HelenHayward

life writing

Category: Uncategorized

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.

 

 

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digger and me

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Our puppy is no angel, though people insist he is cute. Digger, my daughter’s choice of name, doesn’t dig the garden. Instead, on average once a day, he’ll jump up in an agitated way and bite whatever he can – clothes, my wrist, my daughter’s thighs in shorts. He also enjoys chewing library books and electrical cords. This is not what having a new puppy has taught me. What I’m grateful to him for is this. Whenever he encounters a new sight – a swarm of sailing boats on our local beach, a bird he hasn’t seen before, a dog in the distance with whom he’d like to play – he’ll stop in his tracks, sit and look. For a moment which might last up to a minute, taking in this new scene is the most important thing, the only thing, Digger wants to do.

 

I thought I’d read all the puppy books. Until, a month ago, The Labrador Handbook arrived in the post, six weeks after I’d ordered it. Pippa Mattinson, a wonderfully clear dog writer, set my mind at ease on a number of matters. It’s normal for a Lab pup to have what she calls ‘zoomies’ – to momentarily lose his mind, not unlike a toddler having a tantrum. She explained that Digger running round like a lunatic, a bull in a china shop, making a mockery of my favourite plants, flattened in his wake, was a passing phase. Rather than being surprised when he bit me with crocodile teeth one minute, and lay down in a heap the next, free of remorse, I should just accept it.

 

95 percent of the time our puppy is not a lunatic. He is affectionate and curious and demanding, and mostly a pleasure to be around. If he had his way he’d put the whole world in his mouth, the better to know it: cardboard, Christmas cards, socks, the knob off the radio. He has an uncanny ability, in our relatively puppy-proof kitchen, to suss out and chew the few stray items I don’t want him to have: a magazine on the table, a tapestry cushion on a stool, the computer charger cord.

 

Apart from food, Digger doesn’t know what he wants. A dried leaf, a hose nozzle, my apron straps, cherry stones; everything in his path is of interest, and just as quickly not. On entering the kitchen, he’ll look at me with a ‘What now?’ expression. When I upend his toy box, and feign interest in a stuffed monkey from the second-hand shop, he’ll head for the pantry, as if only I could be so dim as to think a toy monkey could compete with the unknowns of the out-of-bound pantry. Or he’ll nibble at my leather shoe straps, mocking my attempts to read. ‘What’, he seems to say as he gnaws the leg of my stool, ‘do you want to be doing that for?’

 

Digger arrived four months after our previous dog had to be put down by the vet. My daughter was desperate for a new dog, and I felt confident that she’d be around long enough to train it. Two months later, just getting on top of toilet training and slowly increasing the seconds Digger could focus on any one thing, my daughter floated the idea of a gap year to see the world. ‘What?’ I thought, indignant, forcing myself to stay quiet and in role. ‘But how could she?’ Was this a parental joke? Or, I let myself think, did Digger have something to teach me?

 

On New Year’s Day, my daughter interstate and my husband working, Digger and I went on an adventure. Driving down the coast for an hour, we stopped at Trial Bay, where once I would take my kids. I decided against the coastal path, knowing how little Digger relishes walking in a straight line, and made for the end of a new jetty jutting into the bay. Sitting cross-legged on sturdy mesh, I stared at the horizon. Digger was taken by the seaweed in the water below and by an Atlantic gull bobbing nearby. I don’t know how long we sat there, but it was long enough to realise that Digger wasn’t nibbling my arm or my shoe laces. He wasn’t interested in me. We were together yet separate for one of the first times.

 

Determined to have a cup of tea and to read a magazine, Digger sat under my table at an outdoor café where people at surrounding tables commented on how well-behaved he was. A couple of people mentioned they’d had a Lab, recalling how ‘intense’ the early phase had been, and reassured me that I’d be rewarded, around the age of two, with a calm dog. ‘Two years!’ I could hear myself shout in my head. Why did nobody tell me?

 

Yesterday, sitting reading under a tree in the park, a man with three dogs dropped to the ground for a chat. Within seconds Digger’s beef tendon had been taken off him by the man’s spaniel. The man chatted for five minutes before moving on. Though I barely recall what we talked about, I do remember thinking that it was a conversation I never would have had were it not for Digger slowing me down enough to be sitting in a park around lunchtime, passing the time of day.

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!

pickles

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Watching my mother eating pickles on an open sandwich for lunch mystified me as a girl. How could she like eating something that was both salty and sweet? Yuk, I’d think to myself, as I tucked into my cheese and tomato sandwich.

 

Every year, around this time, in my part of Adelaide, home-made goodies would appear like mushrooms, tucked behind the wire screen and front door of our porch, out of direct sunlight. Pickled cucumbers with fennel, and onions stuck with cloves, were bottled and wrapped in an elaborate Christmas present exchange as complex as the bartering systems used by the Pacific islanders that I wrote essays about as an Arts undergraduate. Tiny rectangular cards with Christmas cheer would tell my mother who the gift was from, causing her to catch her breath when she hadn’t thought to wrap one for the giver. Shortbread biscuits, thinly disguised in cellophane, often didn’t make it through Christmas, pilfered by my sisters and me as they sat innocently under our decorated tree. White Christmas was another of my sisters’ and my favourites: golf-ball sized lumps of copha, glace cherries, icing sugar and rice bubbles. But the jars of pickled something always made it through Christmas untouched, before being stored, label out, in a cool cupboard.

 

The things you find exciting when you’re young often aren’t, the psychologist Daniel Goleman notes, the things that you end up liking as you get older. Yesterday, standing at the kitchen bench, eating slices of pickled cucumber, cheese and cabbage on bread for lunch, I caught my daughter out of the corner of my eye and imagined her having the exact same thought I’d had, all those years ago, watching my mother eat pickled guerkins: pickles, I sensed her thinking, yuk!

 

What we end up liking – be it pickles or botanical drawing or marzipan – generally isn’t what we found exciting when we were young. My liking for pickles – straight from the fridge with crisp vegetables and cheese – surprises even me.

 

Early this morning I caught the tail end of the ABC news on radio. As I stood in the kitchen making my breakfast, a four-boy choir, who’d just been interviewed in the radio station, sang ‘Once in Royal David’s City’. My husband was in bed in avoidance of an early dental appointment for a root canal. My daughter was also upstairs, waiting for me to leave the house with our puppy before coming down to have breakfast in peace. Rooted to the floor, I looked out the window as a 12-year-old soloist sang the first verse. By the time three other choristers had joined him I was in tears at the beauty, comfort and clarity of the impossibly high notes they were sounding, cutting through the news headlines, and my Scrooge-like attitude to Christmas, like so much shattering glass.

 

This, I thought to myself, is what Christmas is about. It isn’t about nuclear families cleaving smugly to themselves. It isn’t about fielding unwieldy emotional demands, making tasteful Scandinavian decorations, or buying guilt-induced presents. It always was and is still about transcending the ordinary. It is about living more deeply, tasting whatever is your equivalent of pickles, and giving back. Often, when Christmas carols are sung, I find myself wishing there were fewer verses. This morning, despite my hurry, I felt sad there were only four.

talking too much

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

tough love

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

urgent vs important

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

shame

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

my bed

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It started with a tiff over the way I use the steps of the stairs as a clutter collector, coupled with my bad darn of a favourite rug that I unthinkingly allowed my daughter to use a Stanley knife on. Small, domestic, trivial things. Not something to lose sleep over, or so I told myself as I lay in bed staring at the ceiling. My husband seemed to think so too, as he drifted into sleep with a light snore.

 

Having been with my husband for a good number of years I know that small, trivial things are rarely slight. They’re just the things that make me toss and turn at night. Which is how I found myself on the sofa bed in the spare room the following morning, where I woke under a cotton blanket.

 

My husband is a writer with a UK company, writing to tight deadlines. Often this means working late before waking early, with a nap late morning. My husband works hard, too hard really, though I do my best not to say so. I myself have given up working late at night. Whenever I can I’ll head to bed with time to read, my little ritual. I love this reading time, this me-time, particularly with a teenager in the house. With middle-age has come lighter sleep. I no longer sleep the way I once fell off a log into a slumber that the alarm fetched me from each morning. Mostly I’ll wake early and go out for a walk or to yoga, and bookend my day in this way. So that whatever happens in between, it feels like my day.

 

After that first night on the sofa bed, I found myself finding reasons which sounded like excuses to repeat it. I had an early start. I had a sore throat. I was worried about a deadline. My husband’s snoring got to me. I was grieving loved ones, even though years had passed since their deaths.

 

Over the years my husband, a Europhile and Scot, has lengthened his overseas work trips. He’s learned Italian and made Italian friends. He enjoys working in the same time zone as his partner in London. Having lived together in London and started a family  there, I understand my husband’s need for these trips, and support him in them. However this isn’t apparent in the days leading up to his departure , when I invariably feel like an abandoned child no matter what my grown-up self thinks.

 

Last year, when my husband set out on his annual trip, I realised that I had a choice. I needn’t feel abandoned in our big bed. Instead I could sleep on the sofa bed next door, and feel cosy and warm there. I could go to bed as early as I liked and wake up with the birds. I could relish the space and flexibility of sleeping on my own. I could lie in my single bed and feel continuous with my younger self, despite being middle-aged. Why, I wondered, hadn’t I thought of this before? Why was sleeping on my own such a big deal that in twenty-five years of sleeping with my husband I had never entertained it as a possibility?

 

Following my husband’s return from his work trip last spring, I didn’t leave the sofa bed for the big bed next door. I already had a bed. The big bed with my husband in it became the bed that I visited before returning to sleep on my own. Why, I asked myself, had it taken me so long to recognise my desire for my own bed? Had I just assumed that loving someone was synonymous with sleeping in the same bed? Not waking up in the same bed as my husband, not doing things as others did them, wasn’t this a betrayal of love? Wasn’t this cheating? Was I really allowed, in the middle of family life, to sleep alone? Yet no matter what questions washed through my head, as I lay in my bed, there was no denying that what had at first been a compromise now felt like a sanctuary.

 

Perhaps if I hadn’t become a light sleeper, perhaps if I was less sensitive and thicker skinned, perhaps if my husband hadn’t worked late or snored. Then again if I’d been a heavy sleeper, thicker skinned and insensitive, if my husband had come to bed without my nagging him, I’d never have discovered how much I enjoy the physical and spiritual act of sleeping alone, independent of the facts which led to it. For this simple change has liberated me. I don’t have to be divorced or widowed, or even unhappily married, before I can sleep alone. I can sleep in my own bed with my husband in his own bed, or even in another country in his own bed, and stay married. I can go to bed and wake up when I choose, just as I choose so many other things, like the weight of my duvet and the shape of my day.

 

As a young woman I felt sorry for Virginia Woolf, who slept in a narrow single bed despite being married to Leonard Woolf. I knew that she’d had a troubled girlhood and had suffered psychiatric problems. Perhaps, I thought, sleeping in a single bed was the price she’d had to pay for losing trust in others. These days however I don’t think this. These days I find myself imagining Virginia Woolf dreaming up scenes for her wonderful books as she drifted in and out of sleep in her single bed.

 

Usually I avoid telling friends that I sleep in my own bed. I feel sheepish about it, as if it’s something to be ashamed of, an admission of failure. Clearly for some it is, hence my sheepishness. Yet for me it feels closer to a kind of growing up, part of the messy process of finding out what I need to be me at this point in my life.

 

Sweet dreams.

 

 

 

deliverance

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A dog is never just a dog. A dog is a world. Pippi was the gel that held my funny family together, making sense of the whole, especially the garden. She never came when she was called. We stopped taking her to the dog beach because she was the second fastest dog, after whippets, and grew so excited fetching sticks from the surf we couldn’t catch her. She was the dog we never should have got yet had to have, had to love. She was the Kelpie-Collie who was asked to leave puppy training school because she was reactive. The dog who could skateboard, who loved hide and seek indoors, who would check on whoever spent too long in their room. The dog with whom I could never entirely relax and yet never felt lonely in her company. Part babysitter, part surveillance system, part personal trainer.

 

Pippi’s emotional antenna was so acute that she ran into the kitchen as soon as she felt she was needed. She could pick an unstable person on the street 100 metres away, becoming agitated to the point of lunging as they approached. Asian people reading their phones in the dark got her ire, especially if the hood happened to be up. She didn’t like children either, especially, embarrassingly, Asian ones, after being teased when young. She was a dog from the Pound who we looked after and loved for over five years until a dog trainer Pippi knew as a puppy came to the door the day before yesterday and, instead of eating her treat in the living room, Pippi nipped her bottom in the hall, snarling.

 

On Tuesday night, when Pippi wheeled around to lunge at a small dog on the opposite pavement, I did my best to reign her back. But my arm got caught in her mouth and she bit down. A cold night, I was wearing a thick coat, yet I still have teeth marks on my arm.

 

My mother, who grew up on a farm, always said we were crazy to get a Kelpie-Collie cross from the Pound. Yet friends were adamant. Why would you go to a breeder when there were already so many dogs in need of a good home?

 

And she did have a good home. For over five years I cared for her as devotedly as I did the rest of my family, just as in her way she looked after me. Thanks to her I had three walks a day, one long, two short, with her bouncing at my side, brightening everything around her, the wallaby at the next corner, the cat in the driveway, the starry sky above.

 

Pippi won over my dog-shy husband, their shared love of soccer becoming a bond. Pippi’s technical prowess impressed my husband who would do twenty kicks into different corners of the garden before, without so much as a by your leave, returning to his work.

 

The constraints that went with having a reactive dog were slow and incremental. The need to prepare visitors about her in advance, doping her before big occasions which she spent shut in a bedroom, the muzzle at the vet. But we didn’t mind, loving her as we did.

 

Even though Pippi was on Prozac there was a small part of her, no more than five percent, that wasn’t touched by medication. She’d always been anxious but increasingly her anxiety turned on itself until she became the aggressor, the looker-for-trouble. What was that black shadow on the street? The rustle in a bush?

 

The day before yesterday the dog trainer sat down at our kitchen table – all our big conversations seem to happen at our kitchen table – and within fifteen minutes, like a scene from a film, we were talking about ending Pippi’s life. She wasn’t sick, she wasn’t crazy, but she had the potential to harm and she couldn’t be a happy dog to think every new person was a foe.

 

Throughout her life Pippi went to day care. For five hours a day three times a week she played ball games, messed around, and slept on couches, all with twenty other dogs. The same dogs which, on a leash on the street or in the park, she’d snarl at.

 

The best and worst part of all this was the grace of the vet who sat down on a chair, when I visited the practice the night before last, and instead of talking me out of my decision, as I’d hoped she would, immediately said that it was right to put Pippi down. The right thing that felt like the wrong thing, for the rest of that night and into the morning.

 

On ending our conversation at the kitchen table the dog trainer offered to take Pippi to her vet, to alleviate the suffering of my daughter and me. But I demurred. Pippi was, I felt, my responsibility. And I’m so glad I did. That we had one more night together – one more walk with head-torches under a starry sky on our favourite bush track – and the chance to take Pippi to the vet in my own car first thing yesterday morning, and to hold her head in my hands as she crumpled under the double dose of anaesthesia the vet expertly gave her.

 

Sitting on the same headland last night, that we circled with Pippi on Tuesday, watching the sun go down behind the mountain, a thought ran through my head which I thought not to say aloud to my daughter. In heartbreak there is deliverance. Thank you Pippi.