HelenHayward

life writing

Month: October, 2016

tweed jacket

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Twice a year, around about when the clocks go forward or back, I go through my wardrobe and store out of season clothes. But this makes me sound more organised than I really am. Each time the clocks change I have to prod myself into going through my clothes. Often I’ll trick myself into it – a quick whip through my summer clothes, after one a hot day after months of cold ones, will turn into a wholesale clean out.

 

One year I was lucky enough to go through my clothes with a friend on my bed, which made the process much more fun. But not just fun. It was also irksome to find out that the skirt I’d worn again and again didn’t pass muster, and that my favourite cardigan looked like just that, and nothing more. I can still remember the short silence that followed after I buttoned up my tweed jacket. Karen’s short silence, no longer than the intake of a breath, made me realise that my tweed jacket’s days were numbered. ‘But it’s so useful’, I said, springing to its defence. ‘I can dress it up and down.’ There was another tactful pause. ‘Also it’s the jacket that my daughter likes me in most.’ Karen demurred, nodded her head, and the tweed jacket stayed.

 

That was five years ago and now my tweed jacket’s days are over. Even the short leather jacket that my husband bought me to look sexy in has aged better than this tweed jacket. And yet for years I’ve loved wearing it, often done up with a scarf. I’d wear it into town or on a hike – all the while my kids wishing that I’d wear a fleece like normal mothers. I thought of my tweed jacket as smart camouflage, something that I could button up and not have to think about all day.

 

Two weeks ago, dressing in a hurry and not wanting to think about what to wear, I grabbed my tweed jacket off its hanger. However the moment I put it on I knew, despite my hurry, that I simply couldn’t wear it. My tweed jacket had died, precisely when it was hard to say, and it was useless pretending that it hadn’t.

 

My daughter despises the vanity of fashion to the inverse degree that she is influenced by it. Much as she hates admitting it, the cut of a tshirt and the fit of her jeans matter to her a whole lot more than they did five years ago, when she’d defiantly patch her clothes and wear her elder brother’s hand-me-downs.

 

I knew I’d made the right decision about my tweed jacket because the morning that I felt like mutton dressed as mutton, and said as much to my daughter, she let the comment slide. ‘It just has to go’, I said to her flatly. At that moment I could already see my tweed jacket squashed on a rack in the charity shop, hemmed in by slightly musty clothes that I’d never pick out myself. ‘Fifteen years is a good innings even for a well-made high street jacket,’ I added. Or perhaps my daughter had decided that, given how confused her opinions about her own clothes, it wasn’t her place to disagree with mine.

 

At this point I remembered a scene during a trip to the UK to see old friends. A close friend, who was quite sick at the time, asked me to spend the day with her. For someone who hadn’t lived in the country for five years it was a tricky drive, and I felt relieved to arrive safely at my friend’s house in Brighton. I can still remember the flash of disappointment that crossed her face when she opened the front door and hugged me. At first I couldn’t work it out, given that she was clearly thrilled to see me. Later that day, by which time I plucked up courage to ask, she explained. ‘It was because I thought you would have changed in five years’, she said. ‘But instead when I opened the front door you look exactly the same’. What I think she meant was that I’d gone all the way to Australia, and was living a completely different life, and yet I was still wearing the kind of jacket that I could pick up any day in Oxford Street or Paddington.

 

I don’t know the direction my life will take from here on, not really. However I do know how I feel when I put on my clothes each morning. Going forward, that terrible phrase, will I wear more of the same, or will I strike out in a new direction? Perhaps this is what my clothes are nudging me towards.

resentment and gratitude

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We talk about gratitude a lot. We know it’s what we are supposed to feel when we reflect on our life. I know it’s what I’d like my kids to express more of. We imagine it as a pure well of feeling, the milk of human kindness. However we don’t talk about gratitude’s ugly step-sister very much, even though most of us receive regular visits from her. Resentment, the uncomfortable feeling of hugging bitterness for others to ourselves, is not something that we keep a journal about. We don’t record or treasure our bitter feelings. We shrug them off, hoping they’ll stay that way. We don’t sit down late at night with a cup of hot something and write down the five things that made us feel resentful that day.

 

Resentment is the cup of poison that you pour for another and then drink yourself. This is why it can’t be shrugged off. Because once we’ve taken it in to ourselves it becomes part of us. Even if we’ve done nothing wrong, we’ve had bad thoughts, and so at some level are guilty of them.

 

Lately my teenage daughter has taken to resenting her elder brother. She resents that he has finished school and is doing what he supposedly wants to do. She resents his freedom and even his fitness. After a long illness that has left her feeling weaker, she wishes that she had more of what he seems to have – life force or whatever you want to call it. Even though, from my point of view, my daughter has no cause to resent her brother. Can’t she see the strengths in herself that everyone else can plainly see?

 

Over the years I too have had my resentments. For a long time I resented my more successful, better educated, better travelled husband. Just as I resented certain more worldly, more self-assured and go-ahead friends. Of course I didn’t think a bit well of myself for feeling resentful in this way. I felt small and slightly ashamed of myself. I have so many advantages, I’d say to myself, how could I possibly resent the successes of others?

 

Just like my daughter, fearful of her looming exams, I’d negatively compare myself with my successful husband and friends to the degree that I felt insecure about my own prospects. (‘We cannot perceive objects in themselves’, wrote Daniel Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow, ‘but only in relation to an anchor point.) When my children were young, and my husband seemed to be galloping ahead in his career, resentment of his success seemed the rational response. It seemed common sense that I might resent his advantages – his network of mentors, his work ethic and his disregard for domestic responsibility.

 

But then something happened which, at the time, I barely noticed. My husband and I drifted into a traditional marriage and over a few years my resentments dried up. The more empowered I felt in my work and at home the less I compared myself to him. We moved into such different spheres that comparisons became irrelevant. I didn’t stop caring about what my husband thought of me. And I still reacted when he corrected me or asked for clarification on something. However my compass had moved – which meant that his opinions, or more precisely what I imagined were his opinions, were no longer the anchor point by which I measured my own worth.

 

Has this made me stronger? Perhaps. Certainly it has made me more relaxed. And I definitely feel more grateful for the life I actually live. Because just as resentment is a sign of a bruised ego, gratitude reflects a content soul. This is why I know it’s useless for me to tell my daughter to be grateful, in the ‘pull yourself together and be thankful for your blessings’ sort of way. As a loving mother I do feel this – sometimes my exasperation when she is moody for no reason is colossal. However mostly I manage to curb my exasperation. Because I know that not expressing gratitude is not the same as being ungrateful – as my own mother sometimes made me feel. I know that when your gratitude is blocked by resentment there is nothing to be done but to wait for the resentment to dissolve.

 

My daughter doesn’t need to be made to watch a documentary on orphaned children in Syria. It’s not my job to make her grateful for her materially blessed life. Because when she resents her brother’s freedoms she is talking about something more intimate than the daily conditions of her life. Rather she is saying to me, ‘Look, this is where I feel bruised. This is where I need to heal. So please don’t press on this place and make it worse’.

 

Thankfully my daughter is healing. When, before school yesterday, she spied in an email a photo of her brother jumping off a tall ship into blue Atlantic waters, it wasn’t resentment that she automatically felt. Envy perhaps, but not resentment. Because these days, whether she knows it or not, her compass is shifting. She still orients herself via fixed points – clever/stupid, strong/weak, fat/thin. However her hold on them is loosening. And as she lets them go, and mourns the certainties of childhood, the more relaxed and playful she becomes – and the more she plays the piano.