HelenHayward

life writing

letter to my father

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My daughter, who you never met but would I know like, is doing a project in English at school at the moment on the power of language. She holds out little hope that exploring what words can do will be of any great interest to her. This is because, as she likes to tell me, she is terrible at English.

 

So far this hasn’t stopped the two of us having long elaborate and sometimes painful conversations about growing up in my parked car, as we find a way through whatever it is in her life that currently preoccupies her – will her friends ever want to go on adventures, what will her life after school look like, what does it mean that her brother has gone to sea, what does fulfilment mean, and is she as clever as she sometimes feels or as stupid as her exam results tell her? The kinds of things that you were kind enough to talk through with me all those years ago, and that held me in good stead when you were gone.

 

Now of course I am grown up, or at least as grown up as you were when we talked about life on the darkened balcony of our beach house, with stars above and breaking waves below. Like me with my daughter, you never gave clear answers. But you were never afraid of my questions. And this meant such a lot to me.

 

In a way it seems silly that I am writing to you after such a long time. Although in another sense it seems remiss that, given how intimate you are to me, I haven’t kept in better contact. I could list straight away the things about my life I’m not terribly proud of, and that I feel you’d pick me up on. I am hopeless at keeping financial accounts! Why didn’t you push me on this more? And I often feel resentful in the kitchen in the hour before supper when I’m feeling tired and my family are squirrelled away doing something more pleasant than cooking or undoing the dishwasher.

 

I’m not sure why it comes to me now, but that afternoon you asked me, when I was nearing the end of schooldays, whether I would consider a future in the department store you were on the board of, I felt offended. How, I thought, could you think that I’d want to work in an airless building buying things that no-one really needed with just four weeks’ holiday a year? Looking back now I realise that you were testing the waters and that you were giving me the chance to consider a different kind of future. And not consigning me to a life of futile bulk buying.

 

I think I’m drawn to write to you now that thirty years have passed because my son, who you would also like, has just left on a long voyage. All the books that he was read aloud as a boy by his father led him to want something that he knew in his imagination was possible, yet barely dared hope for. And now he is doing the thing. He has stopped lying on his bed reading boat magazines and films on his phone and has found a ship that he wants to be on and that has a place for him. For my part I am wishing him well, all the while wishing that the tall ship he is on were thirty metres longer. As I imagine you, not a risk taker, would too.

 

My husband will soon be off on his own adventures. You would probably disapprove, but he has found that Italy speaks to him, and fosters his work, as deeply as a life at sea speaks to our son. And I am not stopping him. If he feels more European than Australian who am I to disagree? If his need to write undistracted is greater than anything else what can I do but respect this? He doesn’t go for that long, but it’s longer than a holiday and I have grown used to people’s reactions when they hear about his periods away.

 

This, my letter to you, is prompted by a deeper question which you wouldn’t have been able to answer but would have responded to. It’s a simple question. But stark too. When someone that I love goes away am I right to feel abandoned? The little girl in me, the bit that never grew up, just does feels abandoned whenever I’m left. It’s as if I’m powerless to feel otherwise. And yet even at the same time a more grown up part of me, the part that was good at English, understands that I can’t hang on to the people I love. I can’t stop them from wanting things that I can’t give them. I can’t shackle them to the spot in some eternal present, waiting for the next Christmas or for birthdays to come.

 

Besides I’ve also learnt, after many comings and goings, that when someone I love goes away a bit of space opens up that wasn’t there when they were around. Just enough space for me to start thinking about what else might be possible. There are, I now know, other people with whom I am happy. There are other people who need me – and not just my daughter. More than this, and this is harder to talk about, I have discovered that there are things I can only do when I’m not feeling quietly overwhelmed by the people I love most.

 

All those conversations in my parked car with my daughter brings me back to you. Just as when I talk with her, you didn’t have clear answers. And yet your comfort with my questions – my incessant why’s – always helped me through. I still don’t embrace change, any more than my daughter does. When our new neighbour sent a quote through yesterday, for a new fence between our gardens, all I could think of was the ivy and greenery that would be lost to her need for a cleaner division.

 

However over the years I have learned to bend rather than block. I have stopped trying to control my universe. I now accept something that you hinted at, which is that what we can bear is just as if not more important than anything we might want. And that bearing things well, without suffering them, is an art.

 

So here it is, my letter to you after all these years. Thank you for teaching me how to let go. And for showing me what words can do. And for being there. Hx

 

 

creative at home

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I grew up assuming that I would, if not change the world, make a significant impact on it. I set my sights on making a difference, on mattering in the minds of others. Forever one step ahead my ambitions kept me on my toes, restless, never quite settling in the moment. Now and then I’d listen out for my small still voice, but only in time off from study or work. With each passing year it was my work and goals that gave my life structure and meaning, and that drove me on.

 

Then I had two children whom I wanted more than anything to be around for. My world tilted. I was in this world to help them come into awareness, not to change it through making a difference. While existentially this was the right decision, in that it chimed with something deep in me, it was also a tough decision which led to quite a lot of anxiety and impatience. What was I to do with myself all that time that I was around for my family? How would it be to put my ambitions on hold while I encouraged my children to develop theirs?

 

Being around for my children in an open-ended way lasted about five minutes. I soon discovered that I was incapable of being there for them, selfless and loving, for any length of time. Right from the start I wanted something back from the time that we spent together. And I didn’t just want it, I needed it.

 

I’d always drawn and read in my spare time. I’d always taken a sketchbook on holiday. And I’d always enjoyed making things – that childlike part of myself had always been there for me. However before I had children I’d grown unused to her company, and it took a while to coax her back into the light.

 

It wasn’t just awkwardness before the blank page that held me back. The put-upon housekeeper side of myself was another bar. It was too easy, on a Saturday afternoon, to set up the craft things for my children and then pull out the vacuum cleaner for myself. It was simpler – it generated less resistance – to keep up with what needed doing at home than to make room for the looser, softer, playful sides of myself which took longer to access than the duster and broom.

 

Giving myself permission to push on creatively, knowing I couldn’t justify it in terms of my worldly ambitions, turned out to be just as much of an obstacle to expressing my creativity as finding time to sketch and cook and play the piano. While finding time was half the battle, overcoming my reluctance to get out my pencils, or find secateurs and head outside in search of flowers, was the other half.

 

I still cleaned the house. I still got satisfaction from keeping on top of housekeeping. However being house proud wasn’t, I realised, the only thing that mattered. It was up to me to carve out time to be creative. If only because those days when I did, those afternoons when I had enough time to do something creative, I always felt better for it, and so more pleasant to be around.

 

Often I have to be a little stern with myself to suspend the ‘this drawing is rubbish’ voice in my head, the voice that doesn’t give a jot for self-expression or personal satisfaction. It may not seem like it, from a younger way of seeing things, however I now accept that it takes courage and not just time to put the world at bay – even at home there is a world – for long enough to knit or draw. When I’m in the middle of a drawing it takes courage to override the voice in my head that would rather I brought in the washing than sketch in the shadows around the pear that I’m colouring as evening draws in.

leaving home

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He strides out in front, our dog trotting at his side. He doesn’t mean to leave me behind on the dark wet pavement. But his legs are longer than mine and he is in a hurry to get somewhere. Just as sixteen years ago he would screech his scooter to a halt on street corners, and wait for me to catch up, now he slows his pace until I join him.

 

I speak first. ‘I don’t like the fact that I won’t know how you are when you’re on the ship’. He says nothing. ‘We’d better cross now’, he says, and we cross the road before our dog lunges at another dog behind an upcoming fence. ‘Don’t worry’, he replies, as we stride down the hill. ‘I’ll be fine. You can always track the ship on the ship’s website. It shows exactly where the ship is’. ‘Sure,’ I reply, unconvinced. And I steer the conversation to all the things that he needs to do before leaving.

 

We round the corner and he pounds up the last hill, the gradient of which only a complete lack of urban planning could ever have permitted. He waits for me half way up, and then again near the top. Meanwhile our dog pulls with excitement at the prospect of another neighbour’s dog behind a white paling fence.

 

‘What will you do when I’m gone?’ he asks, as we turn towards our house, lit up by the moon from above. ‘I guess I’ll have more time to work, and to focus on other things. Besides Emma still needs my help. After that, well, after that I really don’t know. But I’m fine with that. I’ve never been able to see that far ahead’.

 

I walk into the front hall behind him. He unclips our dog’s harness, drops it on the rug and disappears into his bedroom. ‘Supper’s ready!’, I call out five minutes later, placing a heavy wooden board on the kitchen table to take a big pot of pasta. Emma trips down the stairs, the last night of her school holidays. My husband joins us with a small glass of wine, making appreciative noises at the sight of pasta. ‘Supper!’ I call again. The three of us sit down and I start ladling pasta into warm bowls. Putting down the ladle I shout down to him one last time. ‘This is the fourth time I’ve called you for supper!’ There is a rustle from his bedroom. ‘Actually’, he says, bounding up three stairs at once, ‘I think it’s the third’.

 

As we get to the bottom of our bowls there is the usual friction with my husband over second helpings. Alex stays out of it, his head in a sailing magazine. He looks up briefly. ‘Go for it’, he tells his father, waving his hand towards the pot and turning to me. ‘Don’t you want some zucchini?’ he asks. ‘Not really’, I reply. ‘Go on’, he says, ‘you have to. We’ve all had it’. I take the plate he hands me and obediently place the rounds of zucchini on to my plate.

 

My husband makes himself toast and cheese at the kitchen bench. While his back is turned Alex picks up the Parmesan cheese and pretends to lick the rind. ‘Don’t do that’, begs his father, looking round and falling for his son’s taunt. The moment his father’s back is turned he picks up the wooden board on which the Parmesan cheese and grater had sat during supper. He turns the board upside down and rubs it into his hair, flecks of cheese going into his hair and on to the table. His father is too busy buttering toast to notice. I roll my eyes and say nothing. His sister makes a disgusted noise, his father whips around, and we all laugh.

 

Alex has caught me crying enough times this past week to make a joke of it. ‘The last time…’ is his sing-song refrain whenever he catches me looking melancholy, pulling his long fingers over his face like a mime artist suggesting tears. Dropping out of teasing, he’ll add, ‘I’ll be fine’. And he’ll stand at arm’s distance and look straight into my eyes – or as straight as a 6 foot 2 young man can look into the eyes of his five foot ten mother.

 

After supper I join him in his bedroom. ‘But I am packing’, he says, bristling at my suggestion that he is wasting time on the internet. I take in his desk. Even if the wallet that he lost a few days ago was on it, I think to myself, it would be completely hidden by the bits of rope and crumpled receipts and apple cores and sailing magazines and tools from my father and university brochures and curling exercise books and sailing books and tags from wet weather gear and maritime certificates and old letters and the odd photo and general flotsam from a life well lived but badly organised.

 

I roll up a few tshirts and shove them down the side of the red sailing bag that he has insisted on borrowing from his sister. ‘Will you be taking your computer with you overseas next week?’ I ask. ‘I don’t think so’. I try again. ‘Would you like me to take your phone to be fixed while you’re on the voyage this week, so that it’s ready for you to take to Europe next week?’ ‘Don’t worry’, he replies, ‘I can still use the phone with earphones. Besides I won’t be making phone calls at sea. We’ll be in port every few weeks and I can get emails then’. ‘So’, I say, taking in the obvious, ‘you won’t be in touch a lot of the time?’ He picks up his biggest jumper and forces it into the top of his overstuffed bag. Whether in reply to me or not, I can’t tell, he says, ‘I’m looking forward to it’.

 

Looking away, he adds, ‘I’ll need to take the green sleeping bag in the morning. Do you know where it is? It gets quite hot below deck’.That’s it, I say to myself, getting up to fetch the green sleeping bag. He is ready. He wants to go to sea. He wants to be with other people who love what he loves and to be well away from home. I pull down the sleeping bag, plumped up in a pillow case, and shut the cupboard door in my study. For a moment I stand in darkness.

 

That’s all I need to know, I tell myself. He really will be fine, just as he keeps telling me. He doesn’t need me to stay in touch. If anything for the next little while he needs me not to stay in touch. He needs to be away long enough to let go of his memories of school. He needs to forget the university brochures on his desk and our funny family dinners. He needs to have the kinds of adventures that he’s dreamt of for so long and that life has been good enough to throw his way. And, I tell myself, I have to respect this. Just as my mother did when it was time for me to leave home.

 

Returning with the sleeping bag I look over at his bag of wet weather gear and wonder how its contents can possibly keep him warm in the Antarctic, should the Dutch ship take him that far south. But I say nothing. Instead I hug him quickly and tell him I’ll be switching off the internet in five minutes – and that he needs to get some sleep.

 

This morning I wake early. As I flick on the bathroom light there is a crack of light under the kitchen door and I can hear the familiar scrape of his spoon in a bowl of milky muesli. He is ready.

 

I drop him at the ship before sun up – for a voyage of nine days that ends eighteen hours before his flight leaves for a larger tall ship berthed in Amsterdam. In the car he tells me off twice for sitting too far forward in my seat. ‘Your arms need to be straight on the wheel. You do know that if you have a crash the airbag in that steering wheel would blow up in your face?’ ‘But,’ I reply, ‘my back feels so much better when I don’t sit right into the seat’. For a moment we sit in silence, waiting for the lights to go green. Like some weird déjà vu in that split second I remember telling off my mother, when I was a teenager, for not wearing her seatbelt properly.

 

I park the car near the ship, we say goodbye – he’d never kiss in public – and he hops out of the car to get his bags from the boot. As he walks towards the ship I notice how the two bags that he’d struggled to get through our front gate in one hand are swinging lightly on his back. Lights are on in the cabin of the ship. He waves to one of the crew and boards the ship without looking back.

 

 

 

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what to cook and how to cook it

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My mother never taught me how to cook – any more than her mother taught her. Luckily for most of my life it hasn’t mattered that I haven’t known how to cook. My friends, who I often cooked for, have always assumed I could cook quite well. My family, once I had one, did too. However I myself felt that I was winging it. I felt that I was making things up as I went along. Often I’d cook the same dishes, week in and out, mainly so as not to have to think too hard and also so that I could combine it with looking at facebook and making school lunches and keeping an eye on the washing.

 

Two months ago I bought a cookbook called ‘What To Cook And How To Cook It’ by Jane Hornby. The afternoon I bought it, a chunky Phaidon hardback, I returned home flushed with the certainty that it would cajole my family into cooking. The visual presentation was so appealing that I felt confident that if anything could overcome my family’s resistance to cooking it was this book.

 

But it didn’t catch on – since when was anyone cajoled into cooking? Instead the book sat lonely on the kitchen windowsill for a good month. When I reopened ‘What To Cook And How To Cook It’ I realised straightaway why I had bought it, and why it really was different from my other cookbooks. It was a cookbook for people, just like me, who had been winging it in the kitchen. For people who, for however long, had just assumed that they knew how to stir fry beef and make a chicken pie, even though they’d never been shown how to do it.

 

On the shelf in the pantry I have nine cookbooks, many of which explain step by step how to make a multitude of family dishes. Now and again I look at these books. However really I refer to them to confirm my hunches, or to adapt a recipe, and not to follow the writer’s instructions.

 

Because you see I am someone who doesn’t like to follow recipes, any more than I like being told what to do in general. I already know how to cook a perfectly good bolognese sauce, I’ll say to myself on flicking through a cookbook. Why on earth do I need to be told how? I’d never guess ingredients when baking, but I’ll hardly ever consult a cookbook when cooking the evening meal.

 

Until that is I opened ‘What To Cook And How To Cook It’ and spent time reading the photos. There is text as well, very clear text, but it’s the photos which are gripping. Alongside the standard list of ingredients, in order of their use in a dish, what I particularly like is the large photo of all the ingredients, with everything from two leeks, a rolling pin and a pinch of salt.

 

Using ‘What To Cook And How To Cook It’ has been as close to having my hand held in the kitchen as I’ve ever felt. With each dish Jane Hornby shows me how to cook it in a way I’ve secretly hoped I would one day be shown. It makes all the difference being shown what to do visually, rather than being told what to do via text. Step-by-step photos alongside easy-to-follow instructions has the effect of forcing me to slow down – changing my usual practice of throwing everything in the pan, leaving the kitchen for whatever reason, and hoping for the best.

 

Dish after dish that I cook from this book peels the scales from my eyes. Drop the grated parmesan into the food processor at the end of making pesto sauce, Jane Hornby suggests, before pulsing it lightly. Rather than, as was my old practice, plonking all the ingredients into the food processor and whizzing the sauce into a paste. Mix a paste of flour and water into casseroles at the end of cooking, she instructs, not earlier on in the piece. And make sure to leave a gap between the pie filling and the pastry so that the pastry can fluff up and not sink in the middle.

 

Having this cookbook on the windowsill in the kitchen is encouraging me to look forward to meals, rather than wishing them away. Above all it has done something magical. It has turned round my resentment at having no choice but to cook for my family into an opportunity to try something new. Not least dish after dish that I cook from this book gains me compliments. I’ve had compliments before, but not consistently like this. It probably helps that my son is about to go on a long voyage and my daughter is convalescing, both of which makes me feel that it’s worth cooking well.

 

And then the best thing of all happened. My daughter, who looks on cooking as an imposition akin to school homework, has twice suggested that she and I might cook something from ‘that book’. My daughter knows about my struggles in the kitchen. She knows all about it when I burn a pan dry. She knows that I cut corners when supper is late. She knows that sometimes I resent cooking for three near grown ups who could perfectly well cook for themselves. Knowing all this she has understandably held back from joining me at the chopping board. She’ll help when it suits her – she is a keen baker – but she won’t muck in. Who knows? Perhaps now, thanks to Jane Hornby, she will. And even if she doesn’t, just the fact that she would like to, that I’ve shown her that cooking doesn’t have to be a chore, is something to be glad of.

 

 

 

 

on not getting out of bed

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‘Before having children we can believe that we are nice people. After having them it’s easy to understand how wars start’. Fay Weldon

 

The bedroom is peeping with light as I murmur good morning, open the curtains and switch on the fish tank filter. My daughter, who has been unwell and has grown used to sleeping in, grunts from her bed.

 

Apart from her recent illness my daughter is a teenager who is wired to ignore her alarm clock, which she shoots across the carpet in defiance of its infernal ticking. I meanwhile am a middle-aged writer who loves nothing more than getting going in the morning – to walk the dog, to use my mind while it’s fresh, and to get as far as possible from the demands of home.

 

However over the last few months, since my daughter has taken to refusing to get out of bed in the morning, I have learned not to stamp my foot at her bedroom door. I have learned, in the seconds before I speak, to doctor my tone so that frustration doesn’t colour my voice. Because over the last few months I have discovered an undeclared part of my daughter which lies in wait, like a snake, for the slightest whinge to enter my voice. ‘Got you!’ this undeclared part of her says whenever I resort to whingeing her out of her bed. Whenever this happens, as this morning it does, I immediately concede the point to her and leave the room. Meanwhile my husband, who wisely stays out of these early morning wrangles, calls out good-bye as he trips down the stairs in leather-soled shoes.

 

My mother would have none of what I regularly go through in my daughter’s bedroom in the morning. Too busy to negotiate or sympathise, my mother would shout from the bottom of the stairs until all four of her daughters were downstairs eating breakfast. But then again I felt slightly frightened of my mother, and knew when to fall into line. My daughter in contrast isn’t frightened of me. My daughter knows that I’ll go on loving her even if she messes up my morning by causing me to have the kind of yukky feelings that I haven’t felt since I was a teenager. My daughter knows, because I’ve told her, that when she grunts and protests, and looks like she could kick, that I feel a little frightened of her.

 

Not so long ago my son, two years older than his sister, went through a period of not wanting to go to school, of pulling the duvet over his head and willing the day away. However I don’t remember feeling as personally attacked by his refusal, as I do by his sister’s. My son would occasionally set off to school on his bike and return home twenty minutes later, when he knew I’d be gone for the day. But he wouldn’t downright refuse to get out of bed.

 

A minute passes as I stand impotently at my daughter’s bedroom door, running through possible moves in my head and nervously glancing at my watch. The advice of a child psychologist comes to me, something about forcing kids to school in their pyjamas, or leaving them at home to suffer the consequences. However neither of these seem appropriate for a teenager who has grown fond of her bed through illness, and who has lain in it long enough to elaborate her worst school fears.

 

I bite my lip in recognition that my impulse is to shake some sense into my daughter, to make her see how totally selfish her behaviour is – and also how much worse it would make things if I really did shake her. Then I back track over the hour-long conversation we had just yesterday morning, when exactly the same thing happened and at the end of which we came to the agreement that after five minutes I would pull off her duvet and that would be that. However this morning that discussion is as null, and my daughter is as troll-like as ever, streaks away from the pleasant young woman she is otherwise turning into.

 

I walk back down the stairs, feed the dog, check emails, listen to the news headlines – the fate of UK’s relation to Europe seems momentarily and gloriously more important than my daughter’s horrid mood upstairs. My grandfather’s clock, which sits on the kitchen bench, looks over at me. ‘You’, it tells me mockingly, ‘have been up for two hours already and you haven’t even found time to walk the dog’.

 

‘Are you up now?’ I call up the stairs, in as neutral a tone as I can muster. No answer. I try again. ‘Breakfast is ready!’ Once more there is no answer. Just the loud crunching of our dog eating pellets from her metal bowl in the next room.

 

‘Right’, I say to myself, gathering courage and taking the stairs two at a time. For some reason I don’t understand, as I scratch my daughter’s back and nuzzle her neck I call her by our dog’s name, not hers. Realising my error I laugh and continue to act as if she is our dog, turning her over to tickle her tummy in the way our dog adores. It works. My daughter laughs at the silliness – of mine and of hers. She lets me roll her out of bed to tickle her some more, and that is that.

 

Except that that is never quite that in family life. Tomorrow, or the morning after, my daughter and I will have the same tussle in her bedroom, as my husband calls out good-bye on shutting the front door behind him. Until, one morning, something invisible will snap, after which my daughter won’t return my greeting with a grunt from her bed. Even though it’s a school morning, one day she will just get up, get dressed, and get on with her life. Just as she used to and just as if none of this occurred. One day soon, once she’s confident of being able to make good things happen, all this will turn into a phase that she thankfully leaves well behind.

 

*     *     *

 

My daughter has been ill, you will say. Well, yes, she has been, quite ill. Besides it’s freezing outside, you will say. Absolutely, this winter has been particularly cold. However not wanting to get out of bed predates my daughter’s illness. Not wanting to get out of bed is expressive of her protest against the pressures of adolescence. Staying put in bed is her way of controlling her fear of the day ahead. Lying snug under the duvet allows her to let herself down ahead of time, thus preventing the disappointments that she feels certain will meet her during the course of her day. More specifically staying in bed means avoiding her own lack of confidence in her ability to shape the kind of day that she would like for herself. Not getting out of bed is to say, without having to find words for it, that since nothing good is likely to happen to her once she does get up, she might as well stay cosy and warm where she is.

 

My daughter doesn’t mean to attack me with her unwillingness to make the most of the life on offer to her. Moreover once she does finally get out of bed she always regrets her behaviour. She is sorry for causing me to lose my morning freedoms – working before breakfast in a café, walking the dog, an early yoga class. Once out of bed she always apologises. She understands that her inability to get out of bed directly impacts on me. Without saying anything, she is grateful that I stem my rage, that I don’t act on it. She is relieved that I don’t race down the stairs and slam the front door, as I might secretly like to do.

 

Of course I do do all these things in my head. In fantasy I stomp out of the house and never come back. In fantasy I pull her from the bed and force her to dress, one school sock at a time. In fantasy I tell her that she is a malingerer, not ill at all but rather milking me for sympathy in ever shorter supply.

 

When my mother was a teenager she was a boarder at boarding school, which means that quite she probably never had the chance to lie in bed on cold mornings, refusing to meet the demands of the world. This may explain why she used to take the ‘pull yourself together’ tack whenever I didn’t want to get out of bed when I was growing up – so very different from my own tack. But of course I am not my mother – besides which I have only one daughter and not four of them.

 

One day before too long my daughter will need to separate from me, just as her brother – currently away – has done. However as far as I have a philosophy of mothering it is that I would rather wait until my kids are ready to leave the nest, before pushing them out of it. Now that my daughter has found her way to the end of the branch, if I can wait until she’s confident of her wings, I feel sure that she’ll know when it’s time to fly off. If I can avoid stamping my feet in impatience, and wait till she’s ready to fly of her own accord, she’ll know the right moment to jump. And it’s this belief that holds me steady at her bedroom door on cold winter mornings like today.

 

 

pyjama button

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The button on my blue pyjamas fell off months ago. Every so often I pull them on, do up the tie, and promise myself I’ll replace the button that day. ‘Today I’ll find a button and sew it on’, I tell myself. But I never do. For whatever complicated reason I’m unable to find five minutes in my day to find a button to sew back on my pyjamas. Which means that every time I pull them on, or hang them on the line to dry, I wish I had.

 

The American researcher Mihalyi Csikszentmilhayi has done decades of work into the psychology of ordinary experience. He and his team spoke with thousands of people – tracking them across their day. Roughly half to two thirds of their subjects’ day was given over to work. Another quarter was given over to leisure. The other quarter to a third was given over to maintenance activities – grooming, cooking, eating, housework, shopping and errands – to those things which, quite literally, keep our lives from falling apart.

 

In Csikszentmilhayi’s view, as in Sigmund Freud’s, much the work of life involves building it up – forging relationships, creating things, fulfilling aspirations. The rest of life involves shoring up what we’ve built up to prevent it from falling apart. Even a well-built house, left unrepaired, will eventually fall down. Even the most precious friendship, left untended, wilts. Even top athletes, after a month of illness, lose muscle mass. This is the natural way of things.

 

And yet rarely do we turn to each other and ask how we feel about keeping the wheels on our life. How do we feel about the hundreds of tiny efforts, from repairing a lamp to attending an exercise class, that maintains the life that we already have? How do we feel about caring for things which are necessary day to day, but which we don’t ultimately care about? I know I’m not the only one who struggles to do basic mending.

 

Sitting here now a whole list of small things that need doing in my life file through my mind. Things which, were I to do them, would make me feel lighter and more together, the master of my ship. The cracks that need filling in our sitting room wall, the legacy from major building work. The hem on a favourite pair of trousers that in fantasy will be mended by being pushed to the back of my drawer. The dog hair that daily thickens in my car. The address book that is so out of date as to be embarrassing. Am I really too busy to do such things? Am I waiting for permission – to be sent to my room until I promise to do them?

 

At school I was taught to look after my belongings – more for fear of losing them than to protect their inherent value. My twenties were such a scramble that the concept of maintenance was largely foreign. As I moved around London I passed a few things on and discarded others, but I don’t remember actively maintaining my belongings. By the time I embraced adulthood, in my thirties, my life was complicated in a way that made it hard to know where my belongings began and my children’s ended.

 

Around the time that I grasped my life wouldn’t last forever, I realised that however well I looked after my belongings, one day they too would fall apart. Unless I lost it, my jewellery would outlive me, which is why it remains precious. However my jeans, books, crockery and the kitchen extractor fan – all these would fray or obselesce.

 

In failing to sew the button back on my pyjamas, am I being realistic? Or am I caving in to the feeling that since everything is destined to fall apart anyway, that’s the point of stalling it? Does this, my residual reluctance, explain why the imaginative energy required to find a needle and thread is greater than the act of sewing on the button?

 

Now that the button is back on my pyjamas I can’t help wondering what all the fuss was about. But then my eye takes in the cracks in the living room wall – an hour at most up a ladder – and again I’m tripped up by a small yet insurmountable household task that will make the world of difference to me, yet go largely unnoticed by everyone else.

 

I end with a note from Freud. We are not, he wrote, responsible for the broad course of our lives. Many of the big choices – of family and to a large extent our personality – are not of our making. However we are, he noted, responsible for our satisfactions, for seeking out and fulfilling them as far as we are able.

 

For my own part, recognising that little things are worth doing even when they don’t count as achievements, even when there is no audience to reward me, has helped me to grow up and find satisfaction within, which is where it matters most.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

the idiot and the fool

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Most nights when we sit down to eat I light candles, in the hope that it will make us all a bit nicer. My son however objects to candles. For him they are an affectation, a trick to draw him into his parent’s world.

 

I take my seat in momentary amazement at sitting down after two hours of housekeeping. We pick up our forks – or spoons if it’s soup – and before long it starts. My husband will use a particular phrase, or tone of voice, that my daughter will pick up and play on. She means no harm. Or does she? My husband will laugh at being teased and focus on the food on his plate, or sip wine from a small glass.

 

Next it’s my turn. Something from my day will come to mind and I’ll throw it into the conversation. My husband will ask for clarification – his big thing is that I’m not clear enough – and I’ll respond. Although this sounds too plain for what actually happens. Because what actually happens goes on below the surface, in the eddies of my mind and of his. Whenever my husband asks for clarification in a clipped tone of voice a little bit of me sucks back into myself, like a snail pulling its head back into its shell.

 

As if on cue my son will join in. With what I think is affection, my son has taken to calling me Captain Meteorology. I could write a family history explaining why I’ve ended up being called Captain Meteorology by my nineteen-year-old son, but instead let me just say that in my family I’m not to be relied on to know the capital city of Kazakhstan or the longest river in Spain. When it comes to general knowledge it’s my husband who fills in any factual gaps, not me.

 

My husband hates being teased more than I do. Whereas I submit to it, confident that it will soon blow over, he visibly prickles. Having been badly teased at school, his whole intellectual career could be seen as ballast to ensure that he’ll never suffer that indignity again. Except that now, with uncanny accuracy, his past has caught up with him in the shape of his two teenagers who make it their business to tease him round the dinner table.

 

They know just the moment to probe their father’s sore spots. My daughter is especially good at this. Protected by the cloak of her father’s love, she will mock him without mercy. Even my son holds back from the teasing my daughter delights in inflicting on her father – which is most likely a response to the petty humiliations of her own school day.

 

I on the other hand am not allowed to tease my husband. If ever I do cross that line, and in the rumble of family life this does happen, I am brought up short with That Look. That Look is a piercing glance from my husband that goes right into my heart, twisting to a point. That Look tells me, without his having to say anything, that I’ve gone too far. I have, in his words, mocked him. And mocking is something that he cannot bear from his wife.

 

At this point in the meal my son will reach over and finish off the bowl of vegetables, a sign that he both disapproves of food wastage and the turn in the conversation. My daughter will down her fork and say, ‘I’ve had nuff’, a phrase she coined in childhood. And I will silently breathe a sigh of relief that there is still enough food in the pot for my husband to have a second helping, a prerequisite for his pleasure at any meal.

 

Before the meal ends there might be time for one more turn – mine. My husband will pick up on what he thinks is a slack comment of mine. ‘Can you’, he’ll ask, ‘say a bit more about that?’ And again he’ll give me That Look, going straight to my heart and giving it a little squeeze. His request, on the face of it, is reasonable. However the four of us round the table know that it’s really an emotional point that he’s making, not a factual one.

 

Mostly my husband is well-mannered, even kindly. But occasionally he’ll bring me down, making it plain to everyone round the table that his wife is really an idiot, so incapable is she of relaying the simplest of observations clearly. At that moment – five seconds that feel like an hour – I will crumple inside, feeling absurdly hurt and cross, like an insect stuck on a pin.

 

This cuts both ways. Ninety percent of the time I am pleasant and accommodating. But now and then I can’t help myself from setting up my husband to look like a fool, joining my daughter in mocking chorus of her eccentric father. And at this moment I’ll watch him crumple, feeling absurdly hurt and cross, like an insect stuck on a pin.

 

We are not innocent, my husband and I – any more than I am an idiot and he is a fool. While we never sit down to dinner intending to bring each other down, to embarrass ourselves in front of our emotionally savvy teenagers, sadly we regularly do. The tiny forays which we make during dinner, as we dart behind each other’s defences, have been decades in the making. Our routines are as practised as those of adept ballroom dancers – or fencers before a thrust.

 

It may not sound like it, but we love each other, my husband and I. And yet the tragedy, and the comedy, is that being married for the long haul means that we are not always on the same side. We are like married couples from Shakespeare and Tolstoy, in that our love is no match for the moments of bile which cut through our shared history, wonderful children and our desire for pleasant family meals.

 

I don’t remember giving over my vulnerabilities to my husband and children. Before they came along I don’t remember secretly thinking that I was an idiot. I knew there were plenty of things that I didn’t know, but I don’t recall feeling shown up by my ignorance. Perhaps it was sharing the kitchen table with my kid’s trigonometry homework that triggered my feelings of inadequacy. Perhaps it was watching my husband’s career advance as my own lay idling. Perhaps it is that the things I know about best aren’t the kind of things which appear in multiple choice tests. Or perhaps it’s that I’ve been dumbed down by being at the centre of family life for so long. But somehow I don’t think so. I think it’s more that sitting down for a family meal has a way of bringing out the best and the worst in us all.

 

Quite possibly the intimate choreography that is our family supper will happen again tonight. My daughter will bait my husband. My husband will fall for it and hold out the bait to me. And for his part my son will eat whatever vegetables remain in the bowl, bury his head in a magazine, and say to us all, ‘I’m not related’.

 

Last night my daughter sat up in bed, her third day off sick from school. We’d been talking about good friends who recently had a baby who they are besotted by. ‘You know’, said my daughter, ‘all those people who have babies that they adore. They have no idea’, she continued, ‘that in fifteen years’ time those babies won’t be babies, but teenagers who send up their parents at dinner’. ‘Ha’, I replied, ‘exactly’.

 

But my husband and I, we are learning not to take out our frustrations on each other. There are evenings when he baits me and nothing happens. I don’t feel got at by his request for clarification. I respond to his query as if it’s a real question. Equally less and less do we resort That Look. Not because we’ve reached some kind of amazing understanding, because we haven’t. But because, from my side at least, I realise that this is what it means to love someone, night after night round the dinner table.

 

 

domesticity and me

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‘A perfectly-kept house is a sign of a misspent life’. Growing up I never questioned these words by English writer Rose Macauley. Like all my girlfriends I assumed that caring about housekeeping was to avoid the real challenges of life. Domestic life was a tangle of repetitive, unfulfilling tasks that full-time work was designed to release women from – this much we knew. There was nothing actually wrong with housekeeping and cooking and growing things. They were just much less important than staying abreast of work demands, travelling to far-flung places and having a five-year plan.

 

And so began my secret life. Even as a teenager, making my bedroom attractive gave me especial pleasure. However this pleasure was tinged with the fear that it was the wrong kind of thing to be keen on. Shouldn’t I be more interested in politics, business and my own career, than in painting my bedroom and taking up the carpet? However clearly I wasn’t the only one. Even in the eighties the world was awash with how-to books on domesticity, magazines boasting stunningly svelte homes, and home management experts who got something over and above money from clearing out clients’ cupboards.

 

But then I moved overseas and began what I thought of as my real life. Moving through my twenties, each year more focused on a career in publishing and higher education, I was giving over a chunk of each day to cooking, organising, errands and shopping – to housekeeping in fact. This involved time, imagination and effort. But it was time, imagination and effort that I wouldn’t credit. Something in me refused to recognise all my big and small efforts to keep my home life pleasant, as at all related to the kind of work that I did in an office.

 

In those days I never imagined that bringing back a gleaming kitchen, after a long dinner, would one day give me a moment of pride. Even into my thirties I had no inkling that domestic rituals like flowers on the windowsill, a casserole simmering, would ever come to feel like an achievement. But then in my thirties I started a family, and overnight my love of domesticity was awakened. From one day to the next I stopped fantasising that someone else might look after me, and instead I got on with looking after us all. Overnight I embraced the imaginative and practical efforts that a family home demands. I no longer felt in conflict over the value of domesticity. Housekeeping no longer felt like a waste of my time. If I was to be at home with two small children, for much but not all of the time, I wanted to be able to look round our home around and feel glad to be there.

 

I am no domestic romantic and this was no happily ever after. I knew from the start why I found housekeeping so demanding. It was demanding to the extent that it meant caring about things which ultimately I didn’t care about. (Was that bottle of milk in the fridge still fresh? And where was my son’s other shoe?). And so I knew from the start that if I wasn’t going to fall into periodic resentments and moanings that I would have to be a bit clever.

 

If I was to be true to the ambitions that meant so much to me, it was in my interest to keep our home life running smoothly. Mainly because when I didn’t I had neither time nor energy left, either side of daily practicalities, to do the kind of things that made being at home feel worthwhile (playing music, planning meals, planting from seed, baking a cake, picking herbs from near the back door, yoga before breakfast). Which is a roundabout way of saying that having ambitions for my domestic life, plus the courage and energy to realise them, soon became a pressing issue once I found myself housekeeping for a family of four in an old house with a largeish garden plus an active dog.

 

The bottom line is that I never wanted for my home life just to work. I didn’t want just to cope domestically. I wanted a buoyancy in my home life. I wanted it to be the backbone of my life. Ultimately for it to help me feel whole. That said I’ve never expected it to be everything. I’ve been a wife, mother and ex-psychotherapist for long enough to know that focusing solely on domesticity was to be one step short of madness. (‘Every mother is mad in her own way’, wrote French writer Marguerite Duras, ‘because being a mother is a form of madness’.) Nonetheless, and I think more importantly, I now look to my home life to strengthen and ground me – a feeling confirmed by two recent deaths in my family. In my mind the paediatrician Donald Winnicott was right when he said that home is where we start from.

 

These days I just accept that an attractive, welcoming and well-run home is important to me. It’s no longer a debate that I feel I have to have. I don’t worry that the time and energy I spend keeping it that way is misspent. Flowers on the windowsill and stock on the stove are both things I openly value. Details, the little things, matter to me – often giving me more satisfaction than the big things. Equally the short term is also the long term – if I care about the atmosphere in my home today I feel sure I’ll care about it in ten years’ time.

 

I want big things as well. Now that my kids are taller than me, and my marriage is pulling at the seams, my ambitions are more worldly. Nonetheless I’m still my most grounded, at ease and free, when caught up doing things at home. I’m not set on perfection – having a family put paid to living in a magazine. And I’ll always be a good but not great cook – I cook because I love my family and want us to eat well, not because I love cooking. Even so the daily circus of housekeeping now feels like a personal accomplishment, rather than a mere competence. And no less an act of love.

 

 

 

 

 

fear of being at home

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All week I long for the weekend. I long for the focus, the uninterrupted hours, the break from worldly demands that being at home offers. I long for the chance to do those things that I love to do rather than have to do. But then the weekend comes around and those two precious days slip clean though my fingers. One minute they are there before me, shining with possibility. And the next they are gone, a closed gate behind.

 

Nearly all of us have domestic longings, though we may call them by other names. We may love to bake or print or simply for a few golden minutes to coax a vine up a lattice. We may love doing these things for their own sake. But not just for their own sake. Activities like these – as tactile as kneading bread or as incidental as putting a flower in a vase – bring us back to ourselves. They give us time to pause and draw back. They make us feel real and grounded.

 

Everyone’s list of what they like to do at home to bring them back to themselves and make them feel real is different. For me it’s drawing a small still life with coloured pencils, as I chat on the phone. For my husband it’s designing a house that he’ll probably never build on scaled paper. For a friend it’s sewing with friends once a week. And for another it’s sorting through photos to create a family album.

 

So often we don’t get round to doing the things that, at the end of a long week, make our spirit sing. Instead we are waylaid by seemingly more pressing demands. We give reasons which even at the time sound like excuses for not doing those things that everything being equal – which they never are – we know we like to spend time at home doing.

 

Much of our social lives involve going out – to work, to events, for sport, on holidays and to see friends. In contrast much of our personal life involves going in – to talk intimately, to read, to share a meal, to stare out a window, to make things. We know how important things like these are to our sense of self – putting our home in order, inviting friends round, completing a project – and yet so often inexplicably we put them off. Instead we grab the car keys, go out for a walk or flick on a screen.

 

I know why I do this. The main reason I fear being at home is that so much seems up to me when I’m there. When I put my key in the front door that’s it. There are no instructions, no rules of the game, no list of priorities. There is no-one to tell me what I should do and when I should do it. Nor for that matter is there is anyone on hand to give me imaginative permission to satisfy my domestic longings, or to credit my efforts when I’m done. There is no audience to reassure me that my hundreds of tiny efforts to make my home life pleasant are worthwhile.

 

We laugh at fifties housewives who had nothing better to do than to shine their linoleum until it gleamed. We’d never say it out loud, but we feel sorry for women who pride themselves on grating laundry flakes from soap. We wonder at the inconvenience of this kind of domestic do-goodery, and at what it would be like to have anything resembling a household schedule of our own.

 

No wonder I avoid spending long periods of time at home. No wonder I find it easier to complete my writing hours in the local library, where the demands of domestic life can’t reach me. No wonder I can only get back my peace of mind, and sit clear-eyed at my desk in my study, once I’ve cleared up the kitchen and my teenagers are in bed at night.

 

The bottom line is that when I’m at home I’m in a fairly constant state of confusion about what I should be doing. Should I be pairing socks in the laundry or calling my lonely aunt? Should I be making school lunches or checking my diary for the next day? Should I be training the dog to welcome strangers at the front door or chopping onions for supper? Should I be coaxing my daughter out of her grump with a snack or fixing the sprinkler out the front? Should I be feeding the worms or vacuuming the stairs?

 

Why am I driven more by the demands of domestic life, than by my desires for it? How is it that my desire for a simple candlelit dinner with family is so often stymied by my need to vanquish my To Do list? Is it because time at home slips like sand through my fingers? Is it because, from the calm perspective of my work life, domestic demands always seem more doable than undertaking them turns out to be? Is it because I underestimate the courage I need to tackle household tasks that I instinctively avoid? Is it because I discount the emotional energy required to put supper on the table each night? Is it because I fail to realistically factor how much time various household tasks added together actually take?

 

All this explains why I fear being at home, even as I long for it. I long for a warm hearth on a stormy day. I long for the scent of a slow-cooked casserole wafting up the stairs. I long for shiny floors and, yes, gleaming bench-tops. I also long to sit and draw as I chat to my aunt on the phone, and hang up with the sense that all is well. And yet so often I miss out on things like these because I feel I’m not on top of the running of our home. With the result that on the weekend I spend more time catching up on domestic demands, than I do pursuing my domestic longings.

 

But I am learning. I now fear being at home much less. These days I give myself a certain amount of time to get on top of what needs to be done, while keeping back enough time for the things that mean so much to me. I am having piano lessons. I put flowers in vases. I cook for friends the night before they come for dinner. I am learning to spell out my domestic longings so that they stand up better against the demands that just do seem to be bound up with running a family home.

 

I am quietly looking forward to the day when my family won’t need me so much, and my To Do list is that much shorter. Because once the hurly burly of family life is over, apart from pride in my home, it will be the satisfaction of my longings that I’ll treasure.

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