HelenHayward

life writing

Category: Domesticity

pickles

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Watching my mother eating pickles on an open sandwich for lunch mystified me as a girl. How could she like eating something that was both salty and sweet? Yuk, I’d think to myself, as I tucked into my cheese and tomato sandwich.

 

Every year, around this time, in my part of Adelaide, home-made goodies would appear like mushrooms, tucked behind the wire screen and front door of our porch, out of direct sunlight. Pickled cucumbers with fennel, and onions stuck with cloves, were bottled and wrapped in an elaborate Christmas present exchange as complex as the bartering systems used by the Pacific islanders that I wrote essays about as an Arts undergraduate. Tiny rectangular cards with Christmas cheer would tell my mother who the gift was from, causing her to catch her breath when she hadn’t thought to wrap one for the giver. Shortbread biscuits, thinly disguised in cellophane, often didn’t make it through Christmas, pilfered by my sisters and me as they sat innocently under our decorated tree. White Christmas was another of my sisters’ and my favourites: golf-ball sized lumps of copha, glace cherries, icing sugar and rice bubbles. But the jars of pickled something always made it through Christmas untouched, before being stored, label out, in a cool cupboard.

 

The things you find exciting when you’re young often aren’t, the psychologist Daniel Goleman notes, the things that you end up liking as you get older. Yesterday, standing at the kitchen bench, eating slices of pickled cucumber, cheese and cabbage on bread for lunch, I caught my daughter out of the corner of my eye and imagined her having the exact same thought I’d had, all those years ago, watching my mother eat pickled guerkins: pickles, I sensed her thinking, yuk!

 

What we end up liking – be it pickles or botanical drawing or marzipan – generally isn’t what we found exciting when we were young. My liking for pickles – straight from the fridge with crisp vegetables and cheese – surprises even me.

 

Early this morning I caught the tail end of the ABC news on radio. As I stood in the kitchen making my breakfast, a four-boy choir, who’d just been interviewed in the radio station, sang ‘Once in Royal David’s City’. My husband was in bed in avoidance of an early dental appointment for a root canal. My daughter was also upstairs, waiting for me to leave the house with our puppy before coming down to have breakfast in peace. Rooted to the floor, I looked out the window as a 12-year-old soloist sang the first verse. By the time three other choristers had joined him I was in tears at the beauty, comfort and clarity of the impossibly high notes they were sounding, cutting through the news headlines, and my Scrooge-like attitude to Christmas, like so much shattering glass.

 

This, I thought to myself, is what Christmas is about. It isn’t about nuclear families cleaving smugly to themselves. It isn’t about fielding unwieldy emotional demands, making tasteful Scandinavian decorations, or buying guilt-induced presents. It always was and is still about transcending the ordinary. It is about living more deeply, tasting whatever is your equivalent of pickles, and giving back. Often, when Christmas carols are sung, I find myself wishing there were fewer verses. This morning, despite my hurry, I felt sad there were only four.

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talking too much

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I’d often found myself sitting back and thinking that my husband was talking too much, after a glass of wine, when we had friends for dinner. Until last night when we had neighbours round while Paul was taking a course of antibiotics and he abstained from wine at dinner. Not drinking wine had nil effect on Paul’s capacity to command the conversation. The near neighbours, who joined us for dinner, have lived all over the world, in various scientific defence posts. This became an invitation for Paul to display his fluent knowledge of world history; among other things, the fate of Gibraltar and Ireland in the Brexit process, about which I know little, was a recurring theme. Like a conductor before an invisible orchestra, barely pausing, again and again Paul drew the conversation back to himself in the most natural way.

 

The day before our neighbours came for dinner I cooked a meat sauce, a Ragu, to have with pasta, thickened with a jar of canellini beans I plucked from the freezer to stretch the dish. Shortly before our guests arrived I plopped the annoyingly still frozen beans into the Ragu; assuming that, on lifting the lid from the oven, forty minutes later, the beans would have melded nicely into the sauce. At seven thirty, on the dot, our neighbours arrived with a box of dark Lindt chocolates and a bottle of wine. Paul joined us in the kitchen to exchange pleasantries, and our puppy snapped at our visitors as they leaned into his playpen where he was dozing, to pat him hello. Easing the pot from the oven I lifted the lid of the casserole to see a determinedly frozen clump of canellini beans bobbing in the middle of the sauce. With a slotted spoon I lifted the clump of beans from the pot and transferred it to the sink, hoping that our guests, who were chatting to me near the hob, would think it a crust of Parmesan.

 

Our semi-retired neighbours talked glowingly of walking the Camino Way, and of walking the French equivalent the following year: of staying in monasteries and eating at long tables and heading off at dawn for six hours’ walking for a six week stretch; something it struck me I couldn’t contemplate doing with Paul, who plays tennis daily but doesn’t relish long walks. The conversation barreled on, like an express train missing all the small stations. I wandered through the carriages, trying to getting my own word in – a common occurrence that I normally put down to being the only one round the table past nine o’clock not drinking alcohol. There in the main carriage was Paul, who I watched mostly in profile, in full conversational flight. Instead of making my usual silent complaint that he was talking too much, I decided just to watch him talk. Released from reacting to him, and from the need to get my oar in, to make my presence felt, I started to notice a similar dynamic between our neighbours. The husband was talking markedly more than his restrained pleasant wife. He wasn’t actively dominating. He seemed genuinely happy to be talking freely, excited even, telling us about drinking morning tea in Meissen china tea cups, the pride of an East German general, and, in the next breath, of sailing with his family from India to Tasmania, as a six-year-old boy, following India’s Independence.

 

That’s when it struck me, sitting back and letting the conversation swirl around me as I sat hardly speaking, staunchly remaining sitting until Paul cleared the table and brought out cheese, at which point I hopped down from my stool and put on the kettle for tea. I looked over again, just to make sure. Yes, our male neighbour really did bear a likeness to my father. It was partly his looks, only a little older than my father had been when he died; but it was also his manner. With this I stopped feeling disgruntled, my usual reaction to feeling left out of the conversation, and let the dinner run its course.

 

My husband really does talk a lot. He really doesn’t wait for a pause after someone else finishes what they have to say before leaping in with his next point, hands waving as if drawing willing listeners to his side. But talking too much, I tell myself, doesn’t make him a bad person. Akin to his appetite for food, for which he is often ravenous by dinner time, his desire for company after a day of writing has always been strong. Besides, as Paul is keen to point out if I ever bring the matter up, who is to say that he talks too much if I am the only one doing the measuring? Perhaps, he’ll say, what it really means is that I don’t talk enough. For him it’s a mystery that I might struggle to compete with him when it comes to sharing ourselves with friends round the table. Why should it be his fault that his rapid-fire conversation has the unwitting effect of dampening the uptake of mine?

 

So why exactly don’t I talk more over dinner? Why don’t I find it easier to insert myself into the tumble of conversation round the table when friends come round to eat with us? Am I shy? Tired? Polite? Sobre? Preoccupied by cooking and the dynamics of the dinner as a whole?

 

Our neighbours are sure to have noticed that Paul talked way more than I did over dinner last night. Perhaps they put it down to my being quiet; although this is doubtful because, a fortnight ago, when I spent time at their house without Paul, I had plenty to say for myself. Perhaps they’re sufficiently knowing to see a similar dynamic in their own marriage, smiling wryly to themselves. Perhaps they’re old enough to know that the dynamics within a couple, over a long relationship, obey its own laws, following its own script, and are to some extent out of the control of each partner. Perhaps, before friends come for dinner next time, I should practice my lines, just as I prepare food and warm plates in the oven.

tough love

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Given that Labradors are a large breed, I asked the breeder for a small girl puppy from her latest litter. However this was never going to be an exercise in getting what I wanted, especially as I left it up to the breeder to decide which puppy from a litter of six would be ours. Over and above any other consideration was a desire, indistinguishable from fear, not to repeat our last experience of getting a kelpie-collie from the pound who, five years later, would be put down by our vet after she became aggressive. Over and above size of dog, was getting the right temperament of dog.

 

The vet gave us a list of two breeds she advised us to choose from, once we felt ready for a new dog: King Charles Cavalier Spaniel or Labrador. My daughter sniffed at the idea of a floppy-eared Spaniel, which meant the only real choice was which colour of Lab; a choice which narrowed once we realised how few breeders were due to have a litter in our island state over the coming months.

 

During our first visit to the breeder, a day’s drive north, I had the distinct feeling that my daughter and I were being vetted as prospective owners, not the other way round. Though Lab puppies at four weeks look much the same, I took to the runt of the litter for his size and the that fact he was the breeder’s husband’s favourite (the two girl pups were already spoken for). Really the only decision, after this visit, was whether to go with a boy Lab from this breeder, or wait a few months for a black Lab with a breeder closer to home. We decided not to wait.

 

Scarred by losing our previous dog, I knew my daughter wasn’t confident about taking on a new puppy. However I also knew she would be a natural once the right puppy was in her arms. She wanted an intelligent dog, a quick dog, a dog that could do agility classes. What if we got a Lab who, in her words, ‘sat round like a fat blob all day’? I wanted a dog we could train, who was flexible with people, who my husband who is nervous around dogs would like, and who would be open to family coming and going.

 

Last Sunday, our pick-up day, came round quickly. Digger, the puppy chosen for us but named by us, jumped around under my daughter’s legs on the drive home, climbing up her jeans to bite her chin before writhing into the footwell and snoring himself to sleep. In the kitchen at home he tumbled about with no sense of where he began and ended. Standing behind an open door he froze, with no understanding of why he was stuck behind it.

 

Over the past few weeks my daughter and I read ‘The Happy Puppy Handbook’ cover to cover, and agreed to follow it as a guide. However the first night, when Digger whimpered in his crate, my daughter changed her tune. I was Bad Cop, Mrs Tough Love; the selfish one who put her needs before that of the new puppy. The breeder had mentioned that she’d purposely bred her puppies to wait until 8am to be fed, and I took her at her word. ‘Yes!’ I thought to myself. ‘I can take Digger out for a wee at 7am and then have an hour to do yoga and dress and have a quick walk, all before feeding him at 8am’. My daughter disagreed. What if I damaged Digger by letting him whimper in his playpen in the kitchen, between taking him out for a wee and feeding him? What if frustration made Digger as reactive as our previous dog had been?

 

When we saw the vet on Tuesday, for a social visit, Digger went to sleep on her examining table. The vet made it clear that until Digger’s second vaccinations, in another month, we were to carry him around for fear of his contracting a deadly canine virus. That night, at puppy school, the trainer gave us a printed list of what Digger should encounter before he reached 16 weeks, his most impressionable and undefended developmental period: skate boards, thunder, crowds, Asian people, vacuum cleaners, toddlers and babies, bin trucks, crutches, chain saws, beards, overpasses, etc. How, I wondered, was Digger, all 9 kilos of him, to encounter the human zoo and natural world without walking on his own four legs for another month? But I chose not to fuss. Contradictions like these, from the vet and the dog trainer, are, I decided, part of life; my very good life.

 

Having taken the week off work to settle our new puppy, I decide to take the dog trainer at his word. Next day, while my daughter works out at the gym, I sit outside the sports centre and invite any interested passers-by to pat Digger. People in wheelchairs, people with mental health issues, and school children stop by, patting the soft fur of Digger who sits patiently while he is fussed over. The world, I want Digger to know, is a friendly place full of all kinds of people going about their lives. Between the attentions of passers-by, I sit and wait, just like Digger; no phone, no book, no friend. Just my new puppy and whoever happens to drop by to say hi to him. It’s a long time since I sat idle for any period, and I find it reassuring and confronting.

 

I chose to get a Lab, in the end, because I knew that within a few years he would be mainly my dog. I knew that I would be left with him for company when my daughter was off adventuring and my husband spent time overseas (my son is already away). This awareness is the background to my decision to let Digger whimper in the kitchen in the early morning, while I do yoga in the bathroom above. Because as hard as it is for him to get his pudgy head around, he is not the centre of my universe, any more than I am the centre of my daughter’s universe, or my husband’s. Yes, I am selfish. I want a dog to complement my life, not to be my life; and this is the tough love Digger is now learning as he chews the bars of his wooden playpen in the kitchen.

 

Knowing that Digger and I will be together for years to come is what makes it so poignant to have him jumping up at right angles as he zooms round the kitchen after a squeaky toy and, seconds later, eats my shoelaces. Does he wonder, as I do, how he could have been mewing with his litter last weekend and chasing a goat’s horn across a wooden floor just a few days later?

 

This morning Digger saw the sea for the first time. As I sat with my bum getting wet on the sand he played around me, taking it all in – making it all worth it. The biting, the small-hour wees, the manic energy, the sudden sleeps; all of these were transcended, for me, by the sight of a tubby puppy taking in the beauty of the beach after rain.

 

My daughter puts pencil ticks in the boxes of the dog trainer’s sheet of experiences which Digger is to be exposed to before he leaves puppyhood. I have a different kind of sheet which I keep in my head. Every day – it’s day seven now – I take Digger somewhere that I like visiting; a place where he can meet people in an outdoor setting, a place where, even for ten minutes, I might lose myself in a book as he sits under the table, exhausted by too many pats. Yesterday it was the mountain, today it was the beach, tomorrow it is the farmer’s market; all of them transformed by Digger being with me.

 

 

urgent vs important

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The distinction seems so clear on paper. Urgent things are things that have to be done no matter what: bills paid, broken glass swept up, emails returned, meals to cook, wet washing to hang out. Things which, were we to avoid them for too long, would topple our life from within. Important things are more personal and so valuable than urgent ones: a splintered relationship in need of repair, a baby project that needs cultivating, a adventure that demands planning.

Now that I’m between writing projects – between signing off on one and beginning another – I feel the pull between the urgent and the important more strongly than ever. Each morning, unless I’m careful, I do the bidding of the urgent. I take the vacuum cleaner to be serviced, even though a yellow warning light has flashed on and off for months. I return library books on time, something I normally dispense with. I plan meals a week ahead and chat to the butcher. I invite friends round for dinner and think about Christmas to come – all things which completing a manuscript had protected me from. I read ‘The Happy Puppy Handbook’ from cover to cover at the kitchen table, in readiness for our puppy who is growing by the day with a local breeder. I look at Counselling Courses on-line and seriously consider a normal job.

I first read Mihalyi Czikszentmihalyi’s Flow: The classic work on how to achieve happiness in 2008, when I was living in Melbourne with my family and contemplating a move to Tasmania. I liked it so much that I fantasised meeting Czikszentmihalyi over coffee, imagining what I might ask him; while accepting that it was probably better, for my own take on his ideas, that we never met. Engrossed in reading, I put pencil lines down the side of paragraphs I wanted to come back to and, when this wasn’t enough, took long-hand notes. Reading Flow helped me to think about what was important, and made the otherwise urgent things in my life less compelling.

Czikszentmihalyi became famous for one big idea: flow, a state of optimum engagement in an activity so absorbing that self-consciousness falls away, only returning after you’ve reached your goal and got feedback for it. It’s what my daughter feels on her surfboard as she paddles hard for a wave. It’s what I feel as I serve up dinner for friends. It’s what the guy who mows our lawn feels when he prunes our lemon trees. It’s what nearly everyone who writes a blog feels when they press the blue ‘publish’ button.

Reading Flow, for the fourth time, has helped me understand the struggle that I feel when I finish a big piece of work. It explains my desire to escape to the normal – by applying for a Counselling course – rather than staying with the discomfort of beginning a new writing project from scratch. Applying for a vocational counselling course speaks to my desire to serve others; to be legitimated and paid by them. It means joining a world of appointments and offices, where the guidelines and outcomes are fairly clear. All of which seems more appealing than starting a new project and continuing my job of looking after a big old house and getting on with my family.

One of the most illuminating findings, in Czikszentmihalyi’s Flow, is that most people experience more flow at work than at home, even though most people would rather spend more time at home than at work. They get more buzz from their work, than from time spent at home; they feel optimally engaged working towards a goal, when their skills are stretched and they’re credited for their efforts.

And yet I know I’m not the only one who gets a special kind of satisfaction from answering a call from within – from stretching myself creatively for no other reason than realising that what feels personally important is more lastingly valuable than whatever seems pressing and urgent.

my bed

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It started with a tiff over the way I use the steps of the stairs as a clutter collector, coupled with my bad darn of a favourite rug that I unthinkingly allowed my daughter to use a Stanley knife on. Small, domestic, trivial things. Not something to lose sleep over, or so I told myself as I lay in bed staring at the ceiling. My husband seemed to think so too, as he drifted into sleep with a light snore.

 

Having been with my husband for a good number of years I know that small, trivial things are rarely slight. They’re just the things that make me toss and turn at night. Which is how I found myself on the sofa bed in the spare room the following morning, where I woke under a cotton blanket.

 

My husband is a writer with a UK company, writing to tight deadlines. Often this means working late before waking early, with a nap late morning. My husband works hard, too hard really, though I do my best not to say so. I myself have given up working late at night. Whenever I can I’ll head to bed with time to read, my little ritual. I love this reading time, this me-time, particularly with a teenager in the house. With middle-age has come lighter sleep. I no longer sleep the way I once fell off a log into a slumber that the alarm fetched me from each morning. Mostly I’ll wake early and go out for a walk or to yoga, and bookend my day in this way. So that whatever happens in between, it feels like my day.

 

After that first night on the sofa bed, I found myself finding reasons which sounded like excuses to repeat it. I had an early start. I had a sore throat. I was worried about a deadline. My husband’s snoring got to me. I was grieving loved ones, even though years had passed since their deaths.

 

Over the years my husband, a Europhile and Scot, has lengthened his overseas work trips. He’s learned Italian and made Italian friends. He enjoys working in the same time zone as his partner in London. Having lived together in London and started a family  there, I understand my husband’s need for these trips, and support him in them. However this isn’t apparent in the days leading up to his departure , when I invariably feel like an abandoned child no matter what my grown-up self thinks.

 

Last year, when my husband set out on his annual trip, I realised that I had a choice. I needn’t feel abandoned in our big bed. Instead I could sleep on the sofa bed next door, and feel cosy and warm there. I could go to bed as early as I liked and wake up with the birds. I could relish the space and flexibility of sleeping on my own. I could lie in my single bed and feel continuous with my younger self, despite being middle-aged. Why, I wondered, hadn’t I thought of this before? Why was sleeping on my own such a big deal that in twenty-five years of sleeping with my husband I had never entertained it as a possibility?

 

Following my husband’s return from his work trip last spring, I didn’t leave the sofa bed for the big bed next door. I already had a bed. The big bed with my husband in it became the bed that I visited before returning to sleep on my own. Why, I asked myself, had it taken me so long to recognise my desire for my own bed? Had I just assumed that loving someone was synonymous with sleeping in the same bed? Not waking up in the same bed as my husband, not doing things as others did them, wasn’t this a betrayal of love? Wasn’t this cheating? Was I really allowed, in the middle of family life, to sleep alone? Yet no matter what questions washed through my head, as I lay in my bed, there was no denying that what had at first been a compromise now felt like a sanctuary.

 

Perhaps if I hadn’t become a light sleeper, perhaps if I was less sensitive and thicker skinned, perhaps if my husband hadn’t worked late or snored. Then again if I’d been a heavy sleeper, thicker skinned and insensitive, if my husband had come to bed without my nagging him, I’d never have discovered how much I enjoy the physical and spiritual act of sleeping alone, independent of the facts which led to it. For this simple change has liberated me. I don’t have to be divorced or widowed, or even unhappily married, before I can sleep alone. I can sleep in my own bed with my husband in his own bed, or even in another country in his own bed, and stay married. I can go to bed and wake up when I choose, just as I choose so many other things, like the weight of my duvet and the shape of my day.

 

As a young woman I felt sorry for Virginia Woolf, who slept in a narrow single bed despite being married to Leonard Woolf. I knew that she’d had a troubled girlhood and had suffered psychiatric problems. Perhaps, I thought, sleeping in a single bed was the price she’d had to pay for losing trust in others. These days however I don’t think this. These days I find myself imagining Virginia Woolf dreaming up scenes for her wonderful books as she drifted in and out of sleep in her single bed.

 

Usually I avoid telling friends that I sleep in my own bed. I feel sheepish about it, as if it’s something to be ashamed of, an admission of failure. Clearly for some it is, hence my sheepishness. Yet for me it feels closer to a kind of growing up, part of the messy process of finding out what I need to be me at this point in my life.

 

Sweet dreams.

 

 

 

muttonbird

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Drinking tea and writing in a local cafe, the barrista bends across the counter and asks if I’ve tried muttonbird before. ‘No’, I reply, surprised. ‘Would you like to?’ ‘Of course, I’d love to’. Kevin disappears behind a screen with some dark meat in a small plastic bag which I can hear him taking out and putting on a plate for the microwave.

A minute later Kevin reappears with steaming dark meat on a plate. ‘Try some’, he says, and I take a piece with my fingers and put it in my mouth. He disappears, offering the meat around the cafe. I chew the muttonbird meat in my mouth. It tastes of sardines and lamb and game meat all mixed together. It feels stringy yet oily and almost melting. It tastes like nothing I’ve had in my mouth before, a kind of meat-fish.

Kevin returns and I stumble my response. ‘It must be full of good things’, I say. ‘Yeh,’ he says. ‘My Gran, she took a teaspoon of muttonbird oil on a spoon every day of her life and she was never a day ill. Even today’, he says, miming his Gran, ‘she takes a drop and rubs it on her face and another on her hands’. ‘Doesn’t it smell?’ I ask. ‘Nup, not really. But my Mum, when I suggested she get some for her face’, and he laughs, ‘she gave me one’.

I put away my pen with the taste of muttonbird – a protected species on the islands north of Tasmania – in my mouth. ‘Truffles next’, I say to Kevin on my way out. ‘Sure’, he returns. ‘But you’re bringing them’. An hour later the taste of muttonbird – oily, gamey, all wrong yet delicious – is still in my mouth.

running errands

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When I’m working to a deadline at home there’s a moment, today it was just after breakfast, when everything else seems more important than my own work. The jobs I happily put off when I’m working in town start pressuring me to do their bidding each time I walk by. The school blazer that has hung in the broom cupboard for four months rebukes me as I open the door for the dustpan and broom. The iron which burst its fuse when I failed to fill it with water looks at me wanly, next to a pile of unironed clothes. Reminders for overdue books from the library blink at me when I check email. A bag of plastic and another of glass bottles, ready to take to the health food store for recycling, bulges. An empty jar of suncream needs replacing. Two of my jackets need to visit my favourite seamstress at the dry cleaner. The worms need a new blanket now the nights are getting colder. The back lawn, made scraggy by soccer games with our dog, could do with fertilising before this weeks’ forecast rain. A cardboard box of stuff in the basement is ready for the charity shop. A stack of magazines by the front door is waiting for a lift to the local doctor’s waiting rooms. A plane ticket for my son needs to be paid for at the local flight centre.

 

With my computer open I jot down a list of errands in my notebook, to stop them creeping into my mind like uninvited guests. For a while this keeps them at bay. However once the number of errands reaches ten I flip my computer shut, clip the leash to the dog, fetch the school blazer, jackets, library books, magazines, plastics and bottles, and jump in the car, thinking that I’ll make it a game to get my errands done in as short a time as possible.

 

The uniform shop is closed but the woman at the school’s reception kindly accepts the blazer, my last link with school life. The appliance repair man frowns at my Phillips iron which he says hasn’t been manufactured to be repaired, and agrees to text me later that day. The library is full of further temptations that I mostly withstand. The health-food shop has already accepted a large bin bag of scrunchable plastics that morning. The skin clinic is out of my suncream but agrees to call me once it arrives. The doctor’s receptionist is pleased to receive a stack of New Scientist magazines. The seamstress at the dry cleaner takes my jackets with a smile. The travel agent at the flight centre books a flexible flight for my son. And the dog is pleased when I’m done and can take her for a walk on a local track.

 

I could have gone on overfilling the charity box in the basement and ignoring the school blazer in the broom cupboard. I could have tossed the plastics and bottles and New Scientist magazines in the rubbish and recycling bin, as until this year I did. If I were properly single-minded in achieving my work deadline of early June I would not have allowed myself a two-hour distraction on a Thursday morning. I would be the kind of person who integrated their errands into their already streamlined day.

 

For hundreds of years the world ‘priority’ was used in the singular. Only in the last twenty years has its meaning included the plural. These days we’re able to have more than one priority, we have priorities. We’re so advanced that we’re able to care about more than one thing at once. We’re able to consign whatever isn’t a priority to the waiting room in our heads in order to concentrate on what really matters. Except for laggards like me who, unable to compartmentalise, feel a weight lift from my shoulders once my errands are run and I can sit at my desk with the focus that comes from being free from distraction.

Ageing well

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Around this time in the afternoon last Saturday, I called my favourite and only living aunt. When she didn’t pick up I called her back a few minutes later and spoke to a nurse who kindly took the phone to where my aunt was sitting in the sun in a corner lounge. ‘Are you coming?’ she asked, excited. When I explained that I was walking our dog on a bush track in Hobart, the excitement left her voice and we went on to familiar topics. My daughter was sailing in a Regatta near Launceston in the rain, my son’s ship was nearing the Shetland Islands; I was completing a manuscript and my husband was working too hard.

 

‘But’, my aunt said, ‘my second husband will be here any minute to take me home’. ‘Yes of course’, I said, knowing she’d been married only once. ‘Do you need to get ready?’ ‘No’, she said, ‘I’ll just wait here on the beach. He knows where to find me’. Getting wafty was nothing new. My aunt had been getting wafty for a few months now. What however I was never prepared for was her lucidity, which came and went at the same rate as her waftiness. ‘Mind you don’t let that daughter of yours get the better of you’, she’d say. ‘In no time at all she won’t need you’.

 

Last Saturday my aunt was extra lucid and super wafty. ‘What about those bandages on your legs?’ I asked, bringing her back to earth, knowing from chatting to the nurse that the sores on her legs were infected. ‘Oh, I don’t worry about them’, my aunt said airily, and turned the conversation back to my daughter. At that moment I wanted to call her back, to reach out physically through the phone to stop her slipping away. To keep her feet on the beach, on the reclining chair on the second floor of her nursing home. I knew I was being selfish. I knew perfectly well that if I was 91, sitting aimlessly through the afternoon with my legs bandaged from consecutive falls, nearly blind and unable to work the television in my room, eating food I didn’t like at boarding school hours, I too might feel that it was time to move on.

 

Every time I’ve ever called my aunt she’s sounded pleased to hear my voice. Thanking me for calling she’ll insist, in the next breath, that she couldn’t possibly be of use to anyone. My response, like a refrain, will be to point out how important she is to me and that she can never be replaced. However recently even hearing this from me isn’t enough to outweigh the soul-sapping losses that have accompanied her ageing.

 

On Wednesday afternoon, finishing up at my desk, I call my aunt. A man picks up. Confused, I apologise, thinking I’ve called the wrong number. After a couple of seconds I realise that it’s my cousin, my aunt’s only child. He quickly explains that Nina has lost consciousness and that the doctor reckons she hasn’t long to live. As we chat I imagine Nina in the next room – my mother died of pneumonia – and pray silently that her end, much as I can’t bear losing her, won’t be prolonged. Knowing my aunt’s wishes, and the presence of her family doctor next door, reassures me that it won’t be. I end the call, get up from the desk, leave my husband’s office and join the street, which seems a different street to the one I stepped out of a few hours earlier.

 

Refusing to decorate her room in the nursing home, my aunt always maintained, rightly as it turned out, that it wasn’t worth decorating because she wasn’t there to stay. She was going home. Every time I called she’d mention that she was waiting to be taken home; a taxi or her son might be arriving any time. It was as if in her mind her whole existence had become a clerical error. She had, as we say, lost her dignity. But more fundamentally she had lost her reason to live, taken off her like a visa at border control, leaving all those who her loved her looking on helpless and hoping like hell that such a fate doesn’t await us.

 

Like King Lear railing in the storm, my aunt refused to accept ageing – reality – as it is. Yet even as she railed, even as she agreed with me that she felt imprisoned on the second floor of her nursing home, she was capable, in her next breath, of radiating an emotional intelligence that I’d be proud to possess.

 

Thankfully, five hours after I spoke to my cousin on Wednesday afternoon, my aunt died.

 

There have been a finite number of people in my life who get me in the deep way that Nina did. She was able to see the good in me even when I couldn’t. She recognised when I’d been brave, and worried about my future. She was there for my kids too; her support of and interest in them was boundless. My husband too, though not as boundlessly.

 

Stuck in the limbo of not knowing what to do with myself in the hour after receiving news of my aunt’s death, I packed my bags and drove across the state to spend the night with my daughter who, in the middle of a long conversation largely unrelated to her great aunt, told me that she’d never been to a wedding.

 

Two days away from home work for me, even though they change nothing. Travel is perspective and there is much kindness to be found in others – especially when I don’t realise how much I’m in need of it.

 

Did my aunt, I wonder, as I walk around a neighbouring city, age well? No, not really. Was she good at living? Yes, absolutely, which is surely more important. Is she still with me? Yes and no. Certainly her spirit will live on, inspiring me to find time to draw and play piano and garden, and to embrace the transience of life.

 

Every writer needs an aunt who puts one of their books on the coffee table before a visit.

Thank you Nina.

 

 

momentous

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By the end of the afternoon, assuming all goes well, or even mostly well, my nest will be empty. The goldfish will circle their tank, wondering where my daughter is. Our dog will sniff her room, nudging her bedcovers in case she’s under them; longing for treats for playing dead and for scooting on the skateboard in the hall. My husband won’t know himself at not being teased at supper; no-one to tell him that his jacket is tucked into his trousers at the back, no-one to thrash him at cards.

‘She’ll be back at weekends’, my husband soothes. ‘Yes, yes’, I say. ‘But a thread has broken’, and I look at him knowingly.

I always knew that mothering wasn’t for ever, that one day I’d have to bow out and leave the main stage. Yet it was an abstract sort of knowing, easily deferred by being back-to-back busy, or by using a comfy conditional tense. Whereas now, counting down the hours before the bus leaves with my daughter on it, there’s no comfort to be had in deferral.

I’ve seen where my daughter will live; I’ve met some of the staff. On driving home from the campus last week I had to bite my tongue and push my sunglasses up my nose to prevent my daughter from noticing my tears. ‘Sometimes you win less than you lose’, was the song lyric that did me in, eyes on the road ahead, clocking up the miles and wondering what to cook for dinner.

I don’t want my daughter to go, yet sense that she needs to, even as it feels all wrong that she must. My heart rebels while my head accepts it. I know that my daughter needs to not need me, to make her mind up about life without me in the picture.

Where does this leave me? Rattling round a big old house wondering where all the years went? Shutting doors on empty rooms, circling our house like the goldfish in the tank, waiting for life as I’ve known it to resume? Texting my daughter needlessly to confirm my redundancy?

By what alchemical process did I become a walk-on part in my kids’ lives, no longer at the beck and call of whoever is in the next room; a move as seamless and reprehensible as the slip from present to past tense?

Whenever I take a plane flight I sit through the safety drill before take-off ninety-nine percent certain that I’ll never have to buckle up a life jacket and slide down a plastic chute to land on open water. Right now, seated gingerly on the edge of my near empty nest, I can feel the plane doors cracking open, cold wind rushing on to my face.

For years I told myself this would never happen. Only now do I see my mistake, and also how necessary my mistake was. A duvet, cutlery, bath towel and frying pan, thank you IKEA, sit packed into a bulging rucksack by the front door. The rucksack is real; it’s way too heavy to be a mistake.

No more endless laundry and snacks and pick-ups to organise my day around. No more hazy conversations in our parked car at dusk about possible futures. My freedom isn’t complete; work makes demands on me, my husband seeks company, our dog is active, and the house and garden never let up. And yet, and yet.

How I duck the main question, so big that it embarrasses me. How will I conceive of myself, after twenty years as the pivot around which my family swings, as just me? It’s not my identity I’m worried about; I know perfectly well who I am. It’s the way the woman I am has for so long meshed with my family relationships. Will this mesh dissolve, like stitches after surgery? Or will the weave slowly loosen?

How much time will have to pass before I start relishing – like the waitress in a local café suggested I would – there being less mess round the house? How many days will I  awaken to before, rather than feeling bereft on waking, I feel grateful for a clear horizon?

 

abide with me

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After scrolling through The New York Times headlines I flipped over to facebook – breaking my rule of no social media till late afternoon. A friend I’d often visited with my now grown-up son, when he was a toddler in London, had posted news of her divorce. Twenty-four years of marriage, which when I knew her was as strong as mine, had broken down after what she said the courts described as ‘fifteen years of psychological and financial abuse’. I reeled inside, knowing how much more complicated my friend’s story must be, and also that I risked missing a yoga class if I spent any more time on-line.

 

The morning after I got married, twenty-two years ago, I walked across Hyde Park with my mother-in-law. As she strolled along, in her shoes not made for walking, she told me how much better a job at marriage she was confident that I’d do, than she had done herself. Head to the ground she told me that she’d always done her best, and that this was all, in the circumstances, she’d felt able to do. Walking by her side I felt sorry for my mother-in-law, who after raising four healthy children with her artist husband, felt that she’d failed because her marriage had ended in divorce.

 

I didn’t empathise with my mother-in-law’s regrets. Perhaps thanks to my parents’ marriage, I felt confident that my marriage would work out, that I had it within me to make it work. Instead I blithely assumed that the difficulties my parents-in-law encountered lay inside of them. It was the peculiar alchemy of their personalities that had determined the trajectory of their relationship, two doomed planets crashing towards Earth. There was a poetic inevitability about it all. The fiery temper of my father-in-law. The submissive doggedness of my mother-in-law. The God in the middle who, despite my mother-in-law’s belief in infinite love, failed to hold it all together. All rolled into an after dinner story that Paul shared with friends round our kitchen table.

 

Walking across that London park, my mother-in-law at my side, I had everything to look forward to. I didn’t believe in happily-ever-afters, I’d spent enough time in therapy to convince me of this. Nonetheless something deep inside – a mix of youth, pride and inexperience – shielded me from my mother-in-law’s pain, the morning after I married her son.

 

These days, now that I have a few regrets of my own, I quicken to those of my mother-in-law’s. I can see that, like her, I’ve done my best; even though, as for her, my best wasn’t always enough. Like her I feel downcast when I view my marriage as a catalogue of errors, as riddled with bullet holes as a road sign after a teenage shoot out. However mostly I manage not to do this, preferring to see my marriage as a piece of metal lacework, as a thing of beauty wrought into intricate shapes at very high heat.

 

The morning after I married Paul, I had family on my mind. It was an easy fantasy to have: bedside stories before lights out, holding a little hand on street corners, jumping waves at the beach. Not for a second did my fantasy include sharing the dinner table with two teenagers as intermittently surly and acute as I once was, a spotty teenager seated at my own family dinner table.

 

Walking over Hyde Park, half a stride in front of my mother-in-law, I had no idea of the emotional fall-out that two healthy teenagers might unwittingly wreak on their hapless parents in their unconscious effort to free themselves from childhood. I knew nothing about being on the receiving end of the emotional shrapnel of family life, the casual teasing and constant belittling that even a happy family has to withstand if it’s to survive the changes brought by teenagers’ looming independence. I had no idea how brave and strong we’d all need to be in order to get through the joy and upset that family life would throw at us.

 

‘They fuck you up’, wrote Phillip Larkin, ‘your Mum and Dad’. Well, sure they do. However what Larkin, who never had children, failed to add, was that kids fuck up their parents too. My kids are far more acute on my flaws, and more unflinching in their critique of Paul and me, than even my worst self slander. They know us far too well, yet not well enough. Just as we, their parents, understand yet fail to understand them.

 

None of this harm is intentional. My husband and I didn’t set out to wreak havoc on our kids any more than our kids planned the havoc they wreak on us. In surviving family life I think that Paul and I, just like my mother-in-law and every other parent, deserve enormous sympathy. We don’t deserve a list of our errors read aloud in a court of law: I’m controlling, Paul is selfish, we’re both insecure. The fuck-up of my marriage now seems normal to me; it’s a sign of the messiness of existence, part of the way of things. It confirms my need for friends and family and Shakespeare and pop music and film; not legal process.

 

As it turned out, my mother-in-law was wrong. Mine has not been a marriage made in heaven. Paul and I weren’t made for each other. Never enough for each other, we’ve failed to make each other happy. More elusive still, we haven’t fulfilled each other. After thirty years of living side by side it doesn’t surprise me that our marriage contains a few cracks. Nor does it seem helpful to ascribe blame for these cracks on Paul or me. I’d sooner put the strains in our marriage down to the sheer difficulty of life, than to a list of our incompatibilities and faults.

 

The fact that Paul and I have let each other down doesn’t seem a big deal to me. I don’t mind having a few cracks in our relationship. They give me space to breath. Perhaps I’m being defensive, however the failures in my marriage seem beside the point. The real point is that Paul and I have chosen to stick together even though we’ve failed each other in various areas; even knowing that we’d do things differently if we had our time over – which we won’t.

 

Paul and I have done something more important than make each other happy (envious though I am of couples who can do this). We’ve abided with each other. The OED defines ‘abide’ in these terms: remain, continue, dwell; remain faithful to; encounter, sustain, suffer with; put up with, tolerate, wait for’. Though this word is only used rarely these days, for me it holds real value.

 

I feel sad that my friend’s marriage should have ended in heartbreak. It seems all wrong that justice should be meted out on a well-intended couple under harsh strip lighting in a courtroom. Surely there is a more gracious – a softer, more piercing and subtle – way to exit a long marriage? After years of trying to hold it all together, of getting three kids over the threshold of maturity, it seems all wrong to sully a marriage which, even if it hasn’t gone completely well, hasn’t gone entirely badly either. It seems all wrong that in a couple’s search for justice, the whole crazy unfolding richness of a life together should be cast aside by a prosecuting lawyer who deems it irrelevant to the case.

 

If I could retrace my steps, if I could walk back over Hyde Park with my mother-in-law the morning after marrying her son, I’d start by congratulating her. Who cares if your marriage ended in divorce, I’d say. Everyone who endures a long marriage – or any partnership – deserves a medal. You mustn’t take it to heart, I’d say, my hand on her arm. It really isn’t anyone’s fault. The fault is in the stars. The sheer difficulty of life gets us all in the end, which is why we should celebrate rather than be ashamed by our run-ins with it.

Before getting up the next morning and doing it all again.