HelenHayward

life writing

Category: Society

visiting the library

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I have to be in a certain mood to visit the library. I can go if I’m in a rush. Because I’m usually in a rush in town. But not if I’m in a hurry. Because when I’m hurrying, I never find what I’m looking for.

 

For years I’ve made time to visit the library, for two reasons. I go to borrow magazines which I leave on the kitchen table and bathroom windowsill for whomever is around, including myself, but especially for my daughter who claims she hates reading. But I also visit the library to borrow a certain kind of book that I read before bed, plus an audiobook for the car. Both of these feel kind of necessary.

 

Throughout my kids’ childhood, magazines and books from the library washed in and out of the house, like high and low tides. Now that they’ve left school, and one has left home, I still make near fortnightly trips to the library. I think I go because I never know what I’ll find there. How will I know what I am looking for, until I pick it up in the library? Rarely do I use the computer catalogue. Sometimes I’ll cheat and glance through the Reserved Books shelf, where more assiduous members get rewarded for alerting librarians to interesting new titles. Or I’ll look through the Recent Returns at the end of each bay. Or I might head straight to Psychology, Food or Travel, and see what jumps out at me.

 

Yesterday, after sliding a stack of returns one by one down the Returns chute, I passed through the automatic doors. A rush of overly warm air hit me, a combination of heating, computers and windows that never open. My first pick up, from a stand of new books by the doors, was a book with a bright pink cover and black shiny sunglasses, The Confidence Kit. My daughter is about to travel overseas, and I thought the book might help her with feeling fear and doing it anyway. Then I picked up a sailing magazine and a couple of travel magazines – for the same reason. The audio book I chose was Rejection Proof, by Jia Jiang, a story about a Chinese-American’s mission to score 100 rejections, with the aim of strengthening himself against his reluctance to ask for what he wanted – which I hoped might inure me to the rejections a current manuscript of mine was soon to receive.

 

Then I found a book by the blog superstar Clean Mama, about natural household cleaning recipes – a book I’d never buy but thought might be useful. ‘If you do nothing else in this book’, Becky Rapinchuck wrote, ‘scrub the sink with this paste after cleaning up the kitchen each night’. ‘Oh yeh’, I thought, and promptly decided to give it a go.

 

The last book I checked out was Dynamic Aging, a manual for stretching muscles in the second half of life to retain strength and balance, complete with unappealing line drawings and triple-spaced text. Written by a young American physio, it advocated increasing daily movement to 3 to 4 hours, which seemed to me almost messianic in its intent. Again, not a book I’d buy. But I thought it might help me think through what to do with my less than supple hips.

 

On the way home from the library, I bought washing soda and lemon essential oil, for Clean Mama’s sink scrub. I left the pink book about confidence on the windowsill in the bathroom. The magazines and cleaning book I left on the table in the kitchen.

 

That night, after cleaning up the kitchen, I tipped a cup of washing soda into a jar, added 30 drops of lemon essential oil, used a knife to mix the oil into the soda and found a second scrubbing brush. Then I sprinkled a quarter of a cup of the mix on to my sinks, added a squirt of dishwashing liquid, a small amount of water and set about scrubbing my sinks. The lemon oil wafted up as the sinks came clean, buffed with that day’s teatowel. Done. Clean Mama was right, the sinks looked great, and I knew I’d be glad of having done it the next morning. But every night, as Clean Mama suggested? Well, that was another thing.

 

After luring the dog into his crate, I went upstairs, where I lay on the carpet in the bathroom, too tired to go to bed. I picked up the exercise book lying on the windowsill. ‘I’ll just read the last chapter’, I told myself. And so on and so on until I’d read the whole book. Reading it made me realise that I’d swallowed the idea that ageing means a slow but ineluctable weakening of strength and wellbeing. Dynamic Aging suggested that there was another way. Not an easy way. Like all maintenance activities, it involved time and commitment. But perhaps, I thought, heading to bed – where I slept deeply – I would thank myself in years to come if I did what it takes to keep my core strong.

 

The Rejection Proof audio book, which I’d never have downloaded or bought, I played in the car the next day, driving my dog to the country kennels where he sometimes spends the day. It was fabulous. It changed my thinking about how I might respond to the rejections soon to come my way from a manuscript of mine. The fact that the author was Chinese American, also made a big impression. I was surprised, and embarrassed to be surprised, at his sophisticated command of both the English language (his second language) and his own experience.

 

It’s the serendipity of visiting the library that I like. I like going not knowing what I want to read. On passing through the automatic doors, I give myself over to another impulse. Curiosity, I suppose. I go to the library to find out more about what I need to find out about, without knowing before I get there what that might be. I got through menopause without visiting the doctor this way. I got through my kids’ adolescence without going mad this way. I get through my unconventional marriage this way. ‘Everything’, my naturopath once told me, before I entered menopause, ‘is normal’. The nice thing about the library is that everything is normal there too.

 

 

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the perfect dog

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I was going to have the perfect dog. The same kind of dog that my grandmother used to walk in the park every morning, rain or shine. We got that dog last October. On the background of my phone, a two-month-old still Digger stares out at me, mud on his head, as if butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth.

 

I never said it out loud, but Digger was to be my defence against loneliness. Whatever else life threw at me, in years to come, he would be at the centre of a life that I was as yet unable to imagine.

 

Every morning, since last October, I have let Digger out of his crate, pulled up the blind and unlocked the back door. Then down five steps and out into the garden we go. Digger doesn’t need me to go out with him any more. He isn’t a tiny puppy in need of toilet training. But I’ve always gone out with him, and now he expects it, waiting on the bottom step until he’s sure I’m coming. I love these early minutes, before the garden wakes up. It gives me a chance to see the morning as it really is – dew on the grass, blossoms budding – so different to the stream of things in need of doing that greets me as soon as I step back into the kitchen.

 

I wanted the perfect dog, even knowing it didn’t exist. Having had to end the life of an anxious dog just a year ago, I felt that we deserved a break. Instead of a neurotic dog from the pound we would get a reliable dog, a trainable, child-friendly dog from a breeder. Personally I’d have gone for a non-shedding breed, if I hadn’t known that other traits were more important. As did our vet. A dog that didn’t bark would have been nice. (I know, I know, not really a dog at all.) In the end, after much deliberation, we went for a yellow Labrador. My daughter was still at home to train him and was, she kept telling me, tauntingly, a better trainer than me.

 

I’m sure I’m not the only one who only reads the dog books after they bring their puppy home. Yet even the most detailed dog book couldn’t have described how total the impact that Digger has had on my life, especially once I made the decision that I would get my life back quicker if I put him in the middle of it while he needed me most. That is when it hit me. Just as my kids were making moves to leave home, I’d saddled myself with a cross between a toddler and a small pony. If there was such a thing as post-puppy depression, I had it. How could I placate a boisterous, bitey, demanding puppy and keep my writing life afloat? Digger wasn’t going to defend me against future loneliness, I chided myself, he was going to be the cause of it.

 

Then a friend told me about the local dog park. Unlike visiting the dog beach, where my heart leapt into my mouth when Digger careered up the beach and embraced every which dog, right from the start the dog park felt more tame. Digger still careered about, jumping vertically and being rounded up, ears flapping like Dumbo, by faster dogs. But I didn’t feel panicked at the dog park. The metre-high fence around the long rectangular park worked to contain Digger and to relax me.

 

At first we went to the park once a week, then three times and, when my daughter was away, sometimes more. I could do some work, or go to yoga, and leave Digger in the car until we got to the dog park where he ran off his buzzy energy and I chatted to other dog owners who told me all about what I was in for. On cold mornings it was sunny and, even in the rain, dry inside my husband’s oilskin jacket, the hillside park had charm.

 

Initially I chatted to other dog owners to pass the time of day. But as the months passed, I realised that I was doing more than this. It was small talk, yes. But it wasn’t trivial talk. I was getting to know a range of people via their relationship to their dog. The woman who kicked a tennis ball across the kitchen to amuse her collie puppy as she ate her breakfast. And the surprisingly large number of people who slept with their dog on or in their bed.

 

Soon Digger hit adolescence and became possessed with extra buzz. The best way to channel this newfound energy, he decided with the wisdom of his puppy brain, was to go for the collar of other dogs. Not all dogs, and not on every trip to the park. But on those occasions when he did, he’d bite at the other dog’s collar until the play was broken up. Another dog owner took me aside and instructed me in how to lure Digger away before his play became too heated. Did I listen to her? No. I listened. I was polite. But privately I thought that she was interfering and that Digger was just having fun.

 

A month passed during which Digger started going for dogs’ collars at the park more regularly. Thinking that he needed something in his mouth, I bought a long red plastic stick for him to play tug-of-war with other dogs. Problem solved.

 

Three weeks ago, Digger played and played with a Golden Retriever to the point that I asked Peggy’s owner, who I knew to chat to, to give Peggy some time out on lead, which she did. Five minutes later she let Peggy off again and Peggy went straight back to nipping at Digger’s ear. The two dogs ran a little way away, locked in furious play. Then it happened. Digger got his jaw wrapped in a loop round Peggy’s loosened collar which meant that as I tried to pull Digger off Peggy, Peggy’s collar tightened to the point of choking her. Now Peggy’s owner was at my ear, swearing and hissing as I struggled for the thirty long seconds it took me to get Digger’s jaw out of the tightened collar. Peggy vomited over her owner’s shoes and I stood back in a sweat, Digger on his leash.

 

Terry and I looked at each other. We were both crying. Digger was quiet. Neither Terry nor I were angry. Terry said that it had been 50/50, in terms of who was to blame, though I felt it wouldn’t have happened had it not been for Digger’s collar habit. Terry said that the next time they came to the dog park, and Peggy played with Digger, that she would take off Peggy’s collar. I smiled my thanks and silently wondered if Digger and I would ever return to the dog park again.

 

Back home I texted the dog trainer who has helped me in the past and she texted back some sensible advice. At her suggestion, I booked Digger into a second day a week at the country kennels that he was already booked into once a week, where he could get as boisterous and muddy as he liked with 28 other dogs. And for the next few weeks, instead of visiting the dog park, we went for long walks, which Digger didn’t like nearly as much but I liked more because the risk of collar biting on a bush track was nil.

 

A month passed. Last Sunday, I woke up with the thought that I could only return to the dog park if I gave up my happily-ever-after story of the perfect dog, and thought through our next visit before I even got to the park. I got a sardine from the freezer and wrapped it in a plastic bag which I put in my jacket pocket, thinking that I could use it to lure Digger away from another dog if I thought he was about to lose control. I made a mental pact with myself to leave the dog park after a shortish amount of time. And I decided to stay in his range, just in case.

 

It was a cold sunny morning, my favourite weather. Digger seemed happy to be back at the park. Did he know that I was watching out for him as he raced from one pack of dogs to the next? Thankfully he behaved well. Not impeccably, but well for a teenage Labrador. We left the park the moment that he started eyeing off the bright purple harness of a four-month Pug pup. He never found out about the frozen sardine in my pocket and he tagged along, tail wagging, as we walked up the hill, behind the park, to see the early spring lambs. ‘But’, said my daughter, that night at dinner, ‘didn’t you say you were never going to the dog park again?. ‘Yes’, I said. ‘Never say never!’

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.

 

where there’s smoke

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

*     *     *

 

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

 

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

 

 

blue light

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

shame

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

muttonbird

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Drinking tea and writing in a local cafe, the barrista bends across the counter and asks if I’ve tried muttonbird before. ‘No’, I reply, surprised. ‘Would you like to?’ ‘Of course, I’d love to’. Kevin disappears behind a screen with some dark meat in a small plastic bag which I can hear him taking out and putting on a plate for the microwave.

A minute later Kevin reappears with steaming dark meat on a plate. ‘Try some’, he says, and I take a piece with my fingers and put it in my mouth. He disappears, offering the meat around the cafe. I chew the muttonbird meat in my mouth. It tastes of sardines and lamb and game meat all mixed together. It feels stringy yet oily and almost melting. It tastes like nothing I’ve had in my mouth before, a kind of meat-fish.

Kevin returns and I stumble my response. ‘It must be full of good things’, I say. ‘Yeh,’ he says. ‘My Gran, she took a teaspoon of muttonbird oil on a spoon every day of her life and she was never a day ill. Even today’, he says, miming his Gran, ‘she takes a drop and rubs it on her face and another on her hands’. ‘Doesn’t it smell?’ I ask. ‘Nup, not really. But my Mum, when I suggested she get some for her face’, and he laughs, ‘she gave me one’.

I put away my pen with the taste of muttonbird – a protected species on the islands north of Tasmania – in my mouth. ‘Truffles next’, I say to Kevin on my way out. ‘Sure’, he returns. ‘But you’re bringing them’. An hour later the taste of muttonbird – oily, gamey, all wrong yet delicious – is still in my mouth.

abide with me

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After scrolling through The New York Times headlines I flipped over to facebook – breaking my rule of no social media till late afternoon. A friend I’d often visited with my now grown-up son, when he was a toddler in London, had posted news of her divorce. Twenty-four years of marriage, which when I knew her was as strong as mine, had broken down after what she said the courts described as ‘fifteen years of psychological and financial abuse’. I reeled inside, knowing how much more complicated my friend’s story must be, and also that I risked missing a yoga class if I spent any more time on-line.

 

The morning after I got married, twenty-two years ago, I walked across Hyde Park with my mother-in-law. As she strolled along, in her shoes not made for walking, she told me how much better a job at marriage she was confident that I’d do, than she had done herself. Head to the ground she told me that she’d always done her best, and that this was all, in the circumstances, she’d felt able to do. Walking by her side I felt sorry for my mother-in-law, who after raising four healthy children with her artist husband, felt that she’d failed because her marriage had ended in divorce.

 

I didn’t empathise with my mother-in-law’s regrets. Perhaps thanks to my parents’ marriage, I felt confident that my marriage would work out, that I had it within me to make it work. Instead I blithely assumed that the difficulties my parents-in-law encountered lay inside of them. It was the peculiar alchemy of their personalities that had determined the trajectory of their relationship, two doomed planets crashing towards Earth. There was a poetic inevitability about it all. The fiery temper of my father-in-law. The submissive doggedness of my mother-in-law. The God in the middle who, despite my mother-in-law’s belief in infinite love, failed to hold it all together. All rolled into an after dinner story that Paul shared with friends round our kitchen table.

 

Walking across that London park, my mother-in-law at my side, I had everything to look forward to. I didn’t believe in happily-ever-afters, I’d spent enough time in therapy to convince me of this. Nonetheless something deep inside – a mix of youth, pride and inexperience – shielded me from my mother-in-law’s pain, the morning after I married her son.

 

These days, now that I have a few regrets of my own, I quicken to those of my mother-in-law’s. I can see that, like her, I’ve done my best; even though, as for her, my best wasn’t always enough. Like her I feel downcast when I view my marriage as a catalogue of errors, as riddled with bullet holes as a road sign after a teenage shoot out. However mostly I manage not to do this, preferring to see my marriage as a piece of metal lacework, as a thing of beauty wrought into intricate shapes at very high heat.

 

The morning after I married Paul, I had family on my mind. It was an easy fantasy to have: bedside stories before lights out, holding a little hand on street corners, jumping waves at the beach. Not for a second did my fantasy include sharing the dinner table with two teenagers as intermittently surly and acute as I once was, a spotty teenager seated at my own family dinner table.

 

Walking over Hyde Park, half a stride in front of my mother-in-law, I had no idea of the emotional fall-out that two healthy teenagers might unwittingly wreak on their hapless parents in their unconscious effort to free themselves from childhood. I knew nothing about being on the receiving end of the emotional shrapnel of family life, the casual teasing and constant belittling that even a happy family has to withstand if it’s to survive the changes brought by teenagers’ looming independence. I had no idea how brave and strong we’d all need to be in order to get through the joy and upset that family life would throw at us.

 

‘They fuck you up’, wrote Phillip Larkin, ‘your Mum and Dad’. Well, sure they do. However what Larkin, who never had children, failed to add, was that kids fuck up their parents too. My kids are far more acute on my flaws, and more unflinching in their critique of Paul and me, than even my worst self slander. They know us far too well, yet not well enough. Just as we, their parents, understand yet fail to understand them.

 

None of this harm is intentional. My husband and I didn’t set out to wreak havoc on our kids any more than our kids planned the havoc they wreak on us. In surviving family life I think that Paul and I, just like my mother-in-law and every other parent, deserve enormous sympathy. We don’t deserve a list of our errors read aloud in a court of law: I’m controlling, Paul is selfish, we’re both insecure. The fuck-up of my marriage now seems normal to me; it’s a sign of the messiness of existence, part of the way of things. It confirms my need for friends and family and Shakespeare and pop music and film; not legal process.

 

As it turned out, my mother-in-law was wrong. Mine has not been a marriage made in heaven. Paul and I weren’t made for each other. Never enough for each other, we’ve failed to make each other happy. More elusive still, we haven’t fulfilled each other. After thirty years of living side by side it doesn’t surprise me that our marriage contains a few cracks. Nor does it seem helpful to ascribe blame for these cracks on Paul or me. I’d sooner put the strains in our marriage down to the sheer difficulty of life, than to a list of our incompatibilities and faults.

 

The fact that Paul and I have let each other down doesn’t seem a big deal to me. I don’t mind having a few cracks in our relationship. They give me space to breath. Perhaps I’m being defensive, however the failures in my marriage seem beside the point. The real point is that Paul and I have chosen to stick together even though we’ve failed each other in various areas; even knowing that we’d do things differently if we had our time over – which we won’t.

 

Paul and I have done something more important than make each other happy (envious though I am of couples who can do this). We’ve abided with each other. The OED defines ‘abide’ in these terms: remain, continue, dwell; remain faithful to; encounter, sustain, suffer with; put up with, tolerate, wait for’. Though this word is only used rarely these days, for me it holds real value.

 

I feel sad that my friend’s marriage should have ended in heartbreak. It seems all wrong that justice should be meted out on a well-intended couple under harsh strip lighting in a courtroom. Surely there is a more gracious – a softer, more piercing and subtle – way to exit a long marriage? After years of trying to hold it all together, of getting three kids over the threshold of maturity, it seems all wrong to sully a marriage which, even if it hasn’t gone completely well, hasn’t gone entirely badly either. It seems all wrong that in a couple’s search for justice, the whole crazy unfolding richness of a life together should be cast aside by a prosecuting lawyer who deems it irrelevant to the case.

 

If I could retrace my steps, if I could walk back over Hyde Park with my mother-in-law the morning after marrying her son, I’d start by congratulating her. Who cares if your marriage ended in divorce, I’d say. Everyone who endures a long marriage – or any partnership – deserves a medal. You mustn’t take it to heart, I’d say, my hand on her arm. It really isn’t anyone’s fault. The fault is in the stars. The sheer difficulty of life gets us all in the end, which is why we should celebrate rather than be ashamed by our run-ins with it.

Before getting up the next morning and doing it all again.

 

 

interview

IMG_9354

‘Stop thinking about it’, says my daughter, on a bush walk before dinner. ‘Just do it or don’t do it.’ ‘She’s right’, I say to myself, choosing not to respond. But then since when did the other person being right help anyone make a big decision?

When Tolstoy was plagued by indecision, about whether or not to marry, he wrote two lists in a notebook, one for marriage and one against it. By the time he’d done each of his lists was about even. Here are my two lists, very nearly equal, one for doing a drawing course, the other for not doing it.

For:

  1. To develop a skill that is native but rusty, and that might push me in a good way.
  2. To have a sabbatical after twenty years of writing part-time and being with family much of the time. To give me a perspective on my life by focusing on something outside myself – drawing in a studio – which would be a break from pushing myself as a writer and being there for my family.
  3. To be released from a particular version of myself, the existential equivalent of travel, without leaving a city I like living in.
  4. To have the instruction of two art teachers who, from first impressions, I like.
  5. To work around others rather than working alone as a writer.
  6. To make the most of my kids leaving home by doing something constructive, that I otherwise may not have done.

Against:

  1. Rather than seeing my kid’s absence as a chance to write full-time, I distract myself by doing a half-time course which takes me in another direction.
  2. Not earning money, confirming my financial dependence on others.
  3. Turning a private passion into a kind of work – fifteen hours a week in a studio – puncturing my fantasy of drawing as an escape from daily life, challenging me in new and not always welcome ways.
  4. Being an older student among predominantly younger students.
  5. Making myself busy as a defence against loneliness.
  6. Practical problems. Being locked into a timetable of school terms which conflict with my daughter’s university semesters. Putting our reactive dog in daycare when I’m at school – expense etc. Being at home less to support my hard-working husband. Lots of standing at an easel, which may require more yoga?
  7. A drawing course seems indulgent, increasing my existential angst for the future. Fear of failure.

+     +     +

 Now that I’ve been interviewed for the drawing course – 45 minutes with a lecturer looking at my portfolio and discussing the pros and cons of my suitability for the course – the decision has passed out of my hands. I can accept or not accept a place, but I can’t offer it. Probably should have been less honest.

Fingers crossed!

 

spots and stripes

waterworks roof

‘My Mum Likes Spots and My Dad Likes Stripes’ is a story by Ned Sharratt that I used to read to my kids over and over. It’s a story about a couple so incompatible that they end up dividing the sitting room down the middle with a stripe of paint. On one side of the painted line is everything that belongs to Mum, all spotty; on the other side is everything that belongs to Dad, all striped. Mum wears spotty clothes, her earrings are spotty, her car is spotty, and when she cooks eggs they come out spotty. Dad’s clothes are striped, he cuts toast in stripes, and on the weekend he mows the grass in long stripes.

Each time I read this story to my kids we’d laugh at the craziness of this pair; never for a moment thinking that this story might one day apply to our family. Fifteen years on, my kids are forever pressing home that I like spots and their father likes stripes. From their point of view it’s self evident. How else can they explain their two totally different parents?

My husband and I, we pretend we don’t mind. We laugh at our kids’ joke. We don’t argue the point. If anything, we agree with it. But privately I wonder. Would I have ended up liking spots if I hadn’t married a man who likes stripes? Or could it be that this is what marriage does to couples, once kids play a part in the story? Because ‘My Mum Likes Spots and My Dad Likes Stripes’ is told from a little boy’s point of view; a little boy who, in telling it, seeks to understand how two such different people, his parents, could ever have gotten together. Two people who are so different that, in the little boy’s mind, they’ve made a mistake to think they’re a couple, because really they’re opposites.

Perhaps, even without two kids to point out our differences, Paul and I would have grown in different directions anyway. Perhaps the seeds of change were there right from the day we met. Here are some obvious differences which spring to mind. I like green tea and Kombucha, whereas Paul prefers coffee and wine. I have a thing for Scandinavian design whereas Paul hankers for eighteenth-century art and furniture. I crave dark chocolate whereas Paul loves milk chocolate. I like a clean home whereas Paul longs for a beautiful home. I am a homebody whereas Paul loves to travel. Paul doesn’t like it when I wear jeans all the time whereas I don’t like it when he wears a jacket all the time. I learned to drive a car young and taught both our kids to drive; Paul learned to drive late and avoids tight parking spaces. If I’m at home in the day I’ll cook lunch; Paul, who works from home, will grab cheese and biscuits. I take my work seriously but allow family life to take over; Paul is devoted to his work and refuses to let life take over. I like our garden loose and untamed whereas Paul would like it formal and structured, with no weeds between the bricks in the courtyard. The list goes on.

Neither Paul nor I would want to paint a line down the middle of our sitting room, however tempting this sometimes seems. Really we gave up winning each other over to our own way of seeing things long ago. Not for want of trying, but because it ended up reinforcing our differences. It backfired. I ended up liking spots all the more, while Paul clung to his stripes. When, for example, I encouraged Paul to eat more vegetables and drink less coffee, he avoided vegetables and doubled up on coffee. When he objected to my wearing jeans, I wore them every day. And so it went.

These days Paul and I live a private truce, the terms of which we’ve never spelled out yet understand intuitively. Also, now that our kids are technically adults, the pressure from them has lessened and, with it, the tension between Paul and me. Sometimes I’ve caught myself wondering if our kids have spent their teenage years on an undeclared and unwitting mission to drive Paul and me apart, through the force of what they perceive as our irreconcilable differences. As if, in order to break free of Paul and me, to become independent of us, they’ve needed to drive a wedge between us as parents; to paint a line down the middle of their home to separate the spots from the stripes.

Other times I wonder whether what our kids fear most is that the world of their parents, of Paul and me, will fall apart when they’re no longer around to point out our differences. Just as they can’t imagine how Paul and I could ever have lived together for seven years before they came along, they can’t imagine what their parent’s lives will be like when they’re not around to prop us up. Could their inability to imagine Paul and me, without them around to provide emotional glue, reflect their inability to imagine their own future without their parents in the middle of it?