HelenHayward

life writing

Category: Real Life

on needing to get away

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

my yoga philosophy class on zoom

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Most of my daylight hours, the weekend before Easter, were spent kneeling on two yoga blocks in front of a Zoom meeting discussing yoga philosophy – the third weekend of a yoga teacher training course that began before the coronavirus stopped just about everything. The morning class had started when I sent through a request to enter the meeting. I’d failed to do the class reading and was eating muesli as I scrambled to pull myself together before switching on the camera of my computer.

 

The yoga philosophy teacher, who I hadn’t met before, was explaining to our group of 24 students that the ideas which inform the practice of yoga are not philosophical in the Western sense. In yoga, she said, there is no mind-body split. All yogic knowledge is embodied knowledge. Because it’s experiential, it can’t be known abstractly. It can’t be held on to, only glimpsed. The aim of yoga, the smiling face on the screen was saying, is to smooth out our energy levels and so to manage the mind. My ears perked up. Manage my mind, I thought, how I’d like to be able to do that. But, the curly headed woman on the screen then said, as if she could hear me thinking, yoga practice isn’t aimed at managing the mind.

 

According to yogic thought, the teacher said, each of us is a spirit that, once born, comes into the material dimension. During childhood, our unlimited spirit becomes trapped by material conditioning (the food we eat, our parent’s values, our school friends). No matter how well-intended our parents, we become covered by an obscuring layer of dust that the practice of yoga seeks to lift. Through regular yoga practice, we free ourselves from ‘maya’, from illusions of the ego that form our greatest bondage. The transformation that occurs, via deep yoga practice, helps to realign us with our true nature. In this way, we recondition ourselves. And this in turn frees us to ask the most important question: What do I want to achieve in this lifetime?

 

Hmm, I thought, sipping green tea as I watched the teacher’s face on the computer screen. Half of my group, whose faces appeared like postage stamps along the top of the screen, nodded and gave a thumbs up.

 

Next, the teacher moved on to explain Raja yoga, the intellectual branch of Hatha yoga. In this practice, she said, there are no poses, just sitting, chanting and the reciting of sanskrit verses. I wriggled on my blocks, recalling the hour I’d spent chanting in the opening ceremony of our training, during which one foot had gone to sleep so badly that it was a struggle to get up to light a candle on the flowery altar. On returning to my seat in the circle, I’d looked across in wonder at the other cross-legged students who, eyes closed, seemed in a trance as they chanted a four-lined sanskrit verse 108 times. The sound of the mantra had not – as the philosophy teacher was explaining on Zoom – manifest its meaning in me during chanting. Perhaps I was too defended, I thought to myself, as I tried to get comfortable on my blocks.

 

The teacher moved on to the subject of memory. Your memory, she said, isn’t to be trusted. While every experience that we have becomes embedded in memory, these impressions – these samskaras – form a covering like dirt over us. Yoga, she said, aims to clean away this dirt and so to still the mind. There is no other aim in yoga. There is no religion, no dogma, no bible, no ethics, no single god. Instead, in the Indian yogi tradition, there are multiple texts and countless teachers. And all of them are valid.

 

Centuries ago, the teacher told us, Patanjhali wrote down what he called ‘complete instructions’ for yoga practice, from cleansing practices (like the nasal neti pot) to detailed instructions for the asanas, or postures. But however demanding crow pose may be for you, the teacher said, it’s significantly easier to get into a yoga posture, than it is to change the workings of your mind. The aim of yoga, the smiling face on the screen said, is not to tighten pelvic floor muscles, but to clear away mental clutter to allow prolonged periods of meditation.

 

Oh great, I thought. That means that for the 20 years I’ve been doing yoga, I’ve been doing it for the wrong reasons. I’ve doing yoga to stretch my body, not to prepare myself for meditation. I’ve being doing yoga to ease my anxiety about life, not to achieve a higher state of consciousness.

 

The teacher continued. Clearly there was still a lot of material to get through. I wriggled on my block and tipped the last drops of tea from the pot into my mug. The aim of yoga, the teacher said, is to block the mind, by consciously stopping those mental activities that are identified with the external world (reactive thoughts, complaints, rumination, excitement). The aim of yoga practice is to create a state of mind that doesn’t fluctuate, that doesn’t go up and down, that is at peace with itself. Yes, I thought to myself, catching myself nodding on the screen, that sounds nice.

 

So, the teacher said, this week your homework will be to observe the workings of your mind. Even one minute of total awareness, she said, will be an achievement. Fifteen minutes, for a beginner, would be amazing. During these periods of awareness, I want you to step back from your assumptions, even to catch yourself before they happen. I want you to avoid the head trips that we all make, the inner chit-chat, the making mountains out of molehills, and our reflex criticism of others. I want you to stop all the unreality that washes through our heads on an hourly basis. Lastly, the teacher said brightly, I want you to journal about this experience in long-hand, take a photo of your page and email it through to me.

 

If you can achieve this, the teacher said, if you can sit back and observe the workings of your mind, you’ll be in a position to do every other thing that a yoga training demands of you. Quite apart from smoothing your relationship to every person you know.

 

Is this clear? asked the yoga teacher. Are there any questions?

yoga

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I do yoga to smooth my rough edges, to help me feel at one with the way my life is, to give me permission to write, to give me perspective on family life, to strengthen my core and my lower back. I’ve been doing yoga for these reasons and more for over 20 years, never with a view to taking my practice further.

 

Until last weekend, when I started a yoga teacher training course. Applying for the course, four months ago, I felt confident that a training would challenge me in good ways. It would push me into the next phase of my life, whatever that would be, give me a break from the toils of writing, and fill the hole left by the departure of my kids. That was four months ago. Looking round today, there are no empty holes in need of filling, no windy spaces. My life is just as busy as it ever was, plus yoga course requirements to complicate my days.

 

Over and above the other things that I do to stay sane and to keep the wheels of my life turning, I now meditate for ten minutes each afternoon. I do 10 minutes of yoga most mornings. I attend two yoga classes a week. I sit in on other yoga classes and take notes on the way the teacher cues and sequences, sitting on a bolster in the back of the room.

 

Already I feel differently about the yoga poses – 84 asanas with Indian names to memorise – than I did a week ago, when I went to yoga to let the steam out of the top of my head, so to speak. Back then I went to yoga just for myself, to zone out in a way that made me brave for the rest of the day. Whereas now I’m doing yoga – if I pass the course – to be of service to others, or so my teacher tells us.

 

Doing surfer’s pose in class this morning, struggling to move from squatting into one knee then over to the other without putting my hand on the floor, I gave up my wish to be a yoga teacher. Squatting on my blue mat at the back of the room, my usual spot, I realised that my need to do yoga for my own peace of mind and core strength, was greater than my desire to become a yoga teacher. I knew, in that moment, that I didn’t want to have to care about how my asana looked in the mirror of the studio’s hot room, a room that I usually avoid for the searing heat which reminds me of hot summers from childhood. Nor I did I want to turn yoga into an asset on my cv, when really I needed yoga for my sanity and flexibility.

 

There’s another reason why I gave up my wish to be a yoga teacher this morning. I gave it up because I didn’t want to be the course contrarian. I didn’t want to be the ‘yes but’ older student at the back of the room. I didn’t want to spend the next three months of a 200-hour weekend course comparing myself to other students. I didn’t want to catch myself entertaining the thought that, at a pinch, I’m similar in age to some of the other students’ mothers. I didn’t want to be thinking critically, when I should be meditating, about the naivety of some of the group’s ‘shares’, and so feeling emotionally grubby.

 

What, then, do I want from a yoga teacher training course? I want to challenge myself and to see where this leads me. I want the course to complement the life that I’m leading, rather than to transform my life it into something newer and better. I want to develop curiosity for my practice, to enhance it from within rather than correct it from without. Ultimately I want to find out if the mind really does follow the body, rather than the other way round, which is what my education up till now had me believe.

 

It’s great to have more knowledge about a practice that I care about. However, I’m not looking for a guru. I didn’t apply to the course in a sideways plea for therapy. I’ll never fly to India to sit at the feet of a smiling, jiggly-headed yogi for a month-long intensive. Nor will I buy a big wardrobe of Lululemon leggings and tops. I don’t even want a new yoga family – right at the moment, one family seems plenty to be getting on with.

 

I’ve come full circle, back to my original desire, the one that got me over the line when I applied for the teacher training in the first place. Curiosity. It’s that simple. ‘Don’t overthink it’, says my daughter, when I try to describe my mixed reaction to starting the yoga course. Perhaps now I won’t.

learning to draw

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Ted, the course coordinator, wore a white linen shirt over blue jeans. Fifteen prospective students, including myself, stood in a loose group in the drawing studio, one floor up from the footpath. ‘This course’, said Ted, ‘is going to change your life. By the end of the first semester, you’ll be looking at the world differently. Even looking out the window, you’ll be looking through it as an artist. But don’t come expecting a holiday. Don’t come treating it as a break from work. You’ll be working harder here than you’ve ever worked before. And it won’t just be drawing, in the way you’ve done up till now. You’ll be taking photos. You’ll be going to exhibitions and reporting critically on them after. You’ll be completing assignments late at night, or on Sundays when you’d rather be at the beach. And in this way, week after week, you’ll be training your eye to see the world as it really is, and not as you want it to be.’

 

I stared out the arched window at the footpath below, and then back at the group. ‘I can guess what you’re thinking’, said Ted said. ‘How can a three-day-a-week course in drawing take over your life?’ He looked across at Julie, the other teacher on the course. Julie laughed. ‘Look’, he said, ‘this course used to be run as your typical adult education course. Classes were held mainly at night. There was no formal assessment. There was no expectation that students would return for a second year. But we’ve changed all that. These days, unless you’re in the running to become an artist, you won’t get a place on this course. Your place will go to someone who is ready to make a move into the art world. There just isn’t enough room, on this course, for hobby artists. This course is about training your eye in a way of looking at the world that will make everything in your life, so far, fall into place’. His blue eyes darting, Ted looked from one applicant to another, making sure of our attention.

 

‘Any questions?’ he asked. One woman asked a question about the portfolio required for the interviews, to be held over the next few days. Another asked about fees, and another about electives. I asked whether it was possible to do the course over two days, rather than three, and Ted frowned his reply. Then he clapped his hands to signal the end of the meeting. ‘See you at your interview’, said Ted, and left the studio with Julie.

 

Two days later, at my interview, Ted flipped through my sketchbook. ‘And did you do all these drawings at the same time?’ he asked. ‘No’, I said. ‘The main ones were done over a couple of years, with the bulk done during my recovery from illness in my late 20s’. ‘Sure’, he said. ‘Who is this?’ he asked, stopping at a line portrait drawn from a photo. ‘That’s Robert Lowell, an American poet’.

 

Ted snapped the sketchbook shut. ‘Look’, he said. ‘Your drawing is fine. It’s your dedication to the course that I’m worried about. You asked, at the end of the introductory meeting, about doing the course over two days a week. What’s all that about?’ ‘Well’, I said. ‘I was hoping to keep my writing projects alive, alongside the drawing course’. ‘Oh’, interrupted Ted. ‘That’s not going to work. We need total loyalty here, total commitment’. He tapped the table with his finger of his left hand and jotted a note on his pad with his right. ‘This course runs over three days. But really it’s a full-time commitment. Otherwise’, he repeated, drumming his long fingers on the table, ‘it’s just not going to work’.

 

‘Ok’, I said, ‘I hear you. I’m willing to commit. I do see your point. I’ll have to make arrangements for my puppy, but I can do the three days. The writing can wait. I’ve always wanted to draw properly and now, with my daughter away, I can do it’. ‘Right oh’, said Ted, ‘we’ll be in touch with an answer by the end of this week’.

 

The street looked different to the street that I’d left an hour before, as I rushed into the art school for my interview. If I got a place on the course, I thought to myself, there’d be no more morning yoga and there’d be less time for housekeeping. If I was organised before, now I’d have to be super organised. But it would be worth it. I would be doing what I’d always secretly wanted to do. Only now it wouldn’t be secret.

 

When I got home, I went straight into the garden and started cutting back plants. When it started spitting with rain, even the dog took refuge inside. ‘Are you sure you should be cutting those plants back as hard as that?’ asked my daughter, appearing at the back door with a worried look. ‘Sure’, I said. ‘I asked a gardening friend, who said that these respond well to being cut back’. By the time I’d finished gardening, the bricks below the side bed were carpeted with green. I was wet with sweat and rain.

 

My world was about to change and I felt free. I was reinventing myself, following my own lead. My daughter was leaving home for college. But I wouldn’t miss her because my days would be busy just keeping up with my commitments, and seeing the world through artist’s eyes.

 

‘Dear Helen’, the email began. It was a no from Ted, the course coordinator. The course, he explained, was oversubscribed and they were unable to offer me a place. Would I like to apply again the following year, once I’d spent more time drawing and was ready to commit fully to the course?

 

I knew, from the email in front of me, that two-thirds of the applicants for the course hadn’t got a place. But in my heart the rejection felt personal. I had paid a price for being cocky. I’d mentioned my PhD and three books. ‘Big deal’, the rejection email said to me. ‘We don’t care about any of that.’ I felt clumsy, naïve. I had misjudged. I was keen to work in a drawing studio. I dearly wanted some instruction. But I’d been vain in thinking that Ted and Julie would want me over other applicants. I had other opportunities, as the rejection letter politely suggested. Why should an oversubscribed art department offer me another?

 

I looked up from the computer, away from the unwelcome email. I’d been shown up as the self-centred dilletante that I really was. I’d been seen through. The side garden that, five days before, I’d tamed in the rain, now looked hacked at, messed about with. Why couldn’t I do anything properly? Why was I forever making things up as I went along? Would it always be this way?

 

My daughter, already practised in missing out on things, having recently left school, gave me a hug. ‘It’s nothing to do with you’, she said. ‘You’re just a name on a list’. Perhaps she was right, I thought. But in the days after I made up my own story. I’d been passed over because I wasn’t serious about art. And possibly for another reason. The course coordinator, on hearing me say that I wanted to write about my experience of being a student again, had arched ever so slightly. Why, I imagined him asking himself, would he want to be described in his crisp white shirt by a middle-aged female student keen to reinvent herself through art?

 

Then again, from Ted’s point of view, I could be seen as a financial risk. Perhaps the government would give his department a smaller subsidy for my place, than if they gave a place to someone on a welfare benefit. Perhaps my daughter was right. I was just a name on a list and it was a numbers game.

 

For a few weeks I didn’t pick up a pencil to draw. It wasn’t a decision that I made. I just didn’t get round to it. Was I proving Ted right, that I wasn’t dedicated to art? Perhaps. But the conflict felt bigger, and possibly simpler, than this. I had applied to the drawing course to take my drawing to the next level, not to become an artist. I was fine with my identity as it was. I didn’t want my view of the world transformed. I didn’t want to take on the mantle of the artist. Writing was hard enough, why choose something even harder? I didn’t draw because I was cross with Ted for telling me that I had to become an artist if I wanted to learn to draw.

 

Until one morning I visited the local art shop and sketched my story about the drawing course to the woman at the till, who was supporting her own creative practice by working weekends at the art shop. ‘I wouldn’t worry’, she said. ‘That course has changed a lot. Just get back to your own drawing’. ‘I was thinking’, I said, ‘of doing a drawing a day, and of going from there. Only I don’t want to make it into a chore, into something I have to do, to tick off a list’. ‘Yes’, she said, ‘of course you don’t. What about if you take a small pad? That way you can do a drawing most nights, as a way of unwinding, and look forward to it during the day’. ‘Okay’, I said, ‘that sounds good. What about if, in a couple of months, I come back and show you what I’ve done?’ ‘I would like that’, said the woman, smiling.

 

It was a hot day and I was glad to leave my dog in the car in the garage next to the art shop. An hour and a half later, I returned to the car to find the garage door pulled down. Knowing that my dog was locked in the car in a garage which wouldn’t open until Monday morning, I panicked. As I was speaking to the after-hours security, agreeing a sizeable call-out fee, the woman who’d served me in the art shop appeared jangling a set of keys. Her face was red. ‘I only stayed back’, she said, with quiet fury, ‘because I saw a dog in the car’. ‘I’m really sorry’, I said. But it made no difference. The woman was fuming. ‘There are so many things that I have to do this afternoon’, the woman said, fumbling with the keys in the roller door. I said nothing in my defence. I had no defence. I had used the art shop car park while I went to a shoe shop – I had a shoe box under my arm – and then to a bookshop. ‘Oh God, I do apologise’, I said, trying a second time. ‘And you were so kind to me this morning’. But it was no good, the woman still frowned. And so I jumped into my car and drove away, as if from the scene of a crime.

 

After a week or so, I took the small drawing pad out of the cupboard. My daughter was away and there was a gap to fill, which was just the right size for drawing in. I lit an oil burner and dimmed the lights. But no music. The quiet was better for drawing. I put the flowers that I’d picked out walking the dog before dinner under the arc table lamp of the kitchen table.

 

It was the same the next night. I waited until after dinner and the house was quiet. I put whatever I was going to draw – usually flowers, but not always – under the lamp that pooled light on the table. Then I’d just look at the plant, fiercely at first, until I decided which part of the plant – or object – to draw. Sitting there, in the quiet, it became obvious which part of the plant I’d focus on. Like cropping a photo, I left out most of what I could see and focused on just a small area.

 

Once I started drawing, that small cropped area came alive. Details of foliage and shadow, of colour and depth, that I spent my days brushing past, as I headed for the fridge, now spoke to me. Head down, a clutch of coloured pencils in my left hand as I drew with my right, I let the drawing become my world. I focused on the plant, not on the page. As I drew, I was struck by the strangeness of nature, the peculiar shape of a flower, in a more concentrated way than was possible when I brushed past the plant out walking my dog. I never looked at my watch when I drew, so I don’t know how much time went by. I tried not to stop drawing to look at my drawing critically. And I was always glad that my pad was small so that I could finish my drawing in one go.

 

Every time I started drawing it was the same. There was a hump that I had to get over before I got into it. I never started out feeling confident. It was more curiosity that drew me in. Curiosity for the plant I was drawing, which I’d never looked at properly, and for the drawing that might come out of my staring at the plant hard enough. And though I never truly captured what was in front of me, I did capture something else, a glancing likeness that satisfied me.

 

too many holidays

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This may sound like humbug. It is humbug. But the fact is that I didn’t want all the holidays thrown my way over the Christmas and New Year period. Christmas Day itself was nice, special even. Boxing Day was good too. But the week between Boxing Day and New Year seemed to go on and on until I had no idea what day it was. After which, because New Year’s Day fell on a Wednesday, most things in our city – department stores excepted – were closed till the following Monday.

 

Admittedly I don’t work full time in an office 40 weeks a year. If I did, I’d be only too happy to have a chunk of time off at the end of the year. I’d consider it my right. The other thing that makes me a bit of an exception is that my family lives interstate and I choose not to visit them over Christmas, finding it hot and stressy there at that time. Still, I figure I’m not the only one who loves their work and who feels that public holidays are thrust on them willy-nilly, whether it suits them or not. I can’t be the only one to find a dead quiet city at a festive time of year a little eery, especially when the period is overlaid with scary bushfires on the mainland. I can’t be the only one who, working creatively, misses the comfort of routine and feels disconcerted when it’s taken away with the unspoken mandate to ‘have a good time’ for 12 days straight.

 

Sandor Ferenczi, an Austrian psychoanalyst and colleague of Sigmund Freud, once wrote a paper called ‘Sunday Neurosis’ in which he described a surge in neurotic conflict in patients who didn’t know what to do with themselves on Sunday afternoons. Like those patients, my unconscious seems to go into overdrive when I’m forced to stop working in order to take an extended holiday without actually going anywhere. ‘Why don’t you go camping?’ says my daughter, rolling her eyes, as if not wanting to strike out into the wilderness with a tent is a sign of senility. But I don’t want to go camping. I do however go hell for leather emptying out cupboards on a couple of hot days, and feel pleasantly satisfied with my efforts.

 

People like to say that their family drives them nuts over the Christmas period. But what if, like me, you experience all the unconscious activity of the festive season bubbling up inside without an extended family to project it on to – to blame it on? Instead of sitting round eating mince pies and chalking up my achievements for the year, there were times during this period when I found myself mired in self-doubt and other unpleasant feelings. Even the yoga studio was closed, so there was no relief there either.

 

As it turned out, the dog beach was my salvation. Every morning I went along with my Labrador puppy. Often I’d hit the sand feeling a bit resentful at having to exercise my dog, knowing no-one else in my family would. Yet every day I left the beach thankful of it. The chance encounters with dog owners. The sheer beauty of the sea and sand, quietly stunning. Even the blessed routine of being there.

 

On New Years Day the smoke was thick when we arrived at the beach. The sky was smudged brown and red. The wind was angry and blustery. Ash was flying about, just in case the apocalyptic tinge escaped anyone. But a dog is a dog. And a dog knows nothing of public holidays or bushfires.

 

I never completely relax on the dog beach. I am ever alert to what my puppy might do. At any moment he may veer off in a circular sprint that takes in the sand hills. He may bite the collar of or, his favourite, the harness of another dog. He might even swallow another dog’s poo, my personal detestation. Generally he doesn’t do any of these things. Mostly he trots alongside, comes when I call, and then careers up the beach at the sight of the next interesting looking dog.

 

On New Year’s Day, a guy who has taken to building a cairn of stones on a rocky outcrop on the dog beach, did himself proud with an arc of stones. As soon as I saw it I read it as a sign of hope for a new decade, silently defying the smoky skies. Things are bad right now, said the stack of stones. But they’ll get better. Just you see.

 

By the time my dog and I left the beach that day, just as the stones had suggested, the wind changed and the smoke lifted. Life seemed possible again. Mankind hadn’t wrecked the planet, yet. There was still a window of clear skies in which to put things right. There is a still a window of clear skies in which to put things right. Let’s hope enough people are listening.

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.