HelenHayward

life writing

Category: Domesticity

boat

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‘But I like odd socks’, he says, exasperated, when I hand over five odd socks from the wash. ‘I like knowing that all I have to do is find another sock and I’ll be right’. He looks over and grins. I smile back, squatting on the floor as he goes about packing for another voyage. His small bedroom, the room furthest from the main house and dampest by far, heaves with stuff. Tshirts that I’ve washed and folded he grabs with his large hand and stuffs down the side of his rucksack. Picking his way over the strewn floor like a goat he makes his way to the desk by the window and loses himself reading a pamphlet about the fjords in Chile, his last but one voyage.

 

These days my son needs me less and less. Though he does like it when I leave him cheese and pesto sandwiches in the fridge, and serve supper on time. He may want little from me – I have no idea what to give him on his birthday – yet still he refuses to let go of anything. The squares of thick leather on his desk. The metres of furled ropes in his room. The stacks of boat magazines. The broken boat in the driveway. The ragged tshirts. The odd socks.

 

Friends come for dinner, keen to hear about his adventures at sea. Initially reluctant to join us at the table the moment he appears he slips into an easy affability that he has developed as a deck hand on board a ship with fifty others for stretches of up to fifty days at sea. As we eat he sketches his seagoing life – shifts of four-hours-on, four-hours-off, losing touch with world events, fish guts at the equator crossing, possible voyages to come. When the inevitable question arises – ‘How long will you stay at sea?’ – he answers with practised ease. ‘I’ll do it’, he replies, ‘until I get sick of it’.

 

The young man who claims to be not very good at traveling, who left home for Europe nearly a year ago, has already sailed to four continents, including two trips to Antarctica. Yet this same young man doesn’t know what to do with himself after five days at home, unsettled by the sudden lack of routine in his day and mates to help him make sense of it. He is, by his own admission, more at home on board the ship than in the home he spent his adolescence in.

 

For all his exotic sounding voyages the trip my son most enjoyed he expected to enjoy least. Complaining of what he called ‘the plague’, he set off with three science students on a small boat in Chile, hiking up whichever mountain took their fancy from the fjord below. This trip, this sense of possibility, and these splendid landscapes had more impact on him than all the icy splendour of the Antarctic, with its prolific wildlife, whales a dime a dozen, and fears of losing passengers into ravines in the ice.

 

My son’s hands are rough and calloused, toughened by scouring the ship’s galley below deck and greasing the ropes above it. Yet for all his responsibilities on the ship he still manages to lose his wallet every time he goes out, diving back into his bedroom for ‘just one more look’. To be fair he does jump up to do the washing up after meals in a way he never did before he left home. And unlike the mane of hair that he forfeited on his first equator crossing these days he hair keeps his hair short, cutting it with blunt kitchen scissors in the bathroom.

 

At first I assume he is wasting time in his room, watching Netflix as of old. But no, he is looking up boats for sale, or texting friends in Europe. Now that he is on the edge of twenty he is careful with his hard earned money, converted from Euros and taxed at source. He refuses to repair his mountain bike, choosing to stick to his road bike. Disdainful or despairing of shopping I can’t tell, he returns from his one foray into town with not one but two parking tickets, along with two pairs of shorts and a pair of trousers.

 

After nearly a year away, two and a half weeks at home pass slowly. His friends are all busy and much of the time he seems at a loose end. I try to coax him out of it, but to no avail. He loves me, I know this, yet he doesn’t want to do things with me. He’d rather go up the mountain behind our house on his bike than walk on the mountain with me. Besides he has a lot on his mind. He is waiting for a text from the ship to find out when, even if, they next want him; an uncertainty that he wears like a thick cloak. Instead, at his suggestion, we play Monopoly, a game which stretches over two nights and that his sister narrowly wins. We also play Risk, a game I play so cluelessly that both he and his sister despair of having to play against me.

 

Finally the text he has been hoping for comes, releasing him from his long wait. He will not be stuck at home, moored without a boat forever. He will sail on a smaller vessel to Greenland, and after that who knows? Two friends are marrying in Norway in July, and he might join them there for that.

 

Yesterday, it seems, he was carving ‘BOAT’ into the side of an apple with his pen knife, anything rather than study for his looming final school exams. Today he is floating the idea of attending a friend’s wedding in Europe and sailing round Greenland over the northern summer. In the meantime in a few days he sets sail across the Pacific in a small yacht with a friend’s father and a crew found on the Internet. Not bad for someone who claims to be not very good at travelling.

rooftop

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I was in my late twenties by the time I got round to reading Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. It was the kind of book – like Tolstoy’s War and Peace – that were it not for its doorstop thickness I might have read already. Somehow it had never been the right time: never rainy enough, never sick enough, never curious enough. Until one September I began post-graduate study and went into therapy in the same month. My therapist lived in North London and I lived in South London, involving a long Tube trip twice a week, and it was during this commute that I picked up The Second Sex.

 

Reading Simone de Beauvoir’s book confirmed every misgiving I’d ever had about the pitfalls of domestic life. The timing of my reading, in the arc of my life, was impeccable. On the one hand I was entertaining the idea of having a baby. On the other I feared the snare that might drop on my head if I gave in to this wish. ‘Washing, ironing, sweeping out fluff from under wardrobes – all this halting of decay is also the denial of life; for time simultaneously creates and destroys, and only its negative aspect concerns the housekeeper’. It was hard enough keeping my life afloat even without a baby in the mix. What would it be like if I started a family and my ambitions were reduced to ferreting out fluff from under wardrobes?

 

Around this time I attended a friend’s wedding, thrown by her father and new stepmother. On arriving at the reception my friend’s stepmother opened the front door, greeted my partner and me, and immediately bent down to pick some confetti off the carpet. This was a tiny thing. Yet for me it captured why my slightly messy friend might be struggling to get on with her neat-loving stepmother.

 

At the time I felt critical of my friend’s stepmother, caring about confetti on the carpet when a marriage was happening around her. But the next day I realised that my criticism of my friend’s stepmother was really self criticism. Because I knew that, in terms of domestic affinities, I was closer to my friend’s stepmother than to my messy friend. I knew if ever I entered family life there was a high chance that I would join my friend’s stepmother and women like her in their preoccupation with Things That Don’t Matter. I knew that if I had a family of my own I may well spend my best energies, my most fertile years, in the business of eradicating mess, and so fail to create anything substantial to show for my time on this earth. I knew that if I joined the company of housekeepers, ‘who wage their furious war against dirt, blaming life itself for the rubbish all living growth entails’, there was a good chance that I would end up in the company of women who picked confetti off carpet at weddings.

 

*     *     *

 

It was a hot summer evening and my partner and I had met up with my mother and her friend in the French town of Uzes. My mother’s friend led gardening tours around Europe, and together they were doing a reconnaissance of gardens in the area. After catching up over drinks and dinner my partner and I went up to our room, where my partner fell into reading a novel. Too hot to sleep, I found my way on to the roof of the hotel, where the air was cooler and my thoughts could roam. Sipping a cup of tea I heard women’s voices on the adjoining roof. Only after a minute or two did I realise that my mother’s voice was one of them. It was another voice I heard – softer and more modulated – than the one I remembered from childhood. Then I heard the clink of a bottle in ice and, as I looked up, two plumes of cigarette smoke rose into the sky.

 

Sitting cross-legged on the rooftop, trying not to eavesdrop more than a few words, it struck me how happy my mother sounded. Now that she no longer had to care about a whole host of domestic things that had dictated much of her life as a mother, she sounded lighter, more playful. She sounded like someone else.

 

For thirty years my mother had put family and home first. However now that she had flown the nest and was experiencing life first hand she sounded quite different. Free of housekeeping, of shopping lists and baskets of wet washing and trips into town for new school shoes, she could speak her mind and let her voice sing.

 

Delving into myself I realised the magnitude of my mistake. For years I had claimed breezily that I didn’t want to turn into my mother, an assertion that was followed by a subsequent sweep of years during which I insisted that I didn’t want to have children. Sitting on the rooftop I realised that it wasn’t my mother any more than it was children that I didn’t want. It was the housekeeping that seemed to accompany family life that I was afraid of. It was Simone de Beauvoir’s maniacal dirt avenger who brandished her household schedule like a sword as if to ward off the meaningless of her existence.

 

I was shy of starting a family because I was afraid of taking on domestic responsibilities that would leave me stressed and harried, as my mother had often seemed when I was growing up. I was afraid that if I went on and had a baby with my partner that I’d end up caring about a host of domestic things which in my heart I didn’t give a damn about.

 

I already felt that I didn’t deal well with domestic stress. I often felt that I should be more on top of the day-to-day running of my life; that I should be doing something more important than whatever domestic task I happened to be doing; that I should be doing that task more quickly; that other people dealt with domesticity more easily than I did; that more of these tasks fell to me than to my partner simply because my resistance to doing them was slightly lower than his; and that the only thing worse than spending however many hours housekeeping each week was having to live in a dirty flat.

 

Sitting on that rooftop I had reason to worry. Even without a family to look after I cared about All The Wrong Things. I already did the washing up before going to bed after friends came round for dinner. I already scanned the household tips section of magazines. I already admired people with smoothly-running homes. I already knew that, in my mind, so-called trivial things had a way of becoming big powerful things.

 

As I sat into the night I wondered about my life to come. Would I, should my partner and I go on to have a child, pride myself in staying on top of housekeeping? Would I, like my messy friend’s stepmother, pick confetti off the carpet the second after shaking a guest’s hand? Would I, in identifying with a well-kept home, leave behind a misspent life?

 

Or was there another way? Was it possible to take on domestic responsibility for the well-being of loved ones without it leading to stress and strain? Might Simone de Beauvoir have been wrong? Might it be possible to run a lovely home without sacrificing my further ambitions? Looking around at the rooftops of Uzes, the house lights blinking off, it didn’t seem too much to ask.

 

goldfish

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I was listening to Mel Robbins give her TED talk on the five-second rule, rubber gloves on and freezer door hanging open. I had a metal spatula in one hand and was doing what every household expert says never to do – attack ice in the freezer with a metal object. ‘Why is it’, Mel Robbins was saying, as ice came out in pleasing chunks, ‘that we are unable to get ourselves to do the little things that would make such a difference to our lives?’ Yes, I wondered, why is that?

 

Less than a minute into the talk it struck me. ‘Damn it’, I thought. Not only had Mel Robbins launched an entire media career on the strength of a glitch in human nature. Even worse, she had nailed it. Thanks to her rule I was able to do something that I’d ordinarily avoid like the plague – defrost the freezer – simply by counting back from five to zero and opening the freezer door.

 

Repacking the contents of the freezer, labeling containers and diverting old food to compost, a small ziplock bag slipped through my fingers and fell to the floor. Next to my shoe was Eric, the goldfish I’d put in a plastic bag the weekend before after finding him dead in my daughter’s fish-tank while she was away.

 

Perfectly preserved in a ziplock bag Eric stared at me. This was the goldfish that had kept my daughter company from a corner of her bedroom for four years, his long swirling tail now curled into the corner of the bag. He had watched over my daughter through good times and bad, surviving his mate by a year, before awaiting his fate in the freezer.

 

When I brought up the idea of burying Eric in the garden, as with previous goldfish, my daughter shrugged. ‘He was old anyway’, she said flatly. ‘I knew he would die soon’. The moment she said this I felt sad. Because I knew that the younger more sentimental side of my daughter wasn’t listening. Given the pressure she felt under in her final year of school I knew that she couldn’t afford to be upset by the death of her goldfish.

 

As I picked up the compost bin to take it outside my hand slipped in, retrieved Eric the goldfish and put him back in the freezer, thinking quietly to myself that on the weekend I would use the five-second rule for his burial.

 

 

 

the holes in my husband’s study door

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A week ago our dog ripped out a claw playing soccer on the back lawn, requiring a trip to the vet. The vet bandaged her up and sent her home with three days’ worth of painkillers. When, while I was there, I mentioned our dog had gut issues, the vet suggested that I try wetting her dry food to ease her digestion. The next day the combined effect of the painkillers and wettened food weakened our dog’s muscles, causing her to wee and poo on the rug in my husband’s study. Luckily I was the first to smell the mess – late for the school run – and cleaned it up before my husband found it.

 

A few days later our dog wee’d and poo’d on my husband’s study rug a second time. I had just started working when a call came through from my husband, a stressy call in which we talked through the best way to clean up his carpet. Yesterday I got another call. This time I felt in two minds about answering. ‘Don’t worry’, he said. ‘It’s the dog again but I’m fine. I’m just calling to let off steam’.

 

On returning from my daughter’s sailing, later in the day, I noted the study door was closed and breathed a sigh of relief. An hour later my husband came in from tennis with the news that the lock in his study door had broken. Fired up from sailing my daughter headed down to the basement and returned with a few tools. She jiggled and poked the lock but to no avail. She returned to the basement and came back with a power drill and goggles. ‘This is going to be messy’, she said. ‘Don’t worry’, I replied. ‘It has to be done’.

 

Holding the drill firm my daughter cut a large square out of the wooden panel, allowing her to reach through the door to try the handle from the other side. ‘It’s no good’, she called. ‘The lock is broken on the inside’. This time she made a small rectangular cut around the lock, spraying wood as she went, watched by our dog from a safe distance. Then she pushed the whole square, with the lock inside it, on to the floor. As expected, our dog had made another mess on the rug, which I promptly cleaned up. Bringing the lock into the kitchen my daughter took it apart on the table, prising out the broken piece and putting it in a zip-lock bag with blackened fingers, and saying something about mending it with the school welder. Perhaps, I thought to myself, my daughter really can fix the broken lock. Or perhaps she can’t.

 

A week slips by, an eventful crushing school week during which there is no mention of the lock, safe in its zip-lock bag in the bottom of my daughter’s schoolbag. All week long I keep a wary eye on our dog who has clearly decided that it’s okay to relieve herself in my husband’s study, the door to which now can’t be shut.

 

A few years ago my husband would have jumped up and down at the annoyance of it all. A few years ago he would have sworn at our dog. A few years ago I would have tactlessly asked if the hundred-and-fifty year old lock in my husband’s study door had broken as he slammed the door shut. A few years ago my husband and I would have wrangled over what to do about his stained carpet, undeclared affect sticking to our every word. But actually for a whole week neither of us has mentioned the broken lock or the stained carpet or for that matter the holes in his study door. While this might suggest maturity, I rather think that it reflects our unspoken acceptance of the messiness of things.

playing cards

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There comes a point most evenings, supper over, when my teenage daughter can’t help herself. Too tired to take herself off to bed she directs one small insult after another in the direction of her father. None of her remarks are wrong – her father needs a haircut, he eats loudly, he taps his phone – and all of them hit the mark. Even though my husband mostly agrees with them my daughter will then apologise. Until, before a minute is up, another taunt pops out of her mouth.

 

Sitting at the table my daughter props herself up on one arm and refuses to go to bed. Not because she isn’t tired but because she is too tired to drag herself up the stairs. Besides the sooner she goes to bed the sooner she’ll have to get up the next morning and face the school day all over again.

 

‘Shall we play a game?’ I ask, wanting to move things on. ‘Good idea’, says my husband, ignoring my daughter’s automatic ‘No’. My husband likes to play cards at the kitchen table however my daughter likes us to keep our dog company next door which means sitting cross-legged on a rug on the floor. But first I grumble about having to do the washing up – our dishwasher hasn’t worked for five months and my husband and daughter know that by rights they should do it, and sometimes they do.

 

After cleaning up the kitchen I cut some fruit and break off a few squares of chocolate which I put on a plate to share with my husband and daughter on the rug next door. This is when the magic happens. As we pick up our cards my daughter’s taunts stop along with my kitchen grumbles. My husband slips his phone inside his jacket pocket. Our dog walks into the middle of our card game, puts up a paw for attention, and one of us gently pushes her aside. Then we squabble about who will go first, and the game begins.

 

The game we play most is Monopoly Deal, a card version of the famous board game complete with property, chance and community chest cards. My daughter, who is shrewd and quick, nearly always wins. She’ll play to the death, squeaking and pounding her fist on the floor if her plans go awry. My husband plays his cards close to his chest with all the zeal of a merchant banker. Meanwhile I just play – at times so stupidly that my daughter claps her head in amazement.

 

In my mind it doesn’t really matter what we play. What matters is that we play a game that allows us to drop our kitchen table defences for a while – the sparring that starts the second we sit opposite or next to each other at supper each night. The mask that defines and limits who we are in relation to each other, a dynamic far more powerful than I’d have imagined possible had I not experienced it during my own childhood with my parents and sisters.

 

Playing cards in the evening helps the three of us come to terms with the oddness of our life together. It also brings my son passingly into the room – the big brother who could never bear to let his younger sister win.

 

By the time we’ve finished a second round of Monopoly Deal the fact of school the next day can no longer be ignored. My daughter grabs the cards off my husband who, she claims, can’t shuffle properly. She puts the cards face down on the rug, moves her hands through them like dry ingredients, before bringing them together into a satisfying pile which sits on the mantle piece until our next game.

painting the kitchen

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I’ve wanted to change the look of our kitchen for years now, but the expense and time involved always put me off. Just the sight of my painting overalls, rolled up and pushed to the back of the wardrobe, was enough to dispel any fantasies left over from our last renovation. Until one day two weeks ago I borrowed a design magazine from our local library with a kitchen on the cover that I liked such a lot that it overcame my reluctance to pick up a paint brush ever again.

 

Daunted by the task of renovating a big old house, seven years ago, I painted all the rooms off white. I added some deeper tones to the woodwork but otherwise kept it simple. The month I finished decorating a friend came to stay. A week later a book arrived in the post, a thank you present from my friend. It was a coffee table book of English interiors published by a high-end paint company. Many a night I stayed up late lusting after the casual elegance of the rooms in this book. Yet I didn’t trust my fancies. Was I taken by the book’s clever photography? Its artful styling?

 

Even though I sensed my friend was hinting that my house could do with a bit more colour, I put the book aside. I’d look at it now and then in the same way that I flick through favourite cookbooks standing up. However I gave up the idea of transforming our house by painting the rooms interesting colours. Until that is the day I picked up the design magazine in the local library which had on the cover a kitchen I hadn’t known I’d always wanted. The whites and greys and unpainted wood chimed with me so deeply that I determined to turn round our kitchen in the two weeks of school holidays remaining.

 

Seven years ago my husband and I made up our renovation as we went along. For six weeks everything went well – we liked the same kind of things, this we felt was our strength. But then the stress of having to replace all the electrics followed by the roof and a chimney began to show. By this point I became so desperate for a working kitchen that I agreed to a kitchen bench the same length as our old galley kitchen in London. The new kitchen was installed in an afternoon and for all the months and years after that I regretted my haste.

 

Seven years on, older but probably not wiser, I decided to try out my ideas with a professional. A local architect, stressing it wasn’t his usual practice, agreed to a one-off consult. He arrived on time carrying a notebook and wearing a black tshirt and jeans. After chatting for an hour the architect told me that given that the kitchen is the most expensive room in the house, and given the Nordic look he felt I was aspiring to, it would perhaps be easiest to rip out our existing kitchen and to start again from scratch.

 

Disheartened at the cost estimated by the architect, and by the waste of throwing out a tired but functioning kitchen, I gave up my idea of renovating the kitchen, embarrassed by the hubris of thinking that I deserved better than what I already had.

 

Late that night I picked up the design magazine lying on the stairs, leafed idly through it to the kitchen I liked, and just like that my wish came back. At first I fought it. Renovating the kitchen was a first-world problem. Caring about the look of my kitchen was vanity. The gravity of world affairs made my desire for an attractive kitchen wanton. Was I destined to live my life caring about all the wrong things? Yet still I wanted it.

 

Opening up the magazine I put the page under the bright light of the kitchen hob and looked at it long and hard. Glancing up I took in the smattering of fat on the wall above the hob, the burnt bubbles in the grey linoleum top of the kitchen bench, and the tarnished fake brass knobs of the cupboards. Then I imagined a tall kitchen table, as high as our waist-high bench, with stools and an arc floor lamp reaching from the window to the middle of the table. At that moment, well past when I should have been in bed, I decided to renovate the kitchen myself.

 

Choosing a colour for the kitchen cupboards was only slightly harder than choosing a composite stone – there were hundreds to select from – for a new kitchen bench. (Though it wasn’t quite as hard as unrolling my painting clothes and getting out the paint brushes.) I liked so many of the colours in the coffee table paint book that choosing just one felt impossible. It wasn’t just choosing the shade that foxed me. It was wondering whether I really loved the colours I was staring at. Or was I secretly envying the lives of the people who lived in the rooms painted French Grey and Boston Green?

 

My daughter meanwhile was busy in the basement making a waist-high kitchen bench from floorboards and round fence posts – not exactly Nordic but inexpensive, striking and strong. During this process we had two blow ups, each time caused by my realisation that she was making the bench that she was able to make, and not the bench I fantasied having. Both times she only slowly forgave me.

 

Unable to find the blue grey shade I wanted for the kitchen cupboards on any commercial paint chart I cut a swatch from the English paint book and asked the man at our local paint shop to match it. However the duck egg turquoise colour he matched it to had neither the depth nor subtlety of the shade in the paint book – even after living with the colour for three days and wishing myself to like it. With that I put away the paint book and decided that just having clean white walls and a new kitchen bench and new knobs would be enough of a transformation.

 

Then came three days of painting – which might have been two if I’d been able to overcome my resistance to donning my painting clothes before 11am. Listening to my daughter’s Spotify song list, and intermittent podcasts of talks, I repainted the kitchen and pantry walls off white and the cupboards a cream colour. During this time my husband – who let me have my way in the kitchen – came and went, coming in for cheese and biscuits when I allowed him access to the fridge in the pantry, and avoiding the kitchen when he sensed my Cinderella-like seething at being trapped in the kitchen for hours on end with just a paint roller for company.

 

Too often I’d lose myself in the vortex of Trump journalism on the net, stunned at the rate at which world events outpaced the time it took to paint our kitchen and pantry. Or I’d spend a precious hour searching for an arching floor lamp, in turns lost in admiration for Scandinavian design and disgusted by the inexhaustible availability of the market and its disregard of environmental impact. Or I’d chase local joiners, none of whom seemed interested in remaking a single kitchen cupboard when plenty of other customers were keen to rip out their entire kitchen to install a new one.

 

Last night I took up the dust sheets, scraped the paint blobs off the floorboards and put the paint pots away. I looked around. It wasn’t my fantasy kitchen, and my lower back ached from moving a big ladder around. Yet I felt thrilled to have done what I’d wanted to do and had been blocked from doing for so long.

 

Half an hour later my husband, daughter and I flipped over the bench my daughter had made. The moment we righted it my daughter raced upstairs to her room in disappointment at the bench not being the way she’d imagined it. For a few minutes my husband and I stood in the kitchen, amazed at the way the new bench transformed the space that has been the stage for so much of our family life, struck by how much it would shape our life to come.

 

The kitchen bench is big and dominates the room. It is dark and shiny – not light and bare like the table of the kitchen on the cover of the magazine. And yet I love it. Not just because my daughter made it – for a fee I should add – from materials from the hardware store and tip shop. But because having a tall bench in the middle of the kitchen changes the room dramatically. Having a tall bench in the kitchen tells me that I really don’t know what is coming next, that I really am making life up as I go along, and that just when I think I know what I want something else – even better – comes along to surprise me.

 

your house wasn’t filthy

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Whenever I go on holiday I clean the house before we leave. Although it makes the day before we leave fretful it’s a favour that I’ve learned to do myself to make returning home a pleasure.

 

The last time I went away with my kids, and left my husband at home to work, when I opened the front door on our return I smelled a smell that turned out to be fortnight-old food scraps in the bin and dirty plates in the dishwasher. This time, knowing my husband would be focused on work while we were away, I decided to arrange for a cleaner to come before our return. I hardly ever give myself presents, but this one I felt I deserved.

 

‘Brilliant House Cleaning’, with five star reviews, topped my internet search. A bouncy lady answered my call. I explained that I was interested in a one-off clean before returning from holiday. The bouncy lady laughed. ‘I’ve just booked someone to clean my own house!’ she said. ‘I’ve been so busy this month, run off my feet, that I never seem to get round to cleaning my own place’. After another quick laugh we set about arranging a date along with a key to get into our house.

 

Two weeks later I received a text from my husband. ‘The cleaners are here!’ Two hours after that it was, ‘The cleaners have gone!’ My daughter grabbed the phone off my lap – we’d started the long drive home – and texted her father a reply. ‘Don’t get the house dirty before we get back!’

 

Three days of driving later we arrived home, tired and hungry. On putting my key in the front door and pushing it open I noticed nothing special – no smell, no mess. The house looked as I had left it. The stairs were a little cleaner and the floors looked mopped, but that was it. The house looked lovely, the garden was blessed with summer rain, I felt happy to be back, and we set about unpacking the too much stuff we’d taken away with us.

 

The cleaner had left her invoice on the kitchen table. I stared at the amount. It had taken the cleaner and her daughter two and a half hours to clean our house, amounting to a four-hour fee. I struggled to remember the last time I’d spent five hours straight cleaning our house and realised how little cleaning I usually manage to get away with.

 

A couple of days later I rang Brilliant House Cleaning to thank them for their services. Once more the bouncy lady answered the phone. When I told her how grateful I was to return to a lovely home she chuckled. ‘Don’t worry, your home wasn’t filthy’. I didn’t know if I was supposed to be pleased to hear that on the filthiness scale my house passed muster, or whether I should feel sympathy for the bouncy lady having to clean houses that really were filthy. Just for a moment, before we hung up, I felt as if we came together to acknowledge the effort that goes into keeping a home attractive. I was also struck by how much unacknowledged life this bouncy lady must see as she goes about cleaning other people’s houses.

on not writing christmas cards

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Every year the list of people I send Christmas cards to gets shorter. Every year I put off writing them until closer to the postal cut-off date. Writing Christmas cards has come to feel like an admission that the year is ending, a feeling of defeat that may explain why I put off writing them.

When I finally do put pen to card I know, when I take the envelopes to the post office today, that – like everyone else’s cards in the post office – mine won’t arrive in time. I know they’ll be opened as afterthoughts, as well-intentioned yet misguided gestures.

I’m not the only one who feels overwhelmed by the festive season, who feels convinced that each year the rate at which the months roll speeds up. Even my kids feel this. Nor am I the only one whose heart sinks when gold tinsel goes up in the town square a full month before Christmas, who cynically thinks that buying things is a commercial sleight of hand designed to distract us from Trump’s new appointments, the crisis in Aleppo and a new coal mine in Queensland that risks bleaching what’s left of our Great Barrier Reef.

My mother used to write Christmas cards under a tree by a friend’s pool while my sisters and I mucked about in the water. Having grown up in the country my mother always insisted that she couldn’t swim. Looking back I can see that writing Christmas cards under a shady tree – engaging with absent friends and ticking names off her To Do list – gave her more satisfaction than cooling off with us in the pool. Just as she gave half a dozen bottles of beer to the postman, and a box of shortbread to her hairdresser, she knew the right thing to do at Christmas.

I am similar in age to my mother when she wrote Christmas cards by the pool. My To Do list is shorter than hers ever was and I’ve never given half a dozen beers to the postman. Moreover these days my Christmas card list has whittled down to a manageable ten.

Even so this year I struggle to write Christmas cards. Because this year my life has got the better of me. This year I’ve felt as overwhelmed by my family as I did when my children were toddlers. These days my children, now teenagers, demand things of me that I can’t give – even as they reject my efforts to provide them.

I’ve always struggled to describe an entire year in a hundred words inside a Christmas card. I find it even harder this year. Because this year it’s clear to me that my life isn’t going to plan. There is nothing wrong with my life, most of which I’m very happy with. It’s just that over the course of this year I’ve realised that the things which seem to come out of nowhere, to excite and unsettle me, are the stuff of my life. They aren’t things that I’ll ever recover and move on from. They are my life. And this awareness changes everything. It makes catchy summings in Christmas cards up impossible.

When my daughter saunters into the kitchen yesterday afternoon I moan to her that I can’t get myself to write Christmas cards. She tells me airily not to bother. ‘But I still want to’, I say, wanting to explain. ‘We could make potato print cards,’ she suggests, trying to be helpful. I roll my eyes in response, hoping that she can’t see my face – potato prints at the kitchen table being as far from what I feel like doing at that moment as a weekend in space.

Ten minutes later she brings in the mail and I open a demand to pay a water bill that I’ve overlooked in the craziness of these last few months. Trawling through paperwork in my study I discover that my car insurance is also four months late. I knew I’d been lax in keeping our accounts, I knew I’d been sticking my head in the sand. Even so I felt amazed that four whole months had slipped through my fingers leaving hardly a mark in my accounting book.

I sat up late last night. After putting all my paperwork on my study floor I forced myself to order it into piles. I attempted to make good our household accounts. I wrapped up Christmas presents and put them under the tree. I made a To Do list for today. I addressed the four most important Christmas cards that I’d already written and addressed envelopes for a few more.

In the cards that I’d written in a moment of peace in a café, earlier that day, I didn’t sum up my year. I didn’t list my kid’s achievements or my husband’s travels. I didn’t mention my writing projects. I kept it simple. I wrote about our garden made lush by spring. And the building work on our old house that is at last finished. I wrote about driving interstate for my daughter’s sailing regatta on Boxing Day in ten days’ time, and about my plan to have a Christmas picnic with my near-blind ninety-year-old aunt. And I left it at that.

It was late when I went to bed, and I lay awake for a while. It was done. I’d pulled my head from the sand and the panic that goes with keeping it there had ceased. I could feel my desire for Christmas distinct from the demands that – when I’m stressed – they so easily turn into. I could hear the wind in the trees outside the window. I had let the year come to an end – the moon outside was full – and made my peace with this my funny lovely life.

dinner for twenty

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The last time my husband had a big birthday we had a dinner at a long table on the verandah, with hired glasses and chaos in the kitchen. After the starter a friend came into the kitchen where I was washing leeks under the tap. ‘Haven’t you already washed those?’ she asked in surprise. ‘No’, I laughed. ‘My mother is a caterer’, she said, ‘and whenever she does a dinner she is always super prepared’. ‘Well’, I replied, waving a wet hand at the table of noisy guests through the window, ‘if I’d planned all this ahead of time I’d never have invited this many people’.

 

The woman at the electrical repair shop – who I’ve now spoken to numerous times about our broken dishwasher – is surprised when anger and tears creep into my voice on the phone. ‘What do you mean the pump for our dishwasher hasn’t arrived?’ I ask without disguising my exasperation. ‘It’s been five weeks and we’ve had three visits from the repair man and it’s still not fixed. I do understand that it can be hard to get parts from the mainland, but couldn’t the pump have been expressed down?’ ‘Well yes’, the woman replies, ‘but express costs $32.50 and no-one ever asks for this service’. ‘But I would have been happy to pay it to have a working dishwasher for a big dinner!’

 

I stop flicking through The Guardian Weekly sitting on the windowsill. I return to the photo on the cover. Angela Merkel is staring out, two small downward groves either side of her lips to her chin, the future of the EU weighing heavily on her. I feel shown up by my ridiculousness – worrying about a broken dishwasher when far bigger things matter further afield. At that moment my daughter walks into the kitchen, I admit my idiocy, and to cheer me up she shows me some photos on the Internet of Trump without makeup.

 

*     *     *

 

Guests stream through the door and my excitement and panic mounts. Standing at the kitchen window I count them in the courtyard below – eighteen, nineteen, that makes it twenty counting myself. There is a knock at the door and I open it too quickly to stop the words falling out of my mouth. ‘And you are twenty-one and twenty-two!’ They laugh and we joke. My daughter takes it in her stride and we shuffle round table settings and find the sewing stool upstairs. There is another knock at the front door – twenty-three! My daughter rolls her eyes at the mother who can’t count how many people she has invited for dinner. This time we resort to placing an unhinged wooden door from the basement on top of two workhorses, covering it with a rug and white tablecloth.

 

Getting guests into the sitting room, where the table is set, is like herding cats. They’d rather chat in the hall and kitchen. A few explore the garden. They don’t want to be treated like guests at a wedding. ‘But what about the asparagus?’ I ask, pushing through a clutch of people to rescue two large pots on the hob.

 

Realising we are one chair short, two men decide to take turns at the table, persuading me that they are perfectly happy helping my two teenagers in the kitchen. Together the four of them take over the serving of the meal. ‘Go away!’ they say after the first course goes out. ‘We don’t need you in here. Go away!’

 

And I do go away. I leave them to it. My otherwise shy daughter, flushed in shorts and tshirt, flies in and out of the sitting room. My son washes up at the sink in the corner of the kitchen as if in the galley of a ship. The two men rally.

 

Twice more during the evening I go into the kitchen to take over serving. And twice more I’m sent back to the table. I hope it’s because they want me to enjoy myself. But I can also see that the four of them are having a better time in the kitchen because I’m not there.

 

My husband talks to the people on either side of him as if there is no tomorrow, and declares at the end of the evening it has been his best birthday yet. No singing, no speeches, just a warm acceptance of something – friendship perhaps – that is so present in the room it doesn’t need expression. When I enter the kitchen, after dessert, my son is confident from my laugh that I’ve been drinking. ‘No, just lime juice’, I reply with a quick smile.

 

*     *     *

 

At five o’clock, two hours before guests are due to arrive, my daughter asks me a question. ‘Will you be glad when it’s over?’ I stop in my tracks and put down a box of cutlery. ‘Gosh’, I say, ‘what a good question’.

 

Now that the dinner is over I find I’m not glad. Like my husband I wish it could have gone on longer. That life itself could go on longer. Not least because this was the first dinner in my house that I’ve been able to enjoy as a guest.

 

This morning, the morning after, I am teased by my kids. ‘How can you have been so totally disorganised?’ they taunt. ‘It was easy’, I reply with a laugh. ‘Don’t you remember what you were like two weeks ago’, I say to my daughter, ‘swotting for exams and leaving it till the last minute? That’s exactly how I felt yesterday, knowing I was about to be hit but unable to do anything about it.’

 

What they don’t know, what they can’t imagine, was what really happened yesterday morning when my mind was in such a whirl that I snuck out without telling anyone for a walk on a bush track by a nearby reservoir. As I walked, on entering the cover of trees, I started crying. I cried for all the years that had passed with nothing and everything to show for it. I cried for the friends who‘d come from interstate as a surprise for my husband. I cried for my marriage which at times feels out of my hands, yet which cradles in them. I cried for my family life that at times feels so consuming, so rewarding, and so demanding that I can barely hear myself think. I cried for my childhood family who did so much for me yet half of whom are now dead. And I cried for my own children whom I am in the slow process of letting down – though we call it letting go – so that they can make lives of their own. Until, just as my tears started, they stopped. I looked up at the trees, thanked them for their shelter, and no longer felt upset.

 

After a bush walk with my daughter this evening again I am teased about my disorganisation at my husband’s birthday dinner. Sitting in our parked car in our driveway I listen silently as she lists my oversights. Then I break ranks and tell her about my tears round the reservoir. I don’t tell her to burden her. I tell her so that she can understand something of the complexity of my life. I tell her so that she can glimpse the richness and pain in store for her as she grows up. I tell her so that she may gain a perspective on her own internal goings on, which are so consuming to her yet which are passing. And I tell her so she knows that I too can feel very sad and very happy on the same day.

 

As I talk she listens quietly in the growing dark. Suddenly our dog barks loudly at a neighbour’s dog. ‘It’s time go in for dinner’, I say, putting up the car windows. And we do.

 

 

 

the ugly stepsisters

 

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When I was young reading, writing and arithmetic were subjects that I had to work hard at. But they never felt insurmountable. I could grasp them in the classroom. They were as nothing compared with the three “r’s” – resistance, reluctance and resentment – that I would meet later in my life. These ugly stepsisters have proved far harder to understand than learning the alphabet and arithmetic. And yet even as I instinctively avoided them I kept meeting resistance, reluctance and resentment on my meandering path to maturity. Until eventually I realised that although instinctively I avoided their company I needed to hear them out, because they had important things to tell me.

We talk a lot about positive psychology, as if this is all we might need when dealing with the challenges life throws at us. However we don’t talk much about negative psychology – of the way in which, left to our own, our feelings have a way of entering a downward spiral from which they don’t return until our ruminations are over. Then there is resistance, a residual unwillingness to doing something, which is another expression of a negativity that we’d like to wish away – and yet which so often defeats us. Often it isn’t until we have experienced a tidal resistance within ourselves for the simplest of tasks that we acknowledge how strong a force this negativity can take.

Nowhere is our resistance to simple tasks more rife than inside our homes – where we are master of how we spend our time, and where only we can decide whether something is worth doing. This, our resistance to household tasks, can prove so great – for me it arises around the paying of bills – that the energy we spend avoiding a task far outweighs the energy required to complete it.

Whereas resistance provides the motor, the dynamic with which we push against a repugnant task, reluctance brings a whole imaginative world in its wake. Reluctance is the carpet bag of emotions and images that flesh out our resistance to doing whatever it is. For example my reluctance to pay utility bills immediately conjures my history of past earnings, my Protestant family background, my current earnings as a writer and subsequent financial dependence on my husband, and not least my utter inability to organise a sensible routine for administrative tasks.

Lastly there is resentment – perhaps the most poisonous of the ugly stepsisters – which like a snail leaves a trail that attaches to seemingly benign tasks. Resentment puts paid to the common sense idea that daily household tasks are trivial – attached as they are by long threads to tumultuous feelings which prove that the task is anything but trivial. I am not just paying a gas bill – I am caring about the running of our home late at night when my own disorganisation forces me to care about something that no-one else in my household has to worry their pretty head about it.

When I was younger my instinct was to keep these ugly feelings together and to tip-toe around them, for fear of the havoc they might wreak should I awaken them. (I always remember my mother saying that were she ever to go into a psychotherapy session she may never come out again.) However at a certain point in my life this suppression became counter-productive. Because once my life reached a certain level of complexity – roughly when my kids became teenagers – I started needing the energy bound up in my own negativity. I needed some of its strength and verve. And this meant that I needed to hear it out, in all its banal bitterness. Because ultimately my negativity was holding hostage powers deep within myself that, if I wanted to come out on top, I couldn’t do without.

As a younger woman I had no idea how much my experience of grace would depend on my willingness to do things that I don’t like doing – and that the quality of my life is to some extent tied to my attitude to homework.