HelenHayward

life writing

Category: Real Life

too much pleasure

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The front door clicked shut. Standing in front of my laptop at the kitchen table, a new habit of mine, I sank into a piece of writing.

Ten minutes later, my phone rang.

‘Did you get cheese for tonight?’ Paul asked. To anyone else, this question would be innocent. Only Paul and I had been together for 30 years, and we left innocence behind long ago.

‘Actually’, I said, ‘I thought I’d serve dessert instead of cheese this time.’

‘Couldn’t we have both?’ Paul asked, with annoyance in his voice. ‘Or would that cause too much pleasure?’

For a few seconds neither of us spoke.

‘Tell me’, asked Paul, ‘what exactly is the problem with having cheese?’

‘Well’, I said, sounding defensive, ‘I was trying to keep the food simple. You know me.’ I waited for Paul to reply. When he didn’t, I tried again. ‘I wasn’t sure if we’d have enough plates and cutlery and would rather not have to wash up between courses. Besides I’ve already got dessert, won’t that be enough?’

The phone went dead.

I gazed out the kitchen window, shrugged inwardly, and tried to get back to my work.

 

*     *     *

 

‘I just want to make myself some lunch’, said Paul, coming into the kitchen 15 minutes later. ‘Of course’, I said, moving my papers off the kitchen table. But even in my study I couldn’t think straight, and went back into the kitchen.

‘I guess’, I said. ‘I guess I’d hoped that the counselling we’re doing might help us see tensions like these differently. Rather than fatal, perhaps they’re inevitable. I don’t know’, I said, waiting for a response, ‘they might even be interesting.’

‘You’ve got to be kidding’, said Paul, on the edge of shouting. ‘I have zero interest in conflicts like these. Look’, he said, exasperated. ‘It’s my birthday. I just want to have a nice day and get some work done before tonight.’

‘I know’, I said. ‘Of course. Except it’s on your birthday that this often comes up. Wouldn’t it be better to talk about it now, than risk it blowing up just before friends arrive tonight?’

‘I’m really not interested in discussing it’, said Paul, shouting now. ‘I feel like you’re setting me up to look bad. And it’s only with you that I’m like this.’

‘I’m sorry’, said, trying not to frown. ‘But we’re married and we just do impact on each other in ways we can’t fix’.

‘Oh, this is so boring!’ exploded Paul, peering into the saucepan to check if the water was boiling.

I left the room. Five minutes later I returned. Paul was eating large pockets of ravioli, smearing them with butter as he ate. I felt hungry. Had I come back, his glance asked, to spoil his lunch? I opened the door to go out and then closed it again.

‘Can’t we do better than this?’ I asked. ‘We only have one life and I don’t care if you hate me sometimes. I know I can be annoying. I know you think that I spoil your pleasure and make you feel complicated about yourself. But can’t we get beyond that? I know you think I don’t do indulgence very well. That I care too much about health. But so what? We already know this. Is this what really matters? Can’t it be something that we accept and move on from? I can’t make that part of myself go away, any more than you can make the pleasure loving part of yourself go away.’

There was a brief silence.

‘Maybe we’re not very well suited’, suggested Paul flatly.

‘But we already know that’, I said, impatient. ‘Of course it would be good to be better suited. But I don’t care that much that we’re not. Isn’t our life together more important than our differences? For me, our efforts to get on with each other are valuable because it’s so not easy’.

Paul put his plate in the sink.

‘Perhaps we’re both nervous’, I offered.

‘I’m not’, he said. ‘I’m excited about tonight. At least, I was until 30 minutes ago’.

‘Ok’, I said, looking at my watch, ‘good for you’, and grabbed my car keys and headed out the front door.

*     *     *

The dinner went well. None of the friends who came would have guessed that Paul and I had shouted at each other in the kitchen earlier that day. One friend arrived early to help in the kitchen, which meant that I could leave the pans on the hob and change my clothes, without burning the food. By the time I got the main course on the table, the food was a little cold, because I couldn’t think of a way of keeping the meal hot until we were ready to eat it, without turning off the oven. But no-one seemed to mind. John served a cheese course. A friend insisted on lighting candles with dessert and singing happy birthday. The conversation round the table broke up into groups and everyone seemed to have their say. I cleaned up in the kitchen as the dinner went along, with intermittent breaks in the kitchen with the dog, which meant I didn’t feel overwhelmed by mess when the front door closed for the last time. Paul drank too much but not too too much and was genuinely funny, in a way he loves to be, towards midnight. And this morning we got some genuinely appreciative texts from friends.

you can never get enough of something that’s not quite enough

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Early evening, when I have nothing else on and have housekeeping to do, I’ll click on The Guardian and The New York Times websites. I’ll just read a few stories, I tell myself, before getting on with emails, housework and cooking – and whatever else I should be doing. I deserve a break, I tell myself. And I’m curious at what has happened outside my tiny bubble during the day. I might stop scrolling for a moment, to drain overcooked rice, or to feed the dog. But for up to an hour, most evenings, I’ll stand at the kitchen bench, clicking on news stories. It’s my new bad habit.

 

I know that it’s impossible to get enough of something that’s not quite enough. I know this because last night I read Tristan Harris’s talk about tech addiction. However, early evening, night after night, I act as if I don’t know this. My addiction isn’t a vice, I say to myself. It doesn’t harm any organ of my body. Unless, that is, my soul is an organ.

 

Initially, scrolling through news sites, I feel pure escape. What, I wonder, has the rest of the world been up to, while I’ve been writing and housekeeping and walking the dog? Within seconds, I’m immersed in stories about people I’ll never meet, in places I’m unlikely to visit. Yet this scrolling, reading, and scrolling some more, is oddly stressful. It’s not one bit relaxing. Last night, I oggled at the fleshy chins on Prince Andrew, pondering all that privilege gone wrong. I asked myself what the Hong Kong riots were really, deeply, about. I ached at climate events – at the description of a man who, facing a galloping bushfire, threw himself on the ground in the dirt until it passed.

 

After ten minutes, which feel like three, of reading in this way, I could feel myself wearying of a world that was so messed up that even the headlines made my stomach churn. However beautifully the NYTimes journalists wrote, ultimately they, and I, were part of the same problem. We were all part of the spider’s web that had me scrolling at the kitchen table, rather gardening or housekeeping or walking the dog. We were all part of a problem which appeals to a baseness in our nature. The websites were designed to encourage me to click on stories despite myself, and then come back for more, never quite satisfied. Stories that made me feel grubby, scratching me in ways that left me thinking less of myself for engaging with them.

 

But the real question was more confronting, more intimate. If I didn’t give away this hour, early evening, to engrossing journalism, what else might I do with it? With both of my kids away, I face a strange, new vacuum at the end of my day. After 22 years of juggling homework, activities and the prepping of food, now there’s a lull early evening.

 

I deserve this time, I tell myself. I’ve worked hard for it. I’ve longed for it. And there are nights when do I love it, relish it. But other nights it comes on me unawares, stalking me into darkness. It leaves me at a loose end. It feels all wrong. Where, I ask the dog, is everyone? Why is it so quiet?

 

Last night, by the time night fell, inky black staring through the windows where the garden had just been, I’d given up trying to make something of the hour before dinner. I may as well read a few more stories, I told myself, before walking the dog round the block. Just one more story, I said to myself. ‘Oh yeah’, I heard my soul reply.

 

As if under a spell, I leaned on the kitchen table, reading beautifully edited, often thoughtful news stories. As I read, the world around me expanded and shrank. I didn’t sit down. Because this would mean admitting an intention which I wouldn’t allow myself. For I knew that I had better – or just other – things to be doing. Just as I knew, deep in myself, that I could never get enough of something that wasn’t quite enough. But, then again, nor did I feel lonely.

 

The dog settled patiently on the rug, waiting, as he does every night, for my daughter’s return from Africa. Until, hearing him sigh, I clapped the laptop shut. I felt cross with myself at having thrown away an hour of my life to on-line what ifs. Poof! Gone, just like that. In 15 minutes’ time, my husband would come into the kitchen expecting dinner – thankfully I’d cooked the rice and prepped the meat. Still, I’d done it again.

 

The dog looked up, hopeful. He didn’t mind walking around the block in the dark, rather than taking a bush track at dusk. He knew no better. But I did. I knew that I wanted more than I ever got from reading news stories on-line. I knew that clicking and scrolling left me feeling dissatisfied, fed up with my will-lessness and powerlessness to change anything in the world a meaningful way.

 

Perhaps tonight will be different. Except I know myself well enough to know that hoping my tech problem will just go away won’t work. However, blocking The Guardian website from my desktop, just might.

 

 

 

 

 

handyman

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

later

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

where there’s smoke

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Last week my daughter, worried about bushfires, downloaded the local fire department app on to her phone. Yesterday at breakfast, before we’d finished eating, the colour of the small diamond shapes across the map of our state had changed from white to yellow, and a few to red, reflecting the danger level of the bushfires currently burning.

 

Six months ago, waiting for the kettle to boil to fill my hot water bottle late at night, I read about the fires raging across the state of California. The journalist was such a good writer that I could almost smell smoke. Yet it was sympathy not empathy I felt for Californians faced with days on end of being unable to open their windows, there being no fresh air to let in, only ash and smog.

 

When we lived in Melbourne, nearly ten years ago, bad fires and relentless summer heat were part of what led us to move south. One memorable morning I woke to a red sky. By afternoon the temperature outside was so hot that when I went out to drape a sheet over the stakes supporting our tomato plants, I heard a thud and turned to see that a possum had fallen out of a tree behind me.

 

This morning I woke around dawn to the smell of smoke. Opening the bathroom window, which overlooks Mount Wellington, I saw a sleepy suburb, street lights still on, blanketed in smoke. Forcing myself not to look at my bedside clock, I shut the windows and went back to bed with a heavy heart.

 

At 6am, when my alarm went off for early yoga, I was staring at the ceiling. The second half of yoga class was given over to partner work, which I did with a young woman who, when I enquired whether she was worried about the fires, looked puzzled. ‘I don’t really know about them’, she said. ‘I don’t read the news and I meditate a lot. I only know there are fires because a friend, who lives near one of them, is worried about her animals’. ‘Really?’ I said, impressed by her quiet self-possession, clear blue eyes, and willingness not to know about fires with a combined front of 720 km.

 

Last night, on one of the only local bush tracks not closed to the public, I admitted to my daughter that I would be glad when the next day, today, was over. And, though I’m not religious, I said a little prayer in my head.

 

*     *     *

 

Now that day is over. Though the fires were bad, are still bad, they were not as bad as they could have been. Thankfully it is possible to go outside again, though only for short bursts. The windows of our house remain closed.

 

Perhaps, like the young woman in my yoga class, it would be better to meditate than to ruminate. But it strikes me that I come from a generation which isn’t doing a very good job of looking after this planet. Our capacity for denying our collective responsibility seems limitless. I don’t like to think about how much wildlife must have fallen from trees in the path of recent wildfires, still burning across this state.

 

 

blue light

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Late at night, when I should be tucked up in bed, I’d read stories on-line about the potential for harm to the retina from the blue light thrown by computer screens – particularly the way it suppresses melatonin and makes it harder to sleep. Snapping my computer shut and going guiltily to bed, I’d forget all about the blue light thrown by screens the next day. Until, two months ago, I read a fellow blogger’s post about her improved eyesight – she’s a journalist – after installing a blue-light cancelling filter on her laptop.

 

Around the age I am now my father asked me to read to him the daily share index from the newspaper, as I sat by his hospital bed after a cataract operation – months later repeated on his other eye. Cocooned by youth, never for a moment did I link my father’s eye problems with my own future eyesight. Till one day, earlier this year, I sat with my chin on a plastic shelf, looking into a new diagnostic retina camera, during a routine eye check-up, and heard an opthamology student mumble something about early signs of glaucoma to the assistant by his side. After a worried return visit, a more senior optician, who I usually see, set my mind at rest about early signs of cataracts or, worse, glaucoma – which my mother and aunt both suffered. The early signs of eye disease, picked up by the opthamology student, were shared by most people over a certain age; and, he reassured, weren’t a predictor of disease.

 

Nevertheless it was these memories that drew me to the journalist’s post about the benefits of blue-light cancelling software, and that led me to respond to the blogger’s urging to download free software. Looking at my laptop screen, after first installing this software – though I should admit that I asked my daughter to download it – made me feel as if I was wearing sunglasses inside the house. The screen had a yellowy hue. However I instantly forgave it because having it installed on my computer (and phone) lifted from my mind a weight I hadn’t known I’d been carrying. Installing blue-light cancelling software – which I adjusted to come on whenever my computer and phone is on, rather than as the sun goes down – had the immediate effect of stopping me worrying about eye disease in old age. I’m not so dim as to think a screen filter will shield me from eye problems, but I did feel that installing it was a form of insurance for my eye health into the future.

 

Three days later something unexpected, a bonus, happened. My eyes, which often felt irritated after working long hours on the screen, stopped feeling red and irritated, even after hours on the screen. Next I started leaving my glasses at home when I went out and worked on my computer. Having worn glasses on and off for years, I never imagined that I might come to need them less. Of course this software isn’t miraculous. I still read small print better with my glasses on. But I don’t need glasses the way I used to; mostly I can take them or leave them.

 

This leads me to wonder why opticians, and the media, aren’t more open about the potential benefits of blue-light cancelling software. Do we really want to raise a generation of squinty-eyed kids in need of eye surgery? Are we waiting for twenty-year controlled experiments to confirm word-of-mouth findings?

 

So here is my Christmas wish to you, dear reader. Install some free blue-light cancelling software, wait a few weeks, and see the difference!

talking too much

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

tough love

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

urgent vs important

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

shame

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On holiday in Adelaide – ironic that I’ve ended up holidaying in my old home town – I went shopping with my daughter in the rain (it never rains in Adelaide, except when we visit). After two hours spent looking in fashion and surfing shops in the city mall, and buying a sweater for my son who wasn’t with us, I asked my daughter for ten minutes in a bookshop.

 

At the top of the escalator, it was a big bookshop, I headed for the business books, hoping my daughter would saunter off, which she did. I felt queasy, in need of water. Why are big bookshops so often airless? A sensible-looking woman, around my age, offered to help me find what I wanted. I smiled and asked if they had a pet section, which she pointed me to. We are currently on the list for a new puppy and, keen for it to be a happy experience, I thought a good book might give me some pointers.

 

Next to the pet section were the psychology books. After browsing various titles I picked up the only book by Brene Brown that I hadn’t read, I Thought It Was Just Me. The title was spelled out in big orange and pink capital letters on a dark cover, and though it didn’t have the word shame in the title, the quotes suggested that it was a book about the experience of shame.

 

How, I wondered, would Brene Brown open a book about a subject that most of us naturally avoid? ‘You can never’, she wrote in the first paragraph, ‘shame anyone into changing their behaviour’. With these nine words the author hooked me. Reading them, standing up in a bookshop, made me realise that I’d spent much of my marriage trying to shame my husband into changing his behaviour. I’d done it unwittingly, unconsciously even. And, as Brene Brown pointed out, it hadn’t worked.

 

Until I read these words, I wouldn’t have admitted to shaming my husband. Yet seeing this simple idea in print allowed me to accept it. It instantly gave me perspective and, yes, relief. It wasn’t just me. It isn’t just me. Lots of us get caught up shaming each other into changing behaviour.

 

What have I been unsuccessfully shaming my husband into changing? Working too hard, drinking and smoking. My own family’s medical history is pock-marked with conditions, mainly heart and cancer, that I have done my best in middle age to avoid. My husband’s family history is stronger than mine, which may be why he refuses to share my anxieties about his health. Whereas I apply the precautionary principle in avoiding risk factors, my husband, a philosopher, is more sanguine. He isn’t the only one. When I told my GP about my concerns for my husband’s health, he smiled. ‘Ah’, my GP said, ‘society hasn’t caught up with medical research in these areas, and contradictions abound’.

 

Last weekend, as I read Brene Brown’s book under the duvet in a freezing converted barn in the Adelaide Hills, I realised that I was guilty of putting my husband on the spot, of driving him into a corner from which he could only pull in his head. Reading this book, high above the plains below, I felt guilty. But I also felt absolved. Because until I read this book I’d unconsciously assumed that it was my job, my responsibility as a wife, to help my husband see the light. Until last weekend I’d felt sure that one day my husband would read an article in The New Scientist, or The Guardian Weekly, on recent medical research into alcohol and smoking and, that very day, would drink less wine and order a vaping kit.

 

But Brene Brown made it clear that complex human beings are not like that. Complex human beings, and I should know because I am one, need to be stroked not shamed. They need to be stroked and made to feel good about themselves. ‘Being nice’, is the way my husband puts it. Making someone feel bad about their behaviour backfires, Brown explains, because the experience of shame damages their capacity for change.

 

On returning from holiday I realised how simple my brief with my husband is. It’s to not be critical of him. Every day I wake up and remind myself of this. My job is not to make him see the error of his ways, any more than his job is to point out mine. His health isn’t my responsibility, just as my career isn’t his.

 

Perhaps this is what holidays are for. All that packing and unpacking, marshaling through airport security, and cliff-top walks, were for the purpose of seeing life from a different point of view. What felt intractable a week ago, my husband’s seeming immaturity and my own excess of it, now feels looser. Hopefully one day I’ll be able to look back and laugh.