-muchness to pass.

4. When I was a PhD student in London, sitting in a low leather chair in The British Library – at that time a dome-shaped building with rows of desks radiating like spokes from a central desk – I stumbled on six words in Freud’s late paper, ‘Civilization and Its Discontents’ that changed the rest of my life. ‘What you inherit’, he wrote, ‘make it yours’. It isn’t enough, these words suggest, merely to have something of value. You have to actively make it yours to give it lasting value. Only in this way – by fighting for it – will it become truly yours, and so something that you can actually use.

5. Another idea that I often return to comes up in a letter that Carl Jung wrote. Had Maria Popova not extracted this idea in her newsletter, Brain Pickings (now The Marginalian), I may never have found it in its entirety. It appears in Jung’s reply to Frau V, a woman who appealed to him over some life decision she had to make. Sounding a little exasperated, Jung writes back to her:

“Dear Frau V., Your questions are unanswerable because you want to know how one ought to live. One lives as one can. There is no single, definite way for the individual which is prescribed for him or would be the proper one. If that’s what you want you had best join the Catholic Church, where they tell you what’s what. Moreover this way fits in with the average way of mankind in general. But if you want to go your individual way, it is the way you make for yourself, which is never prescribed, which you do not know in advance, and which simply comes into being of itself when you put one foot in front of the other. If you always do the next thing that needs to be done, you will go most safely and sure-footedly along the path prescribed by your unconscious. Then it is naturally no help at all to speculate about how you ought to live. And then you know, too, that you cannot know it, but quietly do the next and most necessary thing. So long as you think you don’t yet know what this is, you still have too much money to spend in useless speculation. But if you do with conviction the next and most necessary thing, you are always doing something meaningful and intended by fate.

With kind regards and wishes,

C.G. Jung”

Many of us, on starting out in life, think of life in terms of an intricate puzzle that, if only we try hard enough, will one day fall into place. Formal education, the justice system, crime novels and institutions of every stripe all hold out this promise. However, as the years roll by, and in step with them, we make one decision that leads to another – most of us find ourselves living a life of such complexity that it’s hard to apply the old rules to it. Somehow they don’t fit. Could someone, somewhere, be hiding a puzzle piece? What are we to do? Well, according to Jung, the answer is straightforward. We do the next, most necessary thing, and we do it with the courage of our (unconscious) conviction. 

6. When I was growing up, anxiety – and mental health for that matter – wasn’t talked about much. When it was, it was spoken of in hushed tones as a passing state. Years later, when I was gaining experience on an acute psychiatric ward, I don’t remember a single patient being admitted to it purely for anxiety. By contrast, today we live in a society in which watching the news is enough to leave even so-called normal people feeling clinically anxious. Large swathes of us live with free-floating anxiety, whereby the anxiety that we feel isn’t attached to any one thing (even Covid). Thanks, once again, to Maria Popova, I have printed out and hung in my bathroom the graphic below, from a book that she reviewed called Thin Slices of Anxiety by Catherine Lepange. For me, this drawing works as a daily reminder, in a few strokes, of what we strive for in staying sane.

thinslicesofanxiety

What Lepange’s graphic shows, simply and powerfully, is that the most important things in life lie the other side of our inner emotional workings. What it also tells me is that when we do spend time alone, which we all must do (especially in the bathroom!), our aim is not so much to resolve big questions within, but to untangle ourselves from our own misconceptions (our emotional projections on to others and our general mental busyness) so that we can go back into the world and find it of interest once more.

7. The last idea that keeps me sane is from Sigmund Freud. This seems fitting since, of all the psychologists I’ve read, he leaves the deepest mark. Again this is not a direct quote, but my own words: ‘We are not responsible’, he wrote, ‘for the family that we are born into, for the society we grow up in, and even – to a large degree – for our own character. However, we are responsible for discovering what we find satisfying in life, and for pursuing that as far as we are able’.

I find this idea helpful because it runs counter to the received idea that I was brought up with, which was that the purpose of life is to be found in the service of others. The situation today is not wildly different, although the measure by which we’re valued has changed. Currently our significance, our social standing, is measured in line with our achievements. Our satisfactions barely get a look in. This seems a bit unbalanced. Because many of us, if we’re honest, admit that we find it more challenging to pursue our satisfactions – which tend to be quiet, elusive and individual – than we do to go after externally-validated goals.

The bottom line, when it comes to satisfaction, is that we are the only ones who can know what we find satisfying. When something satisfies us, the feeling issues from a part of ourselves that we’re aware of, but can never really know. It comes from our unconscious. A friend described the satisfaction that she gets from being on a potting wheel as ‘that special fullness’, which I think captures it well.

This is where the responsibility that Freud mentions comes in. Once we’ve identified what satisfies us, it’s up to us to create the conditions in which to experience this again. Yet so often we don’t. We shirk this responsibility. Perhaps we procrastinate. We may use the demands of family or work as a shield. Or we may fail to go after what we find satisfying, as a matter of urgency, because we worry that we’re not terribly good at whatever it is we get this feeling from. We may even feel embarrassed by it. For example, there are times when not being good at the piano is a quiet agony for me because I have a daughter who plays the piano keys as if she keeps them under her pillow. Somehow this, in my convoluted defence, justifies my refusal to practice the piano in any regular way.

And yet, of course, I do play the piano. Just as I do make time to draw and garden. Because, as Freud – an avid collector – hinted, it’s our satisfactions that, at the end of the day, light up our life from within.

These are not the only ideas that are stored in my mental pantry. Still, they have stood the test of time and are always there when I need them. Doubtless you will have different ideas stored in your pantry. Hopefully, you will find something among these ideas that, mixed with your own, you can cook with.

growing things

IMG_20211226_195410_268

Only a few people – bar the postie – knock at my front door unannounced. Rob is one of them. The dog barks as Rob’s grey head appears at an angle in the side glass panel of the front door. On sunny days, he’ll be wearing a bright tshirt. When overcast, he’ll be in a striped jumper, nearly always different from the last. Could it be, I privately wonder, that Rob picks up these jumpers during clear-outs of houses, something he’s been doing for years since he retired as an engineer.

Recently, when Rob dropped by, I was stripping ivy off a fence that I share with an ivy-hating neighbour. After big rains, the ivy peeled off the palings surprisingly and pleasingly easily. A week later, Rob appeared with an old tin container filled with poison to paint on the cut ivy stems. Poisoning ivy wasn’t on the list of handyman jobs that we’d agreed together. Stripping ivy from fences wasn’t even something that he was helping me with. But it was typical of Rob that he should make his own decision that ivy poison was something that I and my garden needed.

When you own a largeish property, as I do, you become dependent on the people who help you maintain it. While this exchange is ultimately financial, it isn’t just about money. It’s also about friendship. For a man like Rob, who enjoys the challenge of work as much the money he earns from it, there are certain expectations, certain unspoken demands, I’m aware that I need to meet for him to want to keep coming back. The first expectation is that I’ll ask Rob, in a genuine way, how he’s going. Rob is getting older and isn’t wild about the bits of his body that let him down – cataracts requiring day surgery, a rick in his shoulder, a dicky knee. The second thing that Rob and I usually touch on, standing by the back gate or in the middle of the grass, is current affairs. The third strand of our relationship is more delicate. It involves the chip on Rob’s shoulder. Not the shoulder girdle that gives him grief, but an emotional chip. Rob feels hurt to the point of wounded by the lack of response he receives from people in power when he lobbies them for something. Why, Rob will ask me in his roundabout way, doesn’t whoever it is return his call or email? Is it because Rob has retired as an engineer? Is it because he’s over 70? Could it be that, without a presence on social media, he doesn’t matter to the powers that be?

I, too, am guilty here. Because often, even as Rob and I chat, I’m mentally looking at my watch, conscious that my precious morning or afternoon is being siphoned into our conversation. Perhaps this kind of complication is a feature of all relationships in the world we now live in. On the one hand we’re reliant on them, even while, on the other, we wonder if we have the time and energy – the love – that they require from us.

Rob and I were standing at the bottom of the garden, near the wooden temple where my ex-husband used to write and that I recently turned into a garden shed. I was asking him about the ivy growing rampantly from tree to fence to tree, and whether there was any hope of liberating the trees beneath. Rob replied philosophically, in a way that made it clear the ivy had already the fight.

Changing tack, I told Rob about my plan to turn what had once been four vegetable beds, back into a productive garden. ‘How high’, I asked him, ‘do you think a wire fence would need to be to keep out wallabies and possums?’ Rob looked over at me, crossing his arms over the yellow stripe on his jumper. He glanced down at the garden beds in front of us, currently filled with lavender and salvia, then back at me again.

‘A year ago’, he said, ‘Yvonne and I planted a veggie patch. We had big plans for it. But then, inside two months, it became obvious that looking after veggies was a lot of work at the end of the day, just when we wanted to relax’. He gestured at the beds in front of us. ‘Look at how far these beds are from your back door. Do you really want to be down here, in the half dark, watering and tending veggies?’ ‘Oh’, I said, feeling deflated, annoyed that my plans could be sent belly up so quickly.

‘Why does Rob have to tell me what he really thinks?’ I thought to myself, as we walked back up the garden, and the conversation turned to current affairs. As we talked, we passed my dog who was gobbling up fallen plums as fast as his hoovering mouth would let him, along with the the-hundred-and-one jobs that, arguably, should be higher up my to-do list than a vegetable garden.

It wasn’t till next morning that Rob’s point sank in. I hadn’t needed Rob to tell me how much work goes into growing vegetables. I already knew this. It was an emotional nerve – my pride – that his words had touched. Growing vegetables in the garden beds in front of my husband’s old writing hut was my way of making good Paul’s absence. ‘See’, I wanted to say to the world, ‘look what I can do!’ What Rob’s words made me realise, uncomfortably and possibly just in time, was that I didn’t have to make good Paul’s absence by doing amazing things in the garden.

There was no presssure on me, bar the pressure I put on myself, to create my own version of ‘The Good Life’ in my garden. Besides, it’s not as if I was sitting round doing nothing. I was already painting the inside of the house and doing my best to tackle the garden. (Compost, anyone?) Why add to it with another project that would likely spawn yet more jobs in an already demanding property?

The urgency to grow vegetables was, I realised, coming from me. Sitting on the back doorstep, far from the four beds of lavender, it struck me that, paradoxically, it was what I perceived as a lack of urgency that was causing me to act – to react. ‘Calm down’, I told myself. There was nothing that I needed to prove by growing my own spinach and beans. There was no imaginary debt that I needed to pay off. There was no audience or big Other that had to be appeased. As I patted the head of my dog, I realised that it might be better for me to face the fact that the world didn’t give a damn whether or not I grew my own vegetables, than to fill the void that had opened up, since Paul’s and my kids’ departure, with busy productivity.

Sitting there, it came to me that, at some point, I could decide whether I really did want to grow vegetables a long way from my back door, or whether I was in thrall to the idea that because I could grow my own spinach and beans, I should do so. And in the meantime, I could give myself over to the thought – to the reality – that the absence created when loved ones leave, might be a golden opportunity. I may not know quite what to do with this opportunity. But I can at least sit with it, toying with all things that could grow there, until I do.

And now there is just enough time to grab my dog and my bag and to get down to the local farmer’s market.