helen hayward

life writing

waiting

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We spend a lot of our life waiting. For a test result. For an important email. For onions to cook. For dawn to break.

 

The thing about waiting is that, often, we don’t know when it will end.

 

My current waiting began last Tuesday, when I asked three friends to read two chapters of a manuscript that I’m soon to send to my agent, who I feel sure will say that Housekeeping: A journey is too memoirish for her to sell in the current market. I asked three friends for feedback because I wanted a sympathetic response from readers who ‘got’ the ideas I’ve written about, before I get all defensive in my attempt to describe, in a back of the envelope sort of way, what my manuscript is really about for the publishing world.

 

Five long days after sending this email to three friends, one of them got back.

 

‘Enjoying your ms a lot’, she texted. ‘What is the take out?’

 

I texted back. ‘The take out is that housekeeping grounds us and, when we do it in the right spirit, it makes us feel good about ourselves’.

 

‘Okay’, she texted back, sounding unconvinced.

 

I tried again. ‘Housekeeping is caring about countless things that we otherwise wouldn’t care about for the sake of a well-run, pleasant home.

 

‘More personal!’ she texted back.

 

‘Maybe just read the introduction’ I texted, and we left it there.

 

My manuscript is written in the first person, which makes the waiting for a response to it that much harder. Because if a reader doesn’t like my manuscript, I’m likely to feel, in an ungrown-up part of myself, rejected, disapproved of. This is awkward to admit. It makes me sympathise with Virginia Woolf, who used to fall apart whenever she finished a manuscript and posted it off to a friend to read. Except that I don’t write as well as Virginia Woolf. And I am, as far as I know, mentally stable.

 

The three women who I asked to read part of my current manuscript have all replied to me, promising to read and respond. Each time I received one of their emails, I emailed back, thanking them for their support and stressing that there was no urgency, and should take as much time as they liked. The ungrown-up part of me thought this reasoning of mine was very bad. Why should I feel sympathy for the busyness of my friends’ lives when I was desperate to know if my manuscript was readable, acceptable, interesting?

 

However, my grown-up self, knowing how easily my request for a favour from friends could feel like a demand, managed not to ask them to hurry up and respond.

 

Instead I wait. I distract myself with projects at home. I shampoo the carpets. I dig the garden. I write this blog, confident that the three friends who I asked to read my manuscript, don’t read my blog. I catch up on the work that I put aside to finish Housekeeping: A journey and my recent yoga course. And I wait for my son’s quarantine to end, counting down the days (three) before I’m allowed back into the yoga studio and am able to invite friends for dinner.

 

My agent has left Sydney for good, after living in the same inner city flat for thirty odd years. Last week, she taped up eighty boxes and headed for the mountains. Only the packing up proved so stressful for her that she landed up in a country hospital with an acute infection. This prompted a sympathetic email from me, telling her to let me know when the coast was clear, at which point I’d send through to her my manuscript for her to read. After all, I reasoned, how could reading my manuscript compete with leaving your home, your friends, and recovering from an acute infection?

 

From the outside, waiting is a pause, a hiatus. From the inside, it feels like a thing that I am doing. I am not twiddling my thumbs. I am not writing messages across the sky. I am waiting.

3 lessons from my yoga course

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‘So’, asked a friend, ‘what have you learned from that yoga course you’ve been doing?’

 

‘Well’, I said, ‘it’s really three things. And none of them have anything to do with yoga poses. The first is psychological. Doing the course has made me realise how much mental energy I give over to resisting things that I have to do in my daily life. Whether it’s doing my morning yoga practice, filling the dog’s food container from a bin in the basement, or getting supper on the table on time, I’m incredibly resistant to the parade of tasks that punctuate my day.’

 

‘Ha’, said Kate, ‘tell me about it.’

 

‘Perhaps’, I said, ‘if I sat on my yoga block for 25 minutes a day, as suggested by our yoga teacher, I wouldn’t struggle as much. But I don’t sit on a block nearly that long and I do struggle. For now, I’m just aware of how much I resist things. And occasionally I rise above it.’

 

‘Another thing I’ve learned is to accept things as they are. Things are not good or bad, they just are. I knew this before the course. But I hadn’t lived it. And living it makes all the difference. I don’t find accepting things as they are easy, it goes against the grain. It goes against all my instincts, which I now understand – like most of my thoughts – can’t be trusted.’

 

‘These days I find it easier to zoom in and out of my experience. When something gets to me, I try to stand back from it. I leave it alone. I don’t add to a problem by layering my own stuff on to it. It’s the mental equivalent of strengthening my core. It doesn’t come naturally to me. I have to practice not reacting again and again. But when I do manage it, it really helps. Because not reacting buys me time. It means that I can be in the middle of a situation and also observe it. And this gives me breathing space.’

 

‘Yeah’, said Kate, ‘anything is better than getting stressed’.

 

‘Yes’, I said. ‘Stress is horrible. Which leads me to the last thing I’ve learnt from the yoga course. Doing nothing, I now accept, is doing something. Taking time out – whether it’s switching off the wifi, walking on the beach, eating lunch on the grass, sitting on a yoga block – is equivalent to lying on the floor at the end of yoga class. It’s a positive sort of nothing. A yielding to the day, to life, to fate.’

 

‘Is that it?’ asked Kate. ‘I thought you’d have lots of good habits from the course’.

 

‘I guess I have a few’, I said. ‘I already knew, before I did the course, that there’s no freedom without discipline. But doing the course confirmed this to me. In the morning, I now do Indian cleansing practices in the bathroom. I book yoga classes a week ahead of time. I use my diary to keep track of meals, shopping and must do’s. I keep a gratitude journal and write down three good things from each day before sleeping. My phone screen is grey scale, to make it less appealing. And every week I try to do one thing – even when it’s inconvenient, and it’s always inconvenient – for someone outside my family.’

 

‘Really?’ said Kate, drily. ‘You sound like a saint.’

 

‘Sorry. I must sound like a prick. But really I’m exactly the same person I was when I started the course four and a half months ago. To be honest, Covid has probably had more impact on my life than the yoga course has. Although perhaps, after my assessment next week, everything will fall into place and I’ll find perfect peace!’

 

o.w.p. out without a phone

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I used to carry a phone so that the school nurse could contact me if one of my kids fell off the play equipment. It made me feel safe, knowing I was connected, out of sight not out of mind.

 

These days, when I go out in the morning, to walk the dog and to work outside, I leave my phone in the boot of the car. I do this so that I can be in nature and focus on my work. And to prevent my good energy leaking away into the innards of my phone.

 

I think less of myself when I keep checking my phone during the morning. Each time I do it, a bit of my life force seeps away. With each click on a New York Times story, my preferred poison, I feel my morning draining away. It’s not just time that I lose when I do this. It’s also self belief. How can my own writing compete with the slickly edited stories of weighty world events? But mainly it’s time that I lose. The number of minutes that I spend reading New York Times stories has to be doubled to reflect how long it takes me to get back to my own work, after reading on-line. It takes this long to silence the self-doubt that invades me when I read other people’s beautifully edited stories.

 

Last week, fed up with wasting time on my phone, I went into System Preferences, clicked on Accessibility, and faded the screen to grey. Then I wobbled into oblivion those apps that stole my time when I tapped on them compulsively. And I hinted to my family that I might not see text messages they sent during the morning.

 

I always assumed that one day my kids would pack their bags and leave home. And that, when they did, I’d feel inconsolable and useless. I’d feel left behind, like the family dog waiting in vain for the front door to open. But now I think that something else might have to happen before my kids leave home. I might have to leave my kids first, to give them unconscious permission to leave me.

 

I used to think that motherhood was all about surviving my kids unconscious attacks on me. Their taunts and criticisms were, I felt, their way of projecting on to me what they couldn’t bear about themselves. I had to appear stupid so they could be clever, that kind of thing.

 

I was right, I have had to survive my kids’ attacks on me. But now I face something just as hard, perhaps harder. I have to communicate to them, at a deep level, that I will be fine without them, without being sure of this myself. Going out without a phone, or at least having it switched off in the boot of my car, proves to me that I am fine on my own – just as my kids will one day be without me.

 

But perhaps the most important part of being out without a phone is that it gives me a freedom and spaciousness that I thought may never be mine again.

 

 

 

 

 

new website

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It started out as a new year’s resolution, of a kind I felt up to making. This year, I told myself, I will redo my website.

For a month I did nothing. The bushfires raging across the country burned a hole in everything. What a vain, shallow thing to want, I thought, whenever the idea of a new website crossed my mind. Besides, I reasoned, I still like my old website. It’s still beautiful. And who but me would know that the photo of my daughter, on its opening page, was taken seven years ago?

Me. I knew that the photo of Emma in a Scottish landscape, wearing a woollen beanie with donkey ears, was long out of date. Just as I knew that eight of the stories on the ‘other writings’ page were taken from a magazine that died eight years ago. Even if no-one else cared about this, I did.

At the start of February, my writing coach put ‘new website’ on my list of things to do before we met next. I nodded. I had in mind what I wanted the site to look like, and felt sure that I could find someone to do it without paying over the odds. Sitting outside at a café, that late summer morning, a new website seemed doable.

A month later, in the middle of mentoring an accomplished writer with a project of hers, she mentioned that she’d created websites for clients in her old job. ‘Really?’ I said. ‘Would you be up for making one for me?’ ‘Yes, of course’, Susie said, her eyes lighting up.

Then came lock down and we switched our meetings to on-line. Susie was upbeat. She liked not losing time to traveling and spending time on zoom. Besides, she pointed out, it would be just as easy to create a new website via zoom, as in person.

Having taken the lead in our writing workshop, I let Susie take the lead when it came to discussing my new website. Luckily, we agreed on most things. I needed a modern, fresh site. I needed google analytics to help me reach a younger, busier audience. I needed a user-friendly mobile app. I needed to promote my blog and to downplay the fact that the publisher of my last book went bust a month after publishing it. And yes, I probably did need to start a newsletter that drew more readers to my work.

The next day, walking my dog along the beach, I felt less certain. Did I really want to write a newsletter, and about exactly what? Or did I just think that I should want to write one?

As promised, Susie emailed a mock-up of my new website a week later. I clicked on the link on my mobile. It looked great. I texted Susie, thanking her warmly. The site looked different from my old one, in a good way. With this new website, I thought to myself, I’d be free of the old me. The dead magazine story links would be dust. My work would be fresh on the page. What a relief.

Busy with my yoga course, three days went by before I opened the website link again, this time on my computer in the kitchen. It was Sunday afternoon and the light was fading in the garden.

‘Take a look at this, will you?’ I asked Emma, who’d wandered into the kitchen. ‘It’s my new website. I think I like it, but I’m just not sure’.

‘What about these uneven margins?’ Emma asked, peering over my shoulder and pointing at the screen.

‘It’s still a draft’, I said, feeling defensive on Susie’s behalf.

‘And why are the fonts on this page all different?’ she asked.

‘Oh, come on’, I said. ‘There’s lots of time to change things like that’.

‘How much are you paying Susie for this?’ she asked.

‘$50 an hour’, I said.

There was a pause.

‘I reckon I could do a website for you’, she said. ‘I’ve got nothing on right now. And it will cost you less’.

‘But you’ve never done a website before’.

‘Actually, I’ve been looking at websites for a while. I think I know a site that might work for you. It seems pretty easy to work with’.

There was another pause.

‘Okay’, I said, rising to her dare. ‘It’ll be awkward with Susie, who may not forgive me. But I’m happy for you to give it a go. I bet you can do it. How long do you need?’

‘I dunno’, she said.

‘How does three weeks sound?’

‘Yep’, she said, and left the kitchen, her phone buzzing in her hand,

I sent an apologetic email to Susie, explaining that Emma had put her hand up and that I wanted to support her. When, the next day, Susie emailed back, she couldn’t have been nicer about it. Yet I knew that what she was feeling must be more complicated than what she said in her email. ‘Good for you’, I thought to myself.

The next Saturday, coming in from walking the dog, I found Emma slouched at the computer on the kitchen table. ‘Why does this software have to be so annoying?’ she asked. ‘What can they be thinking?’ Refusing to be drawn in, I started getting dinner, confident that Emma would find her own way through if I didn’t interfere.

But she didn’t. Emma hated the time that she spent making me a new website, as much as she’d once hated doing school homework. From her moans it was clear that it felt closer to a chore than a newfound passion. ‘Forget it’, I said, coming in from gardening one day to find her slouched yet again at the computer. ‘I can ask Jo, my old web designer. She might be able to do it’. ‘Would you?’ said Emma, sounding relieved. ‘I’m so sorry, but I just can’t do this right now. There are too many other things that I want to be doing’. ‘Fine by me’, I said, lying.

If Emma hadn’t wiped my old website from the Internet, I might have done nothing for a while. Instead, I emailed Jo that night, who got straight back. She had, she said, stopped doing web design. But as it happened, a friend of hers had just had a good experience creating a website with wix, and it had made Jo curious to try it. If I didn’t mind waiting until she got the hang of using it, she was game.

The next morning, I sent through the website material to Jo, and told her not to hurry with the site. And week later, she sent through a mock-up. I was thrilled. The site didn’t look modern. It wasn’t attention-seeking. Even better, it looked like my website. The only downside was that there were too many photos with me in them. However, I decided to let Jo make the call on this.

But still I worried. ‘Is a new website just self-promotion?’ I asked myself. ‘No’, I said, silencing my inner critic. It wasn’t about the me who wondered what to cook for dinner, or who did yoga in the bathroom in the morning. It was about something else.

A few evenings later, clicking again on the link Jo had sent, I felt less sure. Lots of small things that I wanted to change jumped out at me. How had I not seen them before? Was I being a fuss-pot? ‘Don’t overthink it’, said Emma, filling a hot water bottle at the hob. ‘But’, I said crossly, ‘I am thinking about it!’

That Friday, I sat at Jo’s side in her study, a novelty after two months of lock down. It was a relief to be able to point out the little things that I wanted her to change, and to sit by as she made the changes. One by one, Jo fixed everything that had bugged me about the site. As she worked, she never said, ‘Oh Helen, what does it matter if these paragraphs are merged or not?’ She never said, ‘Who cares if that photo margin doesn’t match the text margin?’ Nor did she say, as she must have felt at 3pm, ‘I’m hungry, it’s time to stop’.

Three more times, in the following week, I sent through further changes. Each time, Jo made the changes, emailing me back when she was done. During this time, I stopped feeling like a fuss-pot. It was okay, I told myself, to care about what my new website looked like, and how it read line by line. It wasn’t about being a perfectionist. It was about paying for a service and wanting a good job.

Even if I had the skills to create a new website, and even if I had photoshop on my computer, I wouldn’t have been able to create my own website. I needed Jo’s help, her emotional support along with her technical skill. The resistance and self doubt that creating a new website provoked in me was huge. There were moments when I hated the whole business of creating a site. At other times I marveled at the options that the software threw up.

Having Jo at my side gave me permission to create a new website, making it possible –  just last Thursday – to press ‘publish’ on http://www.helenhayward.net. At which point I posted a link to the site on facebook, hung my ego on a peg, and sighed.

on needing to get away

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

my yoga philosophy class on zoom

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

yoga

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

learning to draw

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

on caring about things I don’t care about

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On Monday afternoon, a public holiday, I made a swoop on my wardrobe, removed eight unsuspecting garments and took them straight out to my car where I laid them on the back seat. Perhaps I’d have worn these clothes again. Perhaps I’ll regret my impulse. However having wriggle room in my wardrobe seemed worth the risk of any future regret. Having enough space between the hangers to be able to push clothes across the bar to slot in a jacket without squashing flat the clothes either side of it, seemed a privilege.

 

Someone else might not care about an overfilled wardrobe. Personally, I’d like to be the kind of person who is above caring about such things. The kind of person who doesn’t notice when their barbecue stops working. The kind of person who shoves overdue library books to the back of a cupboard, and who keeps on using their dishwasher even after noticing that the catch is missing on the arm on the floor of the machine. Instead, I am the kind of person who is unable to receive email on her phone because, on New Year’s morning, I removed the email app from my phone to free up space in my mind. Which was all very well, until yesterday, when I realised that without email on my phone boarding a plane this weekend would prove tricky.

 

We’re supposed not to care about the little things, the trivial things which stop us from concentrating on more important things. My husband is particularly good at this, at compartmentalising. He can shut out everything from his mind, bar toothache, in order to focus on a work deadline. Sadly this skill eludes me.

 

Whenever I edit a manuscript, I use an orange pen to make corrections. I find the orange colour satisfying against the black typeface, and enjoy making messy notes in the margins. When I work in a cafe, which I often do in the morning, I’ve learned to keep my diary in my bag so that I can jot down things that I need to do once I get home – emails, errands, chores. Writing these things down really works for me. I can note them down, knowing they are safe in my diary, and then return my thoughts to work. However, lately my resolve has loosened. There are just too many orange notes in my diary. And so, instead of concentrating on work, my mind strays to the plants I’ve left to dry out in their pots, the household budget I’ve promised myself to start, the barbecue that isn’t working properly and the broken dishwasher arm that needs replacing.

 

Try as I might, I’ve never managed to get interested in the workings of our domestic appliances. I know how to unclog the drains of our dishwasher and washing machines, simply because I find it agony waiting for a technician to come and fix them for me. However my relation to our barbecue has always been fraught. I love it when I can put kebabs on its hotplate and go off for a walk and return home to a cool kitchen. But I hate cleaning the hotplate and find the gas canister annoying. Is it about to run out? Why is it so hard to connect?

 

I know it’s ridiculous to be complaining about domestic appliances. It isn’t a serious problem. (Australia is burning, I know.) My barbecue problem is a first world hassle. Except, what if my reluctance to get our barbecue and dishwasher fixed is in some way linked to society’s neglect of the planet? What if I’m among a whole generation of people who would prefer to chuck their broken barbecue, or go without one, rather than drive to an out-of-town outdoors store to get it fixed? What if I’m one of many who doesn’t want the hassle of taking a photo of their offending dishwasher part before contacting the distributor to replace it? What if I choose not to care?

 

On Monday afternoon, after putting in my car the clothes that I didn’t want because I wanted space in my wardrobe more, I disconnected the barbecue and put it and the empty gas canister into the boot. Then I gathered a stack of library books and put them in a bag on the front seat. Next it was a bag of glass bottles and jars to take to the health-food shop for reuse, and a third bag of clean plastics for recycling. I even got the mascara wand that MAC cosmetics claims to recycle, and slipped it in my yoga bag, so that, after class the next morning, I could visit the department store to exchange my mascara wand for a new one, and then on to the phone shop to reinstall the email app on my phone.

 

These things are trivial. Of course they are. Ultimately I don’t give a damn about any of them. And yet things like these prey on me. Because if I don’t care about recycling beauty products, I say to myself, why should anyone else care about them either? And since I don’t want to live in a world in which no-one cares about the life cycle of plastics, the next morning I take my mascara wand back to the cosmetics lady who gives me a stamp on a card which – after five more stamps – will result in a free mascara wand. Oh joy. And the barbecue, I find out after driving out of town and returning home again, requires no more than a $3 cap – plus two 40-minute return trips to drop it off yesterday and pick it up today.

 

‘Good’, I read somewhere last week, ‘is the overcoming of inertia’. This seems right to me. Goodness isn’t about not sinning. It’s about getting over the hump of my own reluctance to do those things that make a difference to my life, and that of others. It’s about having the kind of energy that allows me to tick off tasks that unconsciously I don’t care about but consciously do care about – damn it.

 

Now all I have to do is attach the gas canister to the barbecue and put six sausages and three potatoes, cut into wedges, on to the hotplate before walking the dog before dinner. No worries!

too many holidays

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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