(All unreferenced quotes from Penelope Leach’s 1977 “Baby and Child”)
Birth feels like the climax to long months of waiting but it is not really a climax at all. You were not waiting to give birth, you were waiting to have a baby. Your labour has produced her and there is no rest-pause between the amazing business of becoming parents and the job of being them.
It’s a summer’s day, the back doors are open, a bee buzzes outside. I am lying on the bed while my mum and dad potter around the flat clearing up and Adam looks after our brand new baby, that is, holds her while she sleeps and makes sure she continues to be alive. A plane flies by in the distance; people are on it, going somewhere. The fact that the outside world continues to exist is infinitely shocking and comforting.
There are things I haven’t noticed yet, that I will come to notice in the next few days, like: my daughter Rosa has a round wide face with the hint of being heart-shaped one day, and the best mouth I have ever seen, with a tiny cupid’s bow and the propensity to shape it into the sweetest o, all the time. Her limbs thrash around like she is conducting an orchestra, and she sometimes holds her fists in a comical squirrel-eating-nuts pose. She hiccups a lot.
The night after she was born I had a dream that she was lying looking at me and singing like a little bird in a high sweet voice with her little o mouth. I will need to hold onto this dream in the coming weeks, the idea that she will be a person, and not just this thing which, although strange and sweet and miraculous, could not be loved yet, because what the absolute fuck has happened to us and our lives?
During this settling period don’t torment yourselves by expecting love. Love will come but it will take time … You cannot turn on your love for your baby at the flick of a switch or the cutting of the umbilical cord. The mixed feelings you have for her now are neither a guide nor a warning for the future.
At first during the night feeds I have some kind of post-birth adrenalin spike and I relish these late night challenges: I feed her, write down the time and length of the feed, settle her, have a drink and something to eat. I CAN DO THIS! I think. She will either come for a feed crying and jerking or happy and alert and jerking, eyes like a little blackbird in the dark, and I will have to kiss her and kiss her. Come on ol’ blue eyes, I say, tell her about how she has ruined us, our carefree lives, now that this terrible weight of care is in it. I now know how much I didn’t know before she was here. I didn’t know anything, anything at all.
Several times in the next few weeks, exhausted by giving birth and shaken by awful hormones and the overwhelming relentlessness and responsibility of the task at hand, I will look at Adam and say what have we done? I will realise that there is a worldwide fucking conspiracy about how awful all this business of the first weeks is, and no one is allowed to tell you but they all know that this time will hold the entirely most difficult moments and days of your life.
It is the heartbreak that hits me so violently, the true realisation about my old life, now dead; and the partnership of two being over and my partner’s tired face and his tireless endless encouragement. Then the anxiety, convinced that something is terribly wrong with the baby, being too anxious to sleep or that she will start crying again and need you to feed her however tired you are, and how you think you hear her crying even when she is not (until she does). My google searches for this time reveal, depending how generous you are, the worried rantings of a new mother or an absolute madwoman. “Newborn how many times feed” “newborn won’t stop feeding” “newborn red birthmark on eye” “10 days old how many dirty nappies” “sore nipples” “mastitis” “baby fast breathing” “newborn spits up milk” “baby will only sleep on our chests” “how to stop baby crying” but all of them are actually saying the same desperate thing which is SOMEBODY PLEASE HELP ME.
Your newborn baby’s behaviour is a series of reactions to what she perceives as random stimuli … While she remains a newborn her behaviour will be random and unpredictable. She may cry for food every half hour then sleep without any for another six hours. This morning’s “hunger” does not predict this afternoon’s because her hunger has no pattern or shape yet … Her sleep is similarly formless; ten minute snatches through the night and a five hour stretch in the day till you nothing about how she will sleep tomorrow.
When I nap I open my mouth in my sleep just like she does and for a minute my confused brain thinks I am the baby. I think of how my own mother held me and I am desperately sad that now I have the real responsibility of someone else’s life, that I cannot just fuck it all off and get on a train and go to Oxford and lie my head on my mother’s lap. I cannot ever do this again. During one of the many hours when she sleeps on me, I see a coach going past the window to London Victoria, and an urgent part of me longs to get on it, alone, and from there somewhere far, far away. Perhaps to wander some backstreet of Venice or take a yoga class and go for coffee with my phone turned off, not answerable to anyone, but I guess I can never really be alone again. How thrilling and how terrible. To long to be away and to know how unbearable it would be too – what an awful, tender corner we have backed ourselves into.
Then one day we get her in the sling and she sleeps peacefully and we go to the PUB. One morning I sit with her while she is in her bouncy chair, looking happily at me with her bright eyes. One evening I rock her and sing to her in the garden and she actually stops crying.
If you can let it, your body will start loving the baby for you even before she is properly a person. Whatever your mind and the deeply entrenched habits of your previous life may be telling you, your body is ready and waiting for her. Your skin thrills to hers. Her small frame fits perfectly against your belly, breast and shoulder.
She has fat little arms and fat little legs. She sleeps like a frog on our chests, clambering upwards if she slips too far down, and we kiss her soft head. When she is two weeks old I have a massage in the same room where she was born and I realise that I have walked into this room every day since her birth and have not once reflected on that fact. Nor I have I remembered how much we wanted her, how much we dreamed of her for 9 months. Or thought how lucky we are that she is safely here and so beautiful to us.
As I come to try and write the “truth” down, I realise that this truth changes every day, minute to minute, and that perhaps this is why people don’t tell you it – because it constantly slips out of grasp.
In these days I will keep thinking of a letter written in to Cheryl Strayed’s Dear Sugar agony aunt column where the writer asks “WTF?” about their life. I will try to make myself remember her response:
The fuck is yours … That question does not apply “to everything every day.” If it does, you’re wasting your life. If it does, you’re a lazy coward and you are not a lazy coward. Ask better questions, sweet pea. The fuck is your life. Answer it.
Filed under: gender | Leave a Comment
“Gestation: the period of development in the uterus from conception until birth” – Oxford English Dictionary
“It could happen from any time now!” – everyone
The midwife has come to the house and is listening to the baby’s heart. Through the monitor it sounds like this: wow-wow-wow-wow-wow-wow-wow-wow, and I do not know if I will ever have a more favourite sound than this fast rushing stream. It is an old-fashioned moment: I am lying on the sofa while the midwife takes my blood pressure and checks the baby and Adam gets to listen to her through this old wooden trumpet shaped thing that looks as rudimentary as the tape measure they use to measure your abdomen. The sun comes in at the window and I know I will always remember this moment, so despite how clichéd it is I could weep. I do weep, frequently, these days. The culprits include strangers who smile kindly at me. Baby animals. Manipulative TV shows. I was always overly sentimental but at times I think oh come on! This will get worse, I know.
I am 39 weeks pregnant with our first baby. The uncertainty around exactly when and how she will arrive is mostly fine and at times unbearable. I am on maternity leave and all I do is sleep and re-pack my hospital bag and read my books about birth and do some cooking “for the freezer”, just like they do in the movies. It is lovely, and I am happy and mostly not too anxious and I know there is a thunderbolt coming and that there is nothing I can do about it.
Most nights I get up at 4 or 5am, starving, and eat a bowl of cereal and look at my bleary-eyed reflection in the hall mirror on the way back to bed. For the rest of the night I have the deepest, quietest of sleeps, as if my body is being kind because it knows what’s coming. In this last week my face has got fat and I care a little bit but not that much. I think maybe once I was an object of desire for a small, niche demographic of humans but I feel very far from that now. This is ok, I think. I waddle and I look like I am carrying a beach ball under my t-shirt. This bump is a perfect globe, one that makes me head to the loo eight times a night.
It seems like a long time ago when I peed on a stick on an October night and the result was POSITIVE then we lay on the bed, not embracing, not saying anything (except fuuuuuuuuuuck in our heads), until we dropped off to sleep. Any period where the seasons change three whole times feels like a long time. Now that era is nearly over and soon she will be here. Adam hasn’t got much work on at the moment so gloriously, we are together a lot, and I cannot resist announcing the significance of each moment – this could be the last time we go to the cinema with just the two of us! This could be the last meal we have out before we are parents! She could come today! She could come tomorrow! I say these things a lot but I cannot fully take them in. We wake up in the morning and it is just me and him, it has been this way for 6 years, it has been everything. From now on we will watch things reshape.
He takes a picture of me outside in a garden with this ridiculous bump and we know we will look back at the photo from the future and remember this moment fuelled with all its meaning and imbue it with even more. I have photos of my mum, pregnant with me, that are the same. I have photos of us all, as a family. We are living in the middle of what people call a special time. It turns out I don’t care very much about being original. It turns out I want what most people want. That the things that are meaningful for most people are also the things that are meaningful for me.
At the last scan (unless the baby is overdue, this was the last time I would see her until I see her) I felt more entranced than ever at this wondrous biology, at her gorgeous spine, at her perfect heart. I do not know why people need religion: nothing is more weird than the fact that humans and other animals grow their own offspring inside them, nothing is more strange and spectacular. Nowadays, I talk to her a lot and already I love her. Already everything is changed.
Filed under: pregnancy | Leave a Comment
“Life is a hospital in which every patient is obsessed with changing beds. This one wants to suffer in front of the radiator, and this one thinks he’d get better if he was by the window.”
– Charles Baudelaire
- Contemporary central Vesterbro apartment
- Casa do Largo – 2 br Alfama Castelo in Lisbon
- A beautiful place to stay in Biddenden
When I was 20 I’d arranged to leave a big group of friends holidaying in a villa near Granada, Spain to join some other friends from university for the remainder of their month-long trip around Europe. The first part of the holiday was a dream group scenario: people fitting happily into either do-ers or lie-ers by the pool, lots of great food and wine and silliness and a roaring fire at night in a compound-style casa with old walls and an olive grove down the hill. We played games and sang songs loudly and I lay on a rock too late with a charming man who was not my boyfriend and crept to bed in the early hours of the morning, feeling just on the side of that being ok.
The time came to leave them and I got a lift then a bus to a wrong place then a right place and finally met up with the girlfriends I was due to travel with. We saw an old church and had a meal and stayed in a quaint B&B. Immediately it was clear that I had made the wrong decision. I did not want to be there. I did not want to travel around Europe for a month. In the toilet of a bar I tried to choke down the boredom and alarm of a panic attack. The next morning I told them it was not going to work out. I remember a few sympathetic faces and a few blank with incomprehension, the kind that make you feel infinitely lonely. (Since then I have not worried myself about people who don’t have enough imagination to empathise with the full, mad gamut of human neuroses. These neuroses are like multiple wriggling newborns; they are so alive.)
By the evening I was back at the villa. Everyone was very kind, one of the boys nailing that combination of teasing and compassion that allows those kind of boys to speak of Complex Things. “See,” he said. “I told you it wasn’t safe to leave the compound.”
My history is one of not wanting to leave the compound. I have begged to come back from holidays early, then come back from holidays early, stuck out holidays by counting down the days and generally wished even the best holidays were at least 1-2 days shorter. Nearly everywhere I have ever gone, even if the trip was by my standards a relative success, I have felt some of these feelings regularly, sometimes frequently: an acute sense of dread about “something bad happening”; hypochondria, usually related to sunstroke or food poisoning; fear of some kind of accident occurring or something preventing me from getting home as planned, like missing a flight or losing a passport; mighty tear-stained meltdowns precipitated by my frustration about these feelings; a terrible sense of being sick of myself; relief when I get home because I’ve “made it through” without anything awful happening.
Certain things make it easier: going somewhere with bigger groups of friends or family, going somewhere familiar, not going too far, not going for too long. There are exceptions to the rule – America (a bigger version of Britain) is further but much easier than North Africa. 10 days somewhere familiar can be less problematic than 5 more exotic. I seem to forget every time that this will be part of most trips, and each time feel surprised – oh it’s me again, this me. Alain de Botton observed this in The Art of Travel – we forget the person we always have to travel with, ourselves, as well as the difference between anticipating and actually going somewhere.
This gap between states is the paradox – coexisting with this anxiety I have huge, regular cravings for a “change of scene” which leads me to frequently plan holidays, usually when I see pictures that tell a certain story, even if it is not exactly the truth.I consistently forget that the reality of this change of scene might not be quite what I thought it would.
There are some places where I have felt an amazing sense of peace and calm, as I imagine you are supposed to feel on holiday:
Now I am seven months pregnant and our new flat is just starting to look like our home and it’s spring and I don’t want to go anywhere. I do not want to go to South Africa or Sri Lanka or India. I do not want to have dinner on the beach in Maui and I do not want to walk the Great Wall of China or travel on the Trans Siberian Railway. It seems like everyone else dreams of these things and other people’s decisions to do these things are immediately accepted as impressive and positive. The truth is that going to places just does not – usually – contain the truth I think it will. Its truth is messier, and for now I am done with it and I am done with trying to fix myself into a certain type of person, am done with apologising to myself. Like a stubborn alcoholic too fond of their fun, booze-addled persona, I have started to question how much I believe in self-improvement anyway – the unquestioning kind where we blindly put all our efforts into change, into creating the best possible versions of ourselves. To fight against our natures in this way takes a huge amount of effort and self-wrangling and instead I could be reading books or helping old ladies across the road or encouraging my future daughter to be a feminist.
I no longer care about being the intrepid type of traveller that I longed to be when I was younger, partly because it is hilariously over-ambitious and also because that person was tied up with how I wanted others to perceive me, and I mind much less about that as a 32 year old than a 19 year old. These people are so fundamentally different from me in almost every way, in terms of traits and values – I know that now – that wishing to be like that would mean wishing myself away entirely.
For now, I choose my life. I choose holidays in Derbyshire. I choose rainy disappointment and getting stuck on the M25. And then coming home.
Filed under: life | 2 Comments
I have been thinking about how it is almost impossible to convey anything about your life without it doing some small violence to other people. Nowhere is this more evident than pregnancy, birth or motherhood, where saying or writing things as factual as “I didn’t have any drugs during birth”, “the birth was actually ok”, “my baby sleeps all through the night” can easily wreak havoc on someone’s self-esteem or self-confidence.
I am sensitive. We are all so sensitive. There are degrees of violence and intention – for a lot of the time people don’t intend to cause harm, and indeed lots of people are very careful to speak carefully or to stipulate that this is only the case for them, that for others it will be different. The worst is of course when someone tries to make you feel bad, or responds to something you have said to make it about them. This is terrible theft, and I know I’ve done it myself. So often we should just listen, it is the graceful and generous thing to do, but instead we say oh dear, sounds like you had a tiring night, I was up with the baby from 3am so I’m pretty tired too! And the other person’s space to speak and be heard is all gone, we’ve filled its place with ourselves. We feel like we had to say it, it was bursting out of us because we all need and want to be heard, but of course usually we don’t have to say it.
There’s a bit in my pregnancy yoga class where the teacher gets you to shake your arms and hands and legs to help let go of all the comments and unrequested “advice” because, as she says, “I will do exactly as I like anyway.” I have been very lucky overall and not had to put up with much of this compared to other people I know, but small things have got to me – advice not to have a home birth, certain comments on how “small” and “neat” my bump is (most of the time I don’t mind at all, and these are so well-intentioned! But once or twice I have only heard “inadequate”!) and, perhaps worst of all, the doom-mongering: enjoy lie-ins while you can, enjoy quality time with your partner while you can, enjoy going to the cinema or sleeping for more than 3 hours in a row or ever reading a book again for the next 5-18 years while you can. Even if this sentiment has a good degree of truth, it denies the fact that we are adults who will do our best to organise our time in the way it works for us, albeit under much more challenging circumstances, and it is so much more about the people saying it than the future of the parents-to-be. It is competitive anti-bragging – I am more tired, my life is harder than yours.
I can only conclude that we have got to this point by creating an industry around motherhood (and other factors too – we don’t bring up babies in true communities any more and are often alone with our anxieties). This is of course a double-edged sword – all the things written and spoken on the subject do serve to educate us to make our own choices. My mum said the other day how strange it was to think of all the women in the world giving birth to two, five, ten babies, doing this quietly, in war zones and refugee camps, coping without baby blogs and Baby Bjorns and baby yoga classes and NCT classes. We have it ostensibly easier with all these things, and yet all the chatter makes us go a bit mad. The internet is a relentless skewed showcase of other people’s lives and those other lives make us feel so bad, even though for the most part they have exactly nothing to do with ours.
This time in my pregnancy is very happy and mostly physically comfortable (I know by saying that I may inevitably be making someone else feel bad or sad!) compared to the first awful bit and hearing these kind of comments infiltrates this time and make it less perfect. It is a finite time, I am very aware of it, but it’s mine and I want to protect it. I know it is my responsibility to make this happen too, to avoid reading certain things or to say to people “I would rather not talk about that thanks”, because other people have a right to speak and be heard too. There are just generous and not so generous ways of speaking.
AndI know I am one of those women who is going to need to write in detail about the exact textures of extreme sleep deprivation and exhaustion and publish it on this blog, and therefore possibly and inadvertently make someone else feel terrified, and of course that is ok too.
Filed under: life, parenthood | Leave a Comment
It’s freezing and dark and we’re all sick of it: thank goodness for other lives in the dead of winter. I’ve just finished reading Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, which has paragraphs like:
When the ceremony was over we drove to the lodge at Pebble Beach. There were little things to eat, champagne, a terrace that opened onto the Pacific, very simple. By way of a honeymoon we spent a few nights in a bungalow at the San Ysidro Ranch at Montecito and, bored, fled to the Beverley Hills Hotel.
The rented wreck of a house on Franklin Avenue in Hollywood. The votive candles on the sills of the big windows in the living room. The thé dé limon grass and aloe that grew by the kitchen door. The rats that ate the avocados. The sun porch on which I worked.
John would wait until I came uptown at 11 or so to have dinner with me. We would walk to Coco Pazzo on those hot July nights and split an order of pasta and a salad at one of the little unreserved tables in the bar.
At this time of year it feels entirely impossible for me to believe that it will ever be warm and light again, and impossible not to continually imagine life being like that once more. If it gets bad I start to Google things like “English summer day” or “Big Sur” or “Japanese spring blossom”. Joan Didion made me want to re-read Elizabeth Smart’s At Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept for bringing California alive (out of everywhere I have been, nowhere beats California for nature and there is nowhere I dream of more in the winter):
The wild road winds round ledges manufactured from the mountains and cliffs. The Pacific in blue spasms reaches all its superlatives … Round the doorways double-size flowers grow without encouragement: lilies, nasturtiums in a bank down to the creek, roses, geraniums, fuchsias, bleeding-hearts, hydrangeas. The sea booms. The stream rushes loudly.
So many of our emotions are a result of a failure of our imagination or recall. We forget so quickly what has been. I have been pregnant for four months and already the things I no longer do feel like things I never did. When I walk up Charlotte Street at lunchtime and see people standing outside with pints and glasses of wine I just cannot believe that was ever me, I almost cannot believe that anyone does that. It seems delicious and decadent and outrageous and somehow not true. Like I do know that I definitely spent a fair few nights of my life holed up in London pubs on winter nights, the kind of night where you have nowhere to be and nothing to do except what you’re doing, and no adverse consequences than a lighter wallet and a heavier head the next morning. But it seems whole countries away, tucked into the past, like looking through a window at someone else’s life.
This is also the case for: sharing a bottle of white wine in the park after work in the summer. Evenings after work when I used to pop to Topshop and nail a whole wardrobe’s shopping in one hour and not feel guilty. “Getting ready” to “go out on a Saturday night” with a girlfriend and more white wine. And for the tiny pieces of underwear that I found in a drawer recently that were like postage stamps in my palm that I used to 1. fit into 2. want to fit into. Who was this person? Has she gone forever?
Now I am sitting on the sofa and I am 32 and our baby is hiccuping inside me. This physical experience is amazing and a bit irritating and thoroughly unbelievable to me.
In the same way that the past is hard to grasp, the future is impossible (and probably futile) to truly imagine. When you find out you’re going to be a parent of course you spend a good deal of time imagining how this might feel, and the books try and tell you and a million people will try and tell you and the really good writers try and explain it because, as Eva Wiseman wrote recently:
I thought I wouldn’t write about this, about babies and birth, but I can‘t not, because right now at least it is absolutely everything.
About the imagined worst bits I collect whole sentences, as if by considering it hard enough I can at least mitigate the element of surprise:
Eva Wiseman: “the crippling, furious, white-faced exhaustion that comes from being awake for three days and three nights, some of those in a room where the lights never went out … that exhaustion that you can almost chew on.”
Esther Walker: “I am one of those people who became down in the dumps about having a baby for no earthly reason other than I just found it, frequently, exhausting and dreadful.”
Rachel Cusk: “At its worst moments parenthood does indeed resemble hell, in the sense that its torments are never-ending, that its obligations correspond inversely to the desires of the obliged, that its drama is conducted in full view of the heaven of freedom; a heaven that is often passionately yearned for, a heaven from which the parent has been cast out, usually of his or her own volition.”
And the better bits:
Cheryl Strayed: “There aren’t words to adequately describe the love I felt for him. It was, by far, the most shocking thing that has ever happened to me. To love this way. To become, in an instant, a baby person. The relentless totality and depth of my love almost hurt; its tenderness and clarity was truer than anything I’d ever touched.”
Whatever the difference is, it all began
the day we woke up face-to-face like lovers
and his four-day-old smile dawned on him again,
possessed him, till it would not fall or waver;
and I pitched back not my old hard-pressed grin
but his own smile, or one I’d rediscovered.
Anne Enright: “It is better here, and more difficult.”
I wonder if one day I will think that these are all true for me or partly true for me or some more true than others. Joan Didion was talking about death when she wrote “Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends” and I guess it is true for birth as well. But somewhere in California there is a jacaranda tree and a eucalyptus tree and Elizabeth Smart’s cathedral redwoods, and spring will break and whatever is going to happen to me is going to happen.
I have been terrified (about the future, about the health of our baby) and I have been euphoric (about the future, about the health of our baby) and I imagine life will have a lot more of that to show me. I am 20 weeks pregnant now, and part of me wishes I could press pause and be in this moment a while longer, getting ready for our little girl. I think that in 10-15 weeks I won’t want to press pause anymore; I will be thinking ok, out with you now baby, and your hiccups and your elbows and your knees. Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.
Filed under: parenthood, pregnancy | 3 Comments
I am 13 weeks pregnant, it is winter, it has been the strangest three months of my life. Winter is always partly like being asleep. When I look back at the last weeks, I think I was there, I can remember most of it, but it feels more like someone else is describing it to me.
We moved house, to a new area of London, more strangeness; dislocation is always strange. Leaving the new house in the dark in the morning, coming back in the dark at night, peering at this new place where you will spend your life. Even the daytimes we had here in the first week seem to have been in the dark.
At home, when home was in Hackney, early on in morning sickness, when I was terrified by it and uncertain of how it was possible to get through the next two months, the first cathartic weep I had was at this from the introduction to Anne Enright’s Making Babies:
“I wanted to say something about the anxiety of reproduction, the oddness of it, and how it feels like dying, pulled inside out.”
The sense of relief that someone was talking about dying was overwhelming, I don’t know why, perhaps because feeling very ill induces grand statements in us – I’m going to die! when we’re lying on the bathroom floor after a bad prawn cocktail, when what we really mean is please, please let me die. Not forever, of course. Just let me die for now. I felt thrown and cheated that no one told me it would be this bad, when of course they had, I just hadn’t been able to listen, my imagination hadn’t been big enough to hold it.
And the oddness, the oddness. About 8 weeks in I tried to connect the images on my pregnancy app to what was lying in the silent, watery dark inside me, but it was impossible. Your baby is the size of a poppy seed. Your baby is the size of a raspberry. Neither could I connect to what I knew was my happiness that we were going to have a baby and that didn’t really worry me, I knew it was because I was trying not to throw up on a train full of people and because I would spend the day trying to get through 8 hours of not throwing up over anyone in my office, then when I got home I would try and eat something and cry over a sad dog on the telly then collapse into bed and the next day it would start again.
At the time I felt like I needed concrete reasons for why I had opted for this – volunteered for this – but of course, our reasons for wanting children are generally nebulous, gooey, irrational perhaps. Having children, from what I understand, is one of those hardest, best, worst, most difficult, most wonderful thing you ever do experiences, so perhaps it always feels slightly odd to elect for it. And pregnancy and birth, the relatively common physical or mental health complications or issues that come from it – for example the women who have severe morning sickness and vomit up to 50 times a day for 9 months and then do it all again for a second child! and a third! – do we do it because it’s worth it? Is it because we forget? Is it because we are mad? Is it because we love each other, because we want to make versions of ourselves, because we want to fall in love again, because we adore gorgeous babies, because we only get one life and we want to create something in it, because it is most bizarre, biological normality-that-feels-miraculous?
Over those 3 months I did not manage to apply the things I’ve “learned” – for example, to use mindfulness, or what yoga has taught me, to get through. I didn’t write a word, except for work emails. In this way I sort of failed, I’m not saying that to beat myself up, I just mean this is how I know I can improve when it comes to the kind of well-intentioned, strong life I would like to live (on a practical note, what it means is trying to do yoga every day – even for 5 minutes! Even when life is hard! – and writing things down when they are difficult.) Instead I relied on Adam, and others around me (both Kates, mum, dad, other friends and people who were kind at work and by email and text). I almost completely relied on Adam, physically and emotionally. I didn’t get myself through it, he got me through it.
I felt so negged out by the world (not depressed, just down). Winter doesn’t help. We did this positive thinking seminar at work and at the time it was actually very useful, it was all the obvious stuff but very well approached – there are things around you that you can’t control, all you can control is your reaction to it, and so on – and every time I think about this I conclude that you may as well be happy, you may as well see the good in stuff because there just isn’t any point to not. In this extraordinary piece of writing there is an extraordinary quote from someone called Franco Beradi:
“Depression can’t be reduced to the psychological field. It questions the very foundation of being … Faced with the abyss of non-sense, friends talk to friends, and together they build a bridge over the abyss. Depression questions the reliability of this bridge. Depression doesn’t see the bridge. It falls off its radar. Or maybe it sees that the bridge does not exist … If we consider depression the suspension of the sharing of time, as an awakening to a senseless world, then we have to admit that, philosophically speaking, depression is simply the moment that comes closest to truth.”
In eastern traditions, the wise women and men are called enlightened; the argument is that they are more wise because they have found some truth by shedding off all the peripheral rubbish, by stripping back, by simplifying down and down until you get to some bare reality. Are they right or are the melancholic right? Or do they see the same truth and draw different conclusions from it?
It’s winter, and I don’t know if there’s a bridge. I don’t know if the world is more beautiful than terrible, and maybe there is some kind of blindness, a denial in finding peace in it, but I’m not sure that it matters. Winter is hard, and a few weeks ago I saw my baby on the screen during the scan and he or she swirled around faster than I could have imagined and her/his heart beat so fast! Me and Adam stared at the screen, our mouths were wide open. There was where my joy had been hiding for these months, there is the baby, our baby. I think we all just want to be happy. I guess we may as well be allowed to try.
Filed under: pregnancy | 1 Comment
At a conference recently I saw a presentation by a man who spoke with no notes for 45 minutes over a series of pre-recorded sounds. He had to tailor his talk around the noise, knowing what would come next, fitting his words into the time allotted by the previous sound – the coo of a mother talking to a baby, the dawn chorus, the pop and fizz of a bottle top coming loose and the liquid busting out of it – before the next one arrived. You could call it a soundscape, the visual equivalent being a series of images, of landscapes in the loosest sense, flashing on a screen and making you feel things.
When I was young I went to a museum on a school trip where there was a reconstruction of World War I trenches. The light aimed at twilight and you could smell the fusty scent of a museum trying to evoke damp and a hint of decaying bodies (but not enough to make schoolchildren gag). And it had the recorded sound of muffled gunfire and shouts and the odd scream to allow you to imagine a modicum of what it might be like to be fighting in trenches in France in 1918. But of course it only felt a bit like that, it mostly felt like you, a school girl in the 90s, imagining what it might be like to be a man fighting in the trenches in France in 1918.
In meditation they’ll tell you that to clear your mind of noise, all you need to focus is on the fact that you’re breathing in, and then breathing out. Sometimes it feels refreshing to gently remind yourself that you’re walking down the road, that it’s Thursday in London in August, that you’re 32. In the last few days instead of looking or thinking I’ve listened, and the effect is similarly, peculiarly calming. Listening to all the city sounds around me, all the time – the soar and sink of cars passing, the wail of an ambulance, the snippets of conversation from the people on the bus – curiously detaches you from other forms of noise. It gives a perspective on all the scenes of your day, as if you’re watching a beautifully dull, real-time art-house film about your life.
One place I walked with my ears open was Fitzroy Square in my lunch hour, strolling the streets of Bloomsbury and thinking of Virginia Woolf doing the same thing a hundred years ago. She lived on that square for a while, and I have never been able to walk around that literary stretch of London without her in the centre of my mind. I’ve thought about her a lot recently after seeing a National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition about her and reading Alexandra Harris’s (brilliant and very accessible ) biography of her. Reading about her and reading her again I marvel at her sense of story, entirely new, her confidence that there is the capacity for drama in everything, her ability to listen and drop sounds onto the page in endlessly interesting ways.
“One feels even in the midst of the traffic, or waking at night, Clarissa was positive, a particular hush, or solemnity; an indescribable pause; a suspense before Big Ben strikes. There! Out it boomed. First a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable. The leaden circles dissolved in the air. Such fools we are, she thought, crossing Victoria Street. For Heaven only knows why one loves it so, how one sees it so, making it up, building it round one, tumbling it, creating it every moment afresh; but the veriest frumps, the most dejected of miseries sitting on doorsteps (drink their downfall) do the same; can’t be dealt with, she felt positive, by Acts of Parliament for that very reason: they love life. In people’s eyes, in the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment in June.”
Sitting in front of the house she had lived in, on a bench, I listened to the sounds around me, just waited and listened on Fitzroy Square, to the engines and the conversations and the wind. The weather was about to turn, just like the weekend before when my family and I sat in the garden until the sky turned entirely black in seconds and forced every object to turn several shades darker and sent a sheet of rain hurtling across the garden to meet us.
There is the capacity for drama in everything.
Filed under: books, life, writing | 1 Comment
It’s all I have to bring to-day
This, and my heart beside,
This, and my heart, and all the fields,
And all the meadows wide.
– Emily Dickinson
I spend too much time planning, so that sometimes even when I am in the middle of some very pleasant experience I start to plan another pleasant experience so I can start looking forward to it right away. Another thing I do has a lovely name although it is not lovely – catastrophizing – imagining the worst case scenario so that an ambiguous email becomes someone I’ve offended, no phone call becomes a terrible accident, a cough becomes lung cancer. What will I be like if I am ever anyone’s mother?!
The other night I woke up and the moon was shining so bright it looked like daytime. There were patches of sky a shade light enough to resemble mid-afternoon (I thought: what do you call night when it’s not dark? How do you mark night if it’s not dark? What delineates night from day in midsummer in the northest of the northern hemisphere when there is no darkness? It was night. And it wasn’t. I almost took a picture and posted it somewhere public because a moment, once carefully curated and a filter added, hardly feels like a moment any more unless it’s been ❤ed. The thing is, it is a moment. It is) and even though it was 3.30am I seriously considered getting up and going for a walk or cracking on with my to do list because what if I look back at this moment in midwinter and bitterly regret not making the most of it?
You need to learn to relax, said an ex-boyfriend way back (I wonder if he has learned to stop telling people what to do). I guess some of these things are products of being a normal human worrying machine; others are part of a desire to enjoy life while I have it. I am lucky because there’s so much to enjoy these days. I have everything I need; there’s a midsummer feel in the air, more than enough light to go around. We are spoilt for light.
Because of where I work, I’ve thought a lot about Stephen Sutton recently, about the cognitive shift required by the dying – and those around them – towards seeing life in terms of quality and not in terms of how much time you get. I read the teen fiction wonder The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, thanks to my rad colleague Dan, and one of my favourite bits was when Hazel thinks about her recent plane journey. It will be the last one she ever takes, and she feels robbed that she won’t live to have this experience again:
“I would probably never again see the ocean from thirty thousand feet above, so far up that you can’t make out the waves or any boats, so that the ocean is a great and endless monolith … it occurred to me that the voracious ambition of humans is never sated by dreams coming true, because there is always the thought that everything might be done better and better again. That is probably true even if you live to be ninety – although I’m jealous of the people who get to find out for sure.”
I’d never really thought of it like this, that the desire for more life – if you’ve had a good life – probably never disappears. Of course it’s so much harder, seems so much more unfair, when someone is young. It’s a similar wisdom to Cheryl Strayed’s in this heartbreaking letter where she explains how she found it freeing to accept that people’s lives are different lengths, they just are. We have to adjust our expectations (part of grieving, I suppose) that everyone will get long lives, accept that what we get is what we get:
When my son was six he said, “We don’t know how many years we have for our lives. People die at all ages.” He said it without anguish or remorse, without fear or desire. It has been healing to me to accept in a very simple way that my mother’s life was 45 years long, that there was nothing beyond that. There was only my expectation that there would be—my mother at 89, my mother at 63, my mother at 46. Those things don’t exist. They never did.
I wish everyone I love could live forever. I wish they all got that, and I wish I never had to miss them. I hope I can rustle up the grace and strength, when I need it, to understand that this can’t be the case.
One of my favourite moments in television ever was in the last episode of Breaking Bad (SPOILER ALERT – LAST EPISODE OF BB ABOUT TO BE RUINED!!) when Skyla asks Walt why he did it, did all these terrible things, and he said: “I liked it. I was good at it. I was really … I was alive.” Suddenly we see a dying man’s behaviour in a new light. I loved that so much.
Of course, for a while after someone dies, we feel reminded to live. We were working hard to support Stephen at Teenage Cancer Trust last month and I thought of him a lot, in hospital, 19 years old, knowing it was the end of his life, and thought of how much someone in his position would give to have a tough day at the office, a stuffy commute, a pint, an argument, a slant of light hitting the pavement and their face too. Just to have a regular day, to do normal stuff. It’s very hard to feel appreciation for your life every second because you soon forget to, and the washing machine gets blocked or the baby cries all through the night or someone is a right twat at work. But how good. How good to live.
Part of the skewed logic behind catastrophizing is that if we worry enough, we will kind of pre-empt bad things happening – not that we will stop them, but we will somehow be prepared for them. I spoke to some friends of a friend recently, sisters, whose dad is very ill, and when they asked if my parents were well, I said yes they were, but that sometimes I worried about a time when they might not be. “Don’t think about this”, they both said immediately, with the kind of authority that comes from people who know. Their faces when they said this stuck with me. So I have decided to take their advice.
Part of being wise is sometimes to not think, to not dwell, just to feel. Perhaps life is a tricky balancing act of being aware of finity, of mortality, but not letting its inevitability swallow you up. So instead one must do the things those awful life lessons prescribe us to on postcards and in jpegs, in sentences stuck awkwardly up against each other, supposedly meaningful in their variety: dance like no one’s watching, count the seconds ticking past when you’re sitting quietly, read, plant something, inhale June and July and their trees, be alive, be really alive.
Filed under: life | 1 Comment
Below is a story I wrote last year and was still making changes to this spring. I wanted to write it after I stayed in a hotel in LA a few years ago and felt very strongly that “the thing” that is wrong with a certain kind of people is their unshakeable sense that they are culturally relevant, that they are important to the world or history or to anyone except the people who know them. It’s a species of arrogance that is almost always relegated to cities. The story is set in a place where that sense prevails but it isn’t about that; it’s about a lonely girl in the middle of it. Most of the stories I write seem to be about lonely girls. What’s interesting about a not lonely girl?!
Although there are some bits in the story I like, and I’m proud that I wrote it, it never quite came together as a coherent whole. I did quite a lot of work on it and did all the things you’re supposed to do, like leaving it a few months and coming back to it, but I couldn’t find the change that would make it exactly what I wanted. So in the end I decided to leave as is. I think this is a good decision sometimes, after you’ve done plenty of work on a project. It makes sense to leave some things alone, as distant from perfection as they are, and so was the case with this in the end.
Anyway, if you do find time to read it, I would love to know what you think (only well-meaning feedback need apply, of course.) And needless to say, I hope you like it or it makes you think or something like that.
Girl in a box
The owners liked money a lot more than their hotel, and how little they loved it was written all over the place. Some of the ways money got saved had cute names, like “word of mouth marketing”, and some sounded shonky, like “minimum wage”, and all of them were woven into the flimsy flesh of the place. The furniture was a cheap Swedish imitation, customised just beyond recognition of its ubiquity, and the sheets were rough, but criticism never got radical, instead seeming to waver on some unconscious periphery of each patron. Maybe it was the Japanese whiskey that distracted them. Maybe the presence of the models, their lucky biology, their lives that had to be so full of glamour. The place was dark and swimming in hip music and good drink, and the formula created more openings in Shanghai, LA, Berlin, Istanbul, Reykjavik, Palm Springs, Riga, Cannes. “The Falcon has landed,” wrote a blogger for one of the openings, “and the party is only just starting.” In the wake of the buzz came young people who thought themselves creative and a City financier who stayed for a night in the Penthouse and hadn’t left yet. In the first few weeks, someone fell off a balcony and shattered their spine. But still, more people came.
It was hot, and Alana had sold her car to pay a bill, so that evening she did what no one did and walked through the city. The drivers were sinking like soufflés inside their cars; she felt victorious. When she reached the hotel she didn’t see the man cradling a drink in the foyer, but she did see Marl, leaning heavily on the reception desk to show off the muscle in his arms, and two girls in bikinis and wedges lolling on the sofa. In the staff room she took most of her clothes off and put her foot on the bottom rung of the short ladder, up towards the hatch leading to the interior of the Falcon’s glass box.
The man in the lobby had been there from the beginning, so the staff knew his name and what he drank and where to send the taxi once he’d passed out. Occasionally someone said “Don’t you think you’ve had enough, Bill?”, but mostly they let him at it. His face had only got that yellow tinge in the last few weeks; it was, of course, a Bad Sign, but he hadn’t yet taken any Positive Action about it. Instead, he toyed with his glass and waited on the low-slung sofa.
On the front of the box was a brass plaque carved with the name of the girl working that shift, slid into place via two metal brackets. At first, when it was uncertain how long you would stay, you got a plaque bearing the name of some other long-gone employee. For two months Alana had been Danielle, just like when she had worked her first waitress job and her badge had said Marie, and the type of people who actually say the names on badges out loud had sometimes called her – Marie! Marie! – and wondered why she never turned around. But now she the plaque said Alana in old-fashioned italics, a name she had picked two years ago in a bar after some personal crisis that seemed minor now.
You weren’t allowed to take anything in with you, no magazines, no compact mirrors, no chocolate, no other likely paraphernalia of womanhood that Marl’s imagination threw out. And you were required to stay awake to lie on your side with your eyes open, for you to be both still like a doll and a real, breathing human. The staff were instructed not to look in, as if the management wanted the girl, who only came out at night, to be partly invisible. Don’t look at her, they were saying, and, with her presence in a glass box in a hip hotel in the city, look at her.
The man didn’t care: he sat through the night, watching her watching nothing. He ignored the people who double-took when they saw her, the others who snapped with cameras. He drank twelve glasses of Bourbon until just after three a.m., when he took up his coat and slipped from the lobby into the red night.
After the shift finished early next morning, Alana climbed down the ladder, the bones in her feet making small clicks. She sat in the staff room drinking coffee and looking at her eyes in the mirror, the bags under them puffy, as if she had been up all night weeping.
“Can I get any extra shifts?” She spoke to Marl’s back as he sat at the computer. “I only have four.”
“No, old lady,” he said quietly. “All taken.” The first time he’d teased her about being the oldest one at the hotel she’d thought about it all night, there at work where the passing of years was frowned upon, and the next night in a bar with a friend where men stared at her, for now. How much longer had she got, two, maybe three years? Then back to being a waitress, perhaps, or if she was lucky, get a part as the mother in something.
The woman she bought fruit from had one eye a tiny bit larger than the other one, so that it appeared that her head was always slightly turned towards you. She had this hair, caramel, curly, the kind of hair women obsess over and imagine men do too, and her asymmetrical eyes sat on top of sculpted cheekbones. Her father had been Apple Man Pete, as everyone called him: fruit seller, graduate of the university of life, as he said, divorcee and alcoholic, as he didn’t.
“So, you work in that box,” the woman said, pressing the button on the till that had a picture of a nectarine on it, the first words she had ever spoken to Alana except a greeting or request for payment. “I read the article about it. The hotel where someone drowned, right?”
“Yes.” Alana couldn’t help looking at the woman’s hair. It was so long and thick that she had to sweep it back with her whole hand, like a windscreen wiper.
“You like working there?”
“Sure. It’s fine.”
“Well, a job’s a job, isn’t it. I didn’t exactly dream of ending up here …” The woman spread her fingers at the shop around her, at Apple Man Pete’s fruit empire.
“Well it’s … it’s nice in here.”
“It’s ok. It doesn’t matter what you do for a job, anyway? Does it?”
It felt good to feel the splintery ladder in her palm, the soft mattress of the box under her. Through the glass you could see the back of whoever was working on reception, and beyond, the foyer. On her second shift, Alana saw a woman mouthing at her “Get a real job,” and after that, she never caught anyone’s eye again. The glass was no longer transparent to her: it was a wall, or at least a closed door.
A few metres away, the yellow-faced man was drinking Aperol Spritz on a sofa. The option of calling his sponsor was ceasing to feel like an option, so much had his shame climbed ivy-like around him. The idea of it wavered somewhere in his consciousness acknowledged as the right thing to do and the thing that will not be done: the conversation you skirted around, the party you didn’t make it to. But anyway, here was the girl, appearing on the dot of eight. He knew that her moving into position was the last time she would move all night. Someone leaning on the reception desk took in the dips and peaks of her breasts and hips, but the man on the sofa only saw her body as a strangely silent instrument. Its being was incidental. It just was.
She had found that even at the moment when every muscle told you that it was impossible to remain in the same position for a second longer, there was much more beyond. You had to view it as an opportunity to go further, to find a little bit more resolution. It was easier if you took your mind somewhere entirely different. If you felt the pressure on your hip grow to a thudding pain, it helped to picture cool blue magic wands of relief flittering over the area. It was useful to make your breaths barely perceptible undulations. Ignore the thinking brain, a ballet teacher had said to her once. Concentrate on the feeling brain.
“A man left you a note,” Marl called the next morning as she got changed, and pushed it under the door. On it was handwritten, badly, How delicious to disappear! Alana screwed it up and threw it in the bin then took it out again and smoothed it out on the table, and stared at it.
At home, she leaned on the worktop and looked at the four empty calendar windows until her next shift. Each month’s image was seasonal, helped put you back on track however asleep or out of tune you had been. I am looking at the calendar with its hot July greens, she said to herself. I am listening to the loud tick of the kitchen clock. The logic of the box was useful for life, too. Just learning to be in it. Not wishing it away until – what? He had said: everyone needs a kitchen clock, and she hadn’t believed him but let him knock a nail into the wall anyway. And then, once it was up, she realised how often she had walked out of the room or scrabbled for her phone to find the time before he put it there. He was right, and she had liked looking at it, liked the time saved, liked his link to it.
She put a book and a blanket in a bag and walked down the road to the small garden square packed that afternoon with everyone else in the neighbourhood. She read the same page three times, then threw the book down and closed her eyes. Whenever she did so recently, the details of the box swerved towards her, the mattress on stilts inside, like a grown-up’s bunk-bed; the cushions scattered with birds embroidered on them; the small wooden ledge at the far side to hold a glass of water.
“Hi.” Before she opened them she felt a sinking feeling, directed towards whoever it was standing over her. “Enjoying the sun?”
Alana sat up to meet the eyes of the woman from the fruit shop, not in her normal t-shirt and tracksuit bottoms but a flowery summery dress, with her mighty hair down around her shoulders. It was strange, like seeing a teacher at a party.
“Hi. Yes. Lovely, isn’t it.”
“So, you live round here?” The woman had flicked her dress strap up where it had fallen, a micro-movement, but Alana saw it.
“Yes, around the corner. And you?”
“I live above my dad’s shop.”
“Oh, of course.”
“He left things in a bit of a mess, actually. I’ve just come back from the solicitors. I mean financially, admin-wise. He was disorganised. A nightmare, really.”
“Right. He seemed like a nice man.”
“He was … he was a nice man.”
“You said. Just after he died. In the shop. You said sorry then.”
“Did I? I can’t remember.”
“That’s ok. Thanks.” The fruit girl looked away, and started blushing before she spoke again. “I’m just going to get a drink. I don’t suppose you’d like to come?”
Alana hoped her refusal hadn’t sounded rude. When she got home it was that awkward time just before early evening, too early to make dinner and too late to make anything of the day. Just her and the tick of the clock. The worst thing, when she looked back at the time with him, was its unspectacular end, the lack of drama to latch onto, only the barely perceptible sputtering of an engine in its last throes. She sat at the kitchen table, looking at the chipped nail polish on one hand, thinking she should take it off and start over again.
A few days later, before her shift, she went to the supermarket to buy her fruit, to queue with everyone else who was buying gardening equipment and TVs and summer shoes. It was when she came out that she saw the man was slumped in a doorway, grey-faced, wearing an expensive suit which he had been sick all over. He looked familiar, but then there were so many like him at the Falcon (suits, alcohol, pretending not to be afraid). She touched his foot with her foot and his chest heaved. After a few seconds she moved away.
The journey to the hotel seemed to take forever because she was watching its progress so closely, clocking each street sign twenty metres before she reached it, spotting the reflection of the evening sun from the side of the Falcon a mile before she pushed open its door. She hated this building, its meaningless name, its glass walls, its mediocre stories. There was something tight in her stomach, a knot, or something more menacing, wolf-like, like a warning that something terrible was going to happen. But the time finally came when she could climb up the ladder, shut out the arduous night.
A few minutes later Apple Man Pete’s daughter sat the man up against the wall and, with a tissue from her pocket, wiped some of the vomit from his chin. He was babbling, slurring it’s over as they waited for the ambulance. Her dad had been a similar drunk, placid and sad, coming home with his keys gone and his wallet gone and his wedding ring gone, because he had passed out in an alley and woke up feeling the worst he had ever felt, would ever feel, even when he was dying. This man still had a wallet but it was hollowed out, with only air in the bulging pockets, an echo of wealth. Scattered next to the wallet was a sheaf of business cards with different names on them. Rory McArdle, Civil Litigation said one; Amy Carner, Psychodynamic Therapy on another. Yoga at the Vale of Health. Ndeji Granger, Indian Head Massage and Reiki. Wellbeing and mindfulness training at the Oak House. A scrap of paper sat amongst them, two sentences written on them:
This time I choose to love for once with all my intelligence.
What if, grand statements of independence aside, there is nothing better than to love and be loved?
When the ambulance took him, she stood and watched until she could no longer see its creeping path through the traffic. She wished she had said in the man’s ear: it is constantly in our nature to be asleep and then awake. She thought about walking past the hotel again, maybe even going in the lobby, but her fear clapped its hand over her. It would be unbearable to be seen. Unbearable not to be seen. For nothing to happen. For nothing to keep happening.
In the box Alana closed her eyes, let her mind take her to a time long before things had gone wrong. She hadn’t known him well that night: the lack of definition of the thing that was happening between them was what was fizzing in the air, its question mark thudding over their bodies as they lay on the floor by the French doors. A bottle of wine waited in between their wrists, and Alana saw the tips of the man’s fingers drum the cold bottle intermittently. She said his name as she propped herself up to look at him, and at the sound of it, Alana in the box felt the full force of homesickness and misguided hope shudder all over her. Every time, then, this fantasist’s reaction, a force of joy and not enough heartbreak. She lay still, inside the memory, feeling heat spread from the back of her throat to the top of her legs. That night went on all night in her night. They didn’t sleep. She didn’t sleep. When morning came, Marl had to knock on the glass to remind her to come out.
Filed under: writing | 2 Comments
There’s a lot of reasons why people love yoga and on the internet everyone seems to go on about it, and in real life too, and I imagine if I didn’t already do yoga, I would not want to hear any more about it. I am sometimes one of those people who blathers on as such, and when I’ve had a few drinks when I’ve even been known to use the phrase “it changed my life” (then I usually apologise). A lot of people say that their favourite thing about yoga is that it teaches you to change the way you think, so that you are not always getting carried away by a rush of thoughts or to-do lists or focusing on a point in the future when your life will be perfect. You realise, your life is today. This thing, this “living in the moment” as it is probably most clearly described, is the thing which is transformational. The present becomes more gift-like, less burdensome.
I DO love this about yoga. I love this very much, and I also know that there are lots of other non-yogic ways to move towards this way of thinking, if you want to. But what I often think is that I love yoga because it has made me strong in my body. This morning I went to a class then I came back and did the kind of housework that would have previously made my back hurt and my arms ache. I used to be so weak. I’m not, not anymore.
Also, feeling strong detracts me from concentrating on how I look, and most of us knows that if you’re not careful you can spend much time and huge amounts of energy wishing yourself to be prettier. Anyone who has done this knows how exhausting and fruitless it is. We spend so long hearing “it’s what’s inside that counts”; we know that we when we get to know someone funny and clever and interesting of either sex they start to look more beautiful, but we still have trouble believing it and keeping on believing it. What I think when I see women walking across a room, or applying make-up in the mirror in the ladies toilets, is that much of their life is, amongst many other things, a slow coming-to-terms-with not being as beautiful as they would like. It’s almost guilt you can detect in their self-consciousness. The look on their faces is not that far from being an apology.
I’m sure there are lots of women who do not care, who don’t feel like this; good for them. And it’s not just women who we judge on appearances. A new friend wrote this, which I loved for many reasons, but particularly because it acknowledges the variety in how we experience things. But being a girl has themes, of course, which is what much of this blog has been about.
A few nights ago, the night before International Women’s Day, I sat down to have dinner in a restaurant in Hackney with some female friends. At one point in the evening a woman came down the stairs in front of us and all of our jaws dropped; we couldn’t stop staring at her because she was so tall, so thin, so beautiful. For a while we talked about what it would be like to be that beautiful, the up and downsides of people finding it nearly impossible to stop staring at you. I think in the end we stopped discussing it because all that talk of very beautiful girls was making us feel inadequate and a bit depressed. Then we talked about the John Berger book I read recently which discusses the way the world (including women themselves) sees women. He says:
“A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. While she is walking across a room or while she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping … She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to others, and ultimately how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life. Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself as another.”
When I read that I realised I had been walking across rooms like that for as long as I could remember.
This week I noticed a very attractive young woman on the arm of an older, not so attractive man, and thought, why has this been a cultural pattern in our society? You could posit: because men have traditionally had economic power where women have traditionally not; because men have been seen less as objects of desire than women have, but also I think it’s because they have been busy doing other things which distracts attention from just physical appearance and so we have thought “isn’t Charles Dickens a brilliant writer! Doesn’t he have a wonderful, inquisitive mind?” instead of “Charles Dickens could be more handsome. He is ok but is nose is not right.” Now women in the west get to do more than ever before which you would think would distract us all from how they look, but still we can’t stop seeing them.
What a drag it all is! How good it feels when you can let it all go!
If you look at domestic violence statistics in this country or read about sex trafficking or FGM, it feels frivolous to consider such issues. But anyone who tells you your concerns are not valid just because someone else has it worse is missing the point. In the West, a lot of the work still to do is shaking off how we see each other and are seen by others, and in other places the work is different and of frightening volume.
Eve Ensler, who organises One Billion Rising, did an extraordinary interview in the Guardian recently entitled We should be hysterical about sexual violence. You should read every word of it. Some people talk about compassion fatigue, or not being able to grasp the full horror of an atrocity, and the most effective way of explaining something in this case is to focus on one story (that’s why charities use case studies.) My yoga teacher told me recently about some women she used to teach who had been victims of sex trafficking; when she met them, they were staying in a hostel run by the charity Eaves. They loved yoga because it made them feel strong, because it was a bodily practice which was not about horror and punishment but about control and quietness and being kind to yourself and maybe the yoga, and the other work they were doing with other kind people who were helping them were the things that made them want to live. But she told me that it was a yoga practice very modified from the one she taught most of her students, and that a lot of it was about making your body small and protected, of being in a safe ball or foetal position and that she never, absolutely never, taught poses that involved opening your legs.
I couldn’t take that in for ages. Still, I can barely think about it. If I ever feel like I can’t get my head around something as truly awful as trafficking or rape as a weapon of war, I think about those women and what they can no longer countenance. IWD is supposed to be a celebration, so I hope I haven’t depressed you too much. Human problems could be counted on a scale from one to ten, on a scale to thinking to feeling to seeing to hurting. But Eve Ensler says “Women across the world are in this together”. She also says that we can end violence against women, and you should read the article to find out why this might not be so crazy and idealistic as it sounds. Happy IWD.
All photos by me on Instagram except for Victoria’s
Filed under: bodies, gender | 1 Comment