helen hayward

life writing

Category: Family

too many plums

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‘Life is a series of problems’, the matronly grandmother says to her grand-daughter, half-way through Downton Abbey. ‘You solve one problem and you move on to the next’. The grand-daughter, who has just finishing telling her grandmother that she had a baby out of wedlock, a big deal early in the 20th century, smiles wanly. ‘Yes’, continues Maggie Smith, who plays the grandmother in the drama series, ‘it’s our problems that define us. They make life interesting. And then, when we come to the end of all our problems, we die’.

A year ago, almost to the day, I invited a married couple I didn’t know well for dinner. The dinner was a low key, kitchen-table affair, the kind I like best. After we finished eating and the plates were cleared away, there was a moment of quiet. I’m fine with pauses, but this one was odd. It was Anna who broke the silence. ‘Can you smell something?’ she asked. My heart sank as I caught hold of the corner of the high kitchen table and peered beneath. There, across the wide wooden floorboards, was a trail of dog poo that ran the entire length of the kitchen table.

Like a scene from a 70s sit com, the two men got up from the table without uttering a word, picked up their glasses, and moved next door. This left me begging Anna to join them, as I donned rubber gloves, grabbed bin bags and paper towel, and sloshed some eucalyptus oil into a bucket of hot water.

Eventually the plum crisis passed, as most crises do. After dropping their last plums, the fruit trees slept through the winter. Then suddenly it was spring again. The plum trees flowered, thanks to generous rain. Determined not to be outwitted this time, I visited the garden hire shop and hired a hedge trimmer, a feudal looking instrument with a scythe at one end of its long handle. That same night, I set about whacking down as many unripe plums as I could on to the ground sheets I’d put down to catch the fruit that rained down from the branches above.

I was helped by Nic, a Columbian student currently living with us. When I wheeled the compost bin down the garden, and opened the lid wide so that we could pour in the plums straight off the ground sheets, he frowned. ‘Aren’t you going to eat them?’ he asked, incredulous. ‘Um, there are just too many’, I said, lamely. ‘Besides’, I added, feeling defensive, ‘it would take me hours that I haven’t got to sort through them.’ ‘In my country’, said Nic, ‘we make jam and wine with fruit like this’. ‘Yes’, I thought, ‘except that you’re not in your country, and so we don’t know if that’s what you’d do’. As soon as my mean thought was out, I felt cross with myself for having it. For I too, like Nic, had lived on the opposite side of the world in my 20s. I too had found myself in the middle of other people’s lives, other people’s gardens, doubtless making judgments that it wasn’t my place to make. How could I have known, back then, what it might be like to live year after year with a greedy dog who gorged himself sick on fallen fruit and never learned the lesson?

‘Why don’t we fill the wheelbarrow with these plums?’, I said to Nic. ‘Then we can leave it in the street with some plastic bags, so that whoever wants some plums can take them?’ ‘Yes’, said Nic, sounding relieved. ‘That’s a good idea’.

Last Saturday, after Nic went on a long hike and my kids both crewed in a weekend yacht race, there was a storm wild enough to fill another wheelbarrow of cherry plums. That night, the night after Christmas, in a pitch black hour between midnight and dawn, our dog wouldn’t stop barking. Lying in bed, I ran through possible causes. Was Digger replying to the dog visiting neighbours for Christmas, who I could hear barking? But even after the neighbour’s dog stopped, the barking continued. Could Digger’s paw be stuck in the door of his crate, which he usually opened from the inside? Still more barking. Perhaps Digger had escaped his crate and impaled himself on a coat hook? Probably not, I told myself, calling out in a sleepy but stern voice for him to stop barking, and schooling myself to wait for his whimpers to cease.

I knew there would be a mess to clean up when I went downstairs the next morning. There was. All those plums had done horrible things in Digger’s tummy; the greedy lesson that he would, a classic Labrador, never learn.

That morning, my husband suggested putting up a temporary fence between our courtyard and grass, just as we’d done when Digger was a puppy. That way, Digger couldn’t gorge himself when he had nothing better to do but truffle-hunt for fallen fruit. ‘Great idea’, I said, and thanked him, as I reached for my phone to text the handyman.

Our handyman Rob, whom I consider a friend – you can’t live in a big old house without making friends with your handyman – arrived an hour later, just as I was heading out for a walk with Digger. Under one arm, he carried a roll of red plastic netting that he mentioned he’d found at the back of his garage, and not the wire mesh I’d hoped for. My heart sank. I knew, instantly, that this red mesh would cause my husband – who works in a hut at the bottom of the garden and cares about aesthetics above all – to inwardly weep. ‘Perfect’, I said brightly. ‘And thank you so much for coming before you disappear on holiday’.

Rob and I set to work and, an hour later, a temporary fence and makeshift gate had divided the garden in two. ‘It looks like a crime scene’, said my son, when he returned from his stormy boat race, his eyes red with exhaustion.

These last two mornings, I’ve crept downstairs. Instead of letting out Digger straight away, I’ve slipped down the side of our house and tossed any fallen plums I could find into a bucket. I haven’t tried to collect all the plums. Hundreds of them are hidden safely between and beneath strands of ivy. I pick up just the ones that glint in the sun, on my private Easter egg hunt.

The first morning I collected cherry plums, I resented it. I was wearing my pyjamas and slippers, and had just finished cleaning up Digger’s plum poo explosion. As I plucked cherry plums from between the ivy, my fingernails filled with moist soil. Collecting fallen fruit felt like just more task, one more chore that no-one but me in my family recognised the value of doing. ‘Is that really necessary?’ I imagined my husband silently asking, as he passed by with his morning coffee, on his way to his garden office.

The second morning I slipped out to collect plums from amongst the ivy, I was up and dressed. I’d done my morning yoga and didn’t mind picking up the plums that I knew, if left, would cause our hapless dog to make himself sick. For despite the red mesh fence dividing the garden, we still play with Digger on the grass; and, as soon as he tires of chasing the ball, he sidles off, as if magnetized, to snuffle for plums.

This morning I came downstairs, snuck outside and felt almost Zen as I picked up fallen fruit in the morning sun. I wasn’t exactly grateful for the task. But I didn’t struggle against it either. I knew why I was doing it; accepting that, unless there really is a God, there can be no audience for my efforts to keep our plum numbers down. I also felt heartened, knowing that my morning collect wouldn’t go on forever. Before long, summer plums would give way to autumn leaves, and so on over again.  

After eleven years in our big old house, I accept that this is the way of things in large gardens. Picking up cherry plums from the ivy that runs the length of one side of our garden no longer feels like the depressing problem it did just three days ago. Thanks to Nic, our handyman and the scriptwriter of Downton Abbey, too many plums is a problem I feel I’ve moved on from.

Next?

a brief history of housekeeping

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We like to think an attractive home is worth the effort required to maintain it. We want to believe that a cared-for living space adds to rather than takes away from a good life. Until, that is, we start running our own home, at which point our mixed feelings for domesticity come rushing in. The place of our own, that we once dreamed about, starts making demands on us that we can’t always meet and from which we pull back. Love and hate, joy and resentment, enthusiasm and reluctance – all these rise up during the time we spend at home.

This is a brief emotional history of housekeeping, not a social one; this is because, for many of us, our domestic thoughts and feelings prove as challenging as household tasks themselves. It traces a path from our childhood home, the dilemmas arising from our first flat or share house, the mid-life conundrum of balancing work and home, and the challenges thrown up as we age. It doesn’t address everyone’s experience of home; no appeal is made to the universal. Instead, it sheds light on the way a great many of us experience home across a lifetime.

So, back to the beginning. Before we’re able to pluck up courage to pack up and leave our childhood home for good – the home which, at an unconscious level, is a template for our every future home – we have to let it go. This happens slowly, bit by bit. We may grow critical of our family’s style of cooking. We might experience our parents’ help as interference, as meddling. Perhaps we bar the door of our bedroom and insist on cleaning it ourselves; only, always later. Our longing to be cared for – to be cooked, comforted and cleaned for – never ceases. However, at a certain point, we suppress this wish in a bid for independence. We shrug off our desire to be cared for as an unwanted comfort and, like a young bird leaving the nest, take flight.

It takes an almighty effort to leave our childhood home without looking back. So much so that we often wait until our new home starts to fall apart before we plug in the vacuum cleaner, pick up a cloth to dust, or do anything resembling housework. We wait so long for the fairies to come and rescue odd socks from under the bed that disgust propels us into a frenzy of cleaning up. And then nothing, for the next little while. Until another burst of disgust gives rise to a growing desire to keep our own cave clean. But this awakening is fitful. At first, we react to even the idea of a household routine. We may corral ourselves into doing bits of housework now and then, spurred by a fear of the chaos that ensues when we don’t. Even so, cleaning up after ourselves comes neither naturally nor regularly. Sitting back and hoping for the best, and the inertia that is its consequence, is what comes naturally.

In the coming years, we continue to avoid housework. Often without knowing it, we identify housework with our childhood home, with our mother’s sighs and nagging, with the humdrumness of existence that we escaped when we packed up our things and left. Those household tasks that we can’t avoid are like a thorn in our side, upending our plans for how our weekends should be spent. Unconsciously, they remind us of the mother (and occasionally the father) we are determined not to turn into. And so we stumble on, from one mountain of dirty laundry to the next.

We reach the next threshold. Perhaps, tired of renting, we start eyeing off property to buy. We may be encouraged to travel for work or study. Or something happens in our family to precipitate a big change. An event like Covid forever alters our perception of, and trust in, the world. Or we look around our home through the eyes of a soon-to-arrive baby, or a parent leaving home for a higher level of care. It could simply be that the pressures of our work keep on mounting. Whatever it is, something happens to make us realise that our home life is what we make it, that it’s an effect of our investment in it. The quality of our so-called ordinary life – the roughly quarter of our waking hours that we give over to looking after ourselves, those we care about and our home – is largely up to us.

As we approach mid-life, our home life tends to grow more complex. With more balls in the air, than ever before, we struggle to juggle work and, quite possibly, family. Family and work both feel essential. Yet together they are incompatible. They feel like different things and they won’t fit side by side. Some of us, at this point, fantasise about hiring a cleaner to swish in and out while we’re out. Or we might do the housework at night, when the kids are asleep and our standards are lower. Whatever we resort to, a continuous sense of background pressure means that our mixed feelings for housework feel normal, like the mixed feelings we have around having to work late, or dealing with a tricky relative. Such that when, one day, a friend confides to us how much they enjoy cooking, renovating or gardening, we can’t help hoping they’re being ironic. The domestic satisfactions of our friend show us up, making us feel our own shortfalls more keenly.

Despite a confusion about the value of domesticity, we continue to hope for a work-life balance. Surely it must be possible to square our longing for a pleasant home, with a seemingly endless parade of household chores? The answer that many of us arrive at, in response to this dilemma, feels closer to an existential decision than a conscious choice. Put simply, we decide that the benefits of waking up in a warm and attractive home outweigh the minuses of doing regular housework.

With this shift, our sense of housework expands to become housekeeping, a larger animal than the relatively tame task of keeping a home clean and tidy. Perhaps we start wearing an apron in the kitchen, and devoting an hour most days to household tasks. We may also realise that a large part of the stress that we previously experienced at home, and came to think of as normal, arose from our unwillingness to credit the time and energy that we spent housekeeping as valuable, as real work.

The domestic arts that many of us awaken to in mid-life – like cooking, renovating, gardening, entertaining – hark back to childhood. They bubble up from what we left behind when we gathered up courage and left home for ever. They reflect our wish to feel cared for at a deep level, and to mess about in ways that we enjoyed as kids. Except that we are no longer children. And even as we awaken interests at home, we are just as busy as we ever were. This makes it hard to find the time – and the head space – to explore our creative side. After a long day at work, or with our kids, it’s often easier to flick on passive entertainment than to pursue more demanding activities. The upshot of which is that increasingly we have daydreams about home life that we never act on.

Time passes and the web of our life keeps on spinning. We start to appreciate the therapeutic benefit of looking after our home, the fact that often we finish our housekeeping feeling better about ourselves and the world than when we started. And yet we shrink from the demands that domesticity makes on us. We make mental lists for the weekly cleaner that most of us still don’t have. We take a particular dislike to domestic tasks which, the longer we put them off, the more we feel humiliated by. The housekeeping that, just years before, felt like an invitation, shrinks back into housework, into a drudgery that depletes rather than adds to our life. And we cease to take pleasure in the very things which, when we were younger and less busy, enriched our sense of home.

Until the time comes for us to cut back on work, or at least to shift into a lower gear. Perhaps our kids, if we have them, leave home, and again cooking becomes the pleasure that it was before too much pressure made spending time in the kitchen less appealing. Now that time constraints have eased, we can heed our hunches about what matters most. But though we may work a little less, time passes more quickly. We exercise so as to be confident of living independently into the future, rather than to look good on the beach. Our resentment for housework lessens and, for some of us, even dissolves. We start to cherish housekeeping for the opportunities – and sanity – it affords. Through its rhythms, we find ways to express ourselves, and to feel at one with the seasons as they pass. We take pride in baking, in a plant grown from a cutting, in a spring-cleaned home. And as we look round our home, we wonder at all the hours that we were unable to savour when we were run off our feet with work and, possibly, family.

Not all of us arrive at this point. Tragedies befall people we know and love, which we know in our heart could have befallen us. We feel a humility, a glad-to-be-aliveness, that was somehow less available when we were young. We still admire expertise, but feel less intimidated by it. We take large amounts of pleasure in small things that tended to pass us by when we spent our days scampering to catch up on the business of life. For as long as our body doesn’t fail us, we take pride in running our home. We enjoy the same necessities – shopping, cleaning and organising – that, many moons ago, we resented. Thankful for the tasks that give structure and meaning to our days, we take comfort in housekeeping. We say ‘yes’ to ordinary life, knowing in our heart that nothing important is ordinary. We delight in baking for a neighbour. We enjoy taking a cloth bag to the local shops. Even wheeling out the rubbish bin feels less of a chore than it once did. Because by now we appreciate how closely housekeeping is tied to heart-keeping. We know that meaning and satisfaction can be found in the daily tasks of living. And that our ability to care about things that we don’t ultimately care about – and much of housekeeping is this – is a measure of our determination to do what it takes to live in this world.

We feel this so keenly that if, one day, we’re forced to leave our home, for a tick-list of sensible reasons, it shakes us to the core. Once the pain of packing up and moving is over, we react to being taken care of by staff we don’t know. We dislike being brought tea at odd hours in a disposable cup. We never signed up to spend our last days on earth feeling like a patient; yet here we are, nodding gratefully for services we never elected for.

Most afternoons, we sit in our comfortable chair by the window, hopeful of a visit from family or friends, none of whom can begin to imagine what it’s like to wait to be visited, for a missive from the outside world. Yet still we take comfort in small things – flowers from a friend’s garden, a warmed-up home-cooked meal. And as we look out our window, at a tree whose top boughs the wind shakes in line with our third-floor room, we recall an Emily Dickinson poem we once knew by heart, and now just the opening verse of:

Hope is the thing with feathers

that perches in the soul

And sings the song without a tune

And never stops – at all.

We so, as we come full circle, our housekeeping days are over.

dress

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For years, my gold silk dress lay squashed flat, underneath out-of-season clothes in a plastic tub at the top of my wardrobe. Until the last time we moved house when, feeling sorry for the dress, I put it on a hanger at the end of the rail, tucked behind my husband’s jackets. There it lived, out of sight and mostly out of mind, until a week ago.

I knew that my husband had invited friends for dinner for his upcoming birthday. For some reason, my thoughts kept returning to this gold silk dress, hanging neglected in the wardrobe. My husband has an especial love of formal dinners. I do not, preferring casual ones. But perhaps, just this once, I could surprise him and wear my gold silk dress for his dinner.

Yes, this gold dress had once been my wedding dress. But it had it been originally designed to be worn again. I’d never wanted it to be just a wedding dress. ‘Of course’, my North London dressmaker had said with a smile. ‘I can easily let in some fabric under the arms so that, in years to come, if it needs to be let out, it will be simple to do’.

Last Friday, after everyone in our house had left for the day, I took the gold dress out of the wardrobe and folded it over in the boot of my car. My dog, waiting patiently for his morning walk, looked at me expectantly over the back seat of the car.

‘Sorry, Digger’, I said to his upturned face, ‘you’re going to have to wait.’

Brenda, the alterations lady at our local dry cleaners, knows me quite well, which is why I felt I could trust her to say whether she thought my gold dress was worth saving.  

When I arrived at the shop, with the dress on my arm, I was ushered into the curtained cubicle adjacent to the bathroom. As always.

First off, Brenda handed me a short scalloped evening top that she’d let a zip into the back of – a top that, at times, late at night, I’d despaired of ever extracting myself from. This time, the black top slipped over my shoulders and zipped up the back as if the top had been made for me, rather being than a second-hand item that I’d picked up for a song.

            ‘Thank you’, I said to Brenda. ‘This top looks great’.

            ‘Yes’, agreed Brenda, pleased, perhaps, that her work was appreciated.

            ‘And this’, she said, fingering the gold silk dress, hanging on a hook in the cubicle. ‘Is this the dress that you mentioned the last time you were here?’

            ‘Yes’, I said. ‘I just don’t know about it and would like your advice’.

            ‘Sure’, she said, and left the cubicle while I changed.

I pulled the dress over my shoulders and then shut my eyes as I did up the long zip at the back. But, I thought, this dress is loose. Had I had it let out and then forgotten all about having done so? Was I really so old, could so much time have gone by, that my wedding dress had been altered and I had no memory of it? Two seams at the back of the dress, letting out two triangles of darker silk, told the tale. Yes, I was that old.

The gold dress, with it’s big skirt, sagged on my frame. It was too big. I was now too flat chested to carry off the cut of the bodice. My colouring, too, had changed since I’d married. Standing in the harshly lit cubical, the gold of the silk washed out my colouring, making me look older. I flinched, and forced myself look into the mirror. Was it just that I looked older than when I’d worn the dress at my wedding so many years ago? How, really, could I not look older?

In that moment, standing in the cubicle, my wedding felt like seconds ago. I was zipping up my gold dress, tight against my skin, all the while wondering when my friend, who’d promised to do my makeup, would appear. I was slipping on the high black strappy sandals that, although uncomfortable to the point of painful, were my partner’s favourite. At the time, that Friday afternoon, this discomfort had seemed secondary. Whereas today, 22 years later, I wouldn’t even consider wearing shoes that hurt.

Brenda flicked open the curtain, holding her cushion of pins and breaking into my daydream. Pulling the curtain behind her, she looked in the mirror. We both looked. She said nothing. Yet from where I was standing, in my gold silk dress, it was in that moment in which Brenda said nothing that she said everything there was to say about my gold dress.

‘I think this dress doesn’t work for me anymore’, I said, to fill the pause. ‘It’s still a wedding dress. And quite an old one at that. But’, I added, picking up some fabric from the skirt, ‘it’s beautiful silk’.

‘Perhaps it could be turned into a top?’ said Brenda, thoughtfully.

‘I just don’t think I’m breasty enough for that’, I said. ‘Besides this colour, it makes me look sallow’.

‘Mmm’, said Brenda.

‘No’, I said, ‘this dress is dead. And I’d rather pass it on now, as it is, than mess around and spend money on it. I’m just not the person I was when I wore it. And’, I said to Brenda, who had picked up the skirt and was looking at a seam, ‘no matter what we did with it, it will always be my wedding dress. Even if it is a lovely dress, it isn’t lovely on me’.

My phone rang on the floor and I didn’t answer it. When it rang again, I picked it up. ‘Yes?’ I said to my daughter. ‘Yes’, I said to her, as Brenda left the cubicle, ‘that is annoying. But maybe that car wasn’t right for you anyway. There’ll always be another car. By the way’, I added, ‘I’m actually in a fitting room at the dry cleaners. Can I call you back?’

Standing in the harsh light of the cubicle, I looked at myself in my old wedding dress. I felt like Miss Havisham in Dickens’ novel, years after her intended failed to appear.

‘You know’, said Brenda, as I was leaving the shop with the gold dress and black top over my arm. ‘Last week, on one of those hot days, I saw you through the window. You were wearing those tobacco-coloured pants that I took in for you last month. You had on a stripy top and your hat. And’, I thought to myself, ‘those clothes really suit you’.

‘Thank you’, I said to Brenda, meeting her eyes, ‘that means a lot to me’.

white trousers

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My husband of thirty years is writing a Short History of the World for kids, with a well-known publisher. He writes all the hours of the day and night, helped on by coffee first thing and wine at night. He skips meals to trim his waist, has a nap mid afternoon, plays tennis three times a week, and works in a wooden hut which he calls the temple at the bottom of the garden, where he can smoke undisturbed.

Over the years, we have grown in different directions, my husband and I. To the point that some days, as today, I can’t help wondering whether it’s our differences that have come to define us as a couple. Could this explain why these days we struggle to sustain a normal conversation, over and above talking about our kids, our covid-constrained social life, and the running of our home?

I don’t mind – or at least say I don’t mind – that, bar this year, my husband travels to Italy during our winter where he lives out his other life, unconstrained by family meal times and bursts of teasing from our kids. The thing I do mind is that during his last trip to Italy he bought two pairs of white cotton trousers that he wears at the first sign of summer heat. He wears these trousers with a white shirt and navy cotton jacket, which seems to me quite a lot of white. It gets to me, just seeing him in these white trousers, kept preternaturally white by an environmentally-unfriendly local dry cleaner.

My husband doesn’t wear white cotton trousers when it’s hot in order to annoy me. Though he knows they get to me, he has decided not to care. Given that he is a philosopher with a strength in aesthetics, the beauty of things, he can make up his own mind whether a particular outfit suits him or not – or so I imagine his thinking on the subject goes.

It’s not just me who objects to these white trousers. They set off our kids, too. ‘I’, these trousers announce to us, his family, ‘am not a man of the people. I do the kind of work that doesn’t get me dirty, as other people do when they work. And anyway, I like looking different. I have no interest in appearing the same as other people.’

Recently, my husband has started gardening, as a break from his writing. It took him ten years in our house with a big garden to realise that taking short breaks, by doing something different, actually helps his writing work along. And yet even when he weeds, his preferred gardening activity, he crouches down. Though he’s happy to gets his hands dirty, he doesn’t kneel on the ground and become one with the soil, an activity incompatible with wearing white trousers.

What right have I to have an opinion on my husband’s choice of clothing? Besides, I suspect that my minding about his trousers has been sparked by the impasse that I find myself at in my own writing journey, as I try not to react to the silence of a new literary agent who has yet to get back after I sent her two manuscripts two and a half weeks ago (are they, I ask myself, really that bad?). This uncertainty of mine can’t help but contrast with the guaranteed publication of my husband’s History of the World for kids, a project the scale of which makes me intellectually quake.

Long ago, my husband objected, frowning, when I wore my favourite baggy jeans. ‘It’s not the denim’, he would say, when I made the mistake of probing. ‘It’s the fit’. Eventually, after months of hesitating, I started wearing these baggy jeans – happily back in fashion – anyway. I can only suppose that it’s in the same spirit that my husband wears white trousers on hot days, refusing to care what his family thinks of them.

It makes me feel small and mean spirited, objecting to my husband’s white trousers. ‘White pants!’ my daughter taunts, as she heads off to work wearing tan workman shorts. But then, her father’s total love for her means that she can taunt him without consequence. Which is not the case for me.

Our son, away for nearly five years and recently returned, reckons that my husband and I are not as unalike as we believe ourselves to be. ‘You two’, says my son, ‘are inside the same small circle, standing back to back, looking out in opposite directions’. And damn it, he’s probably right.

One of my favourite Dr Seuss stories is about a pair of yellow trousers. These yellow trousers walk around aimfully, independent of anyone in them. One moonlit night, these eery trousers chase the narrator up hill and down dell, to the point of the narrator’s collapse. Those yellow trousers just keep on coming.

This whole Covid experience seems to have made me prickle at small things which, trivial in the grand scheme of things, loom large in the close-up daily life that I find myself leading. I would so much rather be big hearted than small minded. Yet those white trousers, as they walk up and down our garden, they’ve found me out!

finding time to make bread

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Lately I’ve been too busy to make bread. Last week, if any week can be described as typical, was typical. On Monday, the 25-year-old fridge which was in our house when we bought it, gave up the ghost. On Tuesday I sent off a manuscript. On Thursday I started teaching a yoga class. Add to that our dog has caught a nasty parasite requiring daily treatment. Then there is my 10-year-old computer, in the process of conking out, which refuses to send email. And two weeks ago, my daughter turned 21. All normal, everyday things which don’t allow much time for breadmaking.

Yesterday morning, as a form of therapy, I made myself make bread. Not because I felt like it. I never feel like making bread until after I start making it. But because it was Saturday, and Saturday, until recently, has always been my breadmaking day.

First, I poured out some starter from the pot which I refreshed and returned to the bar fridge that we borrowed from a friend. Next, I boiled the kettle and dissolved a teaspoon of sea salt and a halfish cup of linseed (I never measure) in a large bowl. After that, it was time to mix the dough. When I finished mixing, concentrating on the bowl that was balanced on a stool in front of me, I glanced up at the table and spied a glass jug full of starter which I’d clean forgotten to add, which required extra flour to get the dough to bind. Pant. This I did.

I never mix bread dough with my fingers. I use two plastic scrapers to mix the flour mixture until the dough comes together into a fat but flat ball. Before this point, the dough just sticks to my fingers and between my fingers in an annoying, hard- to-clean-off way.

For the rest of yesterday, the bowl of dough sat on the windowsill in the kitchen. Now and again, as I passed by, I washed my hands in the sink before kneading the dough, spraying the bottom of the bowl with water to keep the dough from sticking.

On entering the kitchen this morning, I noticed that the teatowel draped over the bowl was puffed up with the dough underneath, like a mushroom cloud. Surprising even me.

Making bread isn’t easy. If friends tell you otherwise, don’t believe them. Nothing important is easy. Nor is there a right time in the day or week in which to bake. When it comes to breadmaking, as with other important things in life, you have to make time for it, carving it out almost forcibly until it becomes habit.

I trick myself into baking by doing it step by unthreatening step. After breakfast on Saturday, I get the bread starter from the fridge. I do this because it’s Saturday morning, and not because I feel like baking. (When would that be?) I don’t let on, to my unconscious or to my ego, that I am making bread. Because my unconscious doesn’t think that I can make bread. And my ego insists that I haven’t time for it.

I make bread to prove to myself that I can. I make it to fill the kitchen with the smell of baking bread. I never make enough bread to last a family of four for a week. Still, as a gesture, it’s important to me. And the reward – of cutting off a crusty end of bread before plying it with butter and putting it in my mouth – is, well, like other important things in life, amazing.

on the dog beach

My dog is recovering from canine coronavirus. A year ago, this would have been unremarkable. Pre-covid 19, canine coronavirus was one of a handful of viruses that young dogs were liable to pick up playing in the park or on the beach. Especially when that dog is a Labrador puppy who eats everything his nose tells him might be worth gobbling, in the hope that it tastes good.

As that Labrador puppy’s owner, I cheat. Twice a week, Digger lets off steam with 20 other dogs at kennels in the country, a 20-minute drive from my home. This is by far the most exciting part of Digger’s week. And, if I’m honest, it comes pretty close to mine too. Like dropping off a toddler at daycare, on Tuesdays and Thursdays I don’t have to think about my dog between 8am until 5pm. I can go to a yoga class, put compost on the garden, and work in my study in peace.

But not at the moment. A month ago, Digger started having poo explosions outside his crate in the morning. I would be half way down the stairs, rushing to get us both in the car to arrive at the kennels by 8am, and I’d smell that smell. And my heart would sink at having to pay the price of owning a dog who, though we love him to bits, eats, well, pretty much anything. And I mean anything.

After the third explosion within a month, Amanda, who runs the country kennels, pushed me to have Digger checked out by her vet. ‘He’s great’, she said. ‘If anyone can sort out Digger’s gut, it’s Dr R’.

A week later, I was working at a picnic bench, with Digger waiting for a walk in the car, when Dr R called me. ‘The poo sample came up with canine coronavirus in your dog’s DNA’, he said.

‘Oh’, I said, wanting not to hear what he’d just said. ‘Is that bad?’

‘It’s actually pretty common right now’, said the vet. ‘And it would probably be more common if more dogs were tested for it. But it does mean that Digger will need to stay away from kennels for a while’.

‘Oh’, I said, ‘of course’.

‘And then, in two to four weeks, you can bring in another poo sample for testing, and we can go from there’, he said.

‘Sure’, I said. I thanked him and we ended the call. I stared out at the sea, over the top of my computer screen. ‘Great’, I thought. ‘I have Digger at home for a month. Just like at Christmas time.’ Then I got cross with myself. ‘What a stupid middle class problem to have’, I said to myself. ‘Every day there are 10,000 new covid cases across France, and here I am worrying about how to get my work done with my boisterous puppy alongside’.

It took me a good 10 minutes to look on the bright side. ‘At least the poo test didn’t turn up some hard to treat parasite’, I told myself. ‘I should be glad about that’. And I was.


Right now, it’s early on Saturday morning and I’m writing this in a local café. My kids are away this weekend, and my husband is working in his ‘office’, a wooden shed at the bottom of our garden. Digger is at home alone, extracting his kibble out of his red plastic Kong, a feeding toy with a hole in the side. Across the hole of his red plastic Kong, through which the kibble spills when he pushes it across the courtyard bricks with his nose, I have stuck a bandaid. Why so? Well, the bandaid reduces the size of the hole of the Kong, and stretches the time that Digger takes to extract the kibble to a good half hour. Then, when he is done, Digger will nudge the back door open, which I left ajar, come inside and sit on his chair in my study until I reappear. How do I know this? I know it because I have set up this routine with him over the last year or so, to buy me time to work in the morning – my favourite time to write.

Some people, a lot of people, have dogs who they leave at home for most of the day while they’re at work. They have no choice about this, and their dog accepts it. And they don’t bother with bandaids to reduce the hole of their dog’s feeding toy.

‘You treat that dog like he’s your third child’, my son tells me, not for the first time. There may be some truth in this. I really do care about Digger’s well being. I treat him as if he has a soul. Without saying it aloud, I think that he depends on me to create the conditions in which he can thrive in the short time he spends on this earth. As I say, I don’t say this to other people. Digger is a dog, after all. But I do feel it.

But it’s not just altruism. I also fear the havoc that Digger could wreak in my life – he’s a large dog – if I don’t treat him well. At any time, he could start barking and annoy the neighbours with his booming bark. He could get bored and find compost or other inedibles to eat – leading to big vet bills. Or he could become withdrawn and lose his sociability with young and old – which would be sad for us all.

So you see, I’m not a relaxed dog owner. I know what can go wrong, having had to put our last rescue dog down after she became reactive and threatened to bite people. In part, this is why we got a Labrador, to reduce the risks of this happening again.

However, a Labrador puppy is not a King Charles Spaniel. A Labrador puppy is not a West Highland Terrier. It is not a poodle. A Labrador puppy has buckets of energy – ‘buzz’, we call it – which he needs to release every day in order for him to relax later. When Digger and I are on the beach in the morning, and he is trotting along off lead, he’ll stop trotting and do these huge wheeling circles around other dogs, whether in excitement or in fear even he may not know.

When Digger looks at me in the morning after breakfast, with his ‘Is it time for the beach now?’ expression, I find it impossible to ignore him and to put my own work first. Instead, bar Tuesdays and Thursdays, I arrange my morning work routine around him. After a burst of housekeeping, the two of us head for our local beach.

Even in winter, even when it’s raining, this is a lovely time of day for me. Every time, as we walk back to the car, I silently thank Digger for making me take him to the beach. How lucky am I, I think to myself, to start my day this way? After our walk, Digger will snooze in the car while I write at my computer at a picnic table or, if the weather’s bad, in a cafe. Then we have a second walk before coming back home for the afternoon, during which Digger lies on the back doorstep doing nothing very much while I do my thing inside. Digger can hear me cooking in the kitchen, or tapping the keys in my study. I can hear him shuffling around next door, finding a comfortable spot in the sun to plonk down himself down in. This is our unspoken agreement, our understanding about how our day together works best. And mostly, it does work.

This morning on the beach, Digger and I are rewarded with perfect spring weather. Cold and sunny. Good to be alive sort of weather. When we get to our destination, a pebbly beach, an older man is already on there with two black Labradors. He introduces his dogs as Gus, the elder dog, and Blue, the younger. Digger plays with Blue in the water until, tiring of each other, Digger wanders off, nose the ground, sniffing.

John, the dogs’ owner, is keen to describe to me the white house that he lives in, overlooking the beach I’ve just walked along. ‘Oh yes’, I say. ‘I know it. I park my car near there most days’. Our conversation meanders on, and John tells me about his grandchildren, and the fact that he’s been unable to see them since January. ‘Oh’, I say, ‘that must be hard for you all’.

There’s a pause as John throws a stick into the water for Blue, the younger dog. John turns to me. ‘And you’, he asks, ‘do you have any grandchildren?’ My hand freezes on the stick I’m about to throw. ‘I beg your pardon?’, I want to ask. But I don’t ask this. I instead I laugh, as if it’s a completely normal thing for me to be asked whether I have grandchildren, rather than the gaping existential hole that it feels like from my side of the conversation. ‘Er, no’, I say, ‘my kids are still in their early 20s’.

Perhaps, I thought to myself, it’s the hat and sunglasses that I’m wearing. But no, of course it’s not the hat and sunglasses. This man throwing sticks to his dogs really does think that I could have grandchildren. Just like him.

Walking back along the beach in the sun, nodding to people as I pass, and stopping to let a little boy pat Digger, I consider John’s question. Technically, he is right. I am an age at which, had I had my children younger, I could have grandchildren. From John’s point of view, he was asking a friendly question. In a slightly clumsy way, he was reaching out.

I walk on, drinking in the sun and the breeze. Until this morning, I’d managed to get the world to play into my fantasy that I wasn’t growing older. I was going to stay in my 50s for ever. My kids may leave home, as they’ve both done. But they would keep coming back, as they’ve done. For ever and ever.

However, the man on the pebbly beach with his dogs made it clear that one day, sooner than my fantasy allowed, I might be holding the hand of a grandchild on the beach. If I got lucky, and if life was kind, just like this man, I’d be a grandparent. I too would be chiding a toddler to put a hat back on their head. Or zooming on birthdays during lockdown.

I’m no exception. Like everyone else, I’m on the conveyor belt of life. It doesn’t matter how much flaxseed and kale I eat. Because I’m still wrinkly enough to be mistaken for a grandparent on the beach.

And there I was, worried about some virus that Digger picked up, sniffing around on the beach or the park.

o.w.p. out without a phone

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I used to carry a phone so that the school nurse could contact me if one of my kids fell off the play equipment. It made me feel safe, knowing I was connected, out of sight not out of mind.

 

These days, when I go out in the morning, to walk the dog and to work outside, I leave my phone in the boot of the car. I do this so that I can be in nature and focus on my work. And to prevent my good energy leaking away into the innards of my phone.

 

I think less of myself when I keep checking my phone during the morning. Each time I do it, a bit of my life force seeps away. With each click on a New York Times story, my preferred poison, I feel my morning draining away. It’s not just time that I lose when I do this. It’s also self belief. How can my own writing compete with the slickly edited stories of weighty world events? But mainly it’s time that I lose. The number of minutes that I spend reading New York Times stories has to be doubled to reflect how long it takes me to get back to my own work, after reading on-line. It takes this long to silence the self-doubt that invades me when I read other people’s beautifully edited stories.

 

Last week, fed up with wasting time on my phone, I went into System Preferences, clicked on Accessibility, and faded the screen to grey. Then I wobbled into oblivion those apps that stole my time when I tapped on them compulsively. And I hinted to my family that I might not see text messages they sent during the morning.

 

I always assumed that one day my kids would pack their bags and leave home. And that, when they did, I’d feel inconsolable and useless. I’d feel left behind, like the family dog waiting in vain for the front door to open. But now I think that something else might have to happen before my kids leave home. I might have to leave my kids first, to give them unconscious permission to leave me.

 

I used to think that motherhood was all about surviving my kids unconscious attacks on me. Their taunts and criticisms were, I felt, their way of projecting on to me what they couldn’t bear about themselves. I had to appear stupid so they could be clever, that kind of thing.

 

I was right, I have had to survive my kids’ attacks on me. But now I face something just as hard, perhaps harder. I have to communicate to them, at a deep level, that I will be fine without them, without being sure of this myself. Going out without a phone, or at least having it switched off in the boot of my car, proves to me that I am fine on my own – just as my kids will one day be without me.

 

But perhaps the most important part of being out without a phone is that it gives me a freedom and spaciousness that I thought may never be mine again.

 

 

 

 

 

on needing to get away

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Not everyone feels a need to get away – from home, the people they love, housekeeping, work. I need it the same way I need food and sleep. When I don’t get it, I suffer, which is why I do just about anything to get it.

 

I am thin-skinned, and long since stopped wishing I was otherwise. For me, it’s like having brown eyes and a love of being outdoors. Sometimes I think that I started writing in order to secure time alone, to guarantee that at last some of my day would be given over to spinning out the thoughts inside my head.

 

This part of myself, that needs time alone to focus on the things I find important, hasn’t minded the recent social distancing measures. Not having to socialise, not being allowed to socialise, has been, yes, a relief.

 

I have a family at home, I am not alone. Perhaps I would tell a different story if I were. If anything, adjusting to the presence of four adults at home has heightened my need for time alone. Especially as one of them is currently at a loose end with her foot in a boot from an ankle injury.

 

I’ve liked knowing that I’m not missing out on anything, that there isn’t a party on around the corner to which I wasn’t invited. I’ve liked knowing that every night, after dinner, the four of us will play a game of some kind. This, more than anything, has helped hugely in the project of putting up with each other and bringing us out of ourselves for another night, rounding off the evening before we go our own ways.

 

I don’t want social distancing to last forever. It’s too queer for that. But it’s been interesting to notice what goes on being important even when so much has been put on hold. Trips to the beach with our dog. Surprise texts from friends. Good food at night. Piles of raked up leaves.

 

Will the changes I’ve made to adapt to this situation last? The blocked news sites on my computer, the radio that stays in the cupboard in the kitchen, the podcasts that go unlistened to?

 

What about all the things I promised myself that I would find time for during social distancing? The musical notes on the piano that I was determined to learn. The drawings that I promised myself I’d do every night before bed. The piecrust that I was keen to perfect. But then again, I haven’t caught up with all the movies I’ve missed on Netflix either, which must count for something.

 

I’ve enjoyed going to bed to read that much earlier than I ever did before. Each night I feel weirdly privileged to be able to do this. I like getting up in the morning, doing a bit of yoga, and taking our dog to the local beach. I’ve found real focus working at a picnic table at the local reservoir – sitting at tables that were there way before any pandemic but that I’d never thought to use. I’ve enjoyed getting to know my kids as adults – when they’re not teasing me, that is. Although, even this I know I’ll one day miss. It seems a blessing to have had this extra time with them.

 

When I was growing up, I was encouraged to choose a career that would lead me to be of service to others. And, for periods of my life I have done just that. However, these last few months have been a reminder of just how inessential the writing I currently do is to others. Society can get on quite well without me. I am not at the front line of anything. This is not a good or bad thing, it just is.

 

Three months ago, social distancing felt like a game. I didn’t like the rules of this game, but nor did I feel that it was my right to argue against them. Now that time has gone by and I’ve accepted the rules, I struggle to imagine my life without them. Have I grown used to the bars of my cage?

 

But I don’t think it’s that. It’s something very simple. I have enjoyed feeling less stressed these last few months. I like wearing fewer hats. I have just as much to do – I’ve never done more cooking, housekeeping and home psychotherapy – but I’ve had more time to do it in. The simplicity of paring things down suits me. Raking up piles of leaves because it’s autumn. Making chicken soup because it’s cold and wet. Hanging up washing because it’s sunny outside.

 

I feel nervous of returning to so-called normal life. I fear the return of things that I feel certain I should be doing. The emails I need to send, there are many of these. The people I imagine I owe something to. The work plans I need to make. The whole head trip, as one of my yoga teachers calls it.

 

I didn’t experience an enforced lockdown. I’ll be terrible at this, if I ever have to. Yet I have got something from this shake up. A feeling that perhaps what I have is enough. And this feels like a good thing to have realised.

on caring about things I don’t care about

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On Monday afternoon, a public holiday, I made a swoop on my wardrobe, removed eight unsuspecting garments and took them straight out to my car where I laid them on the back seat. Perhaps I’d have worn these clothes again. Perhaps I’ll regret my impulse. However having wriggle room in my wardrobe seemed worth the risk of any future regret. Having enough space between the hangers to be able to push clothes across the bar to slot in a jacket without squashing flat the clothes either side of it, seemed a privilege.

 

Someone else might not care about an overfilled wardrobe. Personally, I’d like to be the kind of person who is above caring about such things. The kind of person who doesn’t notice when their barbecue stops working. The kind of person who shoves overdue library books to the back of a cupboard, and who keeps on using their dishwasher even after noticing that the catch is missing on the arm on the floor of the machine. Instead, I am the kind of person who is unable to receive email on her phone because, on New Year’s morning, I removed the email app from my phone to free up space in my mind. Which was all very well, until yesterday, when I realised that without email on my phone boarding a plane this weekend would prove tricky.

 

We’re supposed not to care about the little things, the trivial things which stop us from concentrating on more important things. My husband is particularly good at this, at compartmentalising. He can shut out everything from his mind, bar toothache, in order to focus on a work deadline. Sadly this skill eludes me.

 

Whenever I edit a manuscript, I use an orange pen to make corrections. I find the orange colour satisfying against the black typeface, and enjoy making messy notes in the margins. When I work in a cafe, which I often do in the morning, I’ve learned to keep my diary in my bag so that I can jot down things that I need to do once I get home – emails, errands, chores. Writing these things down really works for me. I can note them down, knowing they are safe in my diary, and then return my thoughts to work. However, lately my resolve has loosened. There are just too many orange notes in my diary. And so, instead of concentrating on work, my mind strays to the plants I’ve left to dry out in their pots, the household budget I’ve promised myself to start, the barbecue that isn’t working properly and the broken dishwasher arm that needs replacing.

 

Try as I might, I’ve never managed to get interested in the workings of our domestic appliances. I know how to unclog the drains of our dishwasher and washing machines, simply because I find it agony waiting for a technician to come and fix them for me. However my relation to our barbecue has always been fraught. I love it when I can put kebabs on its hotplate and go off for a walk and return home to a cool kitchen. But I hate cleaning the hotplate and find the gas canister annoying. Is it about to run out? Why is it so hard to connect?

 

I know it’s ridiculous to be complaining about domestic appliances. It isn’t a serious problem. (Australia is burning, I know.) My barbecue problem is a first world hassle. Except, what if my reluctance to get our barbecue and dishwasher fixed is in some way linked to society’s neglect of the planet? What if I’m among a whole generation of people who would prefer to chuck their broken barbecue, or go without one, rather than drive to an out-of-town outdoors store to get it fixed? What if I’m one of many who doesn’t want the hassle of taking a photo of their offending dishwasher part before contacting the distributor to replace it? What if I choose not to care?

 

On Monday afternoon, after putting in my car the clothes that I didn’t want because I wanted space in my wardrobe more, I disconnected the barbecue and put it and the empty gas canister into the boot. Then I gathered a stack of library books and put them in a bag on the front seat. Next it was a bag of glass bottles and jars to take to the health-food shop for reuse, and a third bag of clean plastics for recycling. I even got the mascara wand that MAC cosmetics claims to recycle, and slipped it in my yoga bag, so that, after class the next morning, I could visit the department store to exchange my mascara wand for a new one, and then on to the phone shop to reinstall the email app on my phone.

 

These things are trivial. Of course they are. Ultimately I don’t give a damn about any of them. And yet things like these prey on me. Because if I don’t care about recycling beauty products, I say to myself, why should anyone else care about them either? And since I don’t want to live in a world in which no-one cares about the life cycle of plastics, the next morning I take my mascara wand back to the cosmetics lady who gives me a stamp on a card which – after five more stamps – will result in a free mascara wand. Oh joy. And the barbecue, I find out after driving out of town and returning home again, requires no more than a $3 cap – plus two 40-minute return trips to drop it off yesterday and pick it up today.

 

‘Good’, I read somewhere last week, ‘is the overcoming of inertia’. This seems right to me. Goodness isn’t about not sinning. It’s about getting over the hump of my own reluctance to do those things that make a difference to my life, and that of others. It’s about having the kind of energy that allows me to tick off tasks that unconsciously I don’t care about but consciously do care about – damn it.

 

Now all I have to do is attach the gas canister to the barbecue and put six sausages and three potatoes, cut into wedges, on to the hotplate before walking the dog before dinner. No worries!

on having enough time

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I thought I knew myself pretty well. But then, three months ago, my daughter went overseas and I discovered that I didn’t. Having spent 22 years being an active mother, I knew myself mainly in relation to family. Writing and teaching took me away from family. But never very far. As soon as the school phoned up, or one of my kids were sick, there I was, on call. There was a comfortable familiarity that went with this. I liked knowing that I was needed, that I was making a difference to the family I loved. I didn’t mind my day being structured around the needs of others. There were times when I moaned about this. But I liked the way it took me outside myself and into the world of others.

 

I’d known for a while that my daughter wanted to travel. I knew that she needed to prove her independence. I wanted this for her too. But until farewelling her at the airport, I didn’t believe that she could leave without a backward glance. My son had travelled for three years, so I understood what her absence would mean intellectually. My husband traveled regularly too, something I’d accepted as part of the order of things. But the absence of my daughter, with whom I’d spent way more time than I had my husband or son, was harder to absorb.

 

I thought I would hate the late afternoons, when my daughter and I normally walked the dog. But within a few days of her being gone, I realised that it was something else I felt. It was a kind of wonder. Now it was just my husband and dog who needed me. However their need for me felt less continuous than my daughter’s had felt. My husband and my dog weren’t emotionally present to me when they were elsewhere, as my daughter until that point had been. I didn’t feel beholden to them in the same way. Besides, my husband worked insanely hard and my dog was a puppy with needs I’d long known I couldn’t meet.

 

Feeling off the hook, as a mother, was another thing entirely. It took me a few weeks to register the difference. For the first time I could remember, there seemed enough hours in the day. I still ran out of time. I still had the feeling that I couldn’t fit everything in. Supper was inevitably late. However I had an increasing sense that things were, to a greater extent than before, up to me. I could now do things that just hadn’t been possible when family concerns had washed through my mind, like the extended drying cycle on the clothes drier.

 

I thought I’d feel adrift, lonely. Actually, at certain points I did feel lonely, achingly so. But I also felt moments of exhilarating freedom. The flip side of loneliness, I discovered, was freedom. And I could only access the freedom that I’d been longing for without knowing I’d been longing for it, by enduring some loneliness. This loneliness didn’t hurt. It wasn’t painful. But it did feel strange, to be on my own without a child to look after. It was almost unearthly, the way loneliness sprang on me when I least expected it, and left no mark.

 

Eventually I realised that loneliness had something to teach me. Either I could babysit myself, by filling up the windy spaces with podcasts, on-line news and trips to the cinema. Or I could flick shut my laptop and work out what I really wanted to do with the new bits of time that life had afforded me. If I so chose, I could pick up interests that were but faint memories, glowing embers. Initially this was uncomfortable. I’d sit at the piano and feel like a 7-year-old practicing my scales before dinner. I’d do a drawing and become self-critical of my efforts. I spend time in the garden, distracted by all the other things I should be doing.

 

After a few weeks I relaxed, realising that I had two and a half months of aloneness ahead of me. My daughter wasn’t gone for good, this time at least. Yet I knew that one day, any day, her absence would be permanent. On that day my daughter would move out of home and into her own orbit. These three months, then, were my trial run. A chance to be the centre of my own universe. What was I to do with it? Would it be an opportunity or a curse? Was it the beginning of the end, of everything-is-downhill-from-here? Or was it the beginning of something that as yet I had no words for, something that I’d been longing for without knowing it?

 

I tell you what I did. I went to the newsagent and bought an A2 sheet of cardboard and a packet of star stickers in five colours. On the cardboard I drew, in pencil without a ruler, a 6-week calendar – which I’d read somewhere is the length of time needed to create a new habit. In each square of the calendar, at the end of each day, I stuck a star for each time I did morning yoga, practised sight reading at the piano, and did a drawing after dinner. It sounds childish. It is childish. But mostly it worked. I needed an external marker for my efforts, to help me over the hump I had to overcome when faced with activities that I wanted to do, but didn’t have to do. Easing into a distraction was eternally easier than getting myself to play the piano, or to sew. Who would have thought that it could be so hard to sit down on a piano stool or to take out a pad of paper and pencils after dinner? Doing yoga, thankfully, was a little easier, perhaps because I’d been doing this for longer and so resisted it less.

 

My daughter has been back for five days now, and the squares on my star chart for these five days are empty. She, of course, laughs at my star chart. In the most natural way, she plonks her I-am-the-centre-of-the-universe way of being into the middle of my mind. I can no more ignore her presence than the surf wax, leg ropes, wet suits and shells that are strewn through my previously tidy house. Meanwhile my husband goes about his work, barely affected by her return. And the dog accepts her back as if she left the house the day before yesterday. I, meanwhile, am no longer lonely. But I’m not free either. Time I got back to putting some stars on that chart.