HelenHayward

life writing

Category: Real Life

doing publicity

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It wasn’t exactly a fib. I just didn’t respond to the sentence in my publicist’s email in which she asked whether I’d done live television before. Given that I’d already decided not to fly interstate for an eight-minute slot on breakfast television, I didn’t see the point of mentioning to her that I had a thing about cameras. Did she really need to know that I hadn’t felt the glare of television lights since I bent down to eat a donut dangling on a string on kids television, aged nine?

 

Radio I knew I could do. I’d done plenty of that for my last book. Television, I told myself, was just radio plus camera. Except, of course, that it isn’t.

 

I arrived at the television studio with time to spare. I’d already talked the questions through with the producer, who couldn’t have been nicer, the day before. I wouldn’t be able to go through makeup, he’d explained, since I was doing the segment remotely. However the lighting in the studio was kind, there would be someone in the studio with me, and all I had to do was look straight into the camera and respond to the questions coming through the earpiece.

 

Ella set me up with an earpiece, a glass of water, and a background shot of the harbour with Mountain Wellington behind. Then she went next door to test the sound levels. The studio was overwhelmingly black, not a little dusty, and for the next ten minutes, apart from news headlines crackling through my earpiece, all of them bad, I had just the round camera lens peering through black padding for company.

 

The buzzy earpiece didn’t seem to interest the producer in Melbourne, whose voice I didn’t recognise. He explained that the host who’d read my book had been called to the airport to cover a bomb threat on a flight. The new host hadn’t had a chance to see my book and I would be on air after the news bulletin in one minute’s time.

 

‘You’re definitely better on radio than on TV’, said my agent in a message on my phone that I listened to as I got my dog out of the car, fifteen minutes later. I called my agent back. ‘Yes’, I said, ‘I knew I wasn’t doing well when they cut me off after three minutes, and not the eight I’d expected. I could barely hear the questions for the buzzy earpiece, I had no idea who I was talking to, and my tongue felt like sausage in my mouth’.

 

That evening, when I should have headed up to bed, I watched the television clip which the publisher had posted on social media. ‘But I look like a hostage asking for ransom money!’ I wailed to my daughter who was half way up the stairs. ’Just don’t watch it’, she said sternly, tripping downstairs and clapping the computer shut on my fingers.

 

The last time I published a book I didn’t do podcasts. This time round I’ve done three and have enjoyed the form. Being invited to talk for an hour from my kitchen, knowing that any coughs and ramblings would be edited out later, felt far freer than being closeted in an airless radio studio with my allotted minutes counting down in digital orange numbers a metre from my face.

 

Although I had notes in front of me on giving interviews, mostly I would shut my eyes, listening out for what the interviewer was really asking – occasionally shocked by the intimacy of the question – all the while thinking ahead to a place I might take the conversation that might work for everyone who was listening. A bit like in a dance.

 

The interviews and launch are now behind me. Two moments stand out. One was looking over at the friend who helped launch my book, to see her holding a dog-eared copy, a pink highlighter running through various paragraphs. The other was when two women came up separately after the launch to tell me that they’d read my book in the bath – just as I’d fantasied a reader might.

 

This morning, after switching off the square red microphone button for the last time, I pulled the earphones off, put my earrings back on, wrapped a scarf round my neck, and headed back to the car where my dog was waiting impatiently for a walk. A voice message from my agent flashed on my phone. ‘You are definitely better on radio than on TV’, she said. ‘Well done.’ Leaving the phone in the car I headed across the park, clearheaded for the first time in a week.

 

 

 

Sunday afternoon

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‘Can we go sailing?’ his sister asks, her voice edging on petulance. It’s the fourth time she has asked since his return two weeks ago. He stares up at the dark sky and down at the wet courtyard. ‘Come on’, she says. ‘Okay’, he replies, ‘let’s go’. Within five minutes they are gone, with a quick dart back to collect a phone, disappearing in my car down to the boat that he has use of during his stay.

 

The dog yaps her surprise at being left in the middle of a Sunday afternoon. I feel it too but don’t yap. Instead I sit on the carpet, stroke the dog’s tummy, and wonder how to spend the next few hours. In my heart I thank my son for taking his sister out sailing, even knowing that it was premised on his leaving the next day. Picking up a rake I lose myself raking leaves which rise up like lava as I squish them into the already full compost bin. Then without a thought I clip the lead to our dog and drive down to the harbour for a walk along the waterfront.

 

There is only one boat on the water, with two white sails. At what point, I wonder, did my son learn to handle such a big boat? From a distance it looks like every other boat that sails on the river. Except that this afternoon it’s the only boat beneath a slate grey sky. For a smug moment I feel proud of having kids who are out on the water when everyone else is sensibly indoors.

 

A text buzzes on my phone. My husband, in reply to my message, is glad to hear that our kids are out on the water together. A blast of wind skuds across the water, leaving ripples in its wake. As I walk along with our dog, keeping my distance from fellow dog owners in case my dog lunges, I wallow in my unneccessariness. I am watching my kids sailing from the shore for my sake, not theirs. I am thinking about them knowing full well they are not thinking about me.

 

Another blast of wind comes through – a blast not a gust – forcing me to turn up the collar of my jacket and wish I had gloves. The only boat on the harbour lists to the right. I force myself to look away and resume my train of thought. It’s no good. The boat lists further to one side. My heart tightens into a horrible parental knot. I don’t like what I see yet can do nothing, not even a speck on the shore. Clutching my phone I have the distinct thought that even if my son were in trouble it would be someone else he would call, not me.

 

I stare out at the water, yanking our dog back from sniffing a rubbish bin. Are they in trouble? Even as I worry I know I am overreacting. Giving a yank to the lead I train my eyes on the only boat on the harbour, giving up any pretence of thinking my own thoughts. A sail comes down. Thank God for that.

 

Ditching my plan to do some writing in a café I make my way to the sailing club, leaving the dog in my husband’s car. The sun is low and it’s freezing. Wind whips under my rain jacket. The boat makes large sweeping tacks as I enter the marina, the gate left conveniently open. ‘Is that someone you know?’ asks a kindly looking sailor pushing a wheelbarrow. ‘Yes’, I say, ‘it’s my kids’. ‘Oh’, he says, giving it a moment’s thought. ‘I’m sure they’ll be alright’. Even though I know he is reassuring me I feel certain in this moment that they will be.

 

I know that I have to do this letting go thing, to make myself redundant in the knowledge that they’ll be fine without me. That their lives will go on no matter the longing that pulses through me, filling my eyes with tears.

 

I make out two figures on the boat, my son steering and my daughter on deck. Standing at the end of the marina, my daughter sees me waving and waves back. I head back to the mooring to help with the ropes as they motor the boat in. ‘Very successful’, says my son, jumping on to the pontoon and taking the rope from my hands. ‘Well done, everyone.’ My daughter’s face is flushed red, with cold or excitement I can’t tell. Whichever it is it makes her more sure-footed than usual, as she clambers round the boat pulling ropes and packing sails.

 

Standing on the pontoon once more I feel redundant. ‘Right then’, I say, ‘I’m heading home to start the fire and then supper’. ‘Great, I’m starving’, replies my son, not looking up from what he’s doing. ‘See you later,’ says my daughter, concentrating on tying a knot. As I head back to our dog, who will be wondering why she’s been left in my husband’s car, I quietly thank the world for this Sunday afternoon.

your house wasn’t filthy

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

going home for christmas

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‘Never go back to the place where you were happiest as a child’, a friend once told me. ‘The place you went on holiday to, a garden from childhood, a tree house in the woods. It’s gone, lost’, she said firmly, ‘and you can’t refind it’.

 

My friend spent her childhood in a house high up on a hill in Wales, surrounded by trunks full of her mother’s textiles upstairs and a bosomy garden below. Her children meanwhile have spent their childhood in a semi-detached house in Brighton, set affordably back from the beach. Her lawyer husband tutors their son during school holidays to keep his grades up, and her daughter’s skin condition flares whenever she eats anything sweet. Years since she visited her childhood home in Wales, my friend has a business in interiors and is a trained cook.

 

Yesterday I drove home with my daughter – a sixteen-hour drive and overnight ferry – after spending Christmas and New Year in the city I grew up in. My daughter was crewing in a sailing regatta and I wanted to catch up with my family. On my second day in Adelaide I took a walk past my childhood home. Standing in the rain opposite our old back gates I drew the attention of the owner who came out to talk with me. Not for a moment did I want to live in that house again. I didn’t want my childhood back. Yet for those five minutes I felt rooted to that spot on the pavement, the last thirty years a blur against the sight of our old back door and garage.

 

To break our drive home my daughter and I stay overnight on the coast of South Australia with my cousin Sam – a farmer who took over his family’s cattle property at the age of twenty two. Waiting for fish and chips on the main street his wife tells me jokingly that Sam never grew up and left home. I disagree. ‘Sam seems perfectly grown up to me. Perhaps’, I say, ‘it takes more maturity to grow up at home than to take yourself off to another country – as I did – to do your growing up there’. His wife smiles briefly and we chat about other things.

 

After supper five of us take a walk round limestone cliffs with their rocky shelves and sea lapping green below. A dipping sun stains the sky red, suggesting a hot day to come. My daughter and her cousin, tired from surfing, drop behind.

 

Despite the beauty around me I feel empty, melancholy even, as I remember past New Years’ Eves when I partied as a teenager on these same cliffs. Sam tells me of his decision to sell his share in his family beach house – pushed out by hefty land taxes and off-shore winds. ‘We live on a windy farm’, says his wife unsentimentally, ‘and we come on holiday to another windy place’. Sam isn’t bothered by his decision. He has grown up on these cliffs, scampering down rock faces to swim in the coves below, and doesn’t hanker for his childhood.

 

Like me Sam’s one remaining parent recently died. Yet he seems content with his life. His son will one day take over the farm from him, his second wife couldn’t be nicer, and his two daughters – one of whom is training for big things in sport – are coming up in the world. Perhaps, with the money from his share of the family beach house, and as his son takes more responsibility on the farm, he and his wife may travel.

 

My daughter and I are away for a fortnight. On returning home late yesterday my husband – who stayed home to work – says that it felt like we’d been away for five years.

 

This morning I wake up early, do some yoga, take our dog for a walk and write in a café, just as on hundreds of other mornings. A friend sends a text while I’m walking – did I enjoy being home for Christmas? I stare at the screen. Have I been home, I wonder? Certainly the twenty-three people round the table on Christmas day made me feel I was at home. Getting lost in the city that I felt I should know my way around, on the other hand, made me feel like a stray. Watching my daughter surfing with her cousin, silky white sand between my toes, wasn’t that home?

 

Standing on a beach that was considered too wild for swimming when I was a girl I watch my daughter and her cousin in the surf. Pacing up and down the beach – the eternal parent – another day fades into dusk. As light rain falls I pull a stripy red beach towel tighter round my shoulders. A kite surfer zips across the waves, back and forth, faster than I’d thought it possible to surf.

 

Eventually the kite flops and the surfer walks out of the waves, his large frame testament to his strength and speed. Standing on the beach, our backs against the dunes, we chat about kite surfing – though a fellow surfer became a parapelegic a week ago ‘doing something stupid’ the surfer insists that if you surf according to the rules kite surfing is safer than driving a car. We talk about risk taking in general and the importance of it. Then he tells me that he loves food and wine just as much as surfing. And that his daughter, a whizz at marketing, is currently writing a book about food in Tasmania – as coincidentally I too, though not a marketing whizz, have done. Water dripping off his nose, and without saying goodbye, he turns away to tend to his sodden kite.

 

Glancing at my watch I wave my hands in the air to signal to my daughter and nephew that it’s time for them to get out of the water. Just I used to do, when my mother waved to my sisters and me when it was time to get out of the water, they shake their heads in unison. Then they turn their boards out to sea and wait as if there is no tomorrow for the perfect wave to come.

on not writing christmas cards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the ugly stepsisters

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

letter to my father

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My daughter, who you never met but would I know like, is doing a project in English at school at the moment on the power of language. She holds out little hope that exploring what words can do will be of any great interest to her. This is because, as she likes to tell me, she is terrible at English.

 

So far this hasn’t stopped the two of us having long elaborate and sometimes painful conversations about growing up in my parked car, as we find a way through whatever it is in her life that currently preoccupies her – will her friends ever want to go on adventures, what will her life after school look like, what does it mean that her brother has gone to sea, what does fulfilment mean, and is she as clever as she sometimes feels or as stupid as her exam results tell her? The kinds of things that you were kind enough to talk through with me all those years ago, and that held me in good stead when you were gone.

 

Now of course I am grown up, or at least as grown up as you were when we talked about life on the darkened balcony of our beach house, with stars above and breaking waves below. Like me with my daughter, you never gave clear answers. But you were never afraid of my questions. And this meant such a lot to me.

 

In a way it seems silly that I am writing to you after such a long time. Although in another sense it seems remiss that, given how intimate you are to me, I haven’t kept in better contact. I could list straight away the things about my life I’m not terribly proud of, and that I feel you’d pick me up on. I am hopeless at keeping financial accounts! Why didn’t you push me on this more? And I often feel resentful in the kitchen in the hour before supper when I’m feeling tired and my family are squirrelled away doing something more pleasant than cooking or undoing the dishwasher.

 

I’m not sure why it comes to me now, but that afternoon you asked me, when I was nearing the end of schooldays, whether I would consider a future in the department store you were on the board of, I felt offended. How, I thought, could you think that I’d want to work in an airless building buying things that no-one really needed with just four weeks’ holiday a year? Looking back now I realise that you were testing the waters and that you were giving me the chance to consider a different kind of future. And not consigning me to a life of futile bulk buying.

 

I think I’m drawn to write to you now that thirty years have passed because my son, who you would also like, has just left on a long voyage. All the books that he was read aloud as a boy by his father led him to want something that he knew in his imagination was possible, yet barely dared hope for. And now he is doing the thing. He has stopped lying on his bed reading boat magazines and films on his phone and has found a ship that he wants to be on and that has a place for him. For my part I am wishing him well, all the while wishing that the tall ship he is on were thirty metres longer. As I imagine you, not a risk taker, would too.

 

My husband will soon be off on his own adventures. You would probably disapprove, but he has found that Italy speaks to him, and fosters his work, as deeply as a life at sea speaks to our son. And I am not stopping him. If he feels more European than Australian who am I to disagree? If his need to write undistracted is greater than anything else what can I do but respect this? He doesn’t go for that long, but it’s longer than a holiday and I have grown used to people’s reactions when they hear about his periods away.

 

This, my letter to you, is prompted by a deeper question which you wouldn’t have been able to answer but would have responded to. It’s a simple question. But stark too. When someone that I love goes away am I right to feel abandoned? The little girl in me, the bit that never grew up, just does feels abandoned whenever I’m left. It’s as if I’m powerless to feel otherwise. And yet even at the same time a more grown up part of me, the part that was good at English, understands that I can’t hang on to the people I love. I can’t stop them from wanting things that I can’t give them. I can’t shackle them to the spot in some eternal present, waiting for the next Christmas or for birthdays to come.

 

Besides I’ve also learnt, after many comings and goings, that when someone I love goes away a bit of space opens up that wasn’t there when they were around. Just enough space for me to start thinking about what else might be possible. There are, I now know, other people with whom I am happy. There are other people who need me – and not just my daughter. More than this, and this is harder to talk about, I have discovered that there are things I can only do when I’m not feeling quietly overwhelmed by the people I love most.

 

All those conversations in my parked car with my daughter brings me back to you. Just as when I talk with her, you didn’t have clear answers. And yet your comfort with my questions – my incessant why’s – always helped me through. I still don’t embrace change, any more than my daughter does. When our new neighbour sent a quote through yesterday, for a new fence between our gardens, all I could think of was the ivy and greenery that would be lost to her need for a cleaner division.

 

However over the years I have learned to bend rather than block. I have stopped trying to control my universe. I now accept something that you hinted at, which is that what we can bear is just as if not more important than anything we might want. And that bearing things well, without suffering them, is an art.

 

So here it is, my letter to you after all these years. Thank you for teaching me how to let go. And for showing me what words can do. And for being there. Hx

 

 

leaving home

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He strides out in front, our dog trotting at his side. He doesn’t mean to leave me behind on the dark wet pavement. But his legs are longer than mine and he is in a hurry to get somewhere. Just as sixteen years ago he would screech his scooter to a halt on street corners, and wait for me to catch up, now he slows his pace until I join him.

 

I speak first. ‘I don’t like the fact that I won’t know how you are when you’re on the ship’. He says nothing. ‘We’d better cross now’, he says, and we cross the road before our dog lunges at another dog behind an upcoming fence. ‘Don’t worry’, he replies, as we stride down the hill. ‘I’ll be fine. You can always track the ship on the ship’s website. It shows exactly where the ship is’. ‘Sure,’ I reply, unconvinced. And I steer the conversation to all the things that he needs to do before leaving.

 

We round the corner and he pounds up the last hill, the gradient of which only a complete lack of urban planning could ever have permitted. He waits for me half way up, and then again near the top. Meanwhile our dog pulls with excitement at the prospect of another neighbour’s dog behind a white paling fence.

 

‘What will you do when I’m gone?’ he asks, as we turn towards our house, lit up by the moon from above. ‘I guess I’ll have more time to work, and to focus on other things. Besides Emma still needs my help. After that, well, after that I really don’t know. But I’m fine with that. I’ve never been able to see that far ahead’.

 

I walk into the front hall behind him. He unclips our dog’s harness, drops it on the rug and disappears into his bedroom. ‘Supper’s ready!’, I call out five minutes later, placing a heavy wooden board on the kitchen table to take a big pot of pasta. Emma trips down the stairs, the last night of her school holidays. My husband joins us with a small glass of wine, making appreciative noises at the sight of pasta. ‘Supper!’ I call again. The three of us sit down and I start ladling pasta into warm bowls. Putting down the ladle I shout down to him one last time. ‘This is the fourth time I’ve called you for supper!’ There is a rustle from his bedroom. ‘Actually’, he says, bounding up three stairs at once, ‘I think it’s the third’.

 

As we get to the bottom of our bowls there is the usual friction with my husband over second helpings. Alex stays out of it, his head in a sailing magazine. He looks up briefly. ‘Go for it’, he tells his father, waving his hand towards the pot and turning to me. ‘Don’t you want some zucchini?’ he asks. ‘Not really’, I reply. ‘Go on’, he says, ‘you have to. We’ve all had it’. I take the plate he hands me and obediently place the rounds of zucchini on to my plate.

 

My husband makes himself toast and cheese at the kitchen bench. While his back is turned Alex picks up the Parmesan cheese and pretends to lick the rind. ‘Don’t do that’, begs his father, looking round and falling for his son’s taunt. The moment his father’s back is turned he picks up the wooden board on which the Parmesan cheese and grater had sat during supper. He turns the board upside down and rubs it into his hair, flecks of cheese going into his hair and on to the table. His father is too busy buttering toast to notice. I roll my eyes and say nothing. His sister makes a disgusted noise, his father whips around, and we all laugh.

 

Alex has caught me crying enough times this past week to make a joke of it. ‘The last time…’ is his sing-song refrain whenever he catches me looking melancholy, pulling his long fingers over his face like a mime artist suggesting tears. Dropping out of teasing, he’ll add, ‘I’ll be fine’. And he’ll stand at arm’s distance and look straight into my eyes – or as straight as a 6 foot 2 young man can look into the eyes of his five foot ten mother.

 

After supper I join him in his bedroom. ‘But I am packing’, he says, bristling at my suggestion that he is wasting time on the internet. I take in his desk. Even if the wallet that he lost a few days ago was on it, I think to myself, it would be completely hidden by the bits of rope and crumpled receipts and apple cores and sailing magazines and tools from my father and university brochures and curling exercise books and sailing books and tags from wet weather gear and maritime certificates and old letters and the odd photo and general flotsam from a life well lived but badly organised.

 

I roll up a few tshirts and shove them down the side of the red sailing bag that he has insisted on borrowing from his sister. ‘Will you be taking your computer with you overseas next week?’ I ask. ‘I don’t think so’. I try again. ‘Would you like me to take your phone to be fixed while you’re on the voyage this week, so that it’s ready for you to take to Europe next week?’ ‘Don’t worry’, he replies, ‘I can still use the phone with earphones. Besides I won’t be making phone calls at sea. We’ll be in port every few weeks and I can get emails then’. ‘So’, I say, taking in the obvious, ‘you won’t be in touch a lot of the time?’ He picks up his biggest jumper and forces it into the top of his overstuffed bag. Whether in reply to me or not, I can’t tell, he says, ‘I’m looking forward to it’.

 

Looking away, he adds, ‘I’ll need to take the green sleeping bag in the morning. Do you know where it is? It gets quite hot below deck’.That’s it, I say to myself, getting up to fetch the green sleeping bag. He is ready. He wants to go to sea. He wants to be with other people who love what he loves and to be well away from home. I pull down the sleeping bag, plumped up in a pillow case, and shut the cupboard door in my study. For a moment I stand in darkness.

 

That’s all I need to know, I tell myself. He really will be fine, just as he keeps telling me. He doesn’t need me to stay in touch. If anything for the next little while he needs me not to stay in touch. He needs to be away long enough to let go of his memories of school. He needs to forget the university brochures on his desk and our funny family dinners. He needs to have the kinds of adventures that he’s dreamt of for so long and that life has been good enough to throw his way. And, I tell myself, I have to respect this. Just as my mother did when it was time for me to leave home.

 

Returning with the sleeping bag I look over at his bag of wet weather gear and wonder how its contents can possibly keep him warm in the Antarctic, should the Dutch ship take him that far south. But I say nothing. Instead I hug him quickly and tell him I’ll be switching off the internet in five minutes – and that he needs to get some sleep.

 

This morning I wake early. As I flick on the bathroom light there is a crack of light under the kitchen door and I can hear the familiar scrape of his spoon in a bowl of milky muesli. He is ready.

 

I drop him at the ship before sun up – for a voyage of nine days that ends eighteen hours before his flight leaves for a larger tall ship berthed in Amsterdam. In the car he tells me off twice for sitting too far forward in my seat. ‘Your arms need to be straight on the wheel. You do know that if you have a crash the airbag in that steering wheel would blow up in your face?’ ‘But,’ I reply, ‘my back feels so much better when I don’t sit right into the seat’. For a moment we sit in silence, waiting for the lights to go green. Like some weird déjà vu in that split second I remember telling off my mother, when I was a teenager, for not wearing her seatbelt properly.

 

I park the car near the ship, we say goodbye – he’d never kiss in public – and he hops out of the car to get his bags from the boot. As he walks towards the ship I notice how the two bags that he’d struggled to get through our front gate in one hand are swinging lightly on his back. Lights are on in the cabin of the ship. He waves to one of the crew and boards the ship without looking back.

 

 

 

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On feeling disapproved of

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We all do it, disapprove of each other that is.

 

My husband is convinced that I disapprove of him. He is right. I do wish that he wouldn’t sit up late watching The West Wing and emailing his colleague in London. I do wish that he wouldn’t drink wine every night. I do wish that he didn’t take naps during the day. I do wish that he would do more than half the washing up before disappearing from the kitchen. And I do wish that he’d leave his jacket behind when it’s hot.

 

My near grown up son has reasons of his own to disapprove of me. He wishes that I wasn’t house proud, and that I didn’t mind his leaving two bicycles propped in the hall. He wishes that I didn’t wear my hair quite so short. And he’d really like for me not to talk to just about anyone when I’m out with him.

 

And my daughter? Up until last Tuesday I’d always wriggled out of camping with her. Until last Tuesday when I changed my mind. Now that she too is growing up – she can do a parallel park – I realised that I may not get many more chances to camp with her. Besides I had no real reason to say no. It was the middle of the school holidays, my husband and son were both away, and the weather was fine.

 

As soon as I said yes my daughter swung into camping mode. She was up in her room sorting out gear while I was in the kitchen below cutting chunks of cheese and packing muesli. When we arrived at the campsite, almost by the by, Emma offered me her old blue fleece jumper, suggesting with a look that my denim jacket was out of place in a camping ground. Without thinking I turned her down. Patiently, as we were taking the tent bag out of the car, she offered me her old fleece jumper again. This time I took the fleece without a word and swapped it for my jacket. As if by magic Emma relaxed, and the rest of our camping trip went well.

 

Why do we disapprove of the people we love? Is it because, lacking control over everyone else, we seek to control those we’re closest to? Is it that we need our choices confirmed, our invisible codes of conduct upheld, given that few of us believe in divine judgment in the world hereafter?

 

This disapproval of each other, especially within a family, is a giveaway. It’s proof that we really do get under each other’s skin. Sadly I know that I’ll never be so mature as to be immune to the slings and arrows of my family, whose unfavourable opinions of me feel as debilitating as their admiration was once uplifting.

 

*    *     *

 

Years ago, when I lay on a couch four times a week and referred in passing to Freud’s model of the mind, it became clear to me that the superego had a lot to answer for when it came to making little problems into big ones. The ‘I know better than you’ part of myself caused a lot of trouble in my life, and it took years for me to find ways of getting on with it. Although I never made friends with what I’m calling my superego, by the time I’d done with lying on the couch we were on pretty good terms. And this made all the difference.

 

The biggest let down of maturity, for me, has been realising that wisdom doesn’t necessarily follow from getting older. Despite my so called higher degree, I don’t feel any more supported by a fount of knowledge that protects me from the buffetings of ordinary life than I did when I was a teenager. However the one thing I do have, and this has increased with age, is a determination to look within and to see what is really there, to work out what I really feel as opposed to what I – and my superego – happen to think.

 

*     *     *

 

Since my husband left for overseas, a few weeks ago now, something magical has happened. We have stopped disapproving of each other. Distance has released us from thinking that we know best how each other should conduct ourselves. Instead we send encouraging emails at times of the day when we feel genuinely encouraging, rather than affect-loaded swipes in six-word phrases late at night when all things being equal we should be asleep.

 

Having this time apart has made it clear that what my husband and I want more than anything from each other, at least as much as love, is approval. We want to know that we are doing an okay job at this funny thing we call life. We want encouragement.

 

Sadly it seems unlikely that my husband and I will refrain from disapproval once he returns. I’ll still want him to take his jacket off when it’s hot, just as he’ll still want me to cook more generously at supper. Our superegos will always want the last word, the upper hand – will always think they know better. After all – as if I care – they are right!

 

Instead I have a different thought, a different fantasy. Which is that any couple that has been together for longer than three months deserves enormous sympathy for weathering what we know – from our own experience – is an ongoing internal tussle, projected on to the other, over right and wrong and the Best Way to do things.

 

Instead of Sorting Things Out, in some Marie Kondo way, my idea is this. It’s that every couple might sit down – in the spirit of an arms embargo – and write down a private list of what drives them barmy in their partner. Before, without peaking at their partner’s list, symbolically burning it. Many relationships would be saved, legal fees would dive, we would all laugh a lot more, putting up with each other might develop into an art form, and some of us might even be the wiser.