helen hayward

life writing

Month: February, 2013

Ten things I’ve learned

Another year is ending, for me, and I’m drawn to write down some of the things that I know today, that I didn’t know – at least enough to articulate – this time last year. Here they are:


1.  Start before I’m ready

The bigger and more daunting the project, the sooner I make myself begin it. I don’t wait for the right moment. There may well, I tell myself, be no right moment.


2.  Confidence is often more important than ability

As I mature, and look around at others who are maturing with me, I realise that in many ways confidence is more important than ability. Many people twigged to this decades ago. But for those, like me, who pulled back from the throng – for me it was to have children – rejoining it again makes the role of confidence patently obvious.


3.  Dress up not down

I live in a small city or small town, depending on my mood. My friend Emma, who lives here too, taught me one of my most important lessons of the year, which is to dress up not down. ‘Dress in your best’, is, she told me with a laugh, ‘that’s my motto’. Emma wears navy slacks in a neonatal ward on night shifts, which is probably why ‘glam’ frocks mean a lot to her. And so while I don’t rise to her chic black frock for morning coffee, I do dress to please – myself, mainly. Hospital ward aside, Emma understands something profound about life – which is that if you allow yourself to live out your fantasies about who you are today, who you become tomorrow will take care of itself.


4.  Whenever possible, get things done the day before

Whether it’s making a birthday cake, making up the spare bed, or preparing for a dinner guests, I do myself a big favour if I do as much as I can the day before.


5.  Beauty is maintenance

After the age of 45 for women, and around 50 for men, beauty is maintenance. That’s it!


6.  Feeling stressed is worse than being busy

Being busy I can manage, feeling stressed I can’t. Too many things to do – many of which I don’t like doing – in too little time leaves me feeling grumpy. For example cleaning our house in a meditative state when my kids are at school, taking in the passing days and the settling of dust, feels completely different to cleaning our house while tripping over school bags in the hour before dinner with washing flapping on the line. Cleaning, I have learned, takes place in real time and gives back what I put into it. The days that I give myself over to it in an accepting way, our house rewards me in kind. Whereas when I go about it in a rush all I get back is vacuumed floors.


7.  It’s easier to love my children than my husband

This is a delicate one, but true. I find it easier to stay in touch with and to love my two teenagers, than I do my mid-forties driven husband. Sitting to one side, knowing that I can’t help him directly, but only indirectly, has been my most chastening lesson of the year. Trusting to life, rather than to our relationship, has been my way through this.


8.  Cooking a nice supper is one of the most important things I can do for my family

Preparing supper, as I do every night, takes twice as long as I think it will. And yet, when I do, and when I manage to cook well, the pleasure generated by good food is palpable. Conversations that at the opening of the meal were stilted – ie ‘What did you do at school?’ – starts flowing. My husband stops checking his iPhone, my son puts on genuinely funny voices, and my daughter refuses to leave the table for her empty bedroom upstairs.


9.  I will never reconcile the demands of my work life with the demands of my domestic life.

I care about them both passionately, but accept that they demand very different things of me. For me, the only real solutions to this conflict are practical (ie write in short blocks of time, ignore the internet on the weekend, take a yoga class twice a week, and have a day off on Sundays). I haven’t solved the problem, probably never will, but I do recognise it and get relief from it.


10.  Love is caring for the people and things that I love (a clumsy phrase, I know).

Knowing this, and acting on it, is possibly as mature as I’ll ever get. It feels very different from the romantic loves of my youth. But it feels good, and very real.



I clean therefore I am


The lady who serves coffee in my favourite café has a friend who, when cleaning her house, puts a glass of wine in every room as an incentive to keep going. ‘It takes a while for her to clean her house’, the lady in the café tells me, ‘but it gets done eventually’. She laughs, adding, ‘I think I’ll have to take a leaf out of her book’.

Why, I can’t help wondering, are we so down on housekeeping – and cleaning in particular? For years I didn’t give cleaning a second thought. When I was a girl, cleaning the house was what our cleaner did when my sisters and I were at school. Then when I left home I cleaned a shared flat as a matter of course. It wasn’t our flat – my friends and I paid rent. Cleaning the flat was something I did every third week, when my turn came round. Years later, working full-time, it was no big deal for me to pay someone else to clean my flat – leaving cash on the hall table as I made a dash for the train.

However when I had a family all that changed. For a start I was home a lot more, enough to want our home to be lovely, and enough to notice dust balls collecting underneath the beds. I appreciated it when the windows were clean in a way that I simply didn’t notice when I was at home just at night and on weekends.

It was buying an old house for our family that did it. As I stood in the drive, and looked up at it, I knew that I could only take it on with my eyes open if I’d be responsible for looking after it – if I did everything that I could for the house myself, myself.

These days I clean our house every Friday, lugging the vacuum cleaner awkwardly up the stairs to the upstairs bedrooms, attempting to keep the windows clean, even shampooing the rugs twice a year – things that would never have entered my head when I was paying rent on a small flat.

But in a weird way I find all this rewarding. It’s as if, looking after the house myself, it becomes mine in a more intimate way than simple ownership. A room becomes mine when I’ve dusted the skirting boards and cleaned out the wood stove. I feel that it’s mine, I don’t need anyone to tell me.

Ditto putting mushroom compost on a garden bed. Even cleaning out the grot from the dishwasher filter is proof of that I care for it – though love would be going too far. Increasingly it’s these ordinary things that make me aware of the reality of my daily existence. I work much harder than when I worked full-time in an office, and had someone in to clean for me. And yet I feel more grounded and – dare I say – less neurotic than in my younger less fettered days. I clean therefore I am – did anyone important say that?

Why isn’t looking after things, loving them enough to care for them, better thought of? Anyone over the age of forty accepts that beauty is maintenance – so why don’t we give the continual effort this entails more credit? Why does commanding a high salary automatically accord greater respect than tending a vegetable garden, say, or restoring old furniture?

Sadly I don’t this is a conflict that will be resolved, either in me or for my generation. But now and again I like to pose the question.

Making Curtains



Perhaps, my reader is thinking, making curtains is a metaphor – for shutting out the world at the end of the day, or for transforming a house into a home. Making curtains is both these things – and yet neither. I really do mean sewing actual curtains.

I should point out straight away that I’m not a good sewer. I learned to sew late and patchily. I regularly curse my sewing machine, moan when the tension is wrong and the thread loops drunkenly, and fumble to reassemble the bobbin case. My daughter, aged 13, often comes to my rescue – and me to hers – when frustration gets the better of me.

My husband thinks I’m mad to make curtains. Most people, he points out, get proper jobs and pay a decorator to make curtains. ‘Aren’t they terribly heavy to hang?’ queries my mother. ‘And mind you don’t fall off the ladder’.

Throughout my life I’ve been fascinated by interiors, and by the lengths people go to in making them comfortable and pleasing. This, for me, is no trivial thing. In my mind it’s one of the most profound things we can do in an otherwise uncertain world.

When we last moved house a furnishings lady came and quoted for new blinds and curtains – bustling about our unrenovated house with her tape measure, swatch samples and notebook. The next day her quote came through, a figure considerably higher than the cost of rewiring our house. And so I asked her just to fit the blinds, explaining that I’d decided to make the curtains myself.

The woman looked at me sharply. ‘You mean’, she asked, arching her eyebrow, ‘you are going to make fifteen pairs of full-length lined curtains yourself? Have you’, she persisted, ‘every made curtains before?’ ‘No’, I replied, ‘but I’ve been shown an easy way of doing it’. A small snort escaped the furnishings lady. ‘Good luck!’ she said with a laugh, putting her business card on the hall table as I showed her out.

For a few minutes I sat in the sun on our front doorstep, wondering if I was indeed mad. Then I went inside, picked up the phone, and called a fabric wholesaler in Melbourne. ‘Three-layered curtains, you say?’ the Italian wholesaler asked. ‘Where do you live? A lighthouse?’ ‘No’, I laughed. ‘In an old unheated house in South Hobart’.

‘I see’, he replied. ‘In that case you’ll be needing a few rolls of blockout fabric, a few of thermal, and the same of calico or canvas’. ‘Is that all?’ I asked. ‘Curtain tape and hooks’, he replied. ‘But you can get these once you’ve started’. There was a pause, as he totted up the cost – which was 80% less than the quote from the furnishings lady.

‘But’, the wholesaler added, ‘for that price you’ll have to pay me online before I courier them to you. So we arranged for him to send samples by post and I agreed to get back to him within the week.

At this point I demurred. Renovating a big old house is scary. The financial outlay and effort involved is not for the faint-hearted. But I’d already put my hand up to do all the renovating that I could do myself, myself – and curtains I felt I could do.

Why, you may be wondering, is someone who isn’t particularly good at sewing, about to undertake to sew fifteen sets of curtains? The reason I felt confident is that a Greek woman in a department store had taken the time to show me how. ‘It’s so easy’, the woman had said to me, as I fingered fabrics I knew I couldn’t afford. ‘But’, I returned, ‘you’re only saying that because you’ve done it before. It doesn’t seem the last bit easy to me’.

The Greek woman then launched into a quick verbal U-Tube on how fit the layers of fabric together – ‘like a sandwich’ – before securing them with curtain tape at the top. ‘And that’s it’, she said, as my mind fogged up trying to keep up with her.

‘Do you think’, I asked tentatively, ‘instead of telling me how curtains fit together, that you could actually show me how to do it?’ ‘Well, yes, of course I can. It would be a pleasure’. Then she bustled off and returned a few minutes later with two sheets of orange A4 paper, a length of curtain tape and a roll of sellotape.

By the time she’d finished folding, cutting, taping and pinning the pieces of orange paper, talking non-stop, I really did understand how to make a lined curtain. Her willingness to pass on this practical knowledge was, for me, a revelation.

The thing that made the most difference was being able to take away the pieces of A4 paper, pinned together with sellotape and curtain tape. Because it meant that when the bolts of fabric arrived by courier, dumped unceremoniously on my front porch, I was able to drag them inside and start sewing right away – rather than storing the fabric for a rainy day.

Rolling bolts of fabric across what would soon be our sitting room floor, I listened to music or the radio, training myself not to think too hard about the task ahead of me. Just as the Greek woman had predicted, one by one the curtains went up. They weren’t perfect curtains – and they certainly weren’t the silk that I’d fantasised using. But they were good curtains and I felt as proud of having made them as I did of the book I once published. And boy, what a difference they made in terms of warmth, as the evenings grew longer and the temperature dropped.