helen hayward

life writing

Category: Real Life

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?

my biggest yoga teaching fear

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Since starting to teach yoga, eleven weeks ago, my deepest fear has been this. I would arrive at the studio, put in the door code, switch on some music, light a candle, get out the mats, block and straps from the cupboard. And then nothing. No-one would come to class. I would be alone in the studio.

 

Two days ago, this nearly happened. Minutes after my 6.30pm class was due to start, I was alone in the studio. But then, thankfully, Sally and her gymnast daughter slipped in late. Sally usually comes to my Friday lunch-time class, not my Thursday evening class, so I was surprised – and relieved – to see her. And yet despite this relief, for the first ten minutes of class my brain didn’t work properly. I stuck to my sequence. I didn’t give the wrong cues. Still, my mind was all over the place. Questions kept coming at me, like an automatic ball machine on a tennis court. ‘Where were my regulars? Why hadn’t they let me know they weren’t coming?’ And then, the question driving all the others. ‘Surely this was confirmation that I was a bad yoga teacher?’

 

Thankfully, after the first ten minutes, I snapped out of my funk and focused on teaching the sequence I’d prepared. Sally and her daughter had come for a yoga class, I reminded myself, not to form the chorus in their teacher’s bad dream.

 

Yesterday morning I had just enough time to do some work before taking my dog to the beach so that he’d flop on the backseat of the car while I was teaching my lunchtime class. Arranging my morning to give Digger a run on the beach is inconvenient. Yet I love being by the sea when I’m there. I love the way it takes me away from everything that’s happening on land, and invites chats with other dog owners. Which is why I always leave the beach with a thank you to Digger for making me take him.

 

When I got to the studio, after being at the beach, there was only just enough time to switch on the light, pull out my notes, roll out three mats, light a candle and turn on some music. Perhaps this is why it wasn’t until a few minutes after 1pm that I looked at my watch. Only then did it hit me. No-one was there. I was alone. I waited to hear the click of the gate, but there was quiet. Did that mean no-one was coming?

 

Perhaps because I’d rehearsed this moment, so many times, panic didn’t come. Instead I sat cross legged on my mat and breathed. Then I had a distinct thought. I wasn’t completely alone in the studio. I was someone. And given the ache in my lower back, perhaps from the stress the night before, I needed to do some yoga. I could, if I wanted, do yoga all by myself.

 

Uncrossing my legs, I took a deep breath and stood at the top of my mat, as if it was the most usual thing in the world to start a class without any students. First, I did two roll-downs. Then I stepped back into plank, holding for a breath deep into my belly and, on an exhale, lowering into sphinx and up again into downdog.

 

At which point Ruth entered the studio, wearing her bike helmet and apologising for being late. Ruth is quiet, or at least quieter than my other students. Rather than feeling embarrassed to be doing yoga alone, I felt glad to be able to give Ruth a one-to-one, and to get to know her better outside the group. Except that then, just as Ruth and I were getting the hang of doing yoga together, Dee arrived and unrolled her mat. Without so much as a roll down, she joined in our sequence. ‘I just felt’, she said, by way of explanation, ‘that I really needed half an hour of me-time’.

 

I didn’t feel surprised when Dee arrived twenty minutes late for class. Because by that point I knew that I didn’t know what would happen next, apart from teaching the yoga sequence that I’d prepared earlier in the week, when teaching to an empty studio was still my big yoga teaching fear.

 

At the end of class, after I mentioned a break over Christmas and New Year, Sally and Ruth thanked me. ‘I feel that I’ve found your class at just the right moment’, said Sally, clicking the council gate shut behind her. ‘I’m so glad’, I said, as I headed for my car, where my dog was peering over the backseat.

 

Assuming I keep on teaching yoga, there will probably be more occasions on which I set up the studio and no-one comes to class. Perhaps my fear will keep on being realised until I move on from it, until I don’t need it anymore. Until, that is, I feel confident that I’m not a bad teacher.

 

Yesterday, when I practiced yoga in the empty studio, I was proud of myself for not losing it. My biggest yoga teaching fear wasn’t, it turned out, the horrible experience that my fantasy had told me it would be. My world didn’t cave in. Besides, there seemed no point being embarrassed when there was no-one there to feel embarrassed in front of. Instead, after a small wobble, I got on with my yoga sequence, as if I myself was someone worth teaching.

 

 

 

 

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!

to be creative or not

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I think about playing the piano a lot. I imagine drawing after dinner. I fantasise about how my garden might look. But then I let myself be put off. I move the plants I want to plant near the back door. I even water them. But I don’t get around to planting them. I listen to my daughter pound the piano keys as I busy myself in the kitchen. At night, instead of getting out my drawing things and putting on some music, I pull out The Guardian Weekly and immerse myself in important world events.

I have good excuses for not being creative. I am busy. I have writing deadlines, yoga classes to teach, washing to hang up, a dog to walk, a family to cook for. I don’t twiddle my thumbs. Yet I seem incapable of prioritising my time to make room for my own desires. Am I so timid? Am I really so afraid of failing? Have I internalised such high expectations that my creative efforts are more of a struggle than they need to be? Does my inner critic even care if I fumble to read the notes on piano pieces? Does it matter if my drawings are not wildly good? Will anyone notice if I plant things in the wrong place or a few don’t thrive?

What stops me investing in those things that I want to do, over and above necessity? Am I lazy? Or is it that I exhaust all my energy doing things I feel I have to do, leaving precious little for the things I care about more? Am I waiting for my kids to leave home? For retirement? Or am I just bad at organising my time, letting the demands of housework lord it over my creativity?

I am not lazy. I am capable of organising my time. But I do struggle with loose time, always have – even before technology came along and gobbled up so much of it. Thinking about it, if drawing and gardening and playing the piano were my job, they’d be easier to prioritise. Even yoga, now that I’m teaching it, is easier because it’s not optional. I need to do yoga regularly in order to teach it, and so I do. But the rest, well it’s just harder. Accountable only to myself, I defer and put off.

Now I have admitted my problem, what now? Do I cajole, harass or bully myself? Or just sit with it, play with it and see what follows? Any tips gratefully received. Otherwise, I’ll keep you posted.

3 questions

A good friend, keen for people to share the intimate meaning of their life with others, asked me to take part in her facebook page, TheKeyof3, by answering three questions. Here goes:

1. What is something important that you have learned in your life?

I have learned that an embarrassingly large part of my mental life is given over to resisting things – to putting them off. As I write this I can picture a sizeable cupbard in my mind, stuffed with things that I don’t want to do. From a 3-month-overdue letter to my mother-in-law, to niggly household admin. There is nothing new or surprising about this. Most of us feel nagged by the things we know we should do. However, where once I chastised myself and wrote admonishing lists, now I shrug and move on. I still keep a list. But I measure success differently. (Even ticking one item off my list each day feels like success.) For I have learned that I will never overcome my resistance to the things I don’t want to do. But nowadays I’m able to distinguish my resistance to writing to my mother-in-law (in my head) from picking up a pen and writing to her (in reality). Increasingly, but not always, I’m able to push myself over the hill of my resistance and to see tasks for what they are. What a relief!

2. What act of kindness has most profoundly affected your life?

For nearly 20 years I lived in London, after growing up in Adelaide. Although I flew to the UK in a plane, there is a way in which, existentially, I fled there after my father died. I didn’t feel at home on my childhood home, and decided that I may as well live on the other side of the world. I will ever be grateful to the people who befriended me when I got to London, who saw in me something that I couldn’t see in myself, probably because I was in flight from it. A young Australian in London, I was welcomed into many people’s homes – for a weeknight dinner, a weekend on the coast, an Easter-egg hunt. Countless kindnesses – little things that felt like a very big thing – were shown me. So powerful was this experience that I have spent the rest of my life returning my own kindnesses to others.

3. What have you done to overcome a significant challenge in your life?

This year I completed a yoga teacher training course, along with 22 others. I took the course as a dare. It was my way of preparing myself to age gracefully. It wasn’t planning to become a yoga teacher. However, the effect of the training was to plant the seed of a desire to teacher yoga to others, as a way of passing on something that has been of immense sanity-keeping value in my life so far. The average age, among the trainees, was 28, and I am well into my 50s. Mostly, during the 5-month course, I ignored my age. But despite doing handstands and the occasional wheel, the more I ignored my age the more it wouldn’t go away. My challenge, on completing the training, was to put aside the teasing of my grown-up kids and to book a studio, not knowing if anyone would come to my yoga class. I overcame this challenge, this fear, by trusting in something deeper than my conscious doubts, and by using as my mantra the phrase, ‘This is the yoga’, whenever blind fear breaks through my faith in something deeper. This is the phrase that the lead yoga teacher used as a refrain whenever obstacles – COVID, injury, any contingency really – came up. Because obstacles do come up. Doing this course taught me that I overcome obstacles by doing the scary thing anyway. And just maybe this, rather than success, is what matters.

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.

pre-yoga

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I’ve never done my 10-minute morning yoga practice and then wished I hadn’t done it. I always thank myself as I roll up my mat. And each time I do, I wonder why I had to mentally force myself to unroll my mat before starting.

 

I blame the clock in the bathroom. No matter how obediently I turn off bedside alarm, count up to 20 and push of the covers, by the time I brush my teeth in the bathroom across the hall, peaking out the window to see what kind of morning it is, the clock on the bath tells me that 20 minutes have passed since I woke up. How, I wonder, can that be? My alarm went off at 6.30am, as it always does. And yet the clock on the bath is telling me, seemingly three minutes later, that it’s 6.50am.

 

Despite my befuddled waking, I do a short yoga practice nearly every morning. I do it because my body needs it, and because my day goes better when I do. I think of it as pre-yoga. Now that my body is middle-aged, doing yoga in the morning isn’t optional. It’s basic maintenance. To the point that when I don’t do it, my body soon tells me. And it certainly isn’t ready for the kind of yoga that awaits me in the yoga classes that I attend twice a week.

 

Habits are hard to make and easy to lose. Luckily, I cemented my yoga habit a few years ago, well before my yoga teacher training. It was a habit that arose out of necessity. I didn’t mind that, every year, I was getting older. But I did mind feeling less nimble, less flexy. I minded feeling less Tigger-ish, less bouncy. Doing yoga helped hugely with this. It helped me to stand up straight and to look life in the eye – an especially good feeling to have once my kids’ grew taller than me and started looking down at me from above.

 

10 minutes of yoga each morning, with or without a mat, is enough for me to bend with straight legs when I’m gardening. I even enjoy bursts of housework when I can throw myself into it, knowing that it will soon be over. Often, I’ll pull on yoga leggings before gardening and housekeeping. Because wearing them lets me bend into corners and down into a squat, without stretching the knees of my trousers. Plus, they’re easy to launder.

 

But then along came yoga teacher training, and lots of things went out the window to make way for it. The gardening and housework still got done, sort of. I still bent from the waist and felt fairly agile. However, once the training started, four months ago, my 10 minutes of yoga first thing had to compete with a lengthening list of morning must-dos.

 

Over the final assessment weekend of teacher training, I attended 8 sessions led by fellow students, not including my own. We were all nervous. But somehow we overcame our nerves to teach a good class. When my turn came round, I’m not sure if I overcame my nerves, or just kept up with them. During that hour I felt slightly out of control and, well, weird. That said, the final weekend was a positive experience, at the end of which I felt relieved, glad and a bit sad.

 

The day after the course ended, I felt a twinge in my hip which I thought nothing of. Too many standing balances, I said to myself. Too many mornings spent sitting crosslegged outdoors in front of my computer, during my son’s home quarantine. None of these things did I consider a problem. The osteopath, who I saw a week later, disagreed. Frowning, he gave me a complicated term for the sore spot on the top of my thigh bone and told me to rest it.

 

Looking back, I realise that the quiet hysteria surrounding the completing of my yoga teacher training course – of getting into the studio every other weekend by 7.30am and remaining there until 5.30pm – meant skipping the morning yoga that makes my body strong enough to do challenging yoga poses. Instead I’d been freewheeling tricky poses – crane and lotus and handstands – that assume either youth or a strong core.

 

So now I am back at square one. I am a green yoga instructor with a small bursitis at the top of my right femur. It is healing. I am taking turmeric, vitamin C and omega oils. More importantly, I am doing my 10-minute pre-yoga practice most mornings. I now know a lot more about yoga, and understand myself a bit better. ‘This’, our yoga teacher was fond of telling us, ‘is the yoga’.

waiting

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We spend a lot of our life waiting. For a test result. For an important email. For onions to cook. For dawn to break.

 

The thing about waiting is that, often, we don’t know when it will end.

 

My current waiting began last Tuesday, when I asked three friends to read two chapters of a manuscript that I’m soon to send to my agent, who I feel sure will say that Housekeeping: A journey is too memoirish for her to sell in the current market. I asked three friends for feedback because I wanted a sympathetic response from readers who ‘got’ the ideas I’ve written about, before I get all defensive in my attempt to describe, in a back of the envelope sort of way, what my manuscript is really about for the publishing world.

 

Five long days after sending this email to three friends, one of them got back.

 

‘Enjoying your ms a lot’, she texted. ‘What is the take out?’

 

I texted back. ‘The take out is that housekeeping grounds us and, when we do it in the right spirit, it makes us feel good about ourselves’.

 

‘Okay’, she texted back, sounding unconvinced.

 

I tried again. ‘Housekeeping is caring about countless things that we otherwise wouldn’t care about for the sake of a well-run, pleasant home.

 

‘More personal!’ she texted back.

 

‘Maybe just read the introduction’ I texted, and we left it there.

 

My manuscript is written in the first person, which makes the waiting for a response to it that much harder. Because if a reader doesn’t like my manuscript, I’m likely to feel, in an ungrown-up part of myself, rejected, disapproved of. This is awkward to admit. It makes me sympathise with Virginia Woolf, who used to fall apart whenever she finished a manuscript and posted it off to a friend to read. Except that I don’t write as well as Virginia Woolf. And I am, as far as I know, mentally stable.

 

The three women who I asked to read part of my current manuscript have all replied to me, promising to read and respond. Each time I received one of their emails, I emailed back, thanking them for their support and stressing that there was no urgency, and should take as much time as they liked. The ungrown-up part of me thought this reasoning of mine was very bad. Why should I feel sympathy for the busyness of my friends’ lives when I was desperate to know if my manuscript was readable, acceptable, interesting?

 

However, my grown-up self, knowing how easily my request for a favour from friends could feel like a demand, managed not to ask them to hurry up and respond.

 

Instead I wait. I distract myself with projects at home. I shampoo the carpets. I dig the garden. I write this blog, confident that the three friends who I asked to read my manuscript, don’t read my blog. I catch up on the work that I put aside to finish Housekeeping: A journey and my recent yoga course. And I wait for my son’s quarantine to end, counting down the days (three) before I’m allowed back into the yoga studio and am able to invite friends for dinner.

 

My agent has left Sydney for good, after living in the same inner city flat for thirty odd years. Last week, she taped up eighty boxes and headed for the mountains. Only the packing up proved so stressful for her that she landed up in a country hospital with an acute infection. This prompted a sympathetic email from me, telling her to let me know when the coast was clear, at which point I’d send through to her my manuscript for her to read. After all, I reasoned, how could reading my manuscript compete with leaving your home, your friends, and recovering from an acute infection?

 

From the outside, waiting is a pause, a hiatus. From the inside, it feels like a thing that I am doing. I am not twiddling my thumbs. I am not writing messages across the sky. I am waiting.