HelenHayward

life writing

Category: Domesticity

laundry problem

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Shortly after my family and I moved from London to Melbourne, my son started at a new Kinder. The staff at the Kinder were friendly. The atmosphere was warm. The other kids seemed friendly. But Alex wasn’t so sure. Actually, he was sure. He quickly decided that he hated going to Kinder. It was a very bad idea. Each morning he was due to go, it was a minor psychological battle to get him out of the car and through the Kinder gates.

 

I nearly always won this battle. Except that I never really won it. I just got him through the Kinder gates. Because Alex’s upset, at doing this strange new scary thing, was always going to be stronger than my reassurances, my ‘come on then, it’ll be fine’ cajoling. It soon became clear that Alex’s unconscious was frightened as Hell of going to Kinder. He was frightened of what felt like the scattershot demands that rained down on him the moment he arrived. He wasn’t one bit fobbed off with his father and me telling him of all the fun he was soon to have, or the nice things I’d put in his lunch box. From his point of view, once I’d dropped him at the classroom door, there was nothing to shield him from his fear. He felt naked. How was he to know that some of the kids in the sandpit, with their funny accents and brash confidence, who knew each other far better than he knew them, might one day be his friends? And so, day after agonising day, he hung back at the Kinder gates. Or he refused point blank to get out of the car. Meanwhile, safe at home, he regressed to soiling his underpants.

 

As I write this, Alex will be coming off a 6-hour watch on a 30-metre boat, somewhere in the ocean off Alaska, en route to Antarctica. He’ll be taking the wheel from a fellow sailor, who’ll be tired and cold and in need of a warm bunk. Perhaps Alex would clobber me for telling you this story about him regressing at Kinder, years ago now. But I tell it not to embarrass him, or anyone else. I tell it because I think it illustrates something important about parenthood, and especially motherhood. This story, and others like it, highlights something that gets lost when we generalise our experience of family life, or collapse our stories into anecdotes.

 

The laundry problem that I’m describing is more closely bound up with the experience of parenthood, than it is with childhood. Alex, for his part, has forgotten all about this episode. He forgot about it the minute he found his own way to grow up and separate from home and family. I, however, haven’t forgotten. The reason I haven’t forgotten is because I had to work hard emotionally to make sense of my son’s behaviour. I had to work hard to make peace with behaviour that, deep within, I found unacceptable.

 

By the time Alex was old enough for Kinder, I felt I knew him pretty well. This may, of course, have been part of the problem. I knew that he was frightened of change. I knew that he hated starting new things. I knew that he struggled to make new friends. And yet I also knew that he seemed happy in himself at home. And that he played the same, looked the same and acted the same as he always had. So why had he gone back to being a toddler and soiling his pants? Why now? And why me?

 

Perhaps, I thought, scratching my head and trying not to lose it, soiling his pants was Alex’s way of refusing to grow up. Perhaps he’d seen through the story of maturity that the grownups around him were telling him, the progress myth in which things always get better as you get bigger. Or perhaps he was expressing an unconscious instinct that got secret pleasure from flouting the rules. Was he saying, without using words, that he didn’t accept the law of cause and effect? Could soiling his underpants be his way of saying bugger off to the world? Was he flagging that he wanted to get off the bus, by pressing the button for the driver to let him off at the next stop? Was his behaviour a plea for mercy? Or a shout of protest?

 

One hot Sunday, we went for lunch with new friends (all our friends, at this stage, were new). He was a GP with a weekly radio program, and she was a psychologist working with children. Together this couple had three kids a few years older than Alex and Emma. They seemed like a groovy family, more groovy than I felt mine to be. During lunch, the psychologist mother told us about her son’s recent birthday party, during which the 8-year olds played a game in which they got to throw tomatoes at each other. After lunch, the five kids left the wooden table we were sitting at, to play in the sprinkler. Before long, the conversation round the table strayed into the issue that my husband and I were having with Alex starting Kinder, with a hint at his regressive behaviour. ‘Hah!’, said the GP father, waving his long hands in the air. ‘I wouldn’t worry about that. It will sort itself out in time. I wouldn’t make a fuss about it and make it into a thing. When you sit back and think about it, it’s really no more than a laundry problem’.

 

Sitting at the wooden table, cold barbecue mess in front of us, I laughed. So did Paul. But inside, I felt furious. What did the GP mean, that the issue with Alex that was driving me nuts, and pressing all my buttons, was nothing more than a laundry problem? Obviously, I fumed, he didn’t do the laundry himself. Because, if he did, he’d know that a kid who soils his pants isn’t easy to do laundry for. I felt powerless, wanting to answer the GP back, but not feeling that I could, even if I had the right words. Instead I sat at the table, smiling politely, feeling that what was a big problem for me had been made small by this medical man who knew better. I was, apparently, making a fuss about something that would go away by itself. At the end of the day, that hateful phrase, I was overreacting. The laundry problem was mine, more than it was my son’s.

 

Every parent has a story like this. You may be reading this now, and thinking about your own laundry problem. Problems like these are our war wounds, as parents, proof of combat. Eventually they do heal up. Yet a scar remains. This scar never completely fades because these problems pierce our unconscious. And this is why parenthood, and particularly motherhood, is such a powerful and lasting experience.

 

The emotions that are unleashed from the unconscious, by family life, are incredibly strong. Often they’re untamed. They’re only loosely attached to the words that communicate them. This is why our words rarely do them justice. Our words may stand about and snigger. But they exaggerate more than capture the experiences that drive us nuts as parents. They never really pin them down. I’ll never be able to describe the rage and powerlessness that my son’s laundry problem triggered in me. I may capture enough of it to gain your sympathy, as a fellow traveller. But it will always be the tip of the iceberg that I describe, not the ice below. And yet – and here’s the thing – it’s the ice below the surface that unites us, as parents, even as we struggle to describe our helplessness before it, from our separate boats.

 

The usual story, the conscious story, the happy-ever-after, things-will-get-better story, is the tip of the iceberg that we so want to believe in. When our child is six months, five years, 12 years or 20, when their dependent ties are cast off and we are free again – these are the hopes that get us up in the morning and keep us going. And they’re sort of true. They true enough to keep us going until next school holidays, next Christmas, next school year. But it’s only ever half the story that we tell. Possibly not even that. Because the rest of the story, the under the surface of the ocean story, doesn’t give a damn about progress or linear development. Or any of that stuff. And it’s this unconscious story that tests us, challenges us, and at times dements us.

 

When our buttons are pushed by our kids’ outrageous behaviour, by whatever they do that we find unacceptable, we know it quicker than anyone. Our reaction to our kid’s unacceptable behaviour may even frighten us. The howl of rage we feel, when our buttons are pushed, is enough to blow the roof off the three little pigs’ house. Except, of course, we’re grownups. And grownups don’t blow the roof off the house, not least because this would mean organising and paying for the repairs. Likewise, because we’re grownups, we do the laundry without a fuss.

 

It seems important to add that I did my best not to get cross with Alex when he soiled his underpants, however much I sometimes wanted to. Not because I was a self-effacing martyr. But because I knew that his behaviour was a phase, and that he didn’t do it to drive me crazy. Except I didn’t always feel this. At certain points I felt complete despair, no matter how reassuring my thoughts. I also felt lonely. And it was at these points that I reached out for support. To buoy me up when things felt grim. I reached out to close friends, during the day. Late at night, when I should have been asleep but wasn’t, books and websites about parenting reassured me that I wasn’t going mad. They told me that my despair at my laundry problem was real, but that it would pass. They whispered that I wasn’t on my own. That other people had been there too. And that one day, maybe not yet, but one day, I would look back, smile, and see Alex’s button-pressing behaviour as nothing more than a laundry problem.

 

One night, a year later, I had a dream. On waking from it, I had a vivid memory in which I soiled my pyjamas as a girl. In my memory I took my pyjamas down to the laundry, around dawn, and tried to wash them clean in the sink. So that my mother, who I felt sure would be angry with me, would never know. Perhaps I was five years old at the time, possibly older. Old enough to know that soiling my pyjamas wasn’t a good thing to do, was a shameful and embarrassing thing. And it was the morning when I awoke and remembered soiling my pyjamas, that I understood why Alex’s laundry problem had upset me so much. The GP, damn it, had been right. Alex’s problem was a problem because once it had been mine too.

 

Parenting, and especially mothering, is difficult, because it means holding two contrary things in mind. Our immediate response to our kids’ behaviour. And our more considered, heartfelt response. Keeping both these responses alive, not giving in to knee-jerk reactions when our buttons are pushed, requires nerves of steel. We don’t always win. Sometimes we slip up and say more than we should. Sometimes our kids’ unconscious receives the punishment that it has been compelled to seek. But mostly we hang on in there, waiting for the phase to pass, doing our best to be interested in a problem that tests us, challenges us, and brings out our best and our worst. Until one day, and I can say this with conviction, our kids will find a way to thank us for surviving their outrageous behaviour. For not taking it personally, however personal it felt at the time. They’ll thank us for taking the longer view, and for staying on for the ride.

 

 

 

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basement

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The place of lost dreams, is the way a friend described his basement to me last month. ‘Don’t be silly’, I said, thinking that he was being overly dramatic. But the more I thought about it, the more our damp basement, and the things stashed in it, felt just like that. Lost dreams that weighed on me. Which didn’t spark joy. More a vague dread.

 

When I realised that I’d be alone in the house this week, I called my handyman and booked a time for him to come. ‘I don’t really need you to do anything while I’m sorting’, I said to Rob. ‘I just need you to be around for moral support. And, when I’m done, I need you to take the stuff to the tip and charity shop’.

 

When we first moved into our house, ten years ago now, my husband insisted that the basement wasn’t damp. When he eventually admitted that it was, after his favourite books were ruined, we agreed to an expensive damp coursing treatment which promised salvation. The contractor was near messianic in his predictions. My husband would be able to work in the basement on the hottest of summer days, it would be so temperate down there.

 

My kids weren’t so easily sold. When he left for overseas, my son refused to let us store his bike in the basement, insisting that it stayed in his bedroom. ‘But that’s what basements are for!’ spouted my husband, who’d paid for the damp coursing.

 

When I realised that my son was a bit right, about the basement being damp, I bought a humidifier and tried to remember to turn it on regularly, amazed that a machine could suck moisture from the air and turn it into two litres of water, just like that.

 

But then life got busy and I stopped caring about the basement. The humidifier sat idle. Instead I avoided entering the basement. And the longer I avoided entering it, the easier avoiding entering it became.

 

When Rob arrived yesterday, I told him that he was to instruct me to stay in the basement until I’d finished sorting. ‘I know it sounds crazy’, I said. ‘But I so don’t want to do this. I think I’d rather a trip to the dentist’. He smiled and set to work, shaving the side off a door that my daughter had hung and that now wouldn’t shut.

 

I went down into the basement. It was as bad as I’d thought it would be. Worse, perhaps. White mould and disintegrating wood greeted me. That dank smell. Was this all my fault? I stood still, arms hanging by my sides. Pulling myself together, I decided not to go that way. Instead, I would stick with the practical task of taking things up into the courtyard, one by one, and sorting them out there.

 

I found an extra lamp and plugged it in. Immediately the basement looked less dingy. I grabbed some bin bags, cloths, broom and Damp Rid, which I hoped would do what it said on the spray bottle. A mouldy pet carrier was the first to go. An orange backpack which caused my daughter’s back to welt on The Overland Track (a six-day hike) went next. Three framed pastels by my father-in-law, that he’d weep to see stashed in a damp corner, I wiped and stacked on the table in the courtyard. Mounted black and white photos of Venice, from our old kitchen, joined them. Then it was two black bags of lint from the laundromat, which I used to use to make firelighters with (don’t try it!).

 

Time was also up on an old green felt card table that I once admired the design of, but had never used. Then it was mouldy pictures frames, a kneeling back chair that I’d grown to hate, complete with two dodgy wheels, the first chair my son made at school, beautifully made but too low and concave to actually sit on comfortably, two lampshades which when my husband bought them I wondered why, and a Conran lamp from our London flat that I still liked but didn’t have a use for. And yet more pictures that I’d rather found a home on someone else’s wall, rather than a corner in our basement.

 

Then it was the paint and garden cupboard’s turn. A bottle of Round Up and an only slightly less evil weed killer. A can of Rust Rid and past-expiry-date rat poison sachets. A citronella coil that we rarely if ever used. A worm farm I hadn’t fed in months and that, despite my neglect, had skinny worms crawling to the surface of. Various tins of hardened paint.

 

Even in a good life, not everything works out. Even when you love your home, as I do, there are things that you’d rather be rid of, be free of guilt about. Perhaps the whole concept of clutter was invented to liberate us from getting out from under the pile of things in our attics, garages and basements.

 

Now and then Rob came down to the basement, asked if I needed a hand, and disappeared again. Time passed and the courtyard filled. The next time Rob came down to the basement, he glanced at his watch, signalling to me that he was keen to finish up. Rather than saying anything, he started taking the things in the courtyard out to his truck. I loved that he said nothing as he did this. He didn’t tell me to put a new battery into the tap timer that was missing its lid, and to use it in the garden this summer. He just did his job and I did mine until, by dusk, the basement looked like a basement that could be swept out, which I promptly did.

 

During all this time I managed not to get pulled into byways of memory. I didn’t undo the plastic bags full kids’ toys to handle the matchbox cars. I didn’t wonder about the Christmas decorations, or how damned quickly the festive season came round. I just sprayed Damp Rid on the top of the trunks containing these things, checked the plastic bags and boxes were secure, and lowered the lids.

 

Over the years, our basement came to symbolise a wordless rebuke that my kids directed my husband and me, at their irresponsible parents who let perfectly good furniture and other items rot in a damp basement. There was, I felt, no point in making a rejoinder to them about this. Besides, there was a part of me that agreed with them. I had let perfectly good chairs, and other things too, grow mouldy in the basement. Shame on me. ‘But hang on’, I wanted to say to my kids, ‘just wait until it happens to you – life, that is. Just wait until you have so many balls in the air that you drop one or two of them. And then get up the next morning and drop the same balls again. Just wait until the day you stray into your basement, garage, or attic, and find it full of things you neither want in your home nor can bear to get rid of. Just wait until you resort to calling a handyman to give you moral support as you sort through what to keep, throw and donate. This won’t feel natural. It won’t even feel voluntary. But there will come a point – as it has to me – when it becomes necessary.’

 

Eventually I cleared a space in the middle of the floor of the basement, by stacking furniture round the walls, and started to feel free of the stuff around me. It was as if, by taking items out of the basement and into the courtyard, and subjecting them to the light of day, I’d cut the strings that tied me to them. What, till yesterday afternoon, was a basement of stuff that preyed on me in a dull persistent way, like some domestic gum disease, had turned into things to be dealt with.

 

From one afternoon to the next, the basement had ceased to feel like a dungeon, a place of lost dreams. Instead it was a place to store the carpet cleaner, Christmas decorations and a fold-up frame of a guest bed.

 

Perhaps the best result, in this crazy-making yet ordinary afternoon, was that the door the handyman fixed, while I was sorting out the basement, had a lock in it. So that when, yesterday evening, I walked the dog before supper, and for the first time in my life forgot the key and had to break my son’s bedroom window with a pair of secateurs – in the rain and dark – to get back in, I was able to lock his bedroom door behind me and feel safe sleeping alone in the house last night. What would I do without my handyman?

 

visiting the library

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I have to be in a certain mood to visit the library. I can go if I’m in a rush. Because I’m usually in a rush in town. But not if I’m in a hurry. Because when I’m hurrying, I never find what I’m looking for.

 

For years I’ve made time to visit the library, for two reasons. I go to borrow magazines which I leave on the kitchen table and bathroom windowsill for whomever is around, including myself, but especially for my daughter who claims she hates reading. But I also visit the library to borrow a certain kind of book that I read before bed, plus an audiobook for the car. Both of these feel kind of necessary.

 

Throughout my kids’ childhood, magazines and books from the library washed in and out of the house, like high and low tides. Now that they’ve left school, and one has left home, I still make near fortnightly trips to the library. I think I go because I never know what I’ll find there. How will I know what I am looking for, until I pick it up in the library? Rarely do I use the computer catalogue. Sometimes I’ll cheat and glance through the Reserved Books shelf, where more assiduous members get rewarded for alerting librarians to interesting new titles. Or I’ll look through the Recent Returns at the end of each bay. Or I might head straight to Psychology, Food or Travel, and see what jumps out at me.

 

Yesterday, after sliding a stack of returns one by one down the Returns chute, I passed through the automatic doors. A rush of overly warm air hit me, a combination of heating, computers and windows that never open. My first pick up, from a stand of new books by the doors, was a book with a bright pink cover and black shiny sunglasses, The Confidence Kit. My daughter is about to travel overseas, and I thought the book might help her with feeling fear and doing it anyway. Then I picked up a sailing magazine and a couple of travel magazines – for the same reason. The audio book I chose was Rejection Proof, by Jia Jiang, a story about a Chinese-American’s mission to score 100 rejections, with the aim of strengthening himself against his reluctance to ask for what he wanted – which I hoped might inure me to the rejections a current manuscript of mine was soon to receive.

 

Then I found a book by the blog superstar Clean Mama, about natural household cleaning recipes – a book I’d never buy but thought might be useful. ‘If you do nothing else in this book’, Becky Rapinchuck wrote, ‘scrub the sink with this paste after cleaning up the kitchen each night’. ‘Oh yeh’, I thought, and promptly decided to give it a go.

 

The last book I checked out was Dynamic Aging, a manual for stretching muscles in the second half of life to retain strength and balance, complete with unappealing line drawings and triple-spaced text. Written by a young American physio, it advocated increasing daily movement to 3 to 4 hours, which seemed to me almost messianic in its intent. Again, not a book I’d buy. But I thought it might help me think through what to do with my less than supple hips.

 

On the way home from the library, I bought washing soda and lemon essential oil, for Clean Mama’s sink scrub. I left the pink book about confidence on the windowsill in the bathroom. The magazines and cleaning book I left on the table in the kitchen.

 

That night, after cleaning up the kitchen, I tipped a cup of washing soda into a jar, added 30 drops of lemon essential oil, used a knife to mix the oil into the soda and found a second scrubbing brush. Then I sprinkled a quarter of a cup of the mix on to my sinks, added a squirt of dishwashing liquid, a small amount of water and set about scrubbing my sinks. The lemon oil wafted up as the sinks came clean, buffed with that day’s teatowel. Done. Clean Mama was right, the sinks looked great, and I knew I’d be glad of having done it the next morning. But every night, as Clean Mama suggested? Well, that was another thing.

 

After luring the dog into his crate, I went upstairs, where I lay on the carpet in the bathroom, too tired to go to bed. I picked up the exercise book lying on the windowsill. ‘I’ll just read the last chapter’, I told myself. And so on and so on until I’d read the whole book. Reading it made me realise that I’d swallowed the idea that ageing means a slow but ineluctable weakening of strength and wellbeing. Dynamic Aging suggested that there was another way. Not an easy way. Like all maintenance activities, it involved time and commitment. But perhaps, I thought, heading to bed – where I slept deeply – I would thank myself in years to come if I did what it takes to keep my core strong.

 

The Rejection Proof audio book, which I’d never have downloaded or bought, I played in the car the next day, driving my dog to the country kennels where he sometimes spends the day. It was fabulous. It changed my thinking about how I might respond to the rejections soon to come my way from a manuscript of mine. The fact that the author was Chinese American, also made a big impression. I was surprised, and embarrassed to be surprised, at his sophisticated command of both the English language (his second language) and his own experience.

 

It’s the serendipity of visiting the library that I like. I like going not knowing what I want to read. On passing through the automatic doors, I give myself over to another impulse. Curiosity, I suppose. I go to the library to find out more about what I need to find out about, without knowing before I get there what that might be. I got through menopause without visiting the doctor this way. I got through my kids’ adolescence without going mad this way. I get through my unconventional marriage this way. ‘Everything’, my naturopath once told me, before I entered menopause, ‘is normal’. The nice thing about the library is that everything is normal there too.

 

 

the perfect dog

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I was going to have the perfect dog. The same kind of dog that my grandmother used to walk in the park every morning, rain or shine. We got that dog last October. On the background of my phone, a two-month-old still Digger stares out at me, mud on his head, as if butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth.

 

I never said it out loud, but Digger was to be my defence against loneliness. Whatever else life threw at me, in years to come, he would be at the centre of a life that I was as yet unable to imagine.

 

Every morning, since last October, I have let Digger out of his crate, pulled up the blind and unlocked the back door. Then down five steps and out into the garden we go. Digger doesn’t need me to go out with him any more. He isn’t a tiny puppy in need of toilet training. But I’ve always gone out with him, and now he expects it, waiting on the bottom step until he’s sure I’m coming. I love these early minutes, before the garden wakes up. It gives me a chance to see the morning as it really is – dew on the grass, blossoms budding – so different to the stream of things in need of doing that greets me as soon as I step back into the kitchen.

 

I wanted the perfect dog, even knowing it didn’t exist. Having had to end the life of an anxious dog just a year ago, I felt that we deserved a break. Instead of a neurotic dog from the pound we would get a reliable dog, a trainable, child-friendly dog from a breeder. Personally I’d have gone for a non-shedding breed, if I hadn’t known that other traits were more important. As did our vet. A dog that didn’t bark would have been nice. (I know, I know, not really a dog at all.) In the end, after much deliberation, we went for a yellow Labrador. My daughter was still at home to train him and was, she kept telling me, tauntingly, a better trainer than me.

 

I’m sure I’m not the only one who only reads the dog books after they bring their puppy home. Yet even the most detailed dog book couldn’t have described how total the impact that Digger has had on my life, especially once I made the decision that I would get my life back quicker if I put him in the middle of it while he needed me most. That is when it hit me. Just as my kids were making moves to leave home, I’d saddled myself with a cross between a toddler and a small pony. If there was such a thing as post-puppy depression, I had it. How could I placate a boisterous, bitey, demanding puppy and keep my writing life afloat? Digger wasn’t going to defend me against future loneliness, I chided myself, he was going to be the cause of it.

 

Then a friend told me about the local dog park. Unlike visiting the dog beach, where my heart leapt into my mouth when Digger careered up the beach and embraced every which dog, right from the start the dog park felt more tame. Digger still careered about, jumping vertically and being rounded up, ears flapping like Dumbo, by faster dogs. But I didn’t feel panicked at the dog park. The metre-high fence around the long rectangular park worked to contain Digger and to relax me.

 

At first we went to the park once a week, then three times and, when my daughter was away, sometimes more. I could do some work, or go to yoga, and leave Digger in the car until we got to the dog park where he ran off his buzzy energy and I chatted to other dog owners who told me all about what I was in for. On cold mornings it was sunny and, even in the rain, dry inside my husband’s oilskin jacket, the hillside park had charm.

 

Initially I chatted to other dog owners to pass the time of day. But as the months passed, I realised that I was doing more than this. It was small talk, yes. But it wasn’t trivial talk. I was getting to know a range of people via their relationship to their dog. The woman who kicked a tennis ball across the kitchen to amuse her collie puppy as she ate her breakfast. And the surprisingly large number of people who slept with their dog on or in their bed.

 

Soon Digger hit adolescence and became possessed with extra buzz. The best way to channel this newfound energy, he decided with the wisdom of his puppy brain, was to go for the collar of other dogs. Not all dogs, and not on every trip to the park. But on those occasions when he did, he’d bite at the other dog’s collar until the play was broken up. Another dog owner took me aside and instructed me in how to lure Digger away before his play became too heated. Did I listen to her? No. I listened. I was polite. But privately I thought that she was interfering and that Digger was just having fun.

 

A month passed during which Digger started going for dogs’ collars at the park more regularly. Thinking that he needed something in his mouth, I bought a long red plastic stick for him to play tug-of-war with other dogs. Problem solved.

 

Three weeks ago, Digger played and played with a Golden Retriever to the point that I asked Peggy’s owner, who I knew to chat to, to give Peggy some time out on lead, which she did. Five minutes later she let Peggy off again and Peggy went straight back to nipping at Digger’s ear. The two dogs ran a little way away, locked in furious play. Then it happened. Digger got his jaw wrapped in a loop round Peggy’s loosened collar which meant that as I tried to pull Digger off Peggy, Peggy’s collar tightened to the point of choking her. Now Peggy’s owner was at my ear, swearing and hissing as I struggled for the thirty long seconds it took me to get Digger’s jaw out of the tightened collar. Peggy vomited over her owner’s shoes and I stood back in a sweat, Digger on his leash.

 

Terry and I looked at each other. We were both crying. Digger was quiet. Neither Terry nor I were angry. Terry said that it had been 50/50, in terms of who was to blame, though I felt it wouldn’t have happened had it not been for Digger’s collar habit. Terry said that the next time they came to the dog park, and Peggy played with Digger, that she would take off Peggy’s collar. I smiled my thanks and silently wondered if Digger and I would ever return to the dog park again.

 

Back home I texted the dog trainer who has helped me in the past and she texted back some sensible advice. At her suggestion, I booked Digger into a second day a week at the country kennels that he was already booked into once a week, where he could get as boisterous and muddy as he liked with 28 other dogs. And for the next few weeks, instead of visiting the dog park, we went for long walks, which Digger didn’t like nearly as much but I liked more because the risk of collar biting on a bush track was nil.

 

A month passed. Last Sunday, I woke up with the thought that I could only return to the dog park if I gave up my happily-ever-after story of the perfect dog, and thought through our next visit before I even got to the park. I got a sardine from the freezer and wrapped it in a plastic bag which I put in my jacket pocket, thinking that I could use it to lure Digger away from another dog if I thought he was about to lose control. I made a mental pact with myself to leave the dog park after a shortish amount of time. And I decided to stay in his range, just in case.

 

It was a cold sunny morning, my favourite weather. Digger seemed happy to be back at the park. Did he know that I was watching out for him as he raced from one pack of dogs to the next? Thankfully he behaved well. Not impeccably, but well for a teenage Labrador. We left the park the moment that he started eyeing off the bright purple harness of a four-month Pug pup. He never found out about the frozen sardine in my pocket and he tagged along, tail wagging, as we walked up the hill, behind the park, to see the early spring lambs. ‘But’, said my daughter, that night at dinner, ‘didn’t you say you were never going to the dog park again?. ‘Yes’, I said. ‘Never say never!’

you only have to know how to cook 12 dishes

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Hearing Yotam Ottolenghi speak, in our city concert hall, didn’t change the way I cook. I didn’t go home, his cookbook under one arm, and switch on my computer to buy his rose Harissa paste on-line. But I did go home thinking differently about my life in the kitchen.

 

Two middle-aged men, talking from low comfy chairs on a large stage, in front of a publicity screen of a yellow lemon, wasn’t jaw-dropping theatre. Yet, there we were, 1500 of us, mainly women, lapping up their words as the conversation meandered from the profit-and-loss-led restaurant world, to the pleasures of home cooking.

 

This was when, for me, the conversation got interesting. ‘When friends come to your place for a meal’, Yotam said, ‘they don’t want to be surprised by a new dish. They come to your place because they like you and enjoyed what they ate when they last came over. They don’t come to be impressed by some dish you’ve never cooked before. They came in the hope of talking in a relaxed way round your table.’

 

I sat up in my seat. This is what I’d left my own kitchen table, part way through supper, to hear. Not commercial restaurant gossip. I’d come to think through the perennial dilemma I feel in the kitchen, around wanting and not wanting to cook. I’d come to hear how I might make cooking into something that I looked forward to and liked doing, rather than a chore I had mixed feelings about it.

 

The people I know who love being in the kitchen are good cooks. Some of them are trained chefs. Others devoted themselves to cooking from a young age. All of them seem to thrive on cooking with an audience. They enjoy throwing a meal together, rarely consult recipes, and never appear to fuss. I also know quite a lot of people who, all thumbs in the kitchen, avoid cooking whenever possible. They delegate cooking to an able partner. They eat out. They warm up frozen meals or resort to a small stable of dishes with a minimum of pantry ingredients. They eat to live, rather than the other way round.

 

Yotam Ottolenghi was suggesting another approach to cooking that I hadn’t thought of. Something simpler and so glaringly obvious that I’d spent decades in the kitchen blind to.

 

Ottolenghi isn’t a trained chef. He learned to cook as a student at university on a tight budget. He learned to cook because he found himself starving. He missed his mother’s Middle Eastern cooking and his father’s Italian cooking. He worked out how to cook by experimenting, by trial and error. Possibly as a result of this, thirty years on, he still loves cooking.

 

Sitting in the audience, I felt a weight lift. I wasn’t being told to perfect my knife skills. I didn’t have to fork out for an expensive cooking course held at an inconvenient time and place. I didn’t have to start writing menu plans a week ahead or frequenting special shops to look out expensive ingredients (although, Yotam did keep returning to a rose Harissa paste only available on his on-line shop).

 

‘If you’re a home cook’, he said, ‘be a home a cook. Don’t expect to be a chef. And don’t be put off cooking by cooking shows on television. Home cooking is at an all-time low and the ratings of cooking shows are at an all-time high. Forget about expertise. Just cook the kind of dishes that you like yourself, and your family and friends will too.’

 

‘You don’t have to know how to cook everything. When friends come to your place, they come wanting more of the kind of food they enjoyed last time they came over. They don’t want a stressed out host who can’t relax until after the main course is served. There’s absolutely no rule about having different courses. A home kitchen isn’t a restaurant kitchen, with a sous chef to make sure courses go out on time. Don’t add to the pressure by trying to keep a dish hot in the oven without drying it out. Just get everything on to the middle of the table, and sit back and enjoy the feast.’

 

The two men on the stage nodded in agreement. ‘Besides, home cooking is often code for cooking for kids. And kids don’t like fancy food. But they do like good food. And they never fib about liking a dish. They either do, and say so, or don’t and make a face and push it away’. Laughing between themselves, as they soaked up the murmurs of the audience, Yotam went on to say something that completely changed my attitude to cooking.

 

‘If you’re a home cook’, he said, ‘and nearly all of us are home cooks, you really only need to know how to cook 12 dishes. Good cooking is about practice. Enjoying cooking is about confidence. So it makes sense to focus on a finite number of dishes, a repertoire of dishes, which you can expand on and adapt but always have in your mind to fall back on. You know what I mean. One great soup. One terrific cake. One risotto or rice dish. A vegetable dish that doesn’t have vegetarian stamped all over it and that anyone can tuck into. One amazing dessert. One meal-in-itself salad. One roast that can be barbecued in summer and will warm your kitchen in winter.’

 

‘This’, he said, ‘is all you have to do. If you get these core dishes right, that’s enough. Of course you can change them, but the main thing is to get up enough confidence that you feel able to express yourself in the kitchen. Because unless you get the timing right – cooking is all about timing – you will never feel truly competent. Timing comes down to practice, to doing the same thing over and over, until your brain knows what to do without you telling it.’

 

There was a hush in the auditorium as mobile phones dropped into laps. Did that mean, I wondered, that I didn’t have to buy Ottolenghi’s cookbook? Would I be better off slipping out of the concert hall, at the end of the talk, and scribbling down the 12 dishes I would like to be confident cooking, and stop intimidating myself with a level of expertise that will never be mine?

 

In the end I felt so grateful to Yotam Ottolenghi for saying what I needed him to say – yet till that second hadn’t known I needed him to say – that I bought his yellow cookbook.

 

The next morning at breakfast I sat down with my notebook and wrote down my list of 12 dishes. It felt ridiculously simple to do. There was barely any dithering. I wasn’t beset by the kind of indecision that usually preys on me when I sit down to plan meals. Instead I identified 12 dishes that I knew worked in my kitchen and worked back from that. When I was done I looked over my list. I knew I’d cheated a little, by extending each category. Still, it was a basic list.

 

I also felt pleased to admit that I didn’t want to be a great cook. That I love good food, but don’t always love cooking. The idea of being able to frame my relationship to cooking by identifying a set number of dishes that, like old friends, I can rely on, makes the world of difference to me. I can feel confident in the kitchen without having to master a huge number of recipes. I can be a minimalist cook and feel no shame in that.

I’ll never be a great cook, just as I’ll never be a great artist. But I can be a perfectly good home cook, and I can start right now.

Here is my list:

  1. Soup – chicken, stock, vegetable
  2. Salad – Greek, Tabbouleh, vinaigrette
  3. Roast – chicken/salmon
  4. Rice – risotto/fried
  5. Ragu/Bolognese
  6. Bread – sourdough, pizza
  7. Vegetarian – roasted veggies, soaked beans
  8. Sauces – humus, mayonnaise, guacamole
  9. Eggs – baked, scrambled etc
  10. Cake – carrot
  11. Tart – fruit
  12. Pie – shortcrust

 

 

 

 

 

handyman

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His hands were rough, the pads on his fingers worn smooth. He finished off putty with his index finger, as if a tool from the hardware store. His clothes were lightly smeared with paint and putty from previous jobs. Softly spoken and willing to turn his hand to anything, Dave thought nothing of his skills – plumbing, roofing, gardening, electrics, carpentry, decorating. The only skill he lacked was self-promotion. A self-taught builder who left school at 14, over the months Dave taught me everything I came to know about renovating.

 

Around 9am for the nine months of our reno, he knocked at the front door. Rain or shine, sick or well, I could count on his knock. ‘G’day’, he said, before we discussed the morning’s work. After an hour or so I tracked him down for a chat, with a mug of milky tea and a few biscuits. Sometimes I minded having to stop and chat mid morning, and again in the afternoon. Weren’t we just passing the time of day, when there was so much to be getting on with? Until, realising my arrogance, I saw that everything ran more smoothly when he and I shared more of ourselves than was demanded by the pragmatics of renovating.

 

Working alongside Dave taught me practical skills: how to lay tiles, decorate, mix cement and plug large holes. Even more than these skills, I learned from his example that the most important thing, when it comes to renovating, is getting on with jobs as they come up. He taught me not to wait until I had everything on hand that a job required, but to start straight away and to pick up the necessary bits as I went along.

 

One morning, towards the end of our renovation, I mentioned that I wanted to fix the jasmine vine which was growing drunkenly along the fence from the front door to the front gate. I’d put off this gardening job for months, thinking it would mean pulling the vine off the fence and attaching a wooden trellis underneath. In the middle of our chat, Dave said, ‘Hang on a minute’, and headed out to his van. Two minutes later he returned with a roll of garden wire, his drill and a pocket full of screws. I held one end of the wire, which we strung along the fence in rows, like a washing line, fixing the wire with long screws drilled into the wooden fence every metre or so. Then we picked up hunks of the vine and hooked them on to the protruding screws, tucking tendrils of vine under the wire. That was it, twenty minutes at most.

 

It’s hard to describe how satisfying I found the effect of this job. Until Dave helped me to lift this vine, I’d noted its heavy drooping, like a line of unmilked cows, each time I’d left or entered the house. Countless times I’d wished that it would miraculously lift itself up. Yet I’d also turned a blind eye to it; there seemed so many more urgent things do. Until this particular morning when, after chatting to Dave over his cuppa, the vine became young again, no longer a heaving rebuke as I brushed past it.

 

It wasn’t just Dave’s flexibility that impressed me, from laying floorboards in the basement to showing me how to use an electric drill. It was his willingness, his absence of unwillingness, that struck me. Working alongside him made me realise that it was as much my dilly-dallying before a job, as the skills required for it, that had been holding me back.

 

Even after I finished renovating, and Dave became an occasional and not a daily presence, he was still with me. He was with me when I put off a straightforward job, like putting putty around loose panes in an old window. He was with me when I moved a bush in the garden, shovelled compost on to a hungry flower bed or divided a thicket of agapanthus. He wasn’t around to chat anymore, but he was there – he still is – as a guide and prompt.

 

Having Dave keep me company in my head helps with the hardest part of every job, starting. He shows me that, even in a big old house, the so-called little jobs make the biggest difference, and that these take less time than I imagine they will when I’m feeling put upon or stressed. Most practically, he helps me to break down messy jobs into steps – even if it’s only to write a note in my diary, or to take a photo of an offending gutter – and to eat the elephant that way.

 

later

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During my early 30s I read the same story, in various magazines, about a woman with small children and a busy working life. These stories weren’t airbrushed; although, the photography was always beautiful. I felt drawn to these stories about women, only a few tantalising years older than myself, who seemed to be getting it together, life, work and family. They gave me hope. Reading them made me feel that if I ever had children, I too could expect my life to be messy but basically good. My mornings would be rushed, I’d have less time to myself, but my life would be richer for having a family in the middle of it. However I overlooked one thing. These stories were written from the outside looking in, by a journalist with her thumb on a record button and an afternoon deadline. They weren’t written from inside the mind of the woman profiled, who may well have forgotten what she told the journalist by the time the story was published. Just as the editor of the magazine hoped, I was seduced by the stylish mayhem of this particular family, captured by a photographer with a deadline of his own. A dog walking out the back door, open lunchboxes on an otherwise clear bench top, a half drunk cup of tea, and morning sun filtering through a tree by the window. There were no regrets in these photos, no toddler meltdowns, work deadlines or mortgage stress. There was no mental to-do list of what the woman needed to do before school pick-up. Instead everything was captured in that moment of domestic insouciance, that freeze frame of a day about to happen. It didn’t looked staged to me, it looked just like a life I might want for myself.

 

In many ways I have lived that life. For years I made breakfast before school in a lovely kitchen for two kids, filled lunchboxes and drank cold tea on the fly. And yet, in all that time, despite yoga classes and walks in nature and holidays by the sea, I’ve struggled to get a handle on the process by which my desire for a certain way of life has a way of turning into a set of demands, of expectations, that I’m then compelled to respond to. Daydreaming about having a family, in my early thirties, was easy; looking after what I went on to have, as days, weeks and years rolled by, has been far more challenging and time consuming. Overcoming my resistance to looking after my home, whether it’s thinking ahead about what to cook for supper, or arranging for a roof leak repair, demands a certain sort of courage. Courage may not be a quality normally associated with housekeeping, but in my experience it requires energy and discipline to care about, and to keep on caring about, domesticity; to push aside my noisy ego when I don’t feel like cooking supper, and to think ahead to the pleasure and relief that a good meal brings; and, yes, gratitude at having a family to cook for. The energy and discipline that domesticity requires from me is ongoing. These days housekeeping feels like a practice, akin to yoga or drawing; and how I think about it hugely informs how I feel as I go about doing it.

 

When I was at school, every morning at half past six, my mother would wake up, dress and go downstairs to prepare breakfast. At half past seven my family, six of us, sat down to eat. When I became a mother, rarely did I sit down to eat breakfast with my kids. There were too many other things to do: bread to toast, eggs to boil, sports uniform to unearth from the clothes basket, school notes to sign, musical instruments to find. During this period, I had yet to cotton on that there is no later. I kept a mental to-do list, and spent a lot of time negotiating with my kids and Paul for them to help around the house. I used my power over them to corral them, to emotionally complicate them, into sharing the domestic load. I might not be able to make them want to clear up after themselves, but I could glower and look fed up until they pulled their weight.

 

Until, that is, it dawned on me that there is no later. At no one point did I grasp this; it was rather a series of moments that, over time, joined up to become a clear line. When it finally sank in, I felt excited and a little scared. But also liberated. I stopped waiting for the right time to do things, and just on with them there and then. I opened mail at the front door, rather than leaving it on the hall table for fear of having to deal with its innards. I paired socks at the clothes line rather than tossing them loose in the basket. Small actions like these made me feel competent, expedient. No more was I clogging up my future with things I knew I wouldn’t want to do then either. The energy I saved on resisting household tasks had the unexpected effect of buoying me up. Feeling domestically competent gave me confidence. By dealing with things as they came up I sent myself the message that there was nothing to fear from what was to come because I was already dealing with it. By completing tasks as they came up – washing to hang, shopping to do – I crossed them off my list before they turned into chores that the mere passage of time had the effect of drawing negative feelings to them. By preparing dinner because it was 6.30pm, rather than waiting until I was in the mood to cook, I was less likely to turn cooking into a chore that my low blood sugar led me to avoid. And voila, dinner was cooked without the ragbag of emotions I otherwise overlaid it with when, in avoidance of cooking, I fell into looking at Internet news sites, or walked our dog late. There was another thing. I was emotionally dependent on my family, no question; yet in doing things as they came up, in not wasting energy resisting household tasks or nagging family to do them, I gained a degree of independence from them. Once I’d stopped expecting them to ease my load – they did their bit but that was it – it was as if I acquired my own sphere of action in which I could get on my life, domestic and otherwise, and so steer my ship in its own direction.

 

 

 

 

 

overwhelm

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Overwhelm creeps up slowly. It doesn’t happen from one minute to the next.

A few weeks ago I was in a rhythm. My puppy was in daycare twice a week for half a day. My daughter was working long hours. I had breathing space. I had a deadline for my work, but this only served to focus he time I had to myself.

 

Until twelve days ago I picked up my 7-month Lab puppy from daycare to be told, in no uncertain terms, that it was time for him to be desexed. He was humping other dogs and, from a daycare point of view, the operation that I had agreed with the vet to defer for as long as possible ‘couldn’t’, as they put it ‘happen soon enough’.

 

Just as I was hitting my stride, completing two manuscripts for my agent to send to a publisher, I was back at square one, fitting in my work around seemingly, annoyingly, more important things. It seemed fitting, somehow, that two projects which have at their heart the dilemma posed by looking after ourselves and others, should be compromised, in their final stages, by household demands.

 

My puppy knew no better. How was he supposed to understand why he had stitches in the most intimate part of his anatomy, requiring him to wear a red plastic cone whenever he was alone? How was he supposed to know that swimming and not playing with other dogs was off limits for ten days? And how was I supposed to deal with the frustration that led him to jump up and bite me when I took him on long walks to tire him out?

 

In the past, when I was under the hammer with work, I’d stay up late, drinking tea and eating dark chocolate, snoozing on my folded arms on my desk before waking up and working on. But nowadays, by the time the house falls quiet at 10pm, the last thing I feel like doing is opening up my laptop. I’ve already put in a good long day, I tell myself, why prolong it only to wake up tired?

 

Since late last October last thing at night and first thing in the morning I’ve taken our puppy outside for a wee. Looking after him in this way has top and tailed my every day. I don’t mind; I’m glad that he’s fairly well house-trained. But it’s still a thing that I do that I don’t look forward to it nor can choose not to do. And yet I’m proud that he has grown up secure enough inside to be able to rely on me for this.

 

What, really, is overwhelm? How is it distinct from the cold bug that I picked up at the same time as my daughter fell ill; the kind of bug I so often get at changes of season, as we head into autumn? Is it feeling bossed around from within by a lengthening list of Things I Should Be Doing (admin, housekeeping, writing)? Is it wanting to throw my hands in the air to make the real and imaginary demands go away, like throwing off a  blanket during the night?

 

Overwhelm feels different from stress; although, prolonged stress does seem to lead to overwhelm. Perhaps overwhelm is stress that goes on so long that it becomes a permanent overlay on awareness; such that I cease to recall what not feeling stressed feels like.

 

But I do know what not feeling stressed feels like. I felt it just this morning when I dropped my puppy off at daycare, knowing that – like a mother dropping off her toddler at creche – for the next four hours that particular demand wouldn’t be mine.

 

‘Clutter’, writes Adam Phillips, ‘is other people’. And dogs, I would add. We think that it’s the stuff in our life that leads us to feel overwhelm; that if only we could order and limit the demands that life makes on us, all would be well. But what if it’s not just other people, or our stuff, that gets to us? That creeps under our skin and ‘nets’ us? ‘I have met the enemy’, a middle-aged man told Carl Jung, ‘and it was me’. What if we can’t escape the demands that other people (and dogs) make on us because the motor of the demandingness that we feel lies in us?

 

Sadly I can’t get rid of my current stress. It has a basis in real life. For the next few weeks I have to live with the fear that two of my manuscripts that have been sent to a publisher will receive a polite rejection.

 

I don’t meditate. And, whenever I feel overwhelmed, getting to yoga becomes too difficult. For me, overwhelm is the mental equivalent of a bad cold. When I’ve got it, I’ve got it; it colours everything. Until, thankfully, it passes, like a high pressure system, such that even days later I can’t remember being in it. I hope it passes soon.

photo essay on domesticity

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digger and me

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Our puppy is no angel, though people insist he is cute. Digger, my daughter’s choice of name, doesn’t dig the garden. Instead, on average once a day, he’ll jump up in an agitated way and bite whatever he can – clothes, my wrist, my daughter’s thighs in shorts. He also enjoys chewing library books and electrical cords. This is not what having a new puppy has taught me. What I’m grateful to him for is this. Whenever he encounters a new sight – a swarm of sailing boats on our local beach, a bird he hasn’t seen before, a dog in the distance with whom he’d like to play – he’ll stop in his tracks, sit and look. For a moment which might last up to a minute, taking in this new scene is the most important thing, the only thing, Digger wants to do.

 

I thought I’d read all the puppy books. Until, a month ago, The Labrador Handbook arrived in the post, six weeks after I’d ordered it. Pippa Mattinson, a wonderfully clear dog writer, set my mind at ease on a number of matters. It’s normal for a Lab pup to have what she calls ‘zoomies’ – to momentarily lose his mind, not unlike a toddler having a tantrum. She explained that Digger running round like a lunatic, a bull in a china shop, making a mockery of my favourite plants, flattened in his wake, was a passing phase. Rather than being surprised when he bit me with crocodile teeth one minute, and lay down in a heap the next, free of remorse, I should just accept it.

 

95 percent of the time our puppy is not a lunatic. He is affectionate and curious and demanding, and mostly a pleasure to be around. If he had his way he’d put the whole world in his mouth, the better to know it: cardboard, Christmas cards, socks, the knob off the radio. He has an uncanny ability, in our relatively puppy-proof kitchen, to suss out and chew the few stray items I don’t want him to have: a magazine on the table, a tapestry cushion on a stool, the computer charger cord.

 

Apart from food, Digger doesn’t know what he wants. A dried leaf, a hose nozzle, my apron straps, cherry stones; everything in his path is of interest, and just as quickly not. On entering the kitchen, he’ll look at me with a ‘What now?’ expression. When I upend his toy box, and feign interest in a stuffed monkey from the second-hand shop, he’ll head for the pantry, as if only I could be so dim as to think a toy monkey could compete with the unknowns of the out-of-bound pantry. Or he’ll nibble at my leather shoe straps, mocking my attempts to read. ‘What’, he seems to say as he gnaws the leg of my stool, ‘do you want to be doing that for?’

 

Digger arrived four months after our previous dog had to be put down by the vet. My daughter was desperate for a new dog, and I felt confident that she’d be around long enough to train it. Two months later, just getting on top of toilet training and slowly increasing the seconds Digger could focus on any one thing, my daughter floated the idea of a gap year to see the world. ‘What?’ I thought, indignant, forcing myself to stay quiet and in role. ‘But how could she?’ Was this a parental joke? Or, I let myself think, did Digger have something to teach me?

 

On New Year’s Day, my daughter interstate and my husband working, Digger and I went on an adventure. Driving down the coast for an hour, we stopped at Trial Bay, where once I would take my kids. I decided against the coastal path, knowing how little Digger relishes walking in a straight line, and made for the end of a new jetty jutting into the bay. Sitting cross-legged on sturdy mesh, I stared at the horizon. Digger was taken by the seaweed in the water below and by an Atlantic gull bobbing nearby. I don’t know how long we sat there, but it was long enough to realise that Digger wasn’t nibbling my arm or my shoe laces. He wasn’t interested in me. We were together yet separate for one of the first times.

 

Determined to have a cup of tea and to read a magazine, Digger sat under my table at an outdoor café where people at surrounding tables commented on how well-behaved he was. A couple of people mentioned they’d had a Lab, recalling how ‘intense’ the early phase had been, and reassured me that I’d be rewarded, around the age of two, with a calm dog. ‘Two years!’ I could hear myself shout in my head. Why did nobody tell me?

 

Yesterday, sitting reading under a tree in the park, a man with three dogs dropped to the ground for a chat. Within seconds Digger’s beef tendon had been taken off him by the man’s spaniel. The man chatted for five minutes before moving on. Though I barely recall what we talked about, I do remember thinking that it was a conversation I never would have had were it not for Digger slowing me down enough to be sitting in a park around lunchtime, passing the time of day.