helen hayward

life writing

dress

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For years, my gold silk dress lay squashed flat, underneath out-of-season clothes in a plastic tub at the top of my wardrobe. Until the last time we moved house when, feeling sorry for the dress, I put it on a hanger at the end of the rail, tucked behind my husband’s jackets. There it lived, out of sight and mostly out of mind, until a week ago.

I knew that my husband had invited friends for dinner for his upcoming birthday. For some reason, my thoughts kept returning to this gold silk dress, hanging neglected in the wardrobe. My husband has an especial love of formal dinners. I do not, preferring casual ones. But perhaps, just this once, I could surprise him and wear my gold silk dress for his dinner.

Yes, this gold dress had once been my wedding dress. But it had it been originally designed to be worn again. I’d never wanted it to be just a wedding dress. ‘Of course’, my North London dressmaker had said with a smile. ‘I can easily let in some fabric under the arms so that, in years to come, if it needs to be let out, it will be simple to do’.

Last Friday, after everyone in our house had left for the day, I took the gold dress out of the wardrobe and folded it over in the boot of my car. My dog, waiting patiently for his morning walk, looked at me expectantly over the back seat of the car.

‘Sorry, Digger’, I said to his upturned face, ‘you’re going to have to wait.’

Brenda, the alterations lady at our local dry cleaners, knows me quite well, which is why I felt I could trust her to say whether she thought my gold dress was worth saving.  

When I arrived at the shop, with the dress on my arm, I was ushered into the curtained cubicle adjacent to the bathroom. As always.

First off, Brenda handed me a short scalloped evening top that she’d let a zip into the back of – a top that, at times, late at night, I’d despaired of ever extracting myself from. This time, the black top slipped over my shoulders and zipped up the back as if the top had been made for me, rather being than a second-hand item that I’d picked up for a song.

            ‘Thank you’, I said to Brenda. ‘This top looks great’.

            ‘Yes’, agreed Brenda, pleased, perhaps, that her work was appreciated.

            ‘And this’, she said, fingering the gold silk dress, hanging on a hook in the cubicle. ‘Is this the dress that you mentioned the last time you were here?’

            ‘Yes’, I said. ‘I just don’t know about it and would like your advice’.

            ‘Sure’, she said, and left the cubicle while I changed.

I pulled the dress over my shoulders and then shut my eyes as I did up the long zip at the back. But, I thought, this dress is loose. Had I had it let out and then forgotten all about having done so? Was I really so old, could so much time have gone by, that my wedding dress had been altered and I had no memory of it? Two seams at the back of the dress, letting out two triangles of darker silk, told the tale. Yes, I was that old.

The gold dress, with it’s big skirt, sagged on my frame. It was too big. I was now too flat chested to carry off the cut of the bodice. My colouring, too, had changed since I’d married. Standing in the harshly lit cubical, the gold of the silk washed out my colouring, making me look older. I flinched, and forced myself look into the mirror. Was it just that I looked older than when I’d worn the dress at my wedding so many years ago? How, really, could I not look older?

In that moment, standing in the cubicle, my wedding felt like seconds ago. I was zipping up my gold dress, tight against my skin, all the while wondering when my friend, who’d promised to do my makeup, would appear. I was slipping on the high black strappy sandals that, although uncomfortable to the point of painful, were my partner’s favourite. At the time, that Friday afternoon, this discomfort had seemed secondary. Whereas today, 22 years later, I wouldn’t even consider wearing shoes that hurt.

Brenda flicked open the curtain, holding her cushion of pins and breaking into my daydream. Pulling the curtain behind her, she looked in the mirror. We both looked. She said nothing. Yet from where I was standing, in my gold silk dress, it was in that moment in which Brenda said nothing that she said everything there was to say about my gold dress.

‘I think this dress doesn’t work for me anymore’, I said, to fill the pause. ‘It’s still a wedding dress. And quite an old one at that. But’, I added, picking up some fabric from the skirt, ‘it’s beautiful silk’.

‘Perhaps it could be turned into a top?’ said Brenda, thoughtfully.

‘I just don’t think I’m breasty enough for that’, I said. ‘Besides this colour, it makes me look sallow’.

‘Mmm’, said Brenda.

‘No’, I said, ‘this dress is dead. And I’d rather pass it on now, as it is, than mess around and spend money on it. I’m just not the person I was when I wore it. And’, I said to Brenda, who had picked up the skirt and was looking at a seam, ‘no matter what we did with it, it will always be my wedding dress. Even if it is a lovely dress, it isn’t lovely on me’.

My phone rang on the floor and I didn’t answer it. When it rang again, I picked it up. ‘Yes?’ I said to my daughter. ‘Yes’, I said to her, as Brenda left the cubicle, ‘that is annoying. But maybe that car wasn’t right for you anyway. There’ll always be another car. By the way’, I added, ‘I’m actually in a fitting room at the dry cleaners. Can I call you back?’

Standing in the harsh light of the cubicle, I looked at myself in my old wedding dress. I felt like Miss Havisham in Dickens’ novel, years after her intended failed to appear.

‘You know’, said Brenda, as I was leaving the shop with the gold dress and black top over my arm. ‘Last week, on one of those hot days, I saw you through the window. You were wearing those tobacco-coloured pants that I took in for you last month. You had on a stripy top and your hat. And’, I thought to myself, ‘those clothes really suit you’.

‘Thank you’, I said to Brenda, meeting her eyes, ‘that means a lot to me’.

white trousers

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My husband of thirty years is writing a Short History of the World for kids, with a well-known publisher. He writes all the hours of the day and night, helped on by coffee first thing and wine at night. He skips meals to trim his waist, has a nap mid afternoon, plays tennis three times a week, and works in a wooden hut which he calls the temple at the bottom of the garden, where he can smoke undisturbed.

Over the years, we have grown in different directions, my husband and I. To the point that some days, as today, I can’t help wondering whether it’s our differences that have come to define us as a couple. Could this explain why these days we struggle to sustain a normal conversation, over and above talking about our kids, our covid-constrained social life, and the running of our home?

I don’t mind – or at least say I don’t mind – that, bar this year, my husband travels to Italy during our winter where he lives out his other life, unconstrained by family meal times and bursts of teasing from our kids. The thing I do mind is that during his last trip to Italy he bought two pairs of white cotton trousers that he wears at the first sign of summer heat. He wears these trousers with a white shirt and navy cotton jacket, which seems to me quite a lot of white. It gets to me, just seeing him in these white trousers, kept preternaturally white by an environmentally-unfriendly local dry cleaner.

My husband doesn’t wear white cotton trousers when it’s hot in order to annoy me. Though he knows they get to me, he has decided not to care. Given that he is a philosopher with a strength in aesthetics, the beauty of things, he can make up his own mind whether a particular outfit suits him or not – or so I imagine his thinking on the subject goes.

It’s not just me who objects to these white trousers. They set off our kids, too. ‘I’, these trousers announce to us, his family, ‘am not a man of the people. I do the kind of work that doesn’t get me dirty, as other people do when they work. And anyway, I like looking different. I have no interest in appearing the same as other people.’

Recently, my husband has started gardening, as a break from his writing. It took him ten years in our house with a big garden to realise that taking short breaks, by doing something different, actually helps his writing work along. And yet even when he weeds, his preferred gardening activity, he crouches down. Though he’s happy to gets his hands dirty, he doesn’t kneel on the ground and become one with the soil, an activity incompatible with wearing white trousers.

What right have I to have an opinion on my husband’s choice of clothing? Besides, I suspect that my minding about his trousers has been sparked by the impasse that I find myself at in my own writing journey, as I try not to react to the silence of a new literary agent who has yet to get back after I sent her two manuscripts two and a half weeks ago (are they, I ask myself, really that bad?). This uncertainty of mine can’t help but contrast with the guaranteed publication of my husband’s History of the World for kids, a project the scale of which makes me intellectually quake.

Long ago, my husband objected, frowning, when I wore my favourite baggy jeans. ‘It’s not the denim’, he would say, when I made the mistake of probing. ‘It’s the fit’. Eventually, after months of hesitating, I started wearing these baggy jeans – happily back in fashion – anyway. I can only suppose that it’s in the same spirit that my husband wears white trousers on hot days, refusing to care what his family thinks of them.

It makes me feel small and mean spirited, objecting to my husband’s white trousers. ‘White pants!’ my daughter taunts, as she heads off to work wearing tan workman shorts. But then, her father’s total love for her means that she can taunt him without consequence. Which is not the case for me.

Our son, away for nearly five years and recently returned, reckons that my husband and I are not as unalike as we believe ourselves to be. ‘You two’, says my son, ‘are inside the same small circle, standing back to back, looking out in opposite directions’. And damn it, he’s probably right.

One of my favourite Dr Seuss stories is about a pair of yellow trousers. These yellow trousers walk around aimfully, independent of anyone in them. One moonlit night, these eery trousers chase the narrator up hill and down dell, to the point of the narrator’s collapse. Those yellow trousers just keep on coming.

This whole Covid experience seems to have made me prickle at small things which, trivial in the grand scheme of things, loom large in the close-up daily life that I find myself leading. I would so much rather be big hearted than small minded. Yet those white trousers, as they walk up and down our garden, they’ve found me out!

to be creative or not

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I think about playing the piano a lot. I imagine drawing after dinner. I fantasise about how my garden might look. But then I let myself be put off. I move the plants I want to plant near the back door. I even water them. But I don’t get around to planting them. I listen to my daughter pound the piano keys as I busy myself in the kitchen. At night, instead of getting out my drawing things and putting on some music, I pull out The Guardian Weekly and immerse myself in important world events.

I have good excuses for not being creative. I am busy. I have writing deadlines, yoga classes to teach, washing to hang up, a dog to walk, a family to cook for. I don’t twiddle my thumbs. Yet I seem incapable of prioritising my time to make room for my own desires. Am I so timid? Am I really so afraid of failing? Have I internalised such high expectations that my creative efforts are more of a struggle than they need to be? Does my inner critic even care if I fumble to read the notes on piano pieces? Does it matter if my drawings are not wildly good? Will anyone notice if I plant things in the wrong place or a few don’t thrive?

What stops me investing in those things that I want to do, over and above necessity? Am I lazy? Or is it that I exhaust all my energy doing things I feel I have to do, leaving precious little for the things I care about more? Am I waiting for my kids to leave home? For retirement? Or am I just bad at organising my time, letting the demands of housework lord it over my creativity?

I am not lazy. I am capable of organising my time. But I do struggle with loose time, always have – even before technology came along and gobbled up so much of it. Thinking about it, if drawing and gardening and playing the piano were my job, they’d be easier to prioritise. Even yoga, now that I’m teaching it, is easier because it’s not optional. I need to do yoga regularly in order to teach it, and so I do. But the rest, well it’s just harder. Accountable only to myself, I defer and put off.

Now I have admitted my problem, what now? Do I cajole, harass or bully myself? Or just sit with it, play with it and see what follows? Any tips gratefully received. Otherwise, I’ll keep you posted.

3 questions

A good friend, keen for people to share the intimate meaning of their life with others, asked me to take part in her facebook page, TheKeyof3, by answering three questions. Here goes:

1. What is something important that you have learned in your life?

I have learned that an embarrassingly large part of my mental life is given over to resisting things – to putting them off. As I write this I can picture a sizeable cupbard in my mind, stuffed with things that I don’t want to do. From a 3-month-overdue letter to my mother-in-law, to niggly household admin. There is nothing new or surprising about this. Most of us feel nagged by the things we know we should do. However, where once I chastised myself and wrote admonishing lists, now I shrug and move on. I still keep a list. But I measure success differently. (Even ticking one item off my list each day feels like success.) For I have learned that I will never overcome my resistance to the things I don’t want to do. But nowadays I’m able to distinguish my resistance to writing to my mother-in-law (in my head) from picking up a pen and writing to her (in reality). Increasingly, but not always, I’m able to push myself over the hill of my resistance and to see tasks for what they are. What a relief!

2. What act of kindness has most profoundly affected your life?

For nearly 20 years I lived in London, after growing up in Adelaide. Although I flew to the UK in a plane, there is a way in which, existentially, I fled there after my father died. I didn’t feel at home on my childhood home, and decided that I may as well live on the other side of the world. I will ever be grateful to the people who befriended me when I got to London, who saw in me something that I couldn’t see in myself, probably because I was in flight from it. A young Australian in London, I was welcomed into many people’s homes – for a weeknight dinner, a weekend on the coast, an Easter-egg hunt. Countless kindnesses – little things that felt like a very big thing – were shown me. So powerful was this experience that I have spent the rest of my life returning my own kindnesses to others.

3. What have you done to overcome a significant challenge in your life?

This year I completed a yoga teacher training course, along with 22 others. I took the course as a dare. It was my way of preparing myself to age gracefully. It wasn’t planning to become a yoga teacher. However, the effect of the training was to plant the seed of a desire to teacher yoga to others, as a way of passing on something that has been of immense sanity-keeping value in my life so far. The average age, among the trainees, was 28, and I am well into my 50s. Mostly, during the 5-month course, I ignored my age. But despite doing handstands and the occasional wheel, the more I ignored my age the more it wouldn’t go away. My challenge, on completing the training, was to put aside the teasing of my grown-up kids and to book a studio, not knowing if anyone would come to my yoga class. I overcame this challenge, this fear, by trusting in something deeper than my conscious doubts, and by using as my mantra the phrase, ‘This is the yoga’, whenever blind fear breaks through my faith in something deeper. This is the phrase that the lead yoga teacher used as a refrain whenever obstacles – COVID, injury, any contingency really – came up. Because obstacles do come up. Doing this course taught me that I overcome obstacles by doing the scary thing anyway. And just maybe this, rather than success, is what matters.

finding time to make bread

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Lately I’ve been too busy to make bread. Last week, if any week can be described as typical, was typical. On Monday, the 25-year-old fridge which was in our house when we bought it, gave up the ghost. On Tuesday I sent off a manuscript. On Thursday I started teaching a yoga class. Add to that our dog has caught a nasty parasite requiring daily treatment. Then there is my 10-year-old computer, in the process of conking out, which refuses to send email. And two weeks ago, my daughter turned 21. All normal, everyday things which don’t allow much time for breadmaking.

Yesterday morning, as a form of therapy, I made myself make bread. Not because I felt like it. I never feel like making bread until after I start making it. But because it was Saturday, and Saturday, until recently, has always been my breadmaking day.

First, I poured out some starter from the pot which I refreshed and returned to the bar fridge that we borrowed from a friend. Next, I boiled the kettle and dissolved a teaspoon of sea salt and a halfish cup of linseed (I never measure) in a large bowl. After that, it was time to mix the dough. When I finished mixing, concentrating on the bowl that was balanced on a stool in front of me, I glanced up at the table and spied a glass jug full of starter which I’d clean forgotten to add, which required extra flour to get the dough to bind. Pant. This I did.

I never mix bread dough with my fingers. I use two plastic scrapers to mix the flour mixture until the dough comes together into a fat but flat ball. Before this point, the dough just sticks to my fingers and between my fingers in an annoying, hard- to-clean-off way.

For the rest of yesterday, the bowl of dough sat on the windowsill in the kitchen. Now and again, as I passed by, I washed my hands in the sink before kneading the dough, spraying the bottom of the bowl with water to keep the dough from sticking.

On entering the kitchen this morning, I noticed that the teatowel draped over the bowl was puffed up with the dough underneath, like a mushroom cloud. Surprising even me.

Making bread isn’t easy. If friends tell you otherwise, don’t believe them. Nothing important is easy. Nor is there a right time in the day or week in which to bake. When it comes to breadmaking, as with other important things in life, you have to make time for it, carving it out almost forcibly until it becomes habit.

I trick myself into baking by doing it step by unthreatening step. After breakfast on Saturday, I get the bread starter from the fridge. I do this because it’s Saturday morning, and not because I feel like baking. (When would that be?) I don’t let on, to my unconscious or to my ego, that I am making bread. Because my unconscious doesn’t think that I can make bread. And my ego insists that I haven’t time for it.

I make bread to prove to myself that I can. I make it to fill the kitchen with the smell of baking bread. I never make enough bread to last a family of four for a week. Still, as a gesture, it’s important to me. And the reward – of cutting off a crusty end of bread before plying it with butter and putting it in my mouth – is, well, like other important things in life, amazing.

on the dog beach

My dog is recovering from canine coronavirus. A year ago, this would have been unremarkable. Pre-covid 19, canine coronavirus was one of a handful of viruses that young dogs were liable to pick up playing in the park or on the beach. Especially when that dog is a Labrador puppy who eats everything his nose tells him might be worth gobbling, in the hope that it tastes good.

As that Labrador puppy’s owner, I cheat. Twice a week, Digger lets off steam with 20 other dogs at kennels in the country, a 20-minute drive from my home. This is by far the most exciting part of Digger’s week. And, if I’m honest, it comes pretty close to mine too. Like dropping off a toddler at daycare, on Tuesdays and Thursdays I don’t have to think about my dog between 8am until 5pm. I can go to a yoga class, put compost on the garden, and work in my study in peace.

But not at the moment. A month ago, Digger started having poo explosions outside his crate in the morning. I would be half way down the stairs, rushing to get us both in the car to arrive at the kennels by 8am, and I’d smell that smell. And my heart would sink at having to pay the price of owning a dog who, though we love him to bits, eats, well, pretty much anything. And I mean anything.

After the third explosion within a month, Amanda, who runs the country kennels, pushed me to have Digger checked out by her vet. ‘He’s great’, she said. ‘If anyone can sort out Digger’s gut, it’s Dr R’.

A week later, I was working at a picnic bench, with Digger waiting for a walk in the car, when Dr R called me. ‘The poo sample came up with canine coronavirus in your dog’s DNA’, he said.

‘Oh’, I said, wanting not to hear what he’d just said. ‘Is that bad?’

‘It’s actually pretty common right now’, said the vet. ‘And it would probably be more common if more dogs were tested for it. But it does mean that Digger will need to stay away from kennels for a while’.

‘Oh’, I said, ‘of course’.

‘And then, in two to four weeks, you can bring in another poo sample for testing, and we can go from there’, he said.

‘Sure’, I said. I thanked him and we ended the call. I stared out at the sea, over the top of my computer screen. ‘Great’, I thought. ‘I have Digger at home for a month. Just like at Christmas time.’ Then I got cross with myself. ‘What a stupid middle class problem to have’, I said to myself. ‘Every day there are 10,000 new covid cases across France, and here I am worrying about how to get my work done with my boisterous puppy alongside’.

It took me a good 10 minutes to look on the bright side. ‘At least the poo test didn’t turn up some hard to treat parasite’, I told myself. ‘I should be glad about that’. And I was.


Right now, it’s early on Saturday morning and I’m writing this in a local café. My kids are away this weekend, and my husband is working in his ‘office’, a wooden shed at the bottom of our garden. Digger is at home alone, extracting his kibble out of his red plastic Kong, a feeding toy with a hole in the side. Across the hole of his red plastic Kong, through which the kibble spills when he pushes it across the courtyard bricks with his nose, I have stuck a bandaid. Why so? Well, the bandaid reduces the size of the hole of the Kong, and stretches the time that Digger takes to extract the kibble to a good half hour. Then, when he is done, Digger will nudge the back door open, which I left ajar, come inside and sit on his chair in my study until I reappear. How do I know this? I know it because I have set up this routine with him over the last year or so, to buy me time to work in the morning – my favourite time to write.

Some people, a lot of people, have dogs who they leave at home for most of the day while they’re at work. They have no choice about this, and their dog accepts it. And they don’t bother with bandaids to reduce the hole of their dog’s feeding toy.

‘You treat that dog like he’s your third child’, my son tells me, not for the first time. There may be some truth in this. I really do care about Digger’s well being. I treat him as if he has a soul. Without saying it aloud, I think that he depends on me to create the conditions in which he can thrive in the short time he spends on this earth. As I say, I don’t say this to other people. Digger is a dog, after all. But I do feel it.

But it’s not just altruism. I also fear the havoc that Digger could wreak in my life – he’s a large dog – if I don’t treat him well. At any time, he could start barking and annoy the neighbours with his booming bark. He could get bored and find compost or other inedibles to eat – leading to big vet bills. Or he could become withdrawn and lose his sociability with young and old – which would be sad for us all.

So you see, I’m not a relaxed dog owner. I know what can go wrong, having had to put our last rescue dog down after she became reactive and threatened to bite people. In part, this is why we got a Labrador, to reduce the risks of this happening again.

However, a Labrador puppy is not a King Charles Spaniel. A Labrador puppy is not a West Highland Terrier. It is not a poodle. A Labrador puppy has buckets of energy – ‘buzz’, we call it – which he needs to release every day in order for him to relax later. When Digger and I are on the beach in the morning, and he is trotting along off lead, he’ll stop trotting and do these huge wheeling circles around other dogs, whether in excitement or in fear even he may not know.

When Digger looks at me in the morning after breakfast, with his ‘Is it time for the beach now?’ expression, I find it impossible to ignore him and to put my own work first. Instead, bar Tuesdays and Thursdays, I arrange my morning work routine around him. After a burst of housekeeping, the two of us head for our local beach.

Even in winter, even when it’s raining, this is a lovely time of day for me. Every time, as we walk back to the car, I silently thank Digger for making me take him to the beach. How lucky am I, I think to myself, to start my day this way? After our walk, Digger will snooze in the car while I write at my computer at a picnic table or, if the weather’s bad, in a cafe. Then we have a second walk before coming back home for the afternoon, during which Digger lies on the back doorstep doing nothing very much while I do my thing inside. Digger can hear me cooking in the kitchen, or tapping the keys in my study. I can hear him shuffling around next door, finding a comfortable spot in the sun to plonk down himself down in. This is our unspoken agreement, our understanding about how our day together works best. And mostly, it does work.

This morning on the beach, Digger and I are rewarded with perfect spring weather. Cold and sunny. Good to be alive sort of weather. When we get to our destination, a pebbly beach, an older man is already on there with two black Labradors. He introduces his dogs as Gus, the elder dog, and Blue, the younger. Digger plays with Blue in the water until, tiring of each other, Digger wanders off, nose the ground, sniffing.

John, the dogs’ owner, is keen to describe to me the white house that he lives in, overlooking the beach I’ve just walked along. ‘Oh yes’, I say. ‘I know it. I park my car near there most days’. Our conversation meanders on, and John tells me about his grandchildren, and the fact that he’s been unable to see them since January. ‘Oh’, I say, ‘that must be hard for you all’.

There’s a pause as John throws a stick into the water for Blue, the younger dog. John turns to me. ‘And you’, he asks, ‘do you have any grandchildren?’ My hand freezes on the stick I’m about to throw. ‘I beg your pardon?’, I want to ask. But I don’t ask this. I instead I laugh, as if it’s a completely normal thing for me to be asked whether I have grandchildren, rather than the gaping existential hole that it feels like from my side of the conversation. ‘Er, no’, I say, ‘my kids are still in their early 20s’.

Perhaps, I thought to myself, it’s the hat and sunglasses that I’m wearing. But no, of course it’s not the hat and sunglasses. This man throwing sticks to his dogs really does think that I could have grandchildren. Just like him.

Walking back along the beach in the sun, nodding to people as I pass, and stopping to let a little boy pat Digger, I consider John’s question. Technically, he is right. I am an age at which, had I had my children younger, I could have grandchildren. From John’s point of view, he was asking a friendly question. In a slightly clumsy way, he was reaching out.

I walk on, drinking in the sun and the breeze. Until this morning, I’d managed to get the world to play into my fantasy that I wasn’t growing older. I was going to stay in my 50s for ever. My kids may leave home, as they’ve both done. But they would keep coming back, as they’ve done. For ever and ever.

However, the man on the pebbly beach with his dogs made it clear that one day, sooner than my fantasy allowed, I might be holding the hand of a grandchild on the beach. If I got lucky, and if life was kind, just like this man, I’d be a grandparent. I too would be chiding a toddler to put a hat back on their head. Or zooming on birthdays during lockdown.

I’m no exception. Like everyone else, I’m on the conveyor belt of life. It doesn’t matter how much flaxseed and kale I eat. Because I’m still wrinkly enough to be mistaken for a grandparent on the beach.

And there I was, worried about some virus that Digger picked up, sniffing around on the beach or the park.

pre-yoga

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I’ve never done my 10-minute morning yoga practice and then wished I hadn’t done it. I always thank myself as I roll up my mat. And each time I do, I wonder why I had to mentally force myself to unroll my mat before starting.

 

I blame the clock in the bathroom. No matter how obediently I turn off bedside alarm, count up to 20 and push of the covers, by the time I brush my teeth in the bathroom across the hall, peaking out the window to see what kind of morning it is, the clock on the bath tells me that 20 minutes have passed since I woke up. How, I wonder, can that be? My alarm went off at 6.30am, as it always does. And yet the clock on the bath is telling me, seemingly three minutes later, that it’s 6.50am.

 

Despite my befuddled waking, I do a short yoga practice nearly every morning. I do it because my body needs it, and because my day goes better when I do. I think of it as pre-yoga. Now that my body is middle-aged, doing yoga in the morning isn’t optional. It’s basic maintenance. To the point that when I don’t do it, my body soon tells me. And it certainly isn’t ready for the kind of yoga that awaits me in the yoga classes that I attend twice a week.

 

Habits are hard to make and easy to lose. Luckily, I cemented my yoga habit a few years ago, well before my yoga teacher training. It was a habit that arose out of necessity. I didn’t mind that, every year, I was getting older. But I did mind feeling less nimble, less flexy. I minded feeling less Tigger-ish, less bouncy. Doing yoga helped hugely with this. It helped me to stand up straight and to look life in the eye – an especially good feeling to have once my kids’ grew taller than me and started looking down at me from above.

 

10 minutes of yoga each morning, with or without a mat, is enough for me to bend with straight legs when I’m gardening. I even enjoy bursts of housework when I can throw myself into it, knowing that it will soon be over. Often, I’ll pull on yoga leggings before gardening and housekeeping. Because wearing them lets me bend into corners and down into a squat, without stretching the knees of my trousers. Plus, they’re easy to launder.

 

But then along came yoga teacher training, and lots of things went out the window to make way for it. The gardening and housework still got done, sort of. I still bent from the waist and felt fairly agile. However, once the training started, four months ago, my 10 minutes of yoga first thing had to compete with a lengthening list of morning must-dos.

 

Over the final assessment weekend of teacher training, I attended 8 sessions led by fellow students, not including my own. We were all nervous. But somehow we overcame our nerves to teach a good class. When my turn came round, I’m not sure if I overcame my nerves, or just kept up with them. During that hour I felt slightly out of control and, well, weird. That said, the final weekend was a positive experience, at the end of which I felt relieved, glad and a bit sad.

 

The day after the course ended, I felt a twinge in my hip which I thought nothing of. Too many standing balances, I said to myself. Too many mornings spent sitting crosslegged outdoors in front of my computer, during my son’s home quarantine. None of these things did I consider a problem. The osteopath, who I saw a week later, disagreed. Frowning, he gave me a complicated term for the sore spot on the top of my thigh bone and told me to rest it.

 

Looking back, I realise that the quiet hysteria surrounding the completing of my yoga teacher training course – of getting into the studio every other weekend by 7.30am and remaining there until 5.30pm – meant skipping the morning yoga that makes my body strong enough to do challenging yoga poses. Instead I’d been freewheeling tricky poses – crane and lotus and handstands – that assume either youth or a strong core.

 

So now I am back at square one. I am a green yoga instructor with a small bursitis at the top of my right femur. It is healing. I am taking turmeric, vitamin C and omega oils. More importantly, I am doing my 10-minute pre-yoga practice most mornings. I now know a lot more about yoga, and understand myself a bit better. ‘This’, our yoga teacher was fond of telling us, ‘is the yoga’.

waiting

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We spend a lot of our life waiting. For a test result. For an important email. For onions to cook. For dawn to break.

 

The thing about waiting is that, often, we don’t know when it will end.

 

My current waiting began last Tuesday, when I asked three friends to read two chapters of a manuscript that I’m soon to send to my agent, who I feel sure will say that Housekeeping: A journey is too memoirish for her to sell in the current market. I asked three friends for feedback because I wanted a sympathetic response from readers who ‘got’ the ideas I’ve written about, before I get all defensive in my attempt to describe, in a back of the envelope sort of way, what my manuscript is really about for the publishing world.

 

Five long days after sending this email to three friends, one of them got back.

 

‘Enjoying your ms a lot’, she texted. ‘What is the take out?’

 

I texted back. ‘The take out is that housekeeping grounds us and, when we do it in the right spirit, it makes us feel good about ourselves’.

 

‘Okay’, she texted back, sounding unconvinced.

 

I tried again. ‘Housekeeping is caring about countless things that we otherwise wouldn’t care about for the sake of a well-run, pleasant home.

 

‘More personal!’ she texted back.

 

‘Maybe just read the introduction’ I texted, and we left it there.

 

My manuscript is written in the first person, which makes the waiting for a response to it that much harder. Because if a reader doesn’t like my manuscript, I’m likely to feel, in an ungrown-up part of myself, rejected, disapproved of. This is awkward to admit. It makes me sympathise with Virginia Woolf, who used to fall apart whenever she finished a manuscript and posted it off to a friend to read. Except that I don’t write as well as Virginia Woolf. And I am, as far as I know, mentally stable.

 

The three women who I asked to read part of my current manuscript have all replied to me, promising to read and respond. Each time I received one of their emails, I emailed back, thanking them for their support and stressing that there was no urgency, and should take as much time as they liked. The ungrown-up part of me thought this reasoning of mine was very bad. Why should I feel sympathy for the busyness of my friends’ lives when I was desperate to know if my manuscript was readable, acceptable, interesting?

 

However, my grown-up self, knowing how easily my request for a favour from friends could feel like a demand, managed not to ask them to hurry up and respond.

 

Instead I wait. I distract myself with projects at home. I shampoo the carpets. I dig the garden. I write this blog, confident that the three friends who I asked to read my manuscript, don’t read my blog. I catch up on the work that I put aside to finish Housekeeping: A journey and my recent yoga course. And I wait for my son’s quarantine to end, counting down the days (three) before I’m allowed back into the yoga studio and am able to invite friends for dinner.

 

My agent has left Sydney for good, after living in the same inner city flat for thirty odd years. Last week, she taped up eighty boxes and headed for the mountains. Only the packing up proved so stressful for her that she landed up in a country hospital with an acute infection. This prompted a sympathetic email from me, telling her to let me know when the coast was clear, at which point I’d send through to her my manuscript for her to read. After all, I reasoned, how could reading my manuscript compete with leaving your home, your friends, and recovering from an acute infection?

 

From the outside, waiting is a pause, a hiatus. From the inside, it feels like a thing that I am doing. I am not twiddling my thumbs. I am not writing messages across the sky. I am waiting.

3 lessons from my yoga course

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‘So’, asked a friend, ‘what have you learned from that yoga course you’ve been doing?’

 

‘Well’, I said, ‘it’s really three things. And none of them have anything to do with yoga poses. The first is psychological. Doing the course has made me realise how much mental energy I give over to resisting things that I have to do in my daily life. Whether it’s doing my morning yoga practice, filling the dog’s food container from a bin in the basement, or getting supper on the table on time, I’m incredibly resistant to the parade of tasks that punctuate my day.’

 

‘Ha’, said Kate, ‘tell me about it.’

 

‘Perhaps’, I said, ‘if I sat on my yoga block for 25 minutes a day, as suggested by our yoga teacher, I wouldn’t struggle as much. But I don’t sit on a block nearly that long and I do struggle. For now, I’m just aware of how much I resist things. And occasionally I rise above it.’

 

‘Another thing I’ve learned is to accept things as they are. Things are not good or bad, they just are. I knew this before the course. But I hadn’t lived it. And living it makes all the difference. I don’t find accepting things as they are easy, it goes against the grain. It goes against all my instincts, which I now understand – like most of my thoughts – can’t be trusted.’

 

‘These days I find it easier to zoom in and out of my experience. When something gets to me, I try to stand back from it. I leave it alone. I don’t add to a problem by layering my own stuff on to it. It’s the mental equivalent of strengthening my core. It doesn’t come naturally to me. I have to practice not reacting again and again. But when I do manage it, it really helps. Because not reacting buys me time. It means that I can be in the middle of a situation and also observe it. And this gives me breathing space.’

 

‘Yeah’, said Kate, ‘anything is better than getting stressed’.

 

‘Yes’, I said. ‘Stress is horrible. Which leads me to the last thing I’ve learnt from the yoga course. Doing nothing, I now accept, is doing something. Taking time out – whether it’s switching off the wifi, walking on the beach, eating lunch on the grass, sitting on a yoga block – is equivalent to lying on the floor at the end of yoga class. It’s a positive sort of nothing. A yielding to the day, to life, to fate.’

 

‘Is that it?’ asked Kate. ‘I thought you’d have lots of good habits from the course’.

 

‘I guess I have a few’, I said. ‘I already knew, before I did the course, that there’s no freedom without discipline. But doing the course confirmed this to me. In the morning, I now do Indian cleansing practices in the bathroom. I book yoga classes a week ahead of time. I use my diary to keep track of meals, shopping and must do’s. I keep a gratitude journal and write down three good things from each day before sleeping. My phone screen is grey scale, to make it less appealing. And every week I try to do one thing – even when it’s inconvenient, and it’s always inconvenient – for someone outside my family.’

 

‘Really?’ said Kate, drily. ‘You sound like a saint.’

 

‘Sorry. I must sound like a prick. But really I’m exactly the same person I was when I started the course four and a half months ago. To be honest, Covid has probably had more impact on my life than the yoga course has. Although perhaps, after my assessment next week, everything will fall into place and I’ll find perfect peace!’

 

o.w.p. out without a phone

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I used to carry a phone so that the school nurse could contact me if one of my kids fell off the play equipment. It made me feel safe, knowing I was connected, out of sight not out of mind.

 

These days, when I go out in the morning, to walk the dog and to work outside, I leave my phone in the boot of the car. I do this so that I can be in nature and focus on my work. And to prevent my good energy leaking away into the innards of my phone.

 

I think less of myself when I keep checking my phone during the morning. Each time I do it, a bit of my life force seeps away. With each click on a New York Times story, my preferred poison, I feel my morning draining away. It’s not just time that I lose when I do this. It’s also self belief. How can my own writing compete with the slickly edited stories of weighty world events? But mainly it’s time that I lose. The number of minutes that I spend reading New York Times stories has to be doubled to reflect how long it takes me to get back to my own work, after reading on-line. It takes this long to silence the self-doubt that invades me when I read other people’s beautifully edited stories.

 

Last week, fed up with wasting time on my phone, I went into System Preferences, clicked on Accessibility, and faded the screen to grey. Then I wobbled into oblivion those apps that stole my time when I tapped on them compulsively. And I hinted to my family that I might not see text messages they sent during the morning.

 

I always assumed that one day my kids would pack their bags and leave home. And that, when they did, I’d feel inconsolable and useless. I’d feel left behind, like the family dog waiting in vain for the front door to open. But now I think that something else might have to happen before my kids leave home. I might have to leave my kids first, to give them unconscious permission to leave me.

 

I used to think that motherhood was all about surviving my kids unconscious attacks on me. Their taunts and criticisms were, I felt, their way of projecting on to me what they couldn’t bear about themselves. I had to appear stupid so they could be clever, that kind of thing.

 

I was right, I have had to survive my kids’ attacks on me. But now I face something just as hard, perhaps harder. I have to communicate to them, at a deep level, that I will be fine without them, without being sure of this myself. Going out without a phone, or at least having it switched off in the boot of my car, proves to me that I am fine on my own – just as my kids will one day be without me.

 

But perhaps the most important part of being out without a phone is that it gives me a freedom and spaciousness that I thought may never be mine again.