helen hayward

life writing

perhaps this is what easter is for

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A few moments after I woke on Good Friday, I thought to myself, as I have for the last thirty-something years, ‘this is the day that my father died’. Then I rolled over and slowly counted up to twenty – my getting-out-of-bed trick – and got on with my day.

You’d think that, given my family history, I would prepare for Easter. It would make sense for me to set things up so that, should my unconscious get the better of me, I am ready for it. But I never do. Instead, each year Easter springs up on me, catching me out with its carpetbag of memories.

This year, I decided to treat Good Friday like any other public holiday. I did a bit of housekeeping before doing some writing in a local café, and a long dog walk to a pebbly beach. But before leaving the café for the beach, I sat down at a table near the till, where two friends and their daughter were sitting; within minutes, we were in a deep conversation about the meaning of life. Half an hour later, I left the café, thinking, ‘Perhaps this is what Easter is for’.

Late the same day, I passed by a friend’s house. Except that Anna no longer lived there because she has separated from her husband and her house is on the market. A new, bright blue ‘Under Offer’ sign was stuck across the real estate advertising board nailed to the front fence. I was sad to see the sign, sensing how completely Anna had moved on. I also knew that she and I had lost touch because a couple of years ago she’d read and been critical of a manuscript of mine and, more recently, because I’d confided to her some wobbles in my marriage and then thought better of it. At that moment, standing outside Anna’s old house, and without thinking too hard, I took out my phone and sent Anna a brief ‘hello, how are you?’ text. Perhaps, I said to myself, as I pressed ‘send’, this is what Easter is for.

On Saturday night, before Easter Sunday, old friends came for dinner. Three weeks ago, Fiona hurt her foot, shattering ligaments on the ball of her foot so badly that she needed a walking frame to hop through our front door, and into the kitchen. It didn’t take long for me to realise that the pain and inconvenience of Fiona’s injured foot were made that much worse because her mother died three months ago, and so wasn’t around to look after her daughter. Cleaning up the kitchen after Fiona and her partner left, I felt chastened, knowing that Fiona’s fall down five steps could have as well happened to me. Switching off the kitchen light, I again had the thought, ‘perhaps this is what Easter is for’.

My son has used this Easter break to hike up a mountain with a friend; this, for him, is what Easter is for. However, even if Alex had been around, he wouldn’t have gone to church with me on Sunday morning. My daughter gave up church a few years ago, and so she wasn’t a likely candidate either; while my husband, an ex-Catholic, gets so agitated during sermons that I’ve stopped asking him to attend. This means that I was alone in the pew when the Dean of the Cathedral launched into a polished sermon about the meaning of the resurrection; the full force of which were we, the congregation, to truly believe, we would be unable to ‘just go home’ at the end of the service. I understood the Dean’s exasperation at preaching to people who attended his church just twice a year, who would never become the parishioners the church clearly needed. It definitely made me think twice about taking communion; however, once I was standing in line near the altar, I decided to take the wafer anyway, figuring that, if there is a God, he would mind less about my low attendance at church than the Dean did.

Later that day, walking my dog in a local park where the trees are so tall they touch the sky, I happened to see Anna, who I’d texted two days before but not seen for a year, just up ahead. I called out, she stopped and, since I was going her way, I walked with her to her rented apartment. Within twenty minutes, we’d established our friendship on a slightly different footing. ‘Perhaps’, I suggested as we parted, ‘a film some time?’ ‘I would like that’, Anna said.

On my way home from the supermarket, that night, thinking I was beginning to understand what Easter is for, I dropped in on a friend that I lost touch with after her marriage ended and she changed her gender from a woman to a man. I knew it was my fault that Ross and I had lost touch; somehow, I hadn’t been able to understand his decision. Now and then we’d met by chance, once at the chemist and once at the petrol station. But we hadn’t connected beyond social chatting. So, on the way home from the supermarket, I parked outside Ross’s house, fully ready to say how sorry I was that we hadn’t stayed friends. But as soon as I opened the gate, I sensed that the house was empty. I knocked, but no-one wasn’t there.

This morning, as I headed to a café at a local beach to write this post, I bumped into a Korean friend who was clutching a notebook to her chest. ‘I’ve just been writing about a phone conversation that I had last night with my father in South Korea’, Angie said, sounding excited. ‘After thirty years, I finally got up courage to tell him about the things that he did in my childhood that harmed me. And I was so surprised when he said how sorry he was, as if he really meant it. Even a year ago’, she said, ‘I think he’d have brushed me off’. ‘Wow!’ I said, knowing how big a deal this was. This was a father who’d been so authoritarian with his kids that they’d lived in fear of him; a man who’d had a chauffeur and kept his cutlery separate from the rest of the family. The kind of father that I have the good fortune not to be able to imagine living with. Standing there, the sea behind her, Angie looked lighter somehow. I smiled my encouragement and we chatted some more. And as we parted, I thought to myself, one last time, ‘perhaps this is what Easter is for’.

winnowing

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It’s an old concept, winnowing. Though it’s not much in use now, it captures something that I feel drawn to. The dictionary defines winnowing as ‘blowing grain free of chaff’. When we winnow, we sift and separate, we clear away and examine. I like this idea because it encourages me to think that it might be possible to blow my life free of chaff. To hold important things up to the light and to see them for what they are.

For years, I’ve identified with other people’s ambitions. I’ve borrowed them, as it were. For years, I encouraged my kids to be creative. I wasn’t a pushy parent, but I did put in place conditions in which they could be creative. It seems ironic, given that I write, but there’s a way in which I find it easier to be told what to do, by someone else, than to open a door through which only I can pass.

Hence my fascination with winnowing. I’m not interested in reinventing myself. I don’t want to declutter my life. But I do want to focus on what seems important to me, on what I care about most – and to give myself permission to shelve the rest.

Winnowing is an attitude, an approach. It assumes quite a lot of inner work. It involves undoing some of my defences, seeing them for what they are, makeshift walls against my anxiety and, behind that, fear of failure. In a way, it involves decoupling from parts of myself.

Left to my own, I don’t winnow. I use external demands, of which I have a constant source, to prevent me from blowing the chaff from the grain of my life. Or I identify with my inner work ethic, which would sooner have me shampoo the carpets than focus on being creative.

I have spoken to many people about their creativity. They have a ready answer to the poet Mary Oliver’s question: ‘What will you wish, in thirty years’ time, that you’d done today?’ Yet, like me, hardly any of them actually do the thing that they’ll one day wish they’d done.

I used to think that this was because I was a fantasist, that I preferred dreaming about my creativity than doing the work that expresses it. I thought it was because I was weak-willed. I lacked follow through. But now that I’ve been winnowing for a while, some of my struggle to express myself creatively seems due to practical reasons. I lack skill, certainly. But the reason I don’t practice my skills, and so get better at them, isn’t laziness. Nor is it due to a lack of time.

For simplicity’s sake, I’m using the example of drawing, which I would like to do more of but for reasons I’ve found hard to put my finger on, don’t. Winnowing through my excuses, I hit upon these questions:

  1. There seems no point. No one cares if I draw or not, so why bother?
  2. My days are full already, when exactly would I draw?
  3. I have no audience for my drawing, there seems no sense of urgency. So then why?

These points look bald on the page, as do my responses to them.

  1. Saying there is no point in my drawing is to duck my desire to do it. I care if I draw or not, which is reason enough to bother.
  2. My days are full, yes. However, I could fill them, especially the weekends, differently. Besides, it’s not just a matter of time. It’s as much about finding the right head space, as finding time in my diary.
  3. I could find an audience to help motivate me to draw.

This last point I have addressed. Just this morning I asked a neighbour to meet up once a month, over coffee, so that I could show her my sketchbook, and she could share something of her creativity with me. It was hard for me to ask this of her, standing on a street corner. And yet she said yes straight away. Perhaps, I thought, as I headed home, it really is possible to ask what we need from the people around us.

gratitude journal

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Twenty years ago, I’d have more likely to write down a list of my resentments, than to keep a gratitude journal. My resentments would have flowed seamlessly on to the page, with colourful gripes about housework, teaching and the juggle of motherhood. I still have some of these gripes. The difference is that nowadays I make less of them. As much as possible, I let them go. The question, ‘Is this serving me?’ is generally enough to dispel my moans.

I started a gratitude journal when I came across a line by Adam Phillips that stopped me short. ‘Some of our desires’, he wrote, ‘obscure our keener satisfactions’. It sounded obvious when I read it – like so much wisdom that I struggle to absorb. There I was, judging myself by my ability to fulfil my worldly desires, blind to the fact that, as I waited for the world to fulfil them, I was giving away my power. The more I desired something, coveted something, aspired to something, the less energy I had left over for the little things that I found satisfying. The more I looked for reassurance and credit from the world, to affirm my value, the more I overlooked the under-the-radar satisfactions that made me feel whole and grounded. I was so in thrall to my next big goal, I didn’t notice how much power I was handing over to a world that was too busy spinning to appreciate my efforts.

Eventually, I drew a line in the sand. It was, I realised, up to me what I chose to do with the time available to me after I’d met various external demands. But, before I could do that, I needed to work out what I found satisfying. I knew a lot by this point, half a lifetime’s worth, about achievement. However, what I discovered, on starting a gratitude journal, is that I knew a lot less about – I hadn’t given much attention to – what I actually liked doing. I knew there was no shame in not being sure about what I most liked doing. Still, it was an awkward admission.

I started a gratitude journal when I accepted that I would never realise my youthful dreams, and that not getting what I wanted, according to those dreams, was fine by me. Because that what I’d got, in lieu of my dreams, was possibly even better.

Keeping it simple, and treating it as an experiment, I put a notebook and pen next to my bed. Each night, before opening my book to read, I jotted down three things that sparked joy for me that day. That was it.

Slowly, over days and weeks, something unexpected happened. My gratitude journal became a window into what I might do with the rest of my life, after my kids had left the house. It was a yearning for a small lamp in the darkness.

Keeping track of my positive moments, across the day, proved powerful. My memory has a lot to remember and, frequently, not enough time to do this in. It’s good at remembering things relating to my ego – slip-ups, embarrassments and occasional achievements. But it lets go, too quickly, of happy moments. Keeping a diary of these moments acts to sharpen my mind so that I look out for, am alert for, more such moments.

I don’t usually flick back to old entries in my gratitude journal. But when I do, I’m struck by how simple the moments I record are. It might be a look or snatched comment from one of my kids. It might be the sight of the beach in the late afternoon, with mountains behind and sky above. It might be playing a card game after dinner.

Keeping a gratitude journal has brought home to me the kinds of things that I like doing when I’m not working. I am, to a large degree, what I pay attention to. This seems so obvious. It is so obvious. Then why is it so hard to absorb?

Keeping a gratitude journal has increased my appreciation of the little things in life. And all it involves is a notepad by my bed in which I jot down three things that sparked joy for me that day, before switching out the light.

yin

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I always knew that ‘use it or lose it’ wasn’t just a sticker on the bumper of the car in front. I’d heard the phrase, ‘motion is lotion’, and taken this too at face value. So I wasn’t surprised to learn about the importance of connective tissue, and fascia, as I sat on the floor of my yoga studio with 21 other students for a 50-hour Yin Yoga training that ended last week.

But until last week, I hadn’t understood the importance of the role of fascia in the body. I certainly had no idea what it looked like, magnified 25 times. I didn’t know that each of us is held together by ‘trains’ of connective tissue and fascia, a lattice-like tubular web covering every organ, bone and muscle. And that this web is so essential to the flexibility and integrity, the uprightness, of the body, that fascia has the status of an organ.

Until just over a week ago, I thought it was muscles and bones that held the body together, and that needed regular exercise. I knew that it was good to get the heart, the body’s biggest muscle, pumping. But I overlooked lymph, which travels round the body more slowly than blood, and via connective tissue and fascia, not muscle. No-one explained to me, in a way that sank in, that ‘motion is lotion’ describes what happens when fascia is stretched, squashed and hydrated so as to allow muscles, bones and organs to move freely, without any sticky or knotty bits. And that it’s our connective tissues and fascia – as opposed to muscles – that maintain flexibility and posture with age.

Nor did I know that if fascia is to retain its lattice-like pattern – and not fall into the tangles that follow injury or lengthy sitting – the spine and joints need to be loaded, held still for a period, and then rested. And that part of the value of Yin Yoga – as with resistance and weight-bearing exercise – comes from pulling the joints apart to stimulate the synovial fluid that oils them. Before last week, I thought that body tone was the reward for regular visits to the gym, rather than stretching, compressing and resting fascia on a daily basis. Until a week ago, I just thought it was important to exercise regularly.

Today I know something that could increase the quality of everyone’s life. Every adult on the planet, who doesn’t want their fascia to knot up and result in stiffness, needs to hold a forward bend, a backward bend and a side bend for 2 to 5 minutes each day. And this is the essence of what I learnt in Yin Yoga training.

However, maintaining flexibility is a bit more complicated, and interesting, than this. Under the knife of US medical researcher, Gil Hadley, fascia, drained of the water and electricity that keeps it alive, lies inert on the table (watch his Fuzz Speech for yourself, it’s not gory). In a dead body, fascia loses its silvery, transparent, tubular, lattice pattern. Under fluorescent light, and against Hadley’s bright blue plastic gloves, fascia lies in knots of yellowy lard beneath the surface of the skin and around each bone and organ. Hadley calls this yellowy stuff fuzz and, as he points out, you don’t have to be dead to grow it. Fuzz starts building up the moment you fall asleep, or sit for hours at a computer – hence the need to stretch like a cat on getting up in the morning, or on leaving your desk, to melt all that fuzz away.

I thought Yin training would be a softer version of the Vinyasa Yoga training I did last year. I expected it to be touchy-feely and alternative. A bit woo woo. Within the first half hour, I realised how wrong I was. Mel McLaughlin, from The Yin Space, was queenly and astute in her presentation. Each of her ten lectures was steeped in Traditional Chinese Medicine. The Yin practices that we did, two hours in the morning and one late afternoon, were carefully thought out and composed. Mel seemed keen to share everything with us – her knowledge, her experience, her life hacks and her playlists. It was as if she wanted to pass on, in just 5 days, what took her 20 years to learn. From 8am until 5.30pm, for five days straight, she was there for us.

I am someone who, until starting this training, didn’t know where her liver was. I drank Dandelion coffee, knowing that it was good for my liver. I knew from biology at school that the liver breaks down fats in the body, helped by bile from the gall bladder. But that was about it. And I wasn’t much wiser on the other organs – kidneys, heart, intestine, spleen, gall bladder and urinary tract.

Until a week ago, I’d absorbed two big conceptual frameworks in my life – the Freudian therapeutic model and Indian Yoga philosophy. Freud’s id, ego and superego are still part of my thinking, but they no longer shape it. (It’s the inner critic that stalks my mind, these days, not the superego.) When it comes to Indian Yoga philosophy, I’m unlikely ever to read The Bhagavad Gita with the absorption that I once read Freud’s Standard Edition. I know something of the yamas and niyamas and, on a good day, their Sanskrit names. I know where the chakras and bandhas are in the body, and roughly the role they play. However, I was doing yoga long before I did yoga teacher training, last year, and still haven’t absorbed everything I learned. When I stand in front of a class, I don’t talk about chakras and nadis. I tell students to pull their naval in and up, not to turn on their Uddyana bandha.

Included in the Yin training, was a bolster and a handbook, both of which I value. But it was the passing comments Mel made, which didn’t make it into the handbook, that stayed with me. In no order, here they are:

  • when new recruits join Cirque du Soleil, they’re taught how to fall before they’re taught how to balance; and in this way they avoid injury
  • a lot of people come to Yin Yoga for pain management, to manage the physical discomfort that goes with being human
  • all our organs are connected and they work in pairs
  • retaining flexibility and tone – as opposed to fitness – requires 10 minutes of daily stretches and holds: forwards, backwards and sideways
  • fascia takes on the shape of the muscles, bone, cartilage or organ that it surrounds, and according to the loading that’s put on it
  • what you do in the last 5 minutes, before going off to sleep, is what your nervous system steeps in for the next x hours (Wayne Dwyer)
  • in Traditional Chinese Medicine, the seat of consciousness is held in the heart, not the brain
  • if you feel pain on the outside or inside of your knee, be careful; if you feel pain in the bottom middle of your knee, stop whatever you’re doing
  • there’s no such thing as a normal skeleton; our bones fit together differently, especially the femur bone in the hip socket; also, no two pelvises are exactly the same
  • maintenance – keeping what you’ve got – is a worthy aim
  • there is no aesthetics in Yin Yoga; it’s about making shapes with your body rather than poses; the only real question is, ‘Is it safe and effective?’
  • when you go into a Yin shape, your tightest spot (your personal primary) will show up first
  • all pain in Traditional Chinese Medicine is stagnant chi (stuck life force)
  • mouth breathing is a thief of chi; it lowers immunity and increases inflammation (you can always tape your mouth shut when you sleep -)
  • it’s easier to access the fascia trains in the back of your body than in the front
  • there are only 30 Yin shapes
  • the body needs tension placed on it, especially on the joints, to form and retain a healthy lattice pattern in the fascia; when no load is placed on the body, fascia does whatever it wants, ie it goes haywire
  • bouncing and jumping is good for fascia because it deforms collagen, stimulates the production of hyaluronic acid (the buzz ingredient in anti-aging products) which in turn produces more collagen and ‘organises’ fascia networks
  • in Yin Yoga, you are your own best teacher; no-one else can tell you what your medicine is or how long you should take it (ie which shapes you should do and for how long); Yin is something that you have to feel for yourself

links:

Mel McLaughlin, The Yin Space

fascia magnified 25x

The Fuzz Speech, Gil Hadley

going marimekko

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Sometimes I wonder whether I didn’t spend the first half of my life making sure that I wouldn’t turn into my mother, and the second half noticing all the ways that I have.

There is a photo of my mother that is stuck to the inside of my study cupboard door. She is standing on the beach, wearing bathers and a straw hat. Over her bathers, she is wearing an oversized men’s shirt, one of those grandfather ones with a detachable collar. On her white shirt, there are large acrylic coloured spots hand-painted on to it. Twenty-five years ago, this photo fell out of an airletter that Mum sent me when I was living in London. So I never saw her wearing her spotty shirt. The day this photo slid from the envelope, a wintry afternoon in January, my first thought was that Mum was trying to look younger in a trendy shirt. Whereas today, as a mother to kids in their early 20s, I look at this photo and think to myself, ‘Good for you, Mum, for wearing such a bold shirt, and for finding your own style in clothing.

These days, when I hit the beach, I prefer not to draw attention to myself with loud colours. I anyway wear a wetsuit when I surf, itself a form of camouflage. No, my kinship with my mother’s taste shows up in other ways. Mum had four daughters – I was the third – and, growing up, we all voiced opinions on what she wore. Rarely could she put on a new item of clothing without it drawing a comment from one of us. Eventually, she became so sensitive to our comments that she lost confidence in her taste in clothes, something she only regained after her daughters left home. Hence her spotty shirt over bathers.

Lately I’ve noticed that whenever I wear something new or different, one of my kids, both in their early 20s, will make a quip. Other times their eyes will express what they’ve decided not to say aloud. I used to struggle with this. Some days I still do. However, I’ve come to realise that what my kids want most from what I wear is that it doesn’t make me stand out. They want me to blend in, to not draw attention to myself – not to wear a spotty shirt just to please myself.

Marimekko is a Finnish design label that was big, the world over, in the 70s and 80s. And it was a firm favourite of my mother. A quintessential Marimekko design is based on bold flower shapes, which is perhaps what first drew Mum to it. Growing up, I didn’t share her love of these bold designs, with their minimal shapes and bright contrasting colours. I just didn’t get it. I understood that Mum had moved on from stripes, gingham and chintz, but that was as far as my interest in her love of all things Marimekko went.

Until, a few years ago, I found myself gazing through the window of a stylish local design store and fantasising about filling my home with bold Finnish design, of Marimekko daring. This, of course, will never happen. Marimekko – especially since the label was successfully reinvented – is pricey. Besides, my husband doesn’t like it, doesn’t get it. Even so, this doesn’t stop me from entertaining fantasies of how I’d use Marimekko in my home, should I ever get the chance.

The moment I accepted that I’d turned full circle, and had met my mother head on, was when I recognised my infatuation with Marimekko for what it was, a link to childhood. There is something else that highlights the aesthetic DNA that I share with my mother, which is my growing passion for flowers. Living in London, during my 20s and 30s, flowers were a luxury. With just a windowbox in my flat, flowers weren’t part of my daily life. Cut flowers were a treat – wrapped in cellophane and shipped from somewhere else. They were an indulgence for after the groceries were bought. Just seeing a bunch of flowers at a friend’s place was to suggest that someone was having a birthday.

Only in the last few years, now that my kids are less demanding and I have a big garden, has my love of flowers blossomed. When I walk my dog round local streets, I peer into other people’s gardens. I make mental notes of particular plants and notice where they grow best. I may even steal an overhanging bloom to put in a glass in the kitchen, to draw last thing at night. Flowers interest me, they fascinate me. They enrich my daily life. They have a life of their own, inside of me.

My mother was an exceptional gardener, in a way I’ll never be. Even so, you don’t have to be a family genealogist to realise that the seed of my love of flowers, and of Marimekko, was sown in childhood. Mum died a few years ago now. So it’s a bit late for me to thank her for passing on to me her love of flowers and of Marimekko. Then again, perhaps it’s never too late to say thank you.

too many plums

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‘Life is a series of problems’, the matronly grandmother says to her grand-daughter, half-way through Downton Abbey. ‘You solve one problem and you move on to the next’. The grand-daughter, who has just finishing telling her grandmother that she had a baby out of wedlock, a big deal early in the 20th century, smiles wanly. ‘Yes’, continues Maggie Smith, who plays the grandmother in the drama series, ‘it’s our problems that define us. They make life interesting. And then, when we come to the end of all our problems, we die’.

A year ago, almost to the day, I invited a married couple I didn’t know well for dinner. The dinner was a low key, kitchen-table affair, the kind I like best. After we finished eating and the plates were cleared away, there was a moment of quiet. I’m fine with pauses, but this one was odd. It was Anna who broke the silence. ‘Can you smell something?’ she asked. My heart sank as I caught hold of the corner of the high kitchen table and peered beneath. There, across the wide wooden floorboards, was a trail of dog poo that ran the entire length of the kitchen table.

Like a scene from a 70s sit com, the two men got up from the table without uttering a word, picked up their glasses, and moved next door. This left me begging Anna to join them, as I donned rubber gloves, grabbed bin bags and paper towel, and sloshed some eucalyptus oil into a bucket of hot water.

Eventually the plum crisis passed, as most crises do. After dropping their last plums, the fruit trees slept through the winter. Then suddenly it was spring again. The plum trees flowered, thanks to generous rain. Determined not to be outwitted this time, I visited the garden hire shop and hired a hedge trimmer, a feudal looking instrument with a scythe at one end of its long handle. That same night, I set about whacking down as many unripe plums as I could on to the ground sheets I’d put down to catch the fruit that rained down from the branches above.

I was helped by Nic, a Columbian student currently living with us. When I wheeled the compost bin down the garden, and opened the lid wide so that we could pour in the plums straight off the ground sheets, he frowned. ‘Aren’t you going to eat them?’ he asked, incredulous. ‘Um, there are just too many’, I said, lamely. ‘Besides’, I added, feeling defensive, ‘it would take me hours that I haven’t got to sort through them.’ ‘In my country’, said Nic, ‘we make jam and wine with fruit like this’. ‘Yes’, I thought, ‘except that you’re not in your country, and so we don’t know if that’s what you’d do’. As soon as my mean thought was out, I felt cross with myself for having it. For I too, like Nic, had lived on the opposite side of the world in my 20s. I too had found myself in the middle of other people’s lives, other people’s gardens, doubtless making judgments that it wasn’t my place to make. How could I have known, back then, what it might be like to live year after year with a greedy dog who gorged himself sick on fallen fruit and never learned the lesson?

‘Why don’t we fill the wheelbarrow with these plums?’, I said to Nic. ‘Then we can leave it in the street with some plastic bags, so that whoever wants some plums can take them?’ ‘Yes’, said Nic, sounding relieved. ‘That’s a good idea’.

Last Saturday, after Nic went on a long hike and my kids both crewed in a weekend yacht race, there was a storm wild enough to fill another wheelbarrow of cherry plums. That night, the night after Christmas, in a pitch black hour between midnight and dawn, our dog wouldn’t stop barking. Lying in bed, I ran through possible causes. Was Digger replying to the dog visiting neighbours for Christmas, who I could hear barking? But even after the neighbour’s dog stopped, the barking continued. Could Digger’s paw be stuck in the door of his crate, which he usually opened from the inside? Still more barking. Perhaps Digger had escaped his crate and impaled himself on a coat hook? Probably not, I told myself, calling out in a sleepy but stern voice for him to stop barking, and schooling myself to wait for his whimpers to cease.

I knew there would be a mess to clean up when I went downstairs the next morning. There was. All those plums had done horrible things in Digger’s tummy; the greedy lesson that he would, a classic Labrador, never learn.

That morning, my husband suggested putting up a temporary fence between our courtyard and grass, just as we’d done when Digger was a puppy. That way, Digger couldn’t gorge himself when he had nothing better to do but truffle-hunt for fallen fruit. ‘Great idea’, I said, and thanked him, as I reached for my phone to text the handyman.

Our handyman Rob, whom I consider a friend – you can’t live in a big old house without making friends with your handyman – arrived an hour later, just as I was heading out for a walk with Digger. Under one arm, he carried a roll of red plastic netting that he mentioned he’d found at the back of his garage, and not the wire mesh I’d hoped for. My heart sank. I knew, instantly, that this red mesh would cause my husband – who works in a hut at the bottom of the garden and cares about aesthetics above all – to inwardly weep. ‘Perfect’, I said brightly. ‘And thank you so much for coming before you disappear on holiday’.

Rob and I set to work and, an hour later, a temporary fence and makeshift gate had divided the garden in two. ‘It looks like a crime scene’, said my son, when he returned from his stormy boat race, his eyes red with exhaustion.

These last two mornings, I’ve crept downstairs. Instead of letting out Digger straight away, I’ve slipped down the side of our house and tossed any fallen plums I could find into a bucket. I haven’t tried to collect all the plums. Hundreds of them are hidden safely between and beneath strands of ivy. I pick up just the ones that glint in the sun, on my private Easter egg hunt.

The first morning I collected cherry plums, I resented it. I was wearing my pyjamas and slippers, and had just finished cleaning up Digger’s plum poo explosion. As I plucked cherry plums from between the ivy, my fingernails filled with moist soil. Collecting fallen fruit felt like just more task, one more chore that no-one but me in my family recognised the value of doing. ‘Is that really necessary?’ I imagined my husband silently asking, as he passed by with his morning coffee, on his way to his garden office.

The second morning I slipped out to collect plums from amongst the ivy, I was up and dressed. I’d done my morning yoga and didn’t mind picking up the plums that I knew, if left, would cause our hapless dog to make himself sick. For despite the red mesh fence dividing the garden, we still play with Digger on the grass; and, as soon as he tires of chasing the ball, he sidles off, as if magnetized, to snuffle for plums.

This morning I came downstairs, snuck outside and felt almost Zen as I picked up fallen fruit in the morning sun. I wasn’t exactly grateful for the task. But I didn’t struggle against it either. I knew why I was doing it; accepting that, unless there really is a God, there can be no audience for my efforts to keep our plum numbers down. I also felt heartened, knowing that my morning collect wouldn’t go on forever. Before long, summer plums would give way to autumn leaves, and so on over again.  

After eleven years in our big old house, I accept that this is the way of things in large gardens. Picking up cherry plums from the ivy that runs the length of one side of our garden no longer feels like the depressing problem it did just three days ago. Thanks to Nic, our handyman and the scriptwriter of Downton Abbey, too many plums is a problem I feel I’ve moved on from.

Next?

my biggest yoga teaching fear

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Since starting to teach yoga, eleven weeks ago, my deepest fear has been this. I would arrive at the studio, put in the door code, switch on some music, light a candle, get out the mats, block and straps from the cupboard. And then nothing. No-one would come to class. I would be alone in the studio.

 

Two days ago, this nearly happened. Minutes after my 6.30pm class was due to start, I was alone in the studio. But then, thankfully, Sally and her gymnast daughter slipped in late. Sally usually comes to my Friday lunch-time class, not my Thursday evening class, so I was surprised – and relieved – to see her. And yet despite this relief, for the first ten minutes of class my brain didn’t work properly. I stuck to my sequence. I didn’t give the wrong cues. Still, my mind was all over the place. Questions kept coming at me, like an automatic ball machine on a tennis court. ‘Where were my regulars? Why hadn’t they let me know they weren’t coming?’ And then, the question driving all the others. ‘Surely this was confirmation that I was a bad yoga teacher?’

 

Thankfully, after the first ten minutes, I snapped out of my funk and focused on teaching the sequence I’d prepared. Sally and her daughter had come for a yoga class, I reminded myself, not to form the chorus in their teacher’s bad dream.

 

Yesterday morning I had just enough time to do some work before taking my dog to the beach so that he’d flop on the backseat of the car while I was teaching my lunchtime class. Arranging my morning to give Digger a run on the beach is inconvenient. Yet I love being by the sea when I’m there. I love the way it takes me away from everything that’s happening on land, and invites chats with other dog owners. Which is why I always leave the beach with a thank you to Digger for making me take him.

 

When I got to the studio, after being at the beach, there was only just enough time to switch on the light, pull out my notes, roll out three mats, light a candle and turn on some music. Perhaps this is why it wasn’t until a few minutes after 1pm that I looked at my watch. Only then did it hit me. No-one was there. I was alone. I waited to hear the click of the gate, but there was quiet. Did that mean no-one was coming?

 

Perhaps because I’d rehearsed this moment, so many times, panic didn’t come. Instead I sat cross legged on my mat and breathed. Then I had a distinct thought. I wasn’t completely alone in the studio. I was someone. And given the ache in my lower back, perhaps from the stress the night before, I needed to do some yoga. I could, if I wanted, do yoga all by myself.

 

Uncrossing my legs, I took a deep breath and stood at the top of my mat, as if it was the most usual thing in the world to start a class without any students. First, I did two roll-downs. Then I stepped back into plank, holding for a breath deep into my belly and, on an exhale, lowering into sphinx and up again into downdog.

 

At which point Ruth entered the studio, wearing her bike helmet and apologising for being late. Ruth is quiet, or at least quieter than my other students. Rather than feeling embarrassed to be doing yoga alone, I felt glad to be able to give Ruth a one-to-one, and to get to know her better outside the group. Except that then, just as Ruth and I were getting the hang of doing yoga together, Dee arrived and unrolled her mat. Without so much as a roll down, she joined in our sequence. ‘I just felt’, she said, by way of explanation, ‘that I really needed half an hour of me-time’.

 

I didn’t feel surprised when Dee arrived twenty minutes late for class. Because by that point I knew that I didn’t know what would happen next, apart from teaching the yoga sequence that I’d prepared earlier in the week, when teaching to an empty studio was still my big yoga teaching fear.

 

At the end of class, after I mentioned a break over Christmas and New Year, Sally and Ruth thanked me. ‘I feel that I’ve found your class at just the right moment’, said Sally, clicking the council gate shut behind her. ‘I’m so glad’, I said, as I headed for my car, where my dog was peering over the backseat.

 

Assuming I keep on teaching yoga, there will probably be more occasions on which I set up the studio and no-one comes to class. Perhaps my fear will keep on being realised until I move on from it, until I don’t need it anymore. Until, that is, I feel confident that I’m not a bad teacher.

 

Yesterday, when I practiced yoga in the empty studio, I was proud of myself for not losing it. My biggest yoga teaching fear wasn’t, it turned out, the horrible experience that my fantasy had told me it would be. My world didn’t cave in. Besides, there seemed no point being embarrassed when there was no-one there to feel embarrassed in front of. Instead, after a small wobble, I got on with my yoga sequence, as if I myself was someone worth teaching.

 

 

 

 

a brief history of housekeeping

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We like to think an attractive home is worth the effort required to maintain it. We want to believe that a cared-for living space adds to rather than takes away from a good life. Until, that is, we start running our own home, at which point our mixed feelings for domesticity come rushing in. The place of our own, that we once dreamed about, starts making demands on us that we can’t always meet and from which we pull back. Love and hate, joy and resentment, enthusiasm and reluctance – all these rise up during the time we spend at home.

This is a brief emotional history of housekeeping, not a social one; this is because, for many of us, our domestic thoughts and feelings prove as challenging as household tasks themselves. It traces a path from our childhood home, the dilemmas arising from our first flat or share house, the mid-life conundrum of balancing work and home, and the challenges thrown up as we age. It doesn’t address everyone’s experience of home; no appeal is made to the universal. Instead, it sheds light on the way a great many of us experience home across a lifetime.

So, back to the beginning. Before we’re able to pluck up courage to pack up and leave our childhood home for good – the home which, at an unconscious level, is a template for our every future home – we have to let it go. This happens slowly, bit by bit. We may grow critical of our family’s style of cooking. We might experience our parents’ help as interference, as meddling. Perhaps we bar the door of our bedroom and insist on cleaning it ourselves; only, always later. Our longing to be cared for – to be cooked, comforted and cleaned for – never ceases. However, at a certain point, we suppress this wish in a bid for independence. We shrug off our desire to be cared for as an unwanted comfort and, like a young bird leaving the nest, take flight.

It takes an almighty effort to leave our childhood home without looking back. So much so that we often wait until our new home starts to fall apart before we plug in the vacuum cleaner, pick up a cloth to dust, or do anything resembling housework. We wait so long for the fairies to come and rescue odd socks from under the bed that disgust propels us into a frenzy of cleaning up. And then nothing, for the next little while. Until another burst of disgust gives rise to a growing desire to keep our own cave clean. But this awakening is fitful. At first, we react to even the idea of a household routine. We may corral ourselves into doing bits of housework now and then, spurred by a fear of the chaos that ensues when we don’t. Even so, cleaning up after ourselves comes neither naturally nor regularly. Sitting back and hoping for the best, and the inertia that is its consequence, is what comes naturally.

In the coming years, we continue to avoid housework. Often without knowing it, we identify housework with our childhood home, with our mother’s sighs and nagging, with the humdrumness of existence that we escaped when we packed up our things and left. Those household tasks that we can’t avoid are like a thorn in our side, upending our plans for how our weekends should be spent. Unconsciously, they remind us of the mother (and occasionally the father) we are determined not to turn into. And so we stumble on, from one mountain of dirty laundry to the next.

We reach the next threshold. Perhaps, tired of renting, we start eyeing off property to buy. We may be encouraged to travel for work or study. Or something happens in our family to precipitate a big change. An event like Covid forever alters our perception of, and trust in, the world. Or we look around our home through the eyes of a soon-to-arrive baby, or a parent leaving home for a higher level of care. It could simply be that the pressures of our work keep on mounting. Whatever it is, something happens to make us realise that our home life is what we make it, that it’s an effect of our investment in it. The quality of our so-called ordinary life – the roughly quarter of our waking hours that we give over to looking after ourselves, those we care about and our home – is largely up to us.

As we approach mid-life, our home life tends to grow more complex. With more balls in the air, than ever before, we struggle to juggle work and, quite possibly, family. Family and work both feel essential. Yet together they are incompatible. They feel like different things and they won’t fit side by side. Some of us, at this point, fantasise about hiring a cleaner to swish in and out while we’re out. Or we might do the housework at night, when the kids are asleep and our standards are lower. Whatever we resort to, a continuous sense of background pressure means that our mixed feelings for housework feel normal, like the mixed feelings we have around having to work late, or dealing with a tricky relative. Such that when, one day, a friend confides to us how much they enjoy cooking, renovating or gardening, we can’t help hoping they’re being ironic. The domestic satisfactions of our friend show us up, making us feel our own shortfalls more keenly.

Despite a confusion about the value of domesticity, we continue to hope for a work-life balance. Surely it must be possible to square our longing for a pleasant home, with a seemingly endless parade of household chores? The answer that many of us arrive at, in response to this dilemma, feels closer to an existential decision than a conscious choice. Put simply, we decide that the benefits of waking up in a warm and attractive home outweigh the minuses of doing regular housework.

With this shift, our sense of housework expands to become housekeeping, a larger animal than the relatively tame task of keeping a home clean and tidy. Perhaps we start wearing an apron in the kitchen, and devoting an hour most days to household tasks. We may also realise that a large part of the stress that we previously experienced at home, and came to think of as normal, arose from our unwillingness to credit the time and energy that we spent housekeeping as valuable, as real work.

The domestic arts that many of us awaken to in mid-life – like cooking, renovating, gardening, entertaining – hark back to childhood. They bubble up from what we left behind when we gathered up courage and left home for ever. They reflect our wish to feel cared for at a deep level, and to mess about in ways that we enjoyed as kids. Except that we are no longer children. And even as we awaken interests at home, we are just as busy as we ever were. This makes it hard to find the time – and the head space – to explore our creative side. After a long day at work, or with our kids, it’s often easier to flick on passive entertainment than to pursue more demanding activities. The upshot of which is that increasingly we have daydreams about home life that we never act on.

Time passes and the web of our life keeps on spinning. We start to appreciate the therapeutic benefit of looking after our home, the fact that often we finish our housekeeping feeling better about ourselves and the world than when we started. And yet we shrink from the demands that domesticity makes on us. We make mental lists for the weekly cleaner that most of us still don’t have. We take a particular dislike to domestic tasks which, the longer we put them off, the more we feel humiliated by. The housekeeping that, just years before, felt like an invitation, shrinks back into housework, into a drudgery that depletes rather than adds to our life. And we cease to take pleasure in the very things which, when we were younger and less busy, enriched our sense of home.

Until the time comes for us to cut back on work, or at least to shift into a lower gear. Perhaps our kids, if we have them, leave home, and again cooking becomes the pleasure that it was before too much pressure made spending time in the kitchen less appealing. Now that time constraints have eased, we can heed our hunches about what matters most. But though we may work a little less, time passes more quickly. We exercise so as to be confident of living independently into the future, rather than to look good on the beach. Our resentment for housework lessens and, for some of us, even dissolves. We start to cherish housekeeping for the opportunities – and sanity – it affords. Through its rhythms, we find ways to express ourselves, and to feel at one with the seasons as they pass. We take pride in baking, in a plant grown from a cutting, in a spring-cleaned home. And as we look round our home, we wonder at all the hours that we were unable to savour when we were run off our feet with work and, possibly, family.

Not all of us arrive at this point. Tragedies befall people we know and love, which we know in our heart could have befallen us. We feel a humility, a glad-to-be-aliveness, that was somehow less available when we were young. We still admire expertise, but feel less intimidated by it. We take large amounts of pleasure in small things that tended to pass us by when we spent our days scampering to catch up on the business of life. For as long as our body doesn’t fail us, we take pride in running our home. We enjoy the same necessities – shopping, cleaning and organising – that, many moons ago, we resented. Thankful for the tasks that give structure and meaning to our days, we take comfort in housekeeping. We say ‘yes’ to ordinary life, knowing in our heart that nothing important is ordinary. We delight in baking for a neighbour. We enjoy taking a cloth bag to the local shops. Even wheeling out the rubbish bin feels less of a chore than it once did. Because by now we appreciate how closely housekeeping is tied to heart-keeping. We know that meaning and satisfaction can be found in the daily tasks of living. And that our ability to care about things that we don’t ultimately care about – and much of housekeeping is this – is a measure of our determination to do what it takes to live in this world.

We feel this so keenly that if, one day, we’re forced to leave our home, for a tick-list of sensible reasons, it shakes us to the core. Once the pain of packing up and moving is over, we react to being taken care of by staff we don’t know. We dislike being brought tea at odd hours in a disposable cup. We never signed up to spend our last days on earth feeling like a patient; yet here we are, nodding gratefully for services we never elected for.

Most afternoons, we sit in our comfortable chair by the window, hopeful of a visit from family or friends, none of whom can begin to imagine what it’s like to wait to be visited, for a missive from the outside world. Yet still we take comfort in small things – flowers from a friend’s garden, a warmed-up home-cooked meal. And as we look out our window, at a tree whose top boughs the wind shakes in line with our third-floor room, we recall an Emily Dickinson poem we once knew by heart, and now just the opening verse of:

Hope is the thing with feathers

that perches in the soul

And sings the song without a tune

And never stops – at all.

We so, as we come full circle, our housekeeping days are over.

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!