HelenHayward

life writing

abide with me

IMG_9370

After scrolling through The New York Times headlines I flipped over to facebook – breaking my rule of no social media till late afternoon. A friend I’d often visited with my now grown-up son, when he was a toddler in London, had posted news of her divorce. Twenty-four years of marriage, which when I knew her was as strong as mine, had broken down after what she said the courts described as ‘fifteen years of psychological and financial abuse’. I reeled inside, knowing how much more complicated my friend’s story must be, and also that I risked missing a yoga class if I spent any more time on-line.

 

The morning after I got married, twenty-two years ago, I walked across Hyde Park with my mother-in-law. As she strolled along, in her shoes not made for walking, she told me how much better a job at marriage she was confident that I’d do, than she had done herself. Head to the ground she told me that she’d always done her best, and that this was all, in the circumstances, she’d felt able to do. Walking by her side I felt sorry for my mother-in-law, who after raising four healthy children with her artist husband, felt that she’d failed because her marriage had ended in divorce.

 

I didn’t empathise with my mother-in-law’s regrets. Perhaps thanks to my parents’ marriage, I felt confident that my marriage would work out, that I had it within me to make it work. Instead I blithely assumed that the difficulties my parents-in-law encountered lay inside of them. It was the peculiar alchemy of their personalities that had determined the trajectory of their relationship, two doomed planets crashing towards Earth. There was a poetic inevitability about it all. The fiery temper of my father-in-law. The submissive doggedness of my mother-in-law. The God in the middle who, despite my mother-in-law’s belief in infinite love, failed to hold it all together. All rolled into an after dinner story that Paul shared with friends round our kitchen table.

 

Walking across that London park, my mother-in-law at my side, I had everything to look forward to. I didn’t believe in happily-ever-afters, I’d spent enough time in therapy to convince me of this. Nonetheless something deep inside – a mix of youth, pride and inexperience – shielded me from my mother-in-law’s pain, the morning after I married her son.

 

These days, now that I have a few regrets of my own, I quicken to those of my mother-in-law’s. I can see that, like her, I’ve done my best; even though, as for her, my best wasn’t always enough. Like her I feel downcast when I view my marriage as a catalogue of errors, as riddled with bullet holes as a road sign after a teenage shoot out. However mostly I manage not to do this, preferring to see my marriage as a piece of metal lacework, as a thing of beauty wrought into intricate shapes at very high heat.

 

The morning after I married Paul, I had family on my mind. It was an easy fantasy to have: bedside stories before lights out, holding a little hand on street corners, jumping waves at the beach. Not for a second did my fantasy include sharing the dinner table with two teenagers as intermittently surly and acute as I once was, a spotty teenager seated at my own family dinner table.

 

Walking over Hyde Park, half a stride in front of my mother-in-law, I had no idea of the emotional fall-out that two healthy teenagers might unwittingly wreak on their hapless parents in their unconscious effort to free themselves from childhood. I knew nothing about being on the receiving end of the emotional shrapnel of family life, the casual teasing and constant belittling that even a happy family has to withstand if it’s to survive the changes brought by teenagers’ looming independence. I had no idea how brave and strong we’d all need to be in order to get through the joy and upset that family life would throw at us.

 

‘They fuck you up’, wrote Phillip Larkin, ‘your Mum and Dad’. Well, sure they do. However what Larkin, who never had children, failed to add, was that kids fuck up their parents too. My kids are far more acute on my flaws, and more unflinching in their critique of Paul and me, than even my worst self slander. They know us far too well, yet not well enough. Just as we, their parents, understand yet fail to understand them.

 

None of this harm is intentional. My husband and I didn’t set out to wreak havoc on our kids any more than our kids planned the havoc they wreak on us. In surviving family life I think that Paul and I, just like my mother-in-law and every other parent, deserve enormous sympathy. We don’t deserve a list of our errors read aloud in a court of law: I’m controlling, Paul is selfish, we’re both insecure. The fuck-up of my marriage now seems normal to me; it’s a sign of the messiness of existence, part of the way of things. It confirms my need for friends and family and Shakespeare and pop music and film; not legal process.

 

As it turned out, my mother-in-law was wrong. Mine has not been a marriage made in heaven. Paul and I weren’t made for each other. Never enough for each other, we’ve failed to make each other happy. More elusive still, we haven’t fulfilled each other. After thirty years of living side by side it doesn’t surprise me that our marriage contains a few cracks. Nor does it seem helpful to ascribe blame for these cracks on Paul or me. I’d sooner put the strains in our marriage down to the sheer difficulty of life, than to a list of our incompatibilities and faults.

 

The fact that Paul and I have let each other down doesn’t seem a big deal to me. I don’t mind having a few cracks in our relationship. They give me space to breath. Perhaps I’m being defensive, however the failures in my marriage seem beside the point. The real point is that Paul and I have chosen to stick together even though we’ve failed each other in various areas; even knowing that we’d do things differently if we had our time over – which we won’t.

 

Paul and I have done something more important than make each other happy (envious though I am of couples who can do this). We’ve abided with each other. The OED defines ‘abide’ in these terms: remain, continue, dwell; remain faithful to; encounter, sustain, suffer with; put up with, tolerate, wait for’. Though this word is only used rarely these days, for me it holds real value.

 

I feel sad that my friend’s marriage should have ended in heartbreak. It seems all wrong that justice should be meted out on a well-intended couple under harsh strip lighting in a courtroom. Surely there is a more gracious – a softer, more piercing and subtle – way to exit a long marriage? After years of trying to hold it all together, of getting three kids over the threshold of maturity, it seems all wrong to sully a marriage which, even if it hasn’t gone completely well, hasn’t gone entirely badly either. It seems all wrong that in a couple’s search for justice, the whole crazy unfolding richness of a life together should be cast aside by a prosecuting lawyer who deems it irrelevant to the case.

 

If I could retrace my steps, if I could walk back over Hyde Park with my mother-in-law the morning after marrying her son, I’d start by congratulating her. Who cares if your marriage ended in divorce, I’d say. Everyone who endures a long marriage – or any partnership – deserves a medal. You mustn’t take it to heart, I’d say, my hand on her arm. It really isn’t anyone’s fault. The fault is in the stars. The sheer difficulty of life gets us all in the end, which is why we should celebrate rather than be ashamed by our run-ins with it.

Before getting up the next morning and doing it all again.

 

 

Advertisements

interview

IMG_9354

‘Stop thinking about it’, says my daughter, on a bush walk before dinner. ‘Just do it or don’t do it.’ ‘She’s right’, I say to myself, choosing not to respond. But then since when did the other person being right help anyone make a big decision?

When Tolstoy was plagued by indecision, about whether or not to marry, he wrote two lists in a notebook, one for marriage and one against it. By the time he’d done each of his lists was about even. Here are my two lists, very nearly equal, one for doing a drawing course, the other for not doing it.

For:

  1. To develop a skill that is native but rusty, and that might push me in a good way.
  2. To have a sabbatical after twenty years of writing part-time and being with family much of the time. To give me a perspective on my life by focusing on something outside myself – drawing in a studio – which would be a break from pushing myself as a writer and being there for my family.
  3. To be released from a particular version of myself, the existential equivalent of travel, without leaving a city I like living in.
  4. To have the instruction of two art teachers who, from first impressions, I like.
  5. To work around others rather than working alone as a writer.
  6. To make the most of my kids leaving home by doing something constructive, that I otherwise may not have done.

Against:

  1. Rather than seeing my kid’s absence as a chance to write full-time, I distract myself by doing a half-time course which takes me in another direction.
  2. Not earning money, confirming my financial dependence on others.
  3. Turning a private passion into a kind of work – fifteen hours a week in a studio – puncturing my fantasy of drawing as an escape from daily life, challenging me in new and not always welcome ways.
  4. Being an older student among predominantly younger students.
  5. Making myself busy as a defence against loneliness.
  6. Practical problems. Being locked into a timetable of school terms which conflict with my daughter’s university semesters. Putting our reactive dog in daycare when I’m at school – expense etc. Being at home less to support my hard-working husband. Lots of standing at an easel, which may require more yoga?
  7. A drawing course seems indulgent, increasing my existential angst for the future. Fear of failure.

+     +     +

 Now that I’ve been interviewed for the drawing course – 45 minutes with a lecturer looking at my portfolio and discussing the pros and cons of my suitability for the course – the decision has passed out of my hands. I can accept or not accept a place, but I can’t offer it. Probably should have been less honest.

Fingers crossed!

 

life drawing death cleaning

IMG_9334

Late last Wednesday, when I should have been in bed, I watched a youtube clip for the book The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning and found myself admiring the author’s simple audacity. Intrigued, on Sunday afternoon I dropped into our local bookshop to pick up a copy. It was shortly before closing and one of the booksellers, who happens to be a friend, serves me. ‘Death cleaning’, he repeats after me, a query in his voice. ‘Oh, I know. It’s on our landfill table’. And he escorts me to the front of the shop where a selection of dubious titles are piled high on a folding table. Feeling admonished, I flick through The Gentle Art of Death Cleaning standing up, return it to the table, and wave goodbye to the bookseller.

 

Even after a quick flick through, I grasp the book’s message. It isn’t morbid, as the title suggests. Nor is it complicated. Margareta Magnusson, an artist who wisely chooses not to reveal her age, is upbeat on the page. The message I glean from her book is straightforward. If I can conquer my resistance to clearing out my study cupboard, I’ll make room for my life to come. By losing some of my past, I’ll clear space for the future. More down to earth, dare I say more European, than Marie Kondo, Magnusson is alive to the meaning of things beyond our death. She isn’t about blitzing mess; her message is more subtle, more unsettling, than that. If you can’t deal with your things while you’re still alive, she writes drily, why should you kids or partner be any better at dealing with them when you’re gone?

 

Magnusson’s message is confronting, but it isn’t harsh. It speaks to my life in the here and now, rather than any life to come. If I’m to make enough mental space to live fully in the present, in the weeks and months ahead, she’s telling me that I need to give up enough of my past to make my way into it, especially as I age and the past – regrets, anyone? – starts dragging in my wake. To fully inhabit the present, to avoid living in a museum of lost dreams and what ifs, she’s telling me that I have to let go of quite a lot of stuff. Magnussen isn’t anti-sentimental. Stern, perhaps; but she isn’t a Swedish quiet reaper. While she’s all for keeping important objects that tie us into ourselves, she’s scathing when it comes to boxing things up and shutting cupboard doors and hoping for the best.

 

What I glean from Death Cleaning gives me hope. If I can conquer my dread of my study cupboard, if I can throw the doors wide and chuck out whatever is holding me back, even without my knowing it, the next time I open my study cupboard I won’t have to suppress an inner sigh, a moment of self-disgust, comfortable in the knowledge that my creative future doesn’t depend on twenty years’ worth of notes, admin, notebooks, school reports, and magazine stories stacked up inside. In short I won’t have to avoid my study, for fear of my study cupboard.

 

The house is quiet and mostly dark. In my study the lights are on. The window is open to encourage a breeze. The dog is asleep in her chair next door. My husband is working late in his wooden temple at the bottom of the garden. Tipping over my fifteen-minute timer, I watch as particles of sand drop through the tiny-waisted funnel. Kneeling on a cushion, I turn away from the timer, face my study cupboard, and start pulling out files.

 

Fifteen minutes later, tipping over the timer again, I open the broom cupboard next to my file cupboard. Even as I pull the knobs I sense this isn’t death cleaning. Reaching into the broom cupboard I take out two large sketchbooks leaning vertically against the side of the cupboard, next to the vacuum and broom. I sit on a chair and turn the pages, drawn back to the woman I was when I drew on them. Far more powerfully than the reams of handwritten and typed pages, these drawings are more alive to me than the banks of notebooks strewn on the floor by my feet. Bird song across the years, they express a left behind part of myself which, occasionally revisited on a Sunday afternoon, I’ve lost touch with.

 

Three trips to our rubbish bins and two hours later, I head up to bed. Sitting on the street, awaiting the morning’s collection, both bins are full to the brim with notebooks and typescripts and domestic appliance manuals and utility bills and school textbooks.

 

The bin truck comes as I lie in bed, sunlight flooding through chinks in the curtains. Hearing the bins lifted and emptied, I feel lighter. Empty too, yet lighter. Tripping downstairs in my pyjamas, to let the dog out and open the blinds, even before scrolling through the morning news on my phone, I enter my study for the sheer pleasure of opening the cupboard doors and not being sucked entropically into twenty years’ worth of notebooks, admin, guilt and notes, stacked up and demanding attention. In the cupboard next door, loyal and patient, sit two dog-eared sketchbooks.

 

letting go

IMG_9302

All those years of being needed, of coming when I’m called, are coming to an end. My kids still need me; but even more they need me to let go, and for their not to feel bad about leaving me dangling. They’re leaving the door open; prompting me with emails, beckoning by texts. They just don’t want me in their field of vision. They love me not less, but differently.

 

For years my mother warned me of the roadblock that lay ahead. ‘Before you know it’, she’d say, ‘they’ll be off and away’. But I never believed her. How could I? For twenty years my kids were in the middle of everything, of the everything that was my life. For twenty years it felt natural to drop everything when the school nurse called, when my kids wanted driving lessons, or when an open-ended conversation in the hall needed more time.

 

I’ve always admired women who seemed more single-minded in their career than I’ve managed to be. However none of us chooses our emotional makeup and I made peace with mine long ago. Whatever I gave up, whatever sacrifices I made along the way, were as much for my sake – stress hater that I am – as for my kids. Besides whatever I gave up was more than made up for by intimacy with them. Yet this is the treasure that I feel I must let go if they’re to find their feet and go their own way. Just as my mother waved me off at the airport, thirty years ago, not knowing when she’d see me next, now it’s my turn. Like a bird flying out of opening hands into the waiting sky.

 

These days it’s my job not to know too much, to hug the shadows and to cheer from the sidelines. It’s my job not to start sentences with, ‘Why don’t you…?’ Instead it’s my job to shrink the richness and intensity of childhood into easy commonplaces like, ‘You’ll be fine’. Or, ‘Everything that you need to be you, you’ve got already’. Or, as if they’ve ever doubted it, ‘I’ll always be here for you’.

 

In an email sent from the airport in Buenos Aires, my son tells me that a photo I just put up on facebook, of him waving down from high up a wooden mast, wasn’t taken in Antarctica earlier this month, as I’d supposed, but in Greenland last July. He laughs at my mistake. And yet despite all that distance – Drakes Passage and four-hour shifts and weeks out of contact at sea – I don’t feel out of touch with my son. Though for much of the time I have no idea of his geographical whereabouts, I still know who he is; for all his travels I still feel able to reach him. I feel hugely grateful for this. It helps a lot in making up for his not being around day to day. I’ve already told him that from now on he belongs to the world, not his family; and I meant it.

 

Ten days ago, surprising us both, my daughter put up her hand to leave home. At that moment I heard the other shoe drop. She too, it turns out, needs space to find out who she is and what life can be, without me in the picture. She too, like her brother, is leaving home earlier than I did, pushed into it by circumstance. She laughs when I tell her that her hummus-eating mother could ever have sprinkled a packet of Twisties into a roll and called it lunch when she started university; but I did. She finds it exciting that, in a month’s time, when she buys an icecream and calls it lunch, I won’t be there to scold.

 

‘You won’t know yourself’, my mother would say over the phone, the night before a long school holiday ended. She was right. The shift from ‘What shall we do today?’ to ‘What shall I do today?’ was huge. Even after a long weekend, moving from ‘we’ to ‘I’ felt like a blessed a relief. It still is. Only this time, when my daughter goes to university in a month’s time, the question won’t have such an easy answer. At least at the beginning, she’ll be back for weekends, so it’s not total abandonment. But it’s still a lot of windy time to fill, meals to cook, walks with our reactive dog. Already I can feel the ‘what shall I do?’ question staring me down, like a too bright sun.

 

My husband is having dancing lessons. He says he’s wanted them for ages. Perhaps I should join him. But my heart doesn’t leap at the prospect. Besides, in order to keep my sanity, in the flurry of family life, I stopped following my husband’s lead a few years ago. Rather than living closely in conflict, we chose to live side by side in harmony. And I prefer it this way.

 

It was always my plan, from the time I fell pregnant, to devote myself to family knowing that there’d be plenty of time left, once my kids had left home, to do my own thing. However all those years ago, when I made this calculation, I left out an essential bit. I left out all the ways in which having children would change me, making it impossible to slip back into the old way of being me. Nor do I know what doing my own thing is anymore. My friends smile and say that this is all part of the journey, of letting go, of becoming free. Let’s hope they’re right.

gus

IMG_9236

Just a rash, too red for a bruise but nothing to worry about. Preferring not to linger in front of the mirror a month or two went by, the end of our summer, before I studied the rash under my arm. If anything it had grown larger. But it wasn’t itchy, was only a small area, so I let it go.

 

My daughter called it Gus. ‘It’s a rash, not ringworm’, I replied, not wanting to be made fun of. My GP agreed with my daughter, grabbing his notepad and doing a quick diagram to show the likely progression of my rash, reddening at the rim until fading away with the help of a twice-daily anti-fungal cream.

 

Annoyed yet relieved to have an answer, I applied the cream morning and night. The spot grew larger. Instead of reddening at the rim and fading into nothing, as the GP assured me, it grew. Nothing so dramatic that I went on-line to confirm my worst hunches. Instead I picked up The Reader’s Digest 1801 Home Remedies and read the chapter on fungal skin conditions, appalled and chastened by the common-sense treatments.

 

Autumn set in and my need to wear tshirts receded. Concealed by long-sleeve tops, my mind was on more important things – life mainly. 1801 Home Remedies sat on the bookshelf for a last resort that I felt confident I wouldn’t need.

 

Three months passed before my kindly GP took a skin scraping, still convinced it was ringworm but wanting to cover all bases and to rule out ‘something more exotic’. Not hearing back from the doctor, I assumed exoticism had been discounted and bought a once-daily antifungal cream which I applied twice daily. If anything, the red rim of the rash got larger. When the rash reaches that freckle, I said to myself, staring in the bathroom mirror, I’ll panic. But until then I won’t fuss.

 

The rash doesn’t reach the freckle under my arm, but still I panic. Wasn’t the yoga teacher staring at the rash under my arm? What if my rash didn’t disappear by summer? What if my daughter was right and it spread to other parts of my body?

 

My daughter was out sailing and my husband overseas the day I decided to follow the recommendations in The Readers Digest 1801 Home Remedies for fungal skin conditions. Clearly people had been battling fungal skin conditions for centuries before $12.99 tubes of antifungal cream from the chemist had become available. Apple cider vinegar and tea tree oil were, it seemed, the top natural treatments for fungal skin conditions. Snapping the book shut, I set about curing my rash. Twice a day; three times a day; four times a day, out came the cotton swabs, the vinegar and tea tree oil. My daughter complained about the smell in the bathroom. My clothes stank of tea tree. But I didn’t care. All I cared about was getting rid of my ringworm as quickly as possible. Smelling of tea tree seemed a small price to pay.

 

Gus neither cared nor, for that matter, minded tea tree oil. My daughter was out sailing and my husband about to return from overseas when I resorted to turmeric treatment for my ringworm. The home remedies book admitted this treatment was messy, however Indian people had used it successfully for centuries. Now it was my turn. Mixing the yellow powder with water I painted the rash with paste and waited twenty minutes before washing it off.

 

Convinced that people had started to notice the rash under my arm but were too polite to say, I started applying the yellow paste three times a day. For years I hadn’t had time to meditate, however for a fortnight I made time to treat my rash which promptly went bright orange and stained every piece of clothing I wore, despite washing the paste off after each application. One night, keen for a miracle, I left it on overnight, permanently staining the bed sheets.

 

The moment I took off my shirt and raised my arm, the naturopath asked if she could take a photo. Agreeing to follow her recommendations for a month, I said that I’d go back to my GP if there was there no improvement. I stopped the turmeric and tea tree oil and switched to a milder coconut oil based cream with patchouli – that smelled so nice a woman in a clothing store complimented me on my perfume. I took vitamin C, garlic and zinc, and exposed my arm to direct sunlight for 5 minutes every day.

 

Until another spot appeared under my other arm and hypochondria engulfed me. The next afternoon I visited my GP, who frowned and wrote to a skin specialist. I was given an appointment the same week. The waiting room was sterile, the wait long, and the biopsy mercifully quick. ‘It’s not ringworm’, the specialist said. ‘And you’re lucky it’s not cancer’, she added, waving at the wall chart plotting melanomas on various parts of the human body.

 

A week later, on holiday interstate, I received a voice message from the skin specialist. As she’d suggested, it wasn’t ringworm. It was the same skin condition that I’d had living in Melbourne ten years ago, when I’d been given a cortisone cream in the middle of a life so busy with primary-school-aged-children that I’d hardly given the rash on my arm a second thought. The specialist asked me to have a blood sugar test for Diabetes, to fill the cortisone cream script she’d put in the post, and to report back to her in a month’s time. If, she added, the cream didn’t help, cortisone injections might be the answer.

 

Relaying my news to my naturopath, she sent me round the corner to a private pathology lab to have a battery of blood tests. That night, having vowed to the naturopath that I wouldn’t check out my skin condition on-line, I spend a hour reading about Granuloma annulare. Flicking off my computer and heading to bed, I decide not to identify with the Granuloma annulare sufferers on the Internet. Instead I would follow my naturopath’s recommendations until the rash under my arm – already less angry – resolves itself. I lie in the sun between 11am and 3pm. I take garlic, take zinc drops and vitamin C. I don’t feed the neurotic thoughts that made me self-conscious at yoga. I pay daily thanks to my otherwise healthy body as we together head into the new year. And I choose not to return the repeated calls from the receptionist from The Medical Specialist Clinic.

 

 

the two wolves

IMG_9206

‘There is a battle between two wolves that goes on inside each one of us’, the wise Cherokee Elder tells his grandson. ‘One wolf is anger, desire, pride, jealousy and ego. The other wolf is love, compassion, kindness, goodness and patience’.

Staring at the glowing embers of the campfire, the grandson imagines the two wolves circling each other, wary, vigilant, teeth bare.

‘Which wolf wins?’ the boy asks his grandfather.

The older man doesn’t hesitate. ‘Whichever one you feed’, he says.

taken from David Mitchie, ‘Enlightenment to Go’

 

going home

IMG_9165 (1)

‘If there is a stage at which an individual life becomes truly adult,

it must be when one grasps the irony in its unfolding

and accepts responsibility for a life lived

in the midst of such paradox.’

Barry Lopez

 

I’m sitting high up in the hills, under a tree at a wooden table bleached with age, overlooking the city I grew up in, laid out flat before me. It’s hot, as it so often was growing up.

 

I’ve lived away from this city for more years than the childhood and college years I spent in it. What then is the hold this city has over me? Half of the family I grew up with, who still live here, are blameless. They couldn’t be more pleasant and giving. They may think of me as selfish in one breath and brave the next; yet they make it clear that they love me for being both.

 

The city I grew up in still makes demands on me, all of them emotional. It makes me ask big questions of myself. Will I – have I – lived up to my promise? Will I – have I – given enough back in return for my good life? The voice in my head, as I drive our yolk-yellow hire car from the airport across the CBD, thinks not. This voice jumps in to tell me that I’ve only ever earned peanuts – a taunt my mother once made without thinking years ago and I’ve never shrugged off. This voice in my head knows everything yet nothing about me; hence, I suppose, its casual cruelty. This time I manage to catch this voice, just as it, dreamlike, speaks. After hesitating for a moment I relay what it has said to my daughter who, through her silence, makes it clear that she is more interested in finding the road to the hills where we are staying, than in my innermost neuroses. It is late and she is tired and hungry.

 

I have lots of friends who project their innermost feelings on to the place where they grew up; who can’t see it for the place it really is, so busy are they experiencing it through the prism of their emotional past. Does my inner bully’s taunt at the traffic lights mean that, like them, I’ve never truly grown up? Is this why I so easily regress into self-criticism while driving our yolk-yellow hire car through the streets of my childhood?

 

Most of the people I grew up with still live in Adelaide. I admire them for this, and sometimes wonder what their secret is. Why didn’t they need to leave the city of their childhood in order to become fully themselves? Was it that they had a less complicated Oedipal relationship with their family? Was a spell living interstate or overseas enough to push them into the next stage of life, cleanly delivering them into maturity? And those who did live away for a period, had they always known that one day they’d return home? What about those who stayed, who never left; were they more extroverted, jolly at barbecues come what may, or just less sensitive than me? Or were they simply more financially sensible? Did they have kinder voices in their head to support them in their journey through life? Lastly, and more troublingly, will my now grown-up children feel similarly about the city they grew up in, and so feel an unconscious need to live elsewhere – just as I did?

 

My eldest sister, who lives interstate, celebrated a big birthday in Adelaide last weekend. For my sister the city she grew up in, and spent some of her twenties in, is still very much home. Though she’s spent more than half her life living interstate, Adelaide is still her home. Why then is it so different for me? Perhaps I am living in a successful state of denial in assuming that the city that I now live in is home. But then perhaps I can afford to feel this way; life has tested me, just as it has my sister, but not nearly as forcefully.

 

At her birthday lunch my sister made a speech about the importance of family with tears in her eyes, words our parents would have been proud of, and I silently thanked her for it. And yet even as she spoke it I knew that when my next big birthday comes around I won’t be returning to Adelaide to dance the night away with old friends. I will be up a mountain, walking our dog by the sea, or cooking dinner for friends at home. With any luck, all three.

domestic instinct: mine and others

IMG_9158

‘A perfectly-kept house is a sign of a misspent life’. As a young woman I never questioned these words by English writer Rose Macauley. Domestic life was a tangle of repetitive and unfulfilling tasks that full-time work was designed to release women from; this much I was certain of. Like my friends I assumed that caring about housekeeping was to avoid the real challenges of life. I laughed at the idea that running a home might ever fill me with pride; that I might one day undertake household tasks with a lightness and grace that ennobled my time on this earth. I had no inkling how intimately my happiness might eventually be tied to my relationship to housekeeping.

On leaving home to see the world I felt confident that life lay before me, beyond the front door. My sense of self would be forged through my work and my personal relationships. My self-esteem rested on my ability to meet the demands of other people and the world. Only gradually did my home become, as it had been in childhood, the place that grounds and sustains me, helping me to make sense of my life outside it. It wasn’t the only place where I played out my inner longings, my private dreams, but it was an essential arena for them. Each morning when I went off to study, work or the park, home was where I started from.

This shift in my own life – from distancing myself from all things domestic as a girl, to identifying with it as a young woman – led me to want to improve the image of housekeeping. To change our common perception of domesticity as unworldly, demeaning, even mind-numbingly dull, to making looking after ourselves a quietly powerful act. To make creating order from chaos, moments of beauty from household mess, an intrinsically worthwhile thing to do. To present domesticity as a strength to be admired along with every other strength. Which isn’t to say that everyone should be domestic; clearly housekeeping doesn’t make you into a better, more rounded person. It’s more that those of us who do take pride in domesticity, might celebrate it more.

Whenever I answer the front door wearing an apron, nowadays, the person on the doorstep looks me up and down. A flicker of surprise crosses their face. Whether it’s the postman, the plumber or a friend, there’s the same moment of surprise. What’s normal for me, putting on an apron to mix dough, vacuum the stairs or tip stock into a colander, is less so for others. Wearing an apron to the front door is as mildly provocative as opening it in my dressing gown. At very least, it isn’t what the person on the doorstep expects me to be wearing.

When people ask what I do, I tell them I’m a writer. It’s true, I write every day and sometimes publish things. I feel lucky to have work I love, even if I can’t rely on it for income. However in social situations only rarely will I mention my job. This is because my job feels less acceptable, less noteworthy than my work; even though in some ways it’s harder and more challenging. My job has long hours, unregulated conditions and maddeningly low status. It’s not exactly a calling, though some days it feels like it. Until my kids leave home, my job is to keep things running smoothly without shouting and moaning too much. My job is housekeeping.

Countless people keep their homes running smoothly without shouting and moaning too much. They may not feel called to it nor, as I do, wear an apron to the front door. Nonetheless they spend a similar amount of time shopping and cleaning and cooking and listening and sorting and fixing and laughing – and generally making things happen at home. And then clearing it up afterwards. Like me they don’t consider this their main work; and certainly the world doesn’t. Knowing this isn’t what makes them interesting to others, they rarely bring it up in conversation. Mostly they just get on and do it. Nonetheless measured in hours, devotion, effort and skill it’s a big part of their life.

My aim in this project has been psychological more than practical. It has been to change my feelings towards domestic life such that I experience it positively, rather than busying myself with suppressing my negativity towards it. It has been to experience my home as a place of satisfaction, a door to creativity. Rather than writing off housekeeping against a fantasy of leisure, by reclaiming domestic life as important and meaningful, my aim has been to realise a therapeutic potential within daily reach.

My hope is that more of us will make friends with ourselves at home; so that instead of projecting unrealistic domestic demands on to a demanding, internalised other, we’ll reconcile ourselves to who we are and what we have at home. And that by experiencing home life in this gentler way, we may come to feel less complicated about our domestic instinct – or simply to recognise that we have one.

‘Know me, come to my home’ is an invitation for others to see us in a more rounded way. It conveys the familiarity that we feel on entering someone’s private space. It expresses what we care about beyond our physical presence. This kind of expression matters. Having the courage to fulfil our domestic ambitions, in even the smallest ways, is what gives us confidence to fulfil our worldly ambitions; only once we can live up to our own expectations can we take on those of others. Looking after ourselves at home, in ways that make our spirit sing, makes it more likely that we’ll take ours strengths, our song, elsewhere.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

spots and stripes

waterworks roof

‘My Mum Likes Spots and My Dad Likes Stripes’ is a story by Ned Sharratt that I used to read to my kids over and over. It’s a story about a couple so incompatible that they end up dividing the sitting room down the middle with a stripe of paint. On one side of the painted line is everything that belongs to Mum, all spotty; on the other side is everything that belongs to Dad, all striped. Mum wears spotty clothes, her earrings are spotty, her car is spotty, and when she cooks eggs they come out spotty. Dad’s clothes are striped, he cuts toast in stripes, and on the weekend he mows the grass in long stripes.

Each time I read this story to my kids we’d laugh at the craziness of this pair; never for a moment thinking that this story might one day apply to our family. Fifteen years on, my kids are forever pressing home that I like spots and their father likes stripes. From their point of view it’s self evident. How else can they explain their two totally different parents?

My husband and I, we pretend we don’t mind. We laugh at our kids’ joke. We don’t argue the point. If anything, we agree with it. But privately I wonder. Would I have ended up liking spots if I hadn’t married a man who likes stripes? Or could it be that this is what marriage does to couples, once kids play a part in the story? Because ‘My Mum Likes Spots and My Dad Likes Stripes’ is told from a little boy’s point of view; a little boy who, in telling it, seeks to understand how two such different people, his parents, could ever have gotten together. Two people who are so different that, in the little boy’s mind, they’ve made a mistake to think they’re a couple, because really they’re opposites.

Perhaps, even without two kids to point out our differences, Paul and I would have grown in different directions anyway. Perhaps the seeds of change were there right from the day we met. Here are some obvious differences which spring to mind. I like green tea and Kombucha, whereas Paul prefers coffee and wine. I have a thing for Scandinavian design whereas Paul hankers for eighteenth-century art and furniture. I crave dark chocolate whereas Paul loves milk chocolate. I like a clean home whereas Paul longs for a beautiful home. I am a homebody whereas Paul loves to travel. Paul doesn’t like it when I wear jeans all the time whereas I don’t like it when he wears a jacket all the time. I learned to drive a car young and taught both our kids to drive; Paul learned to drive late and avoids tight parking spaces. If I’m at home in the day I’ll cook lunch; Paul, who works from home, will grab cheese and biscuits. I take my work seriously but allow family life to take over; Paul is devoted to his work and refuses to let life take over. I like our garden loose and untamed whereas Paul would like it formal and structured, with no weeds between the bricks in the courtyard. The list goes on.

Neither Paul nor I would want to paint a line down the middle of our sitting room, however tempting this sometimes seems. Really we gave up winning each other over to our own way of seeing things long ago. Not for want of trying, but because it ended up reinforcing our differences. It backfired. I ended up liking spots all the more, while Paul clung to his stripes. When, for example, I encouraged Paul to eat more vegetables and drink less coffee, he avoided vegetables and doubled up on coffee. When he objected to my wearing jeans, I wore them every day. And so it went.

These days Paul and I live a private truce, the terms of which we’ve never spelled out yet understand intuitively. Also, now that our kids are technically adults, the pressure from them has lessened and, with it, the tension between Paul and me. Sometimes I’ve caught myself wondering if our kids have spent their teenage years on an undeclared and unwitting mission to drive Paul and me apart, through the force of what they perceive as our irreconcilable differences. As if, in order to break free of Paul and me, to become independent of us, they’ve needed to drive a wedge between us as parents; to paint a line down the middle of their home to separate the spots from the stripes.

Other times I wonder whether what our kids fear most is that the world of their parents, of Paul and me, will fall apart when they’re no longer around to point out our differences. Just as they can’t imagine how Paul and I could ever have lived together for seven years before they came along, they can’t imagine what their parent’s lives will be like when they’re not around to prop us up. Could their inability to imagine Paul and me, without them around to provide emotional glue, reflect their inability to imagine their own future without their parents in the middle of it?

 

on worry

TIMG_0620

 Last night I spent a fruitless hour pretending to read a book, rather than going straight to bed as I promised myself I would. Flicking through pages, I waited for my husband to finish his work and come upstairs. My husband knows that staying up late working, with a glass of wine and a cigarette, isn’t ideal working practice. He knows that it’s a problem and tells me not to worry. But since when did anyone stop worrying when they’re told not to?

 

At times I worry about my daughter, as she heads into final exams and shudders under the weight of her own expectations, along with the residues of a viral illness which sneak up on her when she wobbles. At a pinch I can add my son to my worry list; only he’s on a long voyage, and besides I prefer thinking to worrying about him. My old aunt, currently living alone without a phone after receiving nuisance calls, also sits high on my list.

 

When I think back to how my mother must have felt, at the age I am now, I realise that worry was her constant companion. My father had heart problems and my sisters and I gave her plenty to fret about in our teenage years. She played golf and went to the hairdresser, whereas I go to yoga and walk our dog; and all for the same reason, to gain a perspective on family life.

 

We talk breezily about helping each other, of reaching out and being there for them. I’m sure there are families for whom helping each other is second nature, a simple step; however this hasn’t been my experience. For me it’s been closer to dental work, with my gentle probing being met with outright resistance or a clear rebuff. We can do so little for each other, it seems, particularly those closest to us.

 

Recently I confided to a friend that my secret definition of family life is of being run over very slowly by the people I love most. She laughed, as did I. It’s not a wildly flattering definition, yet it captures something of the dilemma I sometimes feel at the end of a long day, faced with supper to conjure, souls to buoy, and chores to complete.

 

I used to think that adult life was like a complicated board game, with rules gleaned as your piece travels round the board. Now that I’ve traveled round the board a few times, I can see my youthful naivety. It’s not that as adults we don’t know what we’re doing – my daughter’s recurring taunt in relation to the muddle that is world politics. As we move round the board, most of us do know what we’re doing. We may keep our hand to ourselves, yet we’re alive to its risks and consequences. It’s more that the pressure we feel under – and what adult doesn’t feel under pressure? – means that our control over our next move on the board is limited.

 

I worry about the people I love to the degree I can’t do anything for them. The more they defend against my help, indistinguishable to them from interference, the more I worry about them. Or I go to yoga and leave my worries behind in the studio.

 

Sometimes I think that it would be easier if I could fall back on sympathy, rather than the empathy that I feel for the people I love. It would be easier if I could tell them to pull themselves together – my mother’s familiar refrain – and leave it at that. Sometimes empathy feels like the worse of both worlds – sharing a loved one’s struggles without being able to offer a solution to lift them. Sitting up late while my husband burns the midnight oil – understanding why he might need to do this while also feeling paralysed by my own tiredness – isn’t an ideal end to an evening.

 

My daughter mocks me when I worry about her brother on the high seas. I’m with her; clearly it’s futile to fret about the path of hurricanes from a hemisphere away. I also realise that at some level my worry about others distracts me from thinking constructively about my own future – from wondering what on earth I’ll do when my family aren’t around for me to worry about. I used to laugh at the idea of worry beads. How could they possibly help? These days I’m on the lookout for a secular equivalent.