Unpacking

We are back from our epic voyage across three countries and I am working my way through laundry and starting to piece our post-wedding lives together. It’s funny, for so long whilst we were hurtling towards this enormously important family event, every aspect of our ordinary decisions became divided into either urgent and therefore necessary and allowable or not urgent or necessary, and therefore able to be postponed until after the wedding. So now here we are on the other side, and alongside the unpacking and the cleaning are all these random elements lying around, waiting for our attention.

And I can’t stop going over and over those days in Marbella: I can’t help thinking how different it all could have been if at any point in that time one of my family had just taken a step towards us, or shown some sign of friendliness or kindness.

Instead of feeling so insulted by that first encounter, when we were made to feel so unwelcome at their table, if we could have sat down together as a family and at least said hello to each other, after all these years of silence, perhaps I could have held my emotions in better check when I was herded out of the reception area the next day.

Perhaps if the table seating plan had put me next to my brother instead of sat next to strangers, I could have taken a step towards repairing the years of distance between us. Perhaps I would have seen, as Jude saw but couldn’t tell me at the time, that my sister-in-law was feeling just as out of place as I was and that my sense of her judging me was perhaps completely misplaced.

Despite all of their flaws, they aren’t malevolent people: as Jude explained to me as we sat by our fire in the garden last night, me still hashing through my hurt feelings and disappointment: he sees them as slightly lost children who just don’t know how to behave in these situations. Any other mother, for example, would have pushed her children together rather than nervously chat about books at me until I walked away, seething: hungry, hot and hurt.

After all, I am the embodiment of that cliché of a square peg in a round hole: passionate and emotional, I cannot hide my feelings and everything is always clearly on display. I wear my heart on my sleeve and whilst it often gives me a ticket into strangers hearts, more often it is a trap that I fall into and cannot get out of: it fuels the spite of those who rather enjoy watching others failing, my sister’s mother-in-law for example, made a rather nasty remark behind my back as I left the table in anger at her friend’s rudeness.

Had I been offered the chance to relax for a minute, to have been given the chance to see past their social ineptitude, I could have put my feelings aside and done what I alone in my family can do so well: made everyone laugh, tickled my children to help break the ice, spoken to them all, brought some of my silliness and happiness into their idea of what I am and who we are: perhaps we could even have got to know each other a little.

Instead it’s the same old story: Chloe got upset, walked away and the chances are that we may never speak to anyone in the family ever again. It’s already been 5 years of silence after all.

So I’m cross with myself for not being able to control my emotions. I felt so miserable after having worked so hard to prepare myself and my girls for this event and when it came to it, was unable to hide my disappointment with them all. Had I been a different person, a less emotional, less passionate human, I could have swallowed the pain and smiled through it all. But I simply do not have that ability: it is a fakery I am incapable of producing. No matter how useful it would have been, in this as in so many other potentially disastrous events in my life which have generally always led me falling down the same hole, I just cannot lie: my skin speaks even when my mouth cannot.

I wanted so much for my girls to be welcomed and made a fuss of: for those brief days with their extended, unseen and silent family to be remembered by them as joyful, carefree sunshine times, for them to dance in a different light, for them to held in the embrace of a bigger circle than that with which they are held by Jude and me, by ourselves with all our ups and downs, all of our stresses and constraints big and small.

For those 10 days, we were in a beautiful bubble of happiness, driving around like any other family on holiday in a modern, reliable and comfortable car, tired and a little bored at being in said car at times, but at the same time so thrillingly free. We roamed through all those countries, exploring and experiencing so much that we normally never see. I spoilt the girls and bought them all kinds of plastic crap and sweets that I found along the way: stuff that I normally avoid because of it’s impact on the planet, and each time I knew that I was doing it to make up for what they lacked in gifts and affection from my family.

I am tired. Emotionally wrung out. Cross with them, frustrated by the mistakes and missed opportunities on both sides. This all could have been, should have been, so very different. With someone other than me to guide us, to pull us all together, perhaps we could have all made some progress and found some way to be a family. My sister and her husband were wrapped up in their friends and Tom’s more gregarious family and were not able to do it. My brother is incapable of stepping out of his shy and socially awkward self. My parents were too self conscious and unwilling or unable to speak to me. And I should have seen all of that and taken on the task of social interaction, for the sake of all of us. Instead I sulked. I felt unwelcome and messy: out of sorts, out of place: I wanted to disappear completely and indeed, we left as soon as we politely could, before I unravelled any more. If I hadn’t been me, I could have been the glue that held it all together: pulled everyone into my light which has been so brightly lit since I’ve been away from them all this time. If.

Is this yours?

Throughout my lonely childhood I was convinced that I was a problem: always somehow wrong, out of place, in the way. Any urge I had to express myself or to advocate on my own behalf was dismissed as selfishness, no evidence of my existence even visible within my home beyond the perimeter of my bedroom in any of the various houses we lived in before my siblings appeared.

After all these years, with a family of my own, I honestly thought I’d feel differently at last: included perhaps, even welcomed as a member of this family I spent so long struggling to be accepted by and understand: that perhaps those childhood feelings were simply mis-perceived, paranoid even.

But here I am, 43 years after I lost my only true blood relative wondering why the hell I didn’t realize sooner that the problem was never actually me at all.

Yes, I am emotional. Yes, I am clumsy, easily wrong-footed, thin-skinned and self-conscious. But I know, with every atom of my being, how to love and include and welcome people into my heart and my home, however temporary my dwelling may be and whoever that person may be.

In turn, over the past few days of this huge event in my four little girl’s lives, that they’ve been waiting all these months to be a part of, our little family has been snubbed, ignored, moved along and even openly ousted from our seats at the one table we were invited to.

Our first encounter with my so-called family was at a café on the beach yesterday afternoon, where, after waiting in the hot sun with the rest of the wedding party, we found that they had been sitting together at a table just around the corner from us the whole time. Having not eaten all day, and with the girls eagerly waiting hours for their first glimpse of their adored Auntie Kathryn, we had just decided to go back to our apartment for some food as we couldn’t justify the menu prices, and there they all were: my sister, her friends, her new mother-in-law and my parents, sitting in the shade, relaxed, cool, drinking, eating. My brother and his wife, who we haven’t seen or been in touch with since their wedding around 7 years ago, didn’t even get out of their seats to say hello to their four nieces, two of whom they’d never even met before.

We chatted politely for a few minutes, still holding our beach things, tummies rumbling, whilst the waiter moved around us, taking their orders, until finally I said we had to go and get some food ourselves. We gathered our bags and headed off, sand creasing our skin, buckets and spades banging. We walked back to our apartment along the beach with all our stuff: Tula crying because she had sand in her eyes, Elodie crying with burning feet and sandy crotch rubbed red raw by walking, all of us hungry and disappointed by the oddly unwelcoming encounter.

The big day today, we arrived at the super-posh wedding location a couple of hours before the ceremony as arranged, with all of our things still on hangers: stupidly, I somehow thought that the girls would be welcomed in and fussed over but I walked in with them and straight back out again: my sister getting her hair done on the balcony didn’t even smile and simply looked at me as if I was the very last person she’d expected to see there. All of the bridesmaids were there, drinking champagne, laughing, everyone busy and bustling, but the flower girls were clearly not required, as we were barely acknowledged by anyone even though I’d been under the impression that they’d at least be able to rehearse what they needed to do for the ceremony.

We sat for a while in the lobby and finally started dressing ourselves in the downstairs toilet: all 6 of us squashed into the hot little space. I don’t know why we didn’t arrive dressed and ready: now, I feel like an idiot for even thinking that we would be welcomed or offered a drink or to be part of the preparations. Whatever was I thinking? One of the groom’s best men rudely asked whose things were littering the area as I grabbed up our bags and wedding outfits before they got confiscated. “Are these yours?” he said sniffily, pointing at a pair of fluffy white slippers with “Bridesmaid” embroidered on them. I stifled my anger and stuffed myself back into the toilet to dress the little ones and try to cool my flushed face, so carefully made up hours before, tears boiling in my eyes.

Fairly composed, the bigger girls summoned at last for their hair, we made our way to a seat in the shade. We sat, watching guests arriving, waiting.

Finally, the ceremony: simple and beautiful, held in the bright Spanish sunshine, with the sea an ever-present, twinkling backdrop. My sister was divine, the service perfect. Tom, her handsome husband, sweet and caring; visibly emotional in his adoration of his perfect bride.

Later, we search the tables for our name: an envelope with ‘the Grice family’ seems to indicate our spot clearly enough. As we sit, an older woman bustles around us, repeatedly and pointedly checking the name of the table and loudly telling the world that she was supposed to be seated there. I show her the envelope, but she insists that we are in the wrong place. “Should there be all these children here?” she asks huffily.

By now, I feel so utterly unwelcome that I finally lose my temper properly and angrily tell her to take the table: that I was perfectly happy to leave. I pull the girls from their seats and remove us to an empty table by the door, unaware that I am interrupting the bride and groom preparing for another big entrance. By this time I am properly crying, unable to swallow my upset and hurt any longer, horribly embarrassed at my failure to keep my composure.

From not wanting to make a fuss about anything and with every intention of facing this event with grace and good humour for the sake of my excited girls, despite the anxiety I have felt about the entire event and being amongst these strangers I’ve struggled with all these years, I still ended up being in the wrong place. This time, however, rather than a childishly perceived slight, it took a complete stranger to tell me so directly to my face, despite evidence to the contrary.

The truth is of course, that I never did belong with these strange, unfriendly people. My adopted mother kept her promise to her dead sister by taking me in, but she never let me into her heart. My adopted father, who can barely bring himself to speak to his only grandchildren, did his best for me as a child: telling me I needed to start using deodorant, arriving at my bedside before I woke to wipe my sticky conjunctivitis eyes, sneaking me up some nightime peanuts as I lay in bed at his parents house in Canada whilst the adults watched movies in their basement. He couldn’t return my three unanswered calls on his recent birthday and still had nothing to say to me as we stood chatting politely in the hot, Marbella sun: just comments about my apparently sunburnt skin and the cost of the place they were staying in; that the newlywed’s honeymoon destination in Borneo was a place he and Ann had visited themselves, but that he wasn’t paying for it this time. All surface, all empty noise.

So, today is the final segment of this three-day, day-glo, gold and glitter celebration, and I find myself in the midst of all of this grandeur and glitz, amongst all of these shiny happy people in their excess and need to impress, constantly checking themselves and each other, strangely more at peace with my sad childhood self than perhaps I’ve ever been before. Finding a cockroach scuttling around the rented holiday kitchen when I awoke at 4am this morning, anger still coiling around my thoughts, seemed fitting somehow: the large, dark body somehow personifying the darkness I see beneath all the consumption around me. This is the rot I always knew was there except that this time I didn’t need to dig for it the way I used to: for once I don’t need to drown my hurt feelings in alcohol or other easy escapes. I don’t feel the urge to pull myself apart in search of some reason that I should continue to exist: proof that my life is anything but a weight to carry, quietly and alone. Perhaps this new clarity may even allow me to finally and decisively free myself from the hopelessness of expecting anything to be any different to how it’s ever been.

One thing I definitely know for certain is which family I am most proud of being a part of and that is the one I have created with my lovely husband and these gorgeous, vibrant, belovable girls. I know for a certainty that should anyone come to their table, hot, hungry, thirsty, that all of them, without a blink of hesitation would pull up chairs and offer genuine warmth and compassion with whatever they had, because that is the right thing to do.

As happy as I am for my sweet little sister, who has found herself a kind and courteous gem of a human to truly cherish her in all her beauty and generosity of spirit, I am happier still to watch them head off together whilst we go our own, separate way. Our quiet life in Normandy is calling me home and I can’t wait to escape back to the wholesome, humble world I have come to treasure so much, where love is tangible and told through touch and telling, where kindness and compassion will always hold more worth than cash.

I’m glad we came, and Jude has persuaded me to say goodbye politely, but it turns out my greatest joy is finally realizing that I have found out where I truly belong at last.

3 days in Spain

My favourite aquilegia, grown from seed: so happy to see this lovely perennial again.

My inner critic, that action-stopping muddier of creative waters, is standing on my brain again today, crushing all impetus, stagnating my flow. I can hardly breathe with the hysteria of suppressed energy boiling in my fingertips and throat. I’m on the edge: of violence, of destruction, in my urgency to expend, to release myself from these invisible bindings. One more cup of tea and I hope, calm.

Peony about to blossom for the very first time!

Instead of the carefully controlled, orderly plan I keep intending to set out for myself to start off each housebound week as productively as possible, I find this chaos has become my frustratingly regular Monday morning routine, as I stumble from one vague, unsatisfying task to another, finishing nothing, my head imploding with possibilities. I take a shower to calm myself, forgetting the kettle left to boil dry: stepping out I see I put the washing on instead of picking up the towel I’d intended to fetch and run dripping, cursing, to the ringing telephone, just as the caller quits the call.

There is a blue tit nesting above our kitchen window: there is a frenzy of cheeping as I take this photo.

Driven in part by my nervousness about a long-awaited upcoming social event – my sister’s wedding in Spain – I am also floundering creatively. My little Etsy shop has completely stalled: I have given it zero attention since we’ve been reduced to one car which Jude uses for work, as my ability to source stock or post orders is too intermittent. Jude and I have discussed setting up a business together making items to sell online, but this new venture has had to be put on hold until his workshop can be built and in the meantime he is working for clients, which is good, obviously, for the income it brings, but limits the time he can spend working on the barn.

Our well is functioning again: Jude has put in our old pump and connected it to a water tank to use in the veg plot. These blue flowers were sown from seed this spring: forget-me-nots, flax and cerinthe.

So I have no direction, no focus. I want to be making art, but to do that as a business means allowing myself time to play and explore materials; to find a way to harness my passions into creating sellable work. I’ve thought about selling my photos, but there is the outlay of making prints to consider when we are desperate to hold onto our cash for this trip away. I cannot seem to get my head around selling digital prints. It’s not quite an overstatement to say that it seems as if our life here is on hold and nothing can start until we come back. There, already, I have circled back to that one overriding, all encompassing subject dominating everything in my mind right now: Spain.

Veg plants waiting patiently for the rain to stop and for me to get my gardening head on

Three days of sociability, one of them formal; nine days away with possibly four of those days with all of us driving across France and Spain in an as-yet unknown make and model of hire car, booked but not yet paid for. Four white flower girl dresses, shoes and accessories, bought, checked and altered to fit. One now-vintage man’s suit to be collected from the drycleaner’s this week. The numbers hide my worries in lists of controllable itemizing. Then there is my need to brush up on those endlessly female nonnecessities that I have so studiously ignored all these years: exfoliating, waxing, plucking, moisturizing, hairdressing… all so I can be confident in public and on the beach and not embarrass my little sister on her big day.

It’s exhausting, frankly, and terrifying. And dancing hand in hand with my underconfidence and self doubt is a niggling, deeper worry about alcohol.

Since our nadir over Christmas and the New Year neither of us have drunk alcohol: Jude through his recognition and final acceptance of his tendency to alcoholism and me in my deep desire to support him on this new path of sobriety. He is doing so well and I trust him implicitly, despite a minor wobble when I falsely accused him of having lapsed when I comically mistook a new deodorant for the whiff of stale booze.

I know that alcohol will be available and unavoidable. Most, if not all of the guests will be drinking and many will get drunk. This is just a fact of modern life, of celebration and social gatherings, but it will be the first serious test for us both. I am deeply worried that even one night of being ‘allowed’ to drink will release the demon from Jude’s self-willed control and render him incapable of reclosing the door. This fear underlies all of my procrastination, silently overshadowing everything else I tell myself I’m worrying about.

Mending a favourite skirt with new patches

I don’t want this monster back in our lives. It’s why I’ve been able to resist the seduction of booze: we are so very much happier without it standing between us. Jude is my superhero, my knight, my dream man made flesh: strong, unfailing, beautiful and true. He lets me burn in all my crazy colours and my endless possibilities, wanting nothing but my own truth when I let myself be free of my doubts and insecurities; always steady, always strong, capable of all things, kind. Alcohol leaches all of those things from him and leaves a crude, twisted shadow of personality in it’s place whilst cruelly convincing Jude that he is funnier, happier and more relaxed while under it’s spell. Truly, it is a curse we are blessed to be free of these last few months.

I know that this trip to Spain is going to be an amazing experience for us: it may be the only chance my girls get to see their maternal grandparents for example, who have never visited or even phoned us in France, though they could well afford to. Dutifully sent gifts are the only evidence they have of their existence and, as grateful as I am for this careful kindness, I have long nursed an anger that no more is sent their way or expected of them. I finally understand that my parents, in adopting and raising me, feel that their work is done, but I can’t help but resent the coldness of their connection to us and especially to my wonderful girls, who they will never really know. This at least will be their one chance to spend a little time with them. My lovely sister, who has always stayed in touch and visited us often over the years, is deeply loved by her nieces and this above all is going to keep me sane through all my various social anxieties and fears: her loyalty and kindness shines through all the chaos I am facing. I would, happily, do anything for this girl.

Too many hats

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I write in my head every day, editing and re-writing almost continuously, so that by the time I come to gathering image and text to publish here much of it has already evaporated. I have for a long time wished for some way of recording my thoughts so that I can keep hold of these evanescent murmurings before they vanish so completely.

Mostly I’ve been thinking about hats in all their different metaphorical forms and the functions they serve the wearers of them. It seems to me that most people have more than one: the one that they wear to work, for example, be it as some kind of executive hotshot or perhaps a dog trainer, or a funky straw hat for the beach. Hats can be worn for protection, identification, diversion.

The problem is when you have so many hats to choose from that just making the choice is itself overwhelming.

Motherhood involves the wearing of a multitude of hats. You have to be peace-keeper, teacher, politician, housemaid and doctor: sometimes even changing roles in mid-sentence. Add to that a personality that can’t seem to decide on which role to adopt to represent it’s own deeper, constant self at any given point in a day and that’s when the trouble really starts.

I grew up knowing I was an artist, but it was only really in the last couple of years that I have given myself permission to be able to vocalize this as an actual vocation: to be able to state it as fact rather than as some hazy idea someone else had of me. Growing up, my parents tolerated my difference, my weirdness: neither encouraging it nor denying it; it was just who I was. But their idea of art was not something I could ever achieve: it was the big names that I felt seemed to them to be ‘real’ art somehow, not the way a shadow slides across a ceiling or a ring of sap forms a face in a wooden wardrobe door – these were the things only I seemed to see or pay attention to, but they certainly were not Art.

So I floundered around for years, being vaguely arty, known as an artist by everyone who met me (despite never seeing ‘proof’ of it in the form of actual paintings) and even spent some expensive years at art school to prove to myself that I was an artist. And I couldn’t. I learned nothing at college and was nearly hysterical under questioning by a visiting examiner when the decision was being made as to whether I deserved a first or second degree – she generously gave me a second in the end, despite my inarticulate final show and inability to express any of what I was trying to say with it.

Twenty years on, I have finally, for the very first time, produced an actual painting: one that made my heart thump just that bit harder than normal, that I returned to at every opportunity I could until I felt finished with it, like a lover stealing illicit kisses from her sweetheart knowing that at any moment the romance might be snatched away by a jealous husband.

It felt, for the first time, like I had finally vindicated the blind faith people seem to have had in my abilities all these years – there! Look! Real Art! I finally have proof that I can create something that carries the potential to reach inside another soul and make a connection in the way only Art can; a kind of truth.

For the very first time, I didn’t even try to put on any other hats until it was finished: I trusted Jude to take over where I left off in the house and simply returned to my work, my real piece of art. For those few days, with my stained blue fingers I had an inkling, a tiny sparkling glimpse, of what it must have been like to be a Monet, a Klimt or a Picasso, pacing their painty spaces, emerging from their visionary worlds to eat, fornicate or sleep.

I can only imagine the greatnesses that have fallen under the tireless wheel of house keeping child bearing domesticity. How the endlessly humdrum ordinariness can drown out the singing visions in a mind until only a flat, hard greyness remains: how a childhood can be destroyed by a mother kept prisoner this way, unwilling participant in her own incarceration by simple fact of her sex.

But of course, I’m not a prisoner: I am free; to give myself to my life’s work of, well. That’s where we come back to the hats, because I really don’t have any idea which one suits me best, as I never seem to wear one for long enough to see if it truly fits. And my head is changing all the time, which doesn’t help.

The one I dream most of wearing is the one that tells the world that I am an artist, but I don’t yet know what it actually looks like. And until I can wear it every day, and claim it as mine, all of the other hats will keep fighting for their place on my head: gardener, writer, cook, hobbyist, photographer, crafter, housewife, mother, wife, sister, daughter, friend. What scares me most is the thought that it may already be too late: what if that one glorious, dreamed-of hat sitting waiting all this time turns out to be the wrong one after all, meant for someone else altogether, with real talent and purpose, not the pretender I’ve been all along.

I dance between projects: I sit at the table and perform my duties as best I can, failing, it often seems, more often than I succeed. The rare sewing finishes; the gifts made to thank those who gift things to me; the seedlings raised, both vegetable and human. These things matter to me, deeply and contiguously, until the clamour of their many different voices drives me into shutdown or revolt: to fierce, furious anger at their incessant demands or silent, deadly despairing acceptance of my own pathetically human inability to do everything, all of the time.

I promised myself I’d work on lightening up my writing here – I’m really not anywhere near as miserable a sod as I appear to be, honestly! – but maybe that’s one of my hats that still needs a little mending, when I have time.

The sky is falling

Ripped linen fabric scraps of navy and deep blues shot through with sparks of bright blue and falling peach coloured square “teeth”

It’s a good spot to sit, here in my studio watching the wildlife in the garden on this chilly spring-not-spring we are in. There is a faint blush of sunset in the northwestern sky that my windows face and the blackbirds are performing well both near and far. I wish I could identify more birdsong, but the patterns elude me. The swallows have returned and their sparky outlines flit past as they scoop bugs and perform acrobatics in the air.

The girls are tucked up, not sleeping but chilling out peacefully so I can relax at last. But I can feel the tiredness creeping up on me: my eyes want to rest and I can’t quite stir myself into action. Just sitting here feels a bit like progress some days.

This blog has become a place where I empty my thoughts onto the page. I didn’t intend it to be like this: rather I had hopes for jolly little kitchen anecdotes of recipes attempted with the children and escapee chickens. Whilst both of those things are pretty much how life is when the girls are home, I honestly don’t feel much of an urge to document it here, although as you can see we did have a lovely walk by the river the other day.

Instead this has become a well I throw pennies into in the hope that the echo will remind me that there is such a thing as hope. It’s incredibly dull to listen to depressed people talking and no doubt even worse to read it, but I am struggling to find coherence and perhaps this writing has become my way of searching for it.

It’s been so long since I did last write in fact that I’ve managed to fit nearly a whole season of a teaching job in the gap! It was entirely terrible and thrilling at once, and I walked away from it three times, returning only twice. I didn’t manage to complete the contract in fact and, even though not doing so was right for my heart and my head, our wallets are stretched thin as a result and I’m pissed off with myself for failing in my attempt to re-enter the outside world: for thinking I was something bigger than I actually am. I bought clothes that fitted me for the first time since motherhood blew me up and out and upside down. I got new specs and even a haircut. I quite enjoyed the novelty of being normal. Ish.

Most of all, I was so happy to be earning money and actually contributing to the household financially. My Etsy shop has ticked along these last few years, but doesn’t bring in a massive amount by itself.

Jude hasn’t had a lot of outside work lately, but he’s done so much here. The bathroom is finally finished and we have big plans for the land beyond the barns: he has cleared it all and made a space for a huge vegetable plot. We’ve also taken down the enormous marquee that stored all of our possessions when we first arrived. It has been reinstalled in a new spot next to the veg and with shortened legs will now become a greenhouse. We bought three chickens on a whim one day and also renovated two of the titchier barns into a garden storage space and sowing shed. All in all we are much closer to our goal of self sufficiency than we’ve ever been before.

And I have this wonderful studio! It is also the office and shop packing space, but finally all of my junk is out of the house at last and stored in here neatly.

Which brings me back to this desk, with all of these things vying for my attention, like silent flat versions of the children. I want so much to give myself to everything that I can’t seem to find how or where to even begin. And I know even if I do begin, I’ll have nothing to show as evidence of the work I’ve put into it, be it the children fed, entertained and emotionally nourished or these scraps of fabric that want so much to be given purpose; life. All of the things seem to keep slipping out of my grasp while I just get angrier and angrier at having to do all of the other things instead. I feel undernourished and undervalued, most of all by myself.

And into this maelstrom a final ticking bomb has exploded: the temporary bridge on my front teeth has finally collapsed, 11 years overdue a permanent replacement, which I delayed organizing when I became pregnant with Jess. So I have lost my smile in more ways than one and have yet to see what, if anything, can be done about it. Dentists seem very hard to see here, so my hope is small though my need great, as my sisters’ wedding in Spain is now only a month away, for which I will most certainly require smiles.

Jude keeps his distance from me when I am grumpy, understandably, as I wish I could get away from myself when I’m like this. And even though we really felt as if we’d completely surfaced out of the gloom we swam through all winter, and found each other again, here we are back in the same places on opposite sides of the shore. We are on an island here, far from helping hands and hearts, and as deeply grateful as I am for my internet lifeline of kind and dear friends who feed me encouragement and artistic sustenance, it can get very lonely here when us two forget our lines in this play we are writing together. There is no time off, no stand-ins or prompters. We are the directors, lights and cast: it can feel like spinning sunlight or darkest midnight despair. I know the sun will return, it has never let me down before, but I do wish it wouldn’t leave me alone in the darkness like this. I carry on, because I have to, and leave my heart undone each way I turn.

To lost friends and a long gone gesture of kindness

Lately I’ve been struggling with my inner emotional landscape. No doubt in part due to my ever-changing hormonal balances as I navigate this next part of the aging journey, it is also being challenged by our fraying marriage. On the edge of sleep, I can find myself suddenly, terrifyingly, vertiginous at a memory of myself as a schoolgirl with a particular teacher who must by now be long gone, and the distance between my two selves across time. It is a strange and overwhelming feeling of loss that I can’t seem to contain: not only of past losses in my own life but also the losses of people whose life paths have crossed or run parallel alongside mine, and a general, massive sense of the past, as an inverted mountain of sheer scale: the heavy, dead weight of it.

Like that sudden realization that you are very far from anywhere you could call home, this feeling of horror is hard to rationalize or turn away from. And like a half-healed scab, I can’t resist picking at it, opening it up even though it hurts and I should just leave it alone and wait for it to heal. I can’t even pinpoint what exactly it is that I find so frightening about it. Perhaps it is simply an awareness of my own mortality, although I’ve never feared death, having embraced the idea of my non-existence on more than one occasion at hard points on my journey so far. One less life on this planet is no great loss after all.

But like the sun I can still feel on my young-self’s face on that long gone summer day as I left the temporary portacabin schoolroom that teacher had stood in, smilingly trying to uncrease my maths-phobic brow with his finger, the memories of these random encounters and feelings will live on in me for as long as I am alive, a thought which in itself can take my breath away: that somehow each person I’ve loved or been loved by is a part of me whether I choose it or not. Still I feel the weight of loss of them all even though they are never really gone, just trapped in the shape they were when I last saw them, frozen microscope slides of personalities and silent laughter.

Sunni died when I was at college. I hadn’t seen her for years when I got the phone call from my friend who posted this photo of her on Facebook, having moved away from the area whilst we were still at school. She was in a tragic rail crash in London. This photo was taken after I had moved away: my memory of her was of a much younger her from when we were first friends at junior school in Kingston-upon-Thames in Surrey. Seeing her just now brought all of these feelings into focus and triggered this post.

We can’t control our connections with others: some stay with us for longer than most, but we are always connected. That I can’t visit the past without crying is not something I can control right now or even fully understand, but I can love my adult self enough to sit with these feelings and allow them space to flow in and through me for now. It’s sometimes easy to neglect the lifelong connection we have to our own selves: this corporeal self I call me that can magically, simultaneously, be all the ages it has ever been in one moment, holding the soul’s essence safe through the years. Nurturing and caring for this being that has carried us for so long and with such care and remembering to be grateful for the tiny, enormous miracle of aliveness is vital to our well-being in every way. Above all, I know I must learn to love myself through my weaknesses and frailties and accept them as part of what makes me the person I am today: still that troubled young girl but also a calmer, stronger woman too.

And while I swim through these feelings, Death can stay by my side as I flip through the pages of memories and sadnesses until I’m ready to put the album back on the shelf again and get on with the business of living again.

New Year’s Day; Part Two: Hope

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After a broken beginning, the newborn year found it’s legs and the day took on a better shape than I’ve seen in a long time. My difficult, complicated man finally unknotted himself and took a step out of the unhappy holding pattern we’ve been locked into these past few months and held me honestly, truthfully: he spoke to me with conviction and resolution.

For the first time I can remember, Jude suggested we go out for a walk. He told the girls that we’d be going on an adventure and that we may see otters. They thrilled themselves into hats and coats and boots and we set off over the fields at the back of the house to the river, which he hadn’t visited since he and Lucky lived here before we met.

We had a wonderful, happy walk and Jude was the perfect dad the entire time: gone the silent, trudging figure we are all accustomed to on our increasingly infrequent escapes to the outside world. He pointed out animal tracks by the water’s edge, he carried the little ones without grumpiness and initiated a game of pooh sticks at a little bridge along the path.

My heart is happy, the girls’ heads full of joyful memories of a cold winter’s day walk which ended back at home, aching and exhausted but warmed through by our adventure together.

And we will get through this, together. This is what marriage is about: you reach unexpected curves in the path, you stumble and sometimes hidden roots trip you up, but you know that you are still in parallel all the time. We know now what’s at stake and what we will lose if we fall. All of the cards are laid out, no hidden jokers or daggers, the rules clarified.

He knows I’ve reached a point of no return: I will not take back any threat to leave, because he finally understands that I will save myself if that is what I need to do for my girls.

He has seen me stumble many times over these last eleven years we’ve been together: through now long past near-psychotic post-natal depression and the everyday garden-variety too, to my most recent debacles in my new adventures traversing the world of actual employment which have, even in the few short weeks since my job began, led to me coming home in tears of despair on more than one occasion already.

I am not, and never have been, the most balanced of beings.

Yet there is a deep-rooted core of strength that runs through me: even at my weakest my energy fights to bring me back into equilibrium. Even when I fear sometimes I may have fallen too far, I realize I always have and always will find my centre again and that each fall teaches me something new.

And Jude also has this hidden strength: perhaps it is part of the reason we found and fell for each other so fast in the first place.

I don’t think I’m stronger than he is, but I do know that his problem with alcohol will destroy us one day and I’m tired of watching and waiting for it to happen. Each time we’ve reached this point in the past he has said the same things: that he can control it, that he can moderate it, that he will be better.

For the first time, it is finally as clear to him as it is to me that he can do none of these things alone. And that he really does need to face the demon himself and not hide behind or blame my anger and frustration any longer.

It really is up to him. I crave this beautiful being that Jude keeps hidden and want nothing more than for him to accept and love himself as much as we all love him. With all his flaws and foibles, he is the finest person I know and I want him to find himself and shine as brightly as I see he can.

With all my heart and all I am, I love this man and I will stand by him through his journey as long as he keeps my hand in his.

I choose joy. I believe my beloved and beautiful husband can, too.

New Day, Old Mess; Part One: Despair

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I haven’t written here for some time. Things have been too dissolute, too fractured for me to place a frame around them to put here for viewing. Nothing is fixed, my thoughts skip and dance with a warped vinyl irregularity; without a clear path I can’t begin to find a way to carve a coherent shape from beginning to end in a few apposite words before they skitter into dusty dances of their own, symphony discarded into a hundred separate solos.

The demon is here, again, staring me in the face: taunting me with one crooked fist around my husband’s neck and with the other filling his head with denial, depression and dependency.

I truly thought we had made it through the chaos this time. We had gone so far beyond what I ever thought he or I was capable of: the wreckage more visible this time, and not just in the cracked window of the front door.

I have no hope left. The song he sang to my aching heart the day after he’d shown his worst, his most hate-filled and poisoned self, was a phantom, an echo of a thought that was itself simply a manifestation of the sickness, yang to the yin of the one indivisible and consistent truth: my husband, my dearest heart, soul partner in this one perfect miracle of a life, is an alcoholic. And despite my exhortations – and his agreement – that the only way our coexistence can continue is for him to seek professional help, it is clear now, as I wake on this first day of a new year, that it will never happen and that without it we are doomed to continue this cycle of emptiness forever.

I can’t fix this. I don’t have the skills and I find myself losing interest in even wanting to keep trying to find a way inside this man I love so much. Because while I know he’s in there, trapped inside this thing he has created in order to be able to survive each day, each week, I can’t keep searching for happiness with the empty shell he presents to me each time he runs away. I don’t even know how to make sense of it, let alone accept a life without joy or the simple pleasure in existing.

I’m no angel, I’m the first to admit it. I also do battle with the monster that lives in these shiny bottles of oblivion and despair, that entices me on dark nights to wander away from reason and makes me question my sanity. Without alcohol, I would never have contemplated suicide, never cut myself or tempted fate with so many random strangers and bad choices on my path into and through adulthood. But the difference between my man and I is that my girls now stand, unwittingly, between my ego and it’s torments. Whatever pain I may be in, I cannot ever let them down and see me lose at this game of adulthood.

I’ve said this before, and it is even more crystalline now, in this bleak and frosty atmosphere I am breathing this morning as I wake with the weight of despair wrapped around my sodden heart: they can see me break, they can witness my temporary imperfection at existing, but I will never let them see me fail them completely. I can break and heal a hundred times; fix the windows and pick up the chairs and it will teach them that it is possible and even necessary to go through this process of transformation, of pulling-up after tearing down.

It took me 40-odd years to recognise that this is a process: that no matter how bad things get there is always a way out, even if the way doesn’t seem obvious or even possible sometimes. And that it is never, ever so bad that it warrants that one final exit.

And I don’t want my girls to ever forget that. It may not be fixed yet, but it will be. Somehow I must have faith in that.

Clearing up

I strimmed today. I cut down weeds and thistles and the thick green grass around the shed. I slashed and swayed my hissing spinning thread through good weeds and bad, a single pink flowerhead was all I let myself regret.

Finally I ran out of yellow and was forced to let go and turn off the noise. My hands, touching normal household things, my boots, my clothes, echoed with the thrum of petrol driven energy absorbed into the memory of vibrated nerve endings.

The last time I strimmed with such determination was around the time my sister and her fiancé visited us and we took them to the zoo. I walked with a stabbing pain in my thigh because I’d strained something from hours of swinging my machine at awkward hip height through the field and embarrassingly, was forced to perform unladylike stretches mid-walk to release the cramp.

This time was different though: I was working through anger and frustration. I can’t bear to sit still when I’m hurting, so I clean, furiously, or walk, furiously. Strimming in fact, is a much more productive activity: not only do I achieve a satisfying levelling of my actual physical space but the rhythmic noise helps to block out the crazy-making whatever-it-is so that I can listen instead to my quiet inner voice which, even when I’m fired up allows me to process and cogitate in a strange locked-in peacefulness with myself, a mental time-out.

In the space of a few short days, I fell into a wild and thrilling adventure in web design with someone I met by chance who truly seemed to be an angel sent to me from the universe.

Firework like, we burned through my night, her day, planning and talking and buzzing together until suddenly, and startlingly, the hot white light of inspiration was gone, snuffed out by anxiety and doubt. In that brief, beautiful explosion, everything seemed possible: we could see the world set on fire, shake everything up and find new connections in seeing how they landed.

Together we imagined a community space, free from the greed that’s destroying this world: an idealistic but pragmatic plan to create a radically new environment to share and learn, sell and grow.

But people carry their stuff with them wherever they go, and this was no exception. One remark and the entire edifice collapsed, gone. This partner had form you see: and she’d been burned so badly before that her vision was blurred and she couldn’t see the truth I bring to everything I do. And I also have my set of well worn luggage, which, even though I can clearly see the tattiness of the straps and the gaping holes that keep dropping my beloved possessions, I insist on dragging behind me everywhere I go.

So the brakes went on, the fire burnt out and we’ve gone back home to our separate houses at each end of our world, to warm our toes and rub our numb fingers and remind ourselves how dangerous it can be to play with matches.

But I’m still hurt and angry, so maybe tomorrow when my hands have recovered their strength I’ll go finish off the other half acre and shake off this anger completely. Bring my thoughts back to stillness and re-centre my heart to open in hope for a brighter future.

Because each time my flame goes out I am reminded that I always hold onto the strength and determination to rekindle my passions and that I have endless potential to take off again in any direction I choose, but oh god it’s getting harder each time to do so with faith that everything really will one day be ok. My dreams seem to shrink a little smaller each time but I know eventually I have to find my ikigai. Japanese for reason for being, it describes the balance between passion, profession, vocation and mission. In the space of those few short days, I saw a glimpse of what that could be, and liked it.

Going Digital

I was thinking about my digital life the other day. It’s been a long time since I was active on FB, and IG has been losing its pull for me too. Lately I have felt the need to unfollow some accounts, a kind of virtual spring-cleaning. I realised that I was searching for meaning: as much as I want to support fellow sellers & artists, I don’t find it fulfilling to only be sold products. Advertising alone drains my soul: I need something deeper to look at: even if it’s only transient prettiness, I have to have something nourishing in my daily feed.

The pressure has been building inside me lately; an insistent need to create and to find my path through all the chaos, this boiling urgency both inner and out in the world at large: all it has seemed to have achieved is increasingly tall waves of depression followed by reclusive withdrawal from it all. I have manically read through a bagful of fast-paced Dick Francis novels, all horsey and action-fizzily quite unlike my usual charity-book fare, which were recently given to me by a kindly elderly client who wanted someone to share her bookish pleasures. Losing myself in their well researched & carefully constructed little worlds has been a great, tiny escape from reality for me even if Jude takes great joy in gently mocking my ‘silly’ books with their brilliantly lurid jackets with spilled drinks and lethally lit ropes.

The books have helped to release me from the pressure I have been putting on myself to list more items in my Etsy shop: yet again the game over there has shifted out of my control with free shipping being virtually forced upon us & longer and longer periods of increasingly inexplicable visibility on the site, both of which are so disheartening that I’m not sure I can continue to sustain myself there. Coupled with two problematic recent orders, my post lady has decided, just as I have no car, that she will no longer accept my packages from the house so it feels that La Corbeille is slowly losing traction for me and I find myself drifting a little aimlessly without it.

Instead I have been slowly creating, with hands that have felt strangely out of touch with the tools I am using: books and photoshop and USB sticks replacing the oil paints bought for childhood birthdays that I never learnt how to properly use in the stiflingly neat middle class house I grew up in. I fight my own expectation that I must produce Art fully formed, just by willing it into existence. I am starting to understand that I can walk away from something when I lose my way with it, even after a day of working at nothing else and that it’s allowed: I’m still working, even if it doesn’t feel concrete, because it all counts towards the goal.

Digital is what I turned to in college when I was drifting through my degree: I despised the arrogant male photography head of department to such a degree that I refused to follow the path I most yearned for and fell instead into the gentler arms of printmaking where I neither failed nor excelled over the course of those three pointless years.

This path now is still so new that I am fearful to reveal it: my newborn creations are weak and collapse under criticism cast too quickly, shame a natural and instinctive cloak for my stumbling creative thoughts. I may even need to put it aside completely and just let it simmer in the background despite the urgency I feel that what I want to say needs to be said right now or someone else will speak first and I’ll lose my train of thought completely.

And I am panicked too, by current financial fears and looming political ones: while we are not actually sinking, we are only barely swimming and we’ve been stuck here such a long time. Jude works so hard, but has had little income lately and with Etsy becoming an increasingly baffling creature holding my own purse strings along with the death of my beloved car, I feel almost desperately in need of a new direction. We have to prove to a bank that we can handle a mortgage if we are ever going to have some security, but it just isn’t happening when we have just spent two weeks with a bank balance of less than €20. The inertia can feel insurmountable, but I have to keep on trying, keep on hoping that I have something I can do, some means of making a living of some kind or other.

My problem has always been not knowing which way to turn: anything I do I would do as well I could, but it’s having the confidence to start and then to keep going that I lack. I beat myself up by being all too aware that the days/weeks I spend procrastinating do not actually make money: that I am sitting, fiddling with images on a laptop while Jude is out working on barns and roofs and gardens, coming home exhausted, fills me with a deep anxiety that I am not pulling my weight, that there is no parity in our partnership.

But I have started, which is more than I’ve done for years, so I must be as kind and encouraging to myself as I would be to a baby taking it’s first steps of independence: I might fall, but I won’t break my stride once I get the hang of it.