helen hayward

life writing

Month: November, 2019

too much pleasure

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The front door clicked shut. Standing in front of my laptop at the kitchen table, a new habit of mine, I sank into a piece of writing.

Ten minutes later, my phone rang.

‘Did you get cheese for tonight?’ Paul asked. To anyone else, this question would be innocent. Only Paul and I had been together for 30 years, and we left innocence behind long ago.

‘Actually’, I said, ‘I thought I’d serve dessert instead of cheese this time.’

‘Couldn’t we have both?’ Paul asked, with annoyance in his voice. ‘Or would that cause too much pleasure?’

For a few seconds neither of us spoke.

‘Tell me’, asked Paul, ‘what exactly is the problem with having cheese?’

‘Well’, I said, sounding defensive, ‘I was trying to keep the food simple. You know me.’ I waited for Paul to reply. When he didn’t, I tried again. ‘I wasn’t sure if we’d have enough plates and cutlery and would rather not have to wash up between courses. Besides I’ve already got dessert, won’t that be enough?’

The phone went dead.

I gazed out the kitchen window, shrugged inwardly, and tried to get back to my work.

 

*     *     *

 

‘I just want to make myself some lunch’, said Paul, coming into the kitchen 15 minutes later. ‘Of course’, I said, moving my papers off the kitchen table. But even in my study I couldn’t think straight, and went back into the kitchen.

‘I guess’, I said. ‘I guess I’d hoped that the counselling we’re doing might help us see tensions like these differently. Rather than fatal, perhaps they’re inevitable. I don’t know’, I said, waiting for a response, ‘they might even be interesting.’

‘You’ve got to be kidding’, said Paul, on the edge of shouting. ‘I have zero interest in conflicts like these. Look’, he said, exasperated. ‘It’s my birthday. I just want to have a nice day and get some work done before tonight.’

‘I know’, I said. ‘Of course. Except it’s on your birthday that this often comes up. Wouldn’t it be better to talk about it now, than risk it blowing up just before friends arrive tonight?’

‘I’m really not interested in discussing it’, said Paul, shouting now. ‘I feel like you’re setting me up to look bad. And it’s only with you that I’m like this.’

‘I’m sorry’, said, trying not to frown. ‘But we’re married and we just do impact on each other in ways we can’t fix’.

‘Oh, this is so boring!’ exploded Paul, peering into the saucepan to check if the water was boiling.

I left the room. Five minutes later I returned. Paul was eating large pockets of ravioli, smearing them with butter as he ate. I felt hungry. Had I come back, his glance asked, to spoil his lunch? I opened the door to go out and then closed it again.

‘Can’t we do better than this?’ I asked. ‘We only have one life and I don’t care if you hate me sometimes. I know I can be annoying. I know you think that I spoil your pleasure and make you feel complicated about yourself. But can’t we get beyond that? I know you think I don’t do indulgence very well. That I care too much about health. But so what? We already know this. Is this what really matters? Can’t it be something that we accept and move on from? I can’t make that part of myself go away, any more than you can make the pleasure loving part of yourself go away.’

There was a brief silence.

‘Maybe we’re not very well suited’, suggested Paul flatly.

‘But we already know that’, I said, impatient. ‘Of course it would be good to be better suited. But I don’t care that much that we’re not. Isn’t our life together more important than our differences? For me, our efforts to get on with each other are valuable because it’s so not easy’.

Paul put his plate in the sink.

‘Perhaps we’re both nervous’, I offered.

‘I’m not’, he said. ‘I’m excited about tonight. At least, I was until 30 minutes ago’.

‘Ok’, I said, looking at my watch, ‘good for you’, and grabbed my car keys and headed out the front door.

*     *     *

The dinner went well. None of the friends who came would have guessed that Paul and I had shouted at each other in the kitchen earlier that day. One friend arrived early to help in the kitchen, which meant that I could leave the pans on the hob and change my clothes, without burning the food. By the time I got the main course on the table, the food was a little cold, because I couldn’t think of a way of keeping the meal hot until we were ready to eat it, without turning off the oven. But no-one seemed to mind. John served a cheese course. A friend insisted on lighting candles with dessert and singing happy birthday. The conversation round the table broke up into groups and everyone seemed to have their say. I cleaned up in the kitchen as the dinner went along, with intermittent breaks in the kitchen with the dog, which meant I didn’t feel overwhelmed by mess when the front door closed for the last time. Paul drank too much but not too too much and was genuinely funny, in a way he loves to be, towards midnight. And this morning we got some genuinely appreciative texts from friends.

you can never get enough of something that’s not quite enough

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Early evening, when I have nothing else on and have housekeeping to do, I’ll click on The Guardian and The New York Times websites. I’ll just read a few stories, I tell myself, before getting on with emails, housework and cooking – and whatever else I should be doing. I deserve a break, I tell myself. And I’m curious at what has happened outside my tiny bubble during the day. I might stop scrolling for a moment, to drain overcooked rice, or to feed the dog. But for up to an hour, most evenings, I’ll stand at the kitchen bench, clicking on news stories. It’s my new bad habit.

 

I know that it’s impossible to get enough of something that’s not quite enough. I know this because last night I read Tristan Harris’s talk about tech addiction. However, early evening, night after night, I act as if I don’t know this. My addiction isn’t a vice, I say to myself. It doesn’t harm any organ of my body. Unless, that is, my soul is an organ.

 

Initially, scrolling through news sites, I feel pure escape. What, I wonder, has the rest of the world been up to, while I’ve been writing and housekeeping and walking the dog? Within seconds, I’m immersed in stories about people I’ll never meet, in places I’m unlikely to visit. Yet this scrolling, reading, and scrolling some more, is oddly stressful. It’s not one bit relaxing. Last night, I oggled at the fleshy chins on Prince Andrew, pondering all that privilege gone wrong. I asked myself what the Hong Kong riots were really, deeply, about. I ached at climate events – at the description of a man who, facing a galloping bushfire, threw himself on the ground in the dirt until it passed.

 

After ten minutes, which feel like three, of reading in this way, I could feel myself wearying of a world that was so messed up that even the headlines made my stomach churn. However beautifully the NYTimes journalists wrote, ultimately they, and I, were part of the same problem. We were all part of the spider’s web that had me scrolling at the kitchen table, rather gardening or housekeeping or walking the dog. We were all part of a problem which appeals to a baseness in our nature. The websites were designed to encourage me to click on stories despite myself, and then come back for more, never quite satisfied. Stories that made me feel grubby, scratching me in ways that left me thinking less of myself for engaging with them.

 

But the real question was more confronting, more intimate. If I didn’t give away this hour, early evening, to engrossing journalism, what else might I do with it? With both of my kids away, I face a strange, new vacuum at the end of my day. After 22 years of juggling homework, activities and the prepping of food, now there’s a lull early evening.

 

I deserve this time, I tell myself. I’ve worked hard for it. I’ve longed for it. And there are nights when do I love it, relish it. But other nights it comes on me unawares, stalking me into darkness. It leaves me at a loose end. It feels all wrong. Where, I ask the dog, is everyone? Why is it so quiet?

 

Last night, by the time night fell, inky black staring through the windows where the garden had just been, I’d given up trying to make something of the hour before dinner. I may as well read a few more stories, I told myself, before walking the dog round the block. Just one more story, I said to myself. ‘Oh yeah’, I heard my soul reply.

 

As if under a spell, I leaned on the kitchen table, reading beautifully edited, often thoughtful news stories. As I read, the world around me expanded and shrank. I didn’t sit down. Because this would mean admitting an intention which I wouldn’t allow myself. For I knew that I had better – or just other – things to be doing. Just as I knew, deep in myself, that I could never get enough of something that wasn’t quite enough. But, then again, nor did I feel lonely.

 

The dog settled patiently on the rug, waiting, as he does every night, for my daughter’s return from Africa. Until, hearing him sigh, I clapped the laptop shut. I felt cross with myself at having thrown away an hour of my life to on-line what ifs. Poof! Gone, just like that. In 15 minutes’ time, my husband would come into the kitchen expecting dinner – thankfully I’d cooked the rice and prepped the meat. Still, I’d done it again.

 

The dog looked up, hopeful. He didn’t mind walking around the block in the dark, rather than taking a bush track at dusk. He knew no better. But I did. I knew that I wanted more than I ever got from reading news stories on-line. I knew that clicking and scrolling left me feeling dissatisfied, fed up with my will-lessness and powerlessness to change anything in the world a meaningful way.

 

Perhaps tonight will be different. Except I know myself well enough to know that hoping my tech problem will just go away won’t work. However, blocking The Guardian website from my desktop, just might.

 

 

 

 

 

housekeeping story

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‘So’, asked a friend, ‘now that you’ve finished your project on domestic life, what have you found out about it?’

‘Well’, I said, ‘It doesn’t fit on the back of an envelope. But I’m getting closer. When I started thinking about domestic life, five years ago now, it was because I was in two minds about whether the time I spent looking after myself and my family was time well spent, or time wasted. I couldn’t work out if the benefits of a well-run home outweighed the effort of keeping it that way. And it was this uncertainty, this doubt, that drove me to asking other people how they felt about their housekeeping story’

‘What do you mean by their housekeeping story?’ asked Tina.

‘Oh’, I said, ‘that’s shorthand for everything we do to keep our home life ticking over so that we can thrive in the world. It’s everything from washing bedlinen to food shopping to celebrating a family birthday. It’s the big and little things we do to show ourselves, and the people we’re close to, that we’re worth looking after, that we belong on this patch of earth and are loved no matter what. This sounds completely obvious. Of course we’re worth looking after. But what I’ve discovered is that, in our unconscious, there’s a bit of confusion around this. It’s not that we secretly think we’re bad, and so undeserving of being well looked after. It’s more that even when we’re doing pretty well, day to day, our experience of life is of constant, just-beneath-the-surface struggle. And this is why we thrive on being given plenty of signs that we’re loved and wanted. We show this in the simplest of ways, by spicing up a pumpkin soup, or icing a cake for a friend. In our distracted and overfilled world, love is something that we do, and make time for, as much as something that we feel’.

‘And what else have you found out?’

‘I used to think that it was just me that got easily stressed at home. Other people, I thought, didn’t need to feel on top of their home life in order to feel good about opening their front door late afternoon. I was the only one who felt overwhelmed when I had no idea what to cook for dinner and hungry faces kept appearing at the kitchen door. Whereas, I now know lots of people feel this. We like to have some control over the day-to-day running of our homes. Given how much of our life is outside our control, we like to keep a hold over the bits that we can.

In the old days, housekeeping was about meeting social expectations, maintaining hygiene standards and observing nutritional guidelines. It was about satisfying the needs of a household’s inhabitants and keeping dust and roaches at bay. Housekeeping still involves these things. But nowadays it’s expanded to include our well-being. We’re less concerned about rodents in the flour sack, than in achieving peace of mind in the hour before sleep.

‘Why do you think people find domestic life stressful these days?’ asked Tina.

‘Hmmm’, I replied. ‘Five years ago I thought it was just me who avoided spending long periods at home, for fear of the demands that my home made on me when I did. But as it turns out, lots of us feel this. I think this is because until we sort out our housekeeping story – until we reconcile ourselves with how much of our life is given over to looking after ourselves – we’re likely to feel stressed at home. Everyone multitasks, of course. And everyone refuses to accept that household tasks take 50% more time than we think they will. And then there’s the puppy problem.’

‘What’s that?’ asked Tina.

‘We all loves puppies’, I said. ‘Yet every adult knows that giving in to the desire for a puppy puts in train a string of demands that the child in us shrinks from. And it’s the same with everything that comes through our front door, from a must-have household gadget to a new baby. We want to have it. Reality conspires and gives it to us. And before we know it, hey presto, we’re responsible for looking after it. This is the puppy problem. It explains why minimalism, living clutter free and not having children are all so appealing. Because choosing to live with less means there are fewer people and things in our life to demand our attention and make us do their bidding.

‘Yeah’, said Tina, ‘I get that. But I still don’t quite get the housekeeping story’.

‘Sure’, I said. ‘It took me ages to wrap my head around the idea that our thoughts shape our feelings – that thinking makes it so. It seems counter-intuitive that we create our world twice, first in thought and then in reality. But now I think that this is at the core of every housekeeping story. If we choose to act in a nurturing way, it’s because, given our understanding of the struggles of life, value looking after ourselves and others in loving ways. Believing in practical loving, nurture and creativity leads us to create a home life based on these values’.

‘Okay’, said my friend. ‘But are you at risk of being taken for granted by people close to you, if you look after them lovingly and they don’t reciprocate?’

‘I don’t think this is something that you can be right or wrong about’, I replied. ‘It’s like proving pacifism or vegetarianism. It’s stems from personal belief, not facts. It’s a decision that you arrive at from within, not without. Whether acting in a loving way adds or subtracts from your life can only be answered from within. For me, it’s worth the risk. Because even if I get taken advantage of – which is anyway a matter of interpretation – my life is richer for living it in line with a belief in practical loving.’

‘Oh’, said Tina. ‘I think I see’.

‘There’s one last bit to the housekeeping story. Which is that before we can tell it, before it can hang together as a story, we have to know who we’re housekeeping for. Am I looking after myself and others to please a Big Other – a partner, social convention or some nameless fear of sliding into chaos? Or am I looking after myself and others, as well as I can, in order to uphold a personal ideal, never quite attained, of a life that I feel good about living? When we’re housekeeping for ourselves, our acts of loving spring from a desire to live our best possible life. We’re inspired not by fear of a disapproving other, but by a desire for something closer to Keats’ ‘beauty, goodness and truth’. For me, today, there’s no question that the benefits of living in a well-run home outweigh the effort of keeping it that way. Having spoken to scores of people on this subject – and interviewed 50 – I know that many others think this too’.

‘Thanks’, said Tina. ‘Now I get it.’