HelenHayward

life writing

Month: May, 2015

‘You’d like to talk to me about what?’

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I used to think that when I approached a woman to ask if she was willing to talk with me about her domestic life, and she paused, that it was my imagination. Knowing it was an unusual request, I’d disguise the pause with chat, aimed at putting us both at ease. Perhaps, I thought, it was my own nervousness that had caused the hesitation. But after a while I realised that it wasn’t my imagination. Whenever I ask a woman whether she might talk to me about domesticity, she really does think twice before responding.

Why, I wonder, is this? Could it be that we don’t quite trust ourselves to talk frankly about an area of our lives that we rarely open up about? Is it that the stories we tell ourselves, about how we imagine other women manage their home lives, instinctively lead us to keep quiet about our own? Other women, we tell ourselves, with just a hint of self-reprimand, are on top of housekeeping. They are reconciled to the daily demands that their homes make on them. We, on the other hand, are only occasionally on top of our home lives. And this is why, just as we rush round cleaning up the house when the doorbell goes, we don’t trust ourselves to talk freely about domesticity.

‘If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all’, my mother used to say. Is this why we veil our domestic lives from anyone but close friends? Do we fear the protest that might pour unbridled from our mouths? Or do we fear being judged by a standard of domestic excellence that we know we’ll never achieve? There is nothing wrong with privacy, you may say. And I’ll agree with you. However the problem with shielding our domestic lives, to the degree most of us do, is that we end up veiling the domestic triumphs that mean so much to us personally, yet don’t stack up in public.

Besides, our domestic life may be a largely private affair, but it’s no small affair. How could something that takes up roughly a quarter of our waking hours be slight in its impact? This may explain why, whenever I do sit down to chat to someone about their domestic life, the conversation takes on a life of its own. Like a babbling brook after rain whoever I am speaking with has more to say, even after our hour is up. The fear that she might have nothing of interest to say, that her domestic life is without significance to others, flips into reverse. And the relief is palpable.

Most of us feel relatively secure about our work life. We may worry about the trajectory of our career, fantasise about switching to another line of work, or wonder about launching our own business. But we don’t have a problem valuing what we do when we’re working. Our work life gives us back to ourselves. It integrates us, reflecting back a coherent sense of self. Ironically it’s at home that many of us feel less secure. It’s almost as if our hold over our home lives, being less public, is more fragile than our hold over our work lives. We may be under more pressure at work, but it’s a pressure that we’ve learned to deal with, even enjoy. In contrast it’s at home that we wonder whether we’re meeting our expectations. It’s at home that we fear judgment and are prey to guilt. When a friend comes to the front door unannounced, we immediately fall into apologising for our messy house in a way that we’d never apologise for ourselves at work.

This, for me, has been a surprising finding arising out of the twenty or so conversations that I’ve had about domesticity so far. Why, I can’t help wondering, have so many of us lost confidence in the way we run our homes, and in the things we care about domestically? Why can’t we feel pride in our small triumphs at home, rather than being haunted by an ideal that hardly any of us achieve?

In theory we know that the best is the enemy of the good. And yet when it comes to housekeeping it’s as if we can’t help hankering for the best. There are those of us who reduce the demands on our home lives so drastically that the act of going home neither threatens nor inspires. And the result? We defer inviting friends round for a midweek dinner, telling ourselves we are too busy to cook for others. We put off going through ‘that’ cupboard, all the while going to great lengths to avoid opening it. We let seedlings wilt in their pots, as if something as small as a seed might be capable of incriminating us. Or we turn a small renovation that might make the world of difference to us personally into an obstacle that we understandably duck. And we avoid all these things not because they are beyond us – what is so hard about planting out seedlings? – but because of the pressure we fear that they’ll put us under.

What I have come to think, after the conversations I’ve had so far, is that the reason we think twice before talking freely about domesticity is that we take our home lives very personally. If only I were better organised, you will tell me with a sigh. If only I had a cleaner, another will say. If only I didn’t have a cleaner, still another will say, eyes big. If only I wasn’t renting and could decorate in my own style, my sister will say before she rings off. If only, I might reply, suppressing my own sigh, my husband and teenagers were more willing.

The assumption we all make is that if our particular problems were solved our domestic lives would feel the way we would like them to feel – casual, chic and smooth. Rather than the organised chaos that we so often experience them as. Unlike the beauty myth, which most women have toppled to, the domestic myth lives on in the nether regions of our minds, in a place where sympathy and understanding rarely reach.

And yet once we do pluck up courage to talk about our domestic lives, the domestic myth soon collapses. There is no Old Testament figure with beard and pointed finger who disdains our attempts to keep our domestic lives on track. The home lives that had previously felt so personal, become much less so. In particular, our fear of judgment loses its sting as soon as we accept that we are simply doing our best, and doing it every day. Instead lightness, even laughter, accompany our efforts to talk about, look after, and even love our homes.

It’s not just me. It’s not just you. No-one out there scrubs their grouting, unclutters their cupboards, weeds their garden, composts waste, changes fuses and perfects shortcrust pastry on a regular basis. Everyone has better things to do than to ensure their saucepans never boil dry.

Besides, there is a flip side. The flip side is that most of us feel quietly proud of aspects of our home lives that give expression to our desire for higher things. I might sew a garment in one weekend. You might fuss over dinner and be pleased when your efforts are appreciated. My sister might iron her pillow cases, scent them with lavender, and give thanks to a life in which she can do this. And it’s small things like these, so often the important things, that we might celebrate.

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Making beds

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My kids, both teenagers, have taken to leaving their clothes in small mounds on the floor of their bedrooms. And leaving their beds unmade. They don’t do this to annoy me. When they leave in the morning for school, or go off on the weekend, they are oblivious of the molehills of clothing strewn by their beds, or the duvet leaning over their beds. They don’t intend for me to have to guess whether the underwear on their floor is clean or dirty. Or to pull up their duvets. It isn’t a trap they have left for their home-loving mother. They simply have no investment in an attractive bedroom that the stuff on their floor is a blight on.

My son likes to tell me that he prefers his room messy. His disregard is proof that he cares about things more important than the state of his bedroom. My own reading is that heaping his clothes on the floor reflects the pressure he feels under in his life beyond home. And clearly it’s a protest against his over-aestheticised mother. What does he care if he has to tread over yesterday’s clothes in order to flump on his bed with an apple, a magazine and his phone?

Whereas as I pick my way over his bedroom floor my heart sinks. Unlike my son, who thinks he knows better, I have an investment in an attractive home. I like my eye to glide across a room without it tripping on an inside-out jumper and yesterday’s underwear. I like to go home and feel glad that I live there.

But this is not a moan about teenagers. As my kids love to remind me, I’ll be heartbroken when they aren’t around to taunt me with their laundry. This is about something larger, something that that we don’t often talk about. It’s about how we feel about housekeeping. Not the housekeeping itself, but our feelings about it.

These days it’s normal to feel down on housekeeping – to decry the washing up, to joke about To Do lists, and to avoid opening certain cupboards in front of friends. We scoff at the idea that running our homes could ever fill us with pride, or that we might undertake household tasks with a lightness and grace that ennobled our time on this earth. We might peer at a Vermeer painting of a woman shining a doorstep, but this is more in wonderment than admiration. We may long to celebrate the ordinary, the dailyness of household tasks, but precious few of us actually do.

Surrendering to what needs to be done at home is no longer a source of self-esteem. It’s not an attitude towards life to be passed on to the next generation. All too often domesticity, and the time we spend doing it, is experienced as a mistake. Rather being essential to a fulfilled life, we see it as a threat to our creativity and ambition.

And yet housekeeping has the potential to be be experienced in a very different way. Instead of a negative spiral of unmet demands, housekeeping really can be fulfilling. That may sound far-fetched in our post-feminist commodified world, however most people know it to be true – if only as a longing. Being in tune with the running of your home, feeling that you have the energy and drive to stay on top what needs to be done, from the laundry basket to meal times, is quietly empowering.

Ultimately what we are talking about, in feeling on top of our home lives, is the sense that we are up to looking after ourselves. There are further benefits – like experiencing beauty in the everyday and being at one with time passing – but really it’s this ability to look after ourselves, and those we love, that we are on about.

‘Have you made your bed?’ my mother used to ask as I came down the stairs for breakfast. ‘Yes’, I’d fib. I didn’t get it back then. Just like my two teenagers, I cared more about being late for school than the state I’d left my bedroom in. Whereas these days my feeling is that if I can look after myself and get the simple things right, like making my bed and putting my clothes away, everything else follows from this.

‘How exciting!’

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In the weeks leading up to the launch of my book, about food people in Tasmania, countless friends rounded on me and said, eyes shining, ‘You must be so excited!’

They were right. It has been exciting. I do feel proud of the book. I am pleased that of all the things that can go wrong in the production of a book the only thing I have to complain of is that not all the hard covers are uniformly squishy. I am thrilled to have received personal texts along with throw-away compliments from radio show hosts. The book is certainly not only my doing, which is probably why I don’t feel embarrassed by the praise.

The aim, to start a bigger conversation about food by taking to a wide range of people from school canteens to top chefs, seems to have worked. The negative review may still come, I am touching wood as I write, but so far the media has been kind. And if most readers do nothing more than flick through the book backwards, reading italicised coloured paragraph after italicised coloured paragraph, looking at the photos, that’s fine by me.

The launch itself was many things – nerve-wracking, logistically demanding, gratifying, fun. Expecting that no-one would come and arriving to see people through the window was both a pleasure and a relief. Standing on six rolled-up rugs to give a three-minute speech without stumbling to ninety people, a speech I’d rehearsed with my dog in a gale that morning, was also good.

The best bit was welcoming many of the people I’d interviewed, giving them a copy of the book, and knowing that in the general messiness of life I’d created something that showed them that it really was worth dedicating themselves to making the world a little bit better – whether by growing native plants, teaching canteen ladies to cook, exporting garlic to Asia, or running a farmers market.

Just when I was feeling cocky I went to Agfest, the biggest agricultural show in the state. A bookshop had asked me to sign copies at site 41 on CWA drive, a first right after the main gate. The bookshop marquee, as easy to find as to miss, was full of boxes of new and remaindered books. A white plastic table with my name, and that of two other authors, was stickytaped to the side of the plastic tent. Woodchips graced the floor.

No-one who wandered into marquee 41 in the next forty-five minutes wandered in there in search of me. Realising this immediately, yet feeling it would be rude to leave, I fell into reading Michelle Crawford’s A Table in the Orchard, an author who’d sat at the same plastic table as I had just an hour before. I read about her life in the Huon valley with a young family – keeping chickens, chopping wood, planting potatoes, making jam, being semi self-sufficient and generally finding beauty in the everyday. The flappy tent and woodchip floor faded from my mind, and I disappeared into the pages of her beautifully produced book.

That night my daughter was in tears at bedtime. What’s wrong?’ I asked, tired after the long drive and keen for some time to myself. ‘Nothing’, she said. ‘Please’, I pleaded. ‘You’ll think I’m being silly’. ‘Is it about sailing?’ I asked, hoping that it wasn’t. ‘No’, she replied, pulling away crossly. ‘You won’t understand’. Silence as I sat on the side of her bed. ‘Is it about Agfest?’ I asked, thinking that out of 1040 stalls something she and her friend had seen might have upset her. ‘Sort of’, she said. More silence.

‘I wish’, she blurted out, ‘that I lived on a farm’. ‘But that’s a good thing to wish for’, I replied, glad it was nothing worse. ‘But you don’t understand’, she pressed.’I wish that I’d lived on a farm as a child’. ‘Oh’, I said. ‘I’m so sorry. But you know, that’s still a good longing. A lot of people I spoke to for my book felt just that way when they were growing up, and now they’re doing just that’. ‘But’, she said, crying anew, ‘I want it now’.

‘Please don’t go’, she pleaded, unconsoled. ‘But I have to go and say goodnight to Alex. He’s got exams this week’. ‘I don’t care about Alex’, she returned. After another minute crouching on the side of her bed I left her crying, feeling that I could do no more. When I checked on her, half an hour later, she was asleep, sniffling. Happy mothers day!

Greenhouse

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On the opening page of my favourite picture book a rabbit sows carrot seeds, according to the directions on the packet. Then he fills a watering can and empties it, making sure not to flood the soil. With that the day’s work is done. The next day he fills and empties the watering can again. A week passes. Nothing happens, just bare earth. A second week passes. Still no shoots. The rabbit sings songs. He does a dance. Will these carrots, he wonders, ever grow? How can there be no green shoots? Have they drunk enough? Too much? In the story’s closing pages, by which time the rabbit has given up hope, green shoots break the surface of the soil. Thinking he is seeing things, he smiles and laughs. He realises that all the while he was wringing his hands above ground, carrot seeds were quietly germinating beneath it.

Last week I visited a neighbour to see where her gardener had pruned back the blackberries that had wended their way from my garden into hers. I saw, from her side of the fence, where her gardener had cut a hard-won division between her garden and mine. Turning from the fence, I admired her new greenhouse. ‘It’s my husband’s project’, she said, ‘he’s such an avid vegetable grower’. Goodness’, I said, as, on opening the door, I was met by pristine raised beds and rows of self-potting seedlings. ‘This greenhouse’, I added, ‘would do Martha Stewart proud’. My neighbour laughed.

But as the gate clicked behind me, and I took a few steps on the street, I realised that it was admiration rather than amusement that I felt. Out of the unruliness of life my neighbour’s husband had created the thing that he loves, right in the middle of his back garden. Yes, he’d waited until he was approaching retirement, but if anything this had made him more determined. He knew what he wanted and pushed through, past the blackberries of council regulations, to make it happen.

It was the same when I visited Rodney Dunn and Severine Dumanet at the Agrarian Kitchen in the Lachlan Valley. Eight years ago Rodney Dunn gave up editing Australian Gourmet Traveller, not because he had tired of it, because he hadn’t. Yes he’d grown weary of big city life, however what drove him south was the lure of making a new life from a tiny seed, a cooking school with a small farm and a family.

Instead of longing for fresh carrots and eating from the source, Rodney and Severine had set about making this happen. How, I asked him, had he had the confidence to move from an inner city flat to a small holding in the Lachlan Valley? Well, he admitted with a smile, it was a bit of a leap. But then again, he explained, he’d seen plenty of people farming when he was growing up near Griffith. Growing carrots was no mystery to him. And what he didn’t know he found out. Late at night he read every book on gardening and small holdings that he could lay his hands on. He pored over seed catalogues. He planted carrots at the right time. He got support from the right people. He applied for a grant and got it. He asked for help when he needed it. He and his wife worked as a team. They made a few mistakes. But they managed not to panic when something went wrong. They had a clear vision of what they were after and kept at it until they realised it. Just like my neighbour with his greenhouse.

And, once the Agrarian Kitchen was up and running, in the dead of the night when Rodney’s mind gamboled on to new plans and ambitions, he heeded the little voice in his head which told him not to tamper with the good things they already had.

The symbol of all this, for me, was a small greenhouse by their back door. The greenhouse wasn’t particularly lovely. It was functional, even a bit dumpy. However inside tiny seedlings could be seen through the glass, pointing their way up to the light. Vegetables that couldn’t bear the valley’s tumbling nighttime temperatures were quietly edging their way into existence.

Lots of us are hopeful and positive about life. But some of us do things, like planting seeds in self-planting pots, which are expressive of this hope. And we do this without years of agricultural training. Instead we have a good read of the back of the seed packet, chat to a better gardener than themselves, and flick through a gardening book. Then we go outside and plant seeds which, even those of us without a potting shed, have lurking round in a packet somewhere. Half of life, some say, is simply turning up. The other half just might be planting seeds.