Island Blog – All About Henry

I awaken into a beautiful crisp morning, all blue sky and Wolf Moon shining enough light to afford me a greenish wander from kitchen door to kettle. Barefoot, I encounter what I already knew was there, even if I have been keeping my eyes above floor level for a few days. Dust. Bits of dropped food. Fluff. Well Dammit, I mutter. I will need to take action today. Knowing, as I do, my excellent ability to distract myself from housework, I decide to add another dull task as a sort of punishment. The bathroom needs cleaning. These days I can ignore the bathroom-needing-cleaning thingy for days. When Himself was still above ground, it needed cleaning daily and I accepted the work as a part of my morning routine without question. Even before that I would clean it just in case the Bathroom Police dropped in to check. But, now there is no Himself and absolutely no chance of anyone dropping in, let alone the BP, I have grown indolent and Henry mutters away to himself in the dark of the cupboard below stairs. He is bored, I know it, but I also know that precisely because I have neglected him, he will take full advantage of today’s outing for he is mischievous and resourceful.

I can hear him now, as if he is reading my thoughts, or maybe I spoke out loud. He has perfect hearing and I know this as he knows I know this. I move towards the door and open it a glimpse. I hear rustling. It could be him or it might be a scuttle of mice who have enjoyed a long period of quiet, undisturbed. Hallo Henry, I say, my moon face peering into the darkness. Are you where I left you or have you relocated? Are you hiding? I know he is shy. My hands find him and I begin to tell him where we will work this morning. He grins. It’s quite an area of carpet I plan to let him loose upon and he is full of anticipation.

First we climb the stairs and I thank him for being light. My previous carpet sucker, a very expensive Miele, weighed a flipping ton and refused to recover on stair work after I pulled too hard on her trunk, thus sending her into a series of backflips thus landing her, most undignifiedly, on her back, her belly exposed to the world. At that point I recall sitting down for a think. Perhaps, I thought, I should buy myself a male hoover this time and one that weighs less than an SUV, one with a very long and hand-winding flex, no electric one that almost but not quite draws in the cable, one with bags I can bin instead of having to wash out the catacomb of Miss Miele every time in order to get rid of the smell and the bits.

When I first met Henry, I thought everything would now be easy and un-smelly. I was wrong on the second count. It was so depressing because now I had no chance of washing out the innards. I was hardly going to bin a bag after every hoovering session after all. Once I had risen from my depression, I decided to seek some fragrant oil, one that could be dripped onto the filter, and one that just might do the trick. It did. But for Henry’s shyness there seems to be no cure. He snags in every doorway. I encourage, wheedle, soothe, beg even, but nothing overcomes this unfortunate trait. I try empathetic questions. Is it because you are embarrassed to be cleaning? Is this a Macho Man thing? Are you afraid the Bathroom Police are in the next room just waiting to laugh at you, to mock and deride? To say, This is Women’s Work, in that idiot man sort of way? Henry just grins and keeps schtum.

In the bathroom, quite alone with me, Henry sucks bravely, intent on his work. I wheech off the brush and point the nozzle at the corners and the edges. We move behind and under everything that isn’t stuck down and I feel quite jaunty at the difference we are making. Hoover/Woman synergy, a sort of bond between us and I turn to tell him so. My mistake. Never trust the smile of a man who says nothing, for there is a deal of control planning going on behind that face. In that moment of complacence Henry sucks up a cleaning sponge and a cloth. Just like that, straight into his belly, no chewing. Henry! I admonish, and here he turns to the skirt of my frock. It takes me a few seconds to reclaim myself even if I do realise there is no chance said frock would disappear in the same way up that proboscis, affixed as it is to other parts of my body which would need surgical removal in order to allow such a snatch. After I have a word with him about respect for a co-worker, the engine silenced, we continue across the landing and down the stairs. He only backflips once and I right him with abject apology. Now we are cruising and, apart from two further attempts to pull my frock off, eliciting a raised eyebrow from me, we lift the dirt from all floors, up and down.

I thank him and return him to the mice and the dark. The house smells lovely and I tell him so. I thank him for his help and say magnanimously, as an afterthought, that he can keep the cloth and the cleaning sponge. As I close the door, I can hear him chuckle.

Island Blog – Noticing

It’s been a few weeks now, this lockdown thingy and I notice changes inside my head. Looking at what was and at what is present me with two different views of the same thing. Funny that. Back then, when I clucked through my routine life with a hen-like disinterest of my surroundings, I had no idea there was such depth to a life. Well, I suppose I did, but chose not to poke my head over the edge in case I fell into the dark. There were things to do, tasks to begin and complete and to a high (ish) standard but I didn’t really notice how I did them, nor why. The things I did notice were, if I’m honest, viewed through a negative lens. The arduous drudge of whatever chore awaited my attention denied me the excitement of options. For instance, I always washed clothes on a low energy almost cold 30 minute cycle. I never thought about it, just turned the dial and pressed play. Now I consider the pile of washing, separating the sheets from the synthetics, put on my specs, hunker down and think about what cycle to kickstart. It has brought a wild burst of fun to my life and this freedom of choice around dirty laundry has led me to notice a whole load of other things. The tasks have not changed, the routine is still in place, but I have come like the tooth fairy to swap old dentin for a shiny new sixpence.

Noticing things can be momentarily upskittling. Because the house is so quiet now, I can hear it breathe, hear the scurryings and creaks, the sound of the wind through a crack. A sudden flash of movement in a corner could be an old ghost feeling welcome. It isn’t just me who sees it. The dog does too. I watch her look up quickly then move slowly over to where I saw movement, to sniff around. Dust has changed too. When I had cleaners every fortnight, the dust was brazen. Look at me, all thick and sticking to everything, dust-motely floating in streaks of sunlight, turning white things a tawdy brown! Look at me!!! I see you, I saw you, but where are you now, now that I am cleanerless and with a merry lack of dusters in my box of cloths? I don’t see you anywhere and, going by your past behaviour, it should be impossible by now to open the sitting room door, let alone breathe deeply.

Noticing and not noticing brings a very interesting switch of womanly tactics. Where I had to brace myself, like Effie, for some unpleasant chore, I barely think about it now and, much like the giddy excitement I feel as I decide which wash cycle to employ, I am curious to learn a good deal more. When I sweep the endless supply of crumbs from the floors I paint a design with my broom. I consider its potential for flight, but it’s not a besom so I doubt it has much, and, besides, I think my flying days are over. But what I just don’t understand is why this lockdown/slowdown time is effecting such dramatic change for so many of us. Despite the threat this virus still poses, and for some long time to come, the stopping of Routine is having a profound influence on all people. Doing old things differently, seeking out new things to do, brings them all to our attention. To ask Why Am I Doing This? may never have crossed our minds, minds numbed by what we thought was normal, minds dull as hens, clucking our way through the days and weeks, questioning nothing and overly hysterical should someone pinch our grain. Now, forced onto the wasteland we have to pay attention.

I know, of course I do, that not everyone can get excited about a shift in washing cycles, but there will be little things to question, notice and change. Children always ask Why when told to do something. Somewhere in that ghastly and painful process of growing up, our Why gets lost. Asking why, even of self, is to notice, to be mindful. It is also poking your head over the edge to look into the dark. But, as eyes grow accustomed to it, lights shine, contours reveal themselves and there is shape and texture to appreciate. And I always find it isn’t deep at all. I can let my arm sink into the dark, feel it cool on my skin, run my fingers through it. I cannot hold it, cannot grab a handful for closer study, but it is strong and powerful despite its lack of substance. And, when I turn back to whatever nonsense I plan for my day, the light is brighter, the air clearer, the dust silent and best of all I have the time to notice everything, every thought, every action, each precious living minute.

Island Blog – Valentine

There is a valentine in all of us, even the most cynical cynic, even there. Not one living soul on this planet would say that a show of love doesn’t touch a heart. It always matters. It can come with flowers, a card, or a romantic getaway date. It can come inside a hospital ward with a hand held tight. It is there in the eyes of the forgiver and the forgiven. It lifts like sunshine into an ice wind, melting, softening, kinding. It says I see you, and you matter to me. A glance can send love, a smile, a pause to talk. We remember such times and they warm us with a memoric hug as we step back into old shoes and new rain. Love is love and we all need to see it and feel it.

As life batters us, drawing the skin across our bones and flabbing our bellies, the roses, the card and the romantic getaway may lie in our past. But love doesn’t. Thankfully we can show love anytime we so choose. Although in our emotionally strangled country we make a BIG POINT about the difference between love and like, there is no difference at all. A kindly word to a harassed ticket collector on the commuter train is showing love; a knock on our frail old neighbour’s door to ask if she needs anything from the shop is showing love. A jump to arms if someone is in trouble – that’s showing love too. Giving time to someone when we think our 24 hours are already solidly booked – that’s love. There are as many ways to love as there are people on the planet and the source is an everlasting spring, one that no drought can turn to dust.

St Valentine served the needy and the sick. I doubt that was always fun. In the end he was martyred for it and that thinks me. Showing unconditional love bothers folk. He must be up to something. Nobody can give love all of the time. Oh, really? Giving love is not being perfect. We can still snap and crackle, shout and lose the plot; we can still regret, deny and blame; in other words, we can still be who we are, but feel differently about ourselves. Giving love to everyone we know and randomly meet does not mean great displays of affection that might lead to arrest. It doesn’t mean that someone who never hugged has to learn how to. There are many other ways. Kindness, compassion, time given, a helping hand, a smile, a compliment, an acknowledgement that this other person matters, even if I never see him or her again. And the way I feel after giving such a gift……what is that sunshine warmth inside me? Well, it’s love. When I break out of my selfish little life to show another that I see them, that they are important, no matter who and no matter where, I am changed inside.

And I can break out right now.

Island Blog 127 Reasons to Stay

sailboat

Since writing my book, Island Wife, I have received many emails and letters from women whose own story relates to my own.  Some of them are short, some long and detailed, but many of them have the same question to ask me.  Why did I stick with my marriage?

The ‘how’ of it, I can answer.  Despite what appeared to be going on, and growing shape and form, I could always find one good reason to stay, one reason, however small and squeaky.  There may well have been a thousand reasons to leave, but it only took one to keep me in place.  In the early days, the reasons numbered five.  My five children.  I was confident and strong in the knowing that, were I to abandon ship, they would be damaged.  I make no judgement, nor did I ever, on women who do leave.  In fact, as I re-investigate my heart right now on this matter, I feel no critical twinges, nor any sense of superiority beside those good women who made a choice, a really tough one and one not without considerable personal angst and pain, guilt and fear.  I just couldn’t do it myself, not for long, anyway.

I used to watch other wives and mothers, as they flew in on warm winds to stay at Tapselteerie for their family holidays.  I warmed myself in the light of their eyes, eyes that told me they had found a nourishing bond in their own relationships, and that they were, yes, happy.  Of course, I have no knowledge of them now, but those glimpses into another’s life both helped and hindered me.  On the one hand, they made me envious.  They had managed to find a man who honoured them just as they came to him, not in need of any re-arranging, not faulty.  The new light they brought to the marriage was something he needed, wanted to be around, in order to find fulfillment.  He basked in it, sought her wisdom, let her be.  On the other hand, they made me feel that, had I been like them, I would also deserve such freedom within a relationship.  Oh poor little me.

As the children began to try out their wings and, eventually, flew the nest, I became increasingly aware that I was being abandoned by the five who gave me context.  Who am I now?  is a question I often asked myself, as the rooms hollowed out and the quiet of ‘just us’ settled like dust.  People, friends, told me that this was now my time to do something for me, and, yet, after decades of not doing something for me, I had no ideas at all.  When someone has ploughed the same furrow for that length of time, investing fully in the work of every day, and night, it is almost cruel to take it all away and to offer a wide horizon.  What could a no-longer-girl like me do with a broad horizon?  I’ll tell you what she does.  She stands there looking at it, mouth open, eyes wide and head empty, and then dives back to wash the kitchen floor, just to feel safe again.

In a different sort of relationship, one I observed in others and dream-wove from novels and movies, this woman would be given free rein to investigate, to research new roads, and, most importantly, encouraged gently to find her own wings, to grow new confidence as just herself in a new context – that of the big wide world.  If that encouragement is not proffered, and if it matters as much as I think it does, then she will hold to what she knows.

I know about monkey mind.  That chatter inside a head that always works to undermine walking out a dream.  I have worked hard to quiet that voice, and still do, for it is not the truth.  To imagine another life, without stepping into it, is just that.  Dreaming.  I found my way, by writing my story and setting it free in the big wide world.  You might say it was written in the hope for understanding, for empathy.  You might say I hoped it would bring a flash of remorse and a new beginning.  And it might do all of these.  It has already brought me a new self-confidence because to have a well-known and respected publisher take up your book, you must be able to write, and in these times of excellent writers, doubly so.  It has also taught me that feeling sorry for myself and doing nothing to change my situation is, well, pathetic, at best.

In those times of finding just one reason to stay, I discovered other ones, hiding in my attic.  In any relationship, there are at least two people, each with a very different perspective on life and ideas on how to live it.  Bring into each mix, parental baggage, school history, sibling rivalry and so on and then dress this damaged person in cowboy boots, or high heels and call it an adult.  Then shove it out into a world of high expectations, judgements, parameters, boundaries, social constraints and no mappage, no DIY manual on the subject, but only other opinions formed by those who came before, each one lumbering along under the weight of their own ‘stuff’.

I believe I have just found a new definition for Chaos.

Living now, each day as it comes, I learn something new.  Something new about me, about my marriage, my choices, my life thus far.  I still find reasons to keep walking, keep looking around, keep my heart soft and my stride strong and purposeful.  I have bad days, black dreams, bouts of self-pity and I can still make the house shake with a powerful door slam, but these are just a part of the whole.  What I love is a challenge and life is always thus.  I find only momentary delight in winning an argument if my opponent just backs down, remaining certain still of his own belief.  I find there is little (if any at all) point in going over who said what and when and in what tone of voice.  I find no future in paying the slightest attention to either of us in a grumpy mood. I am learning that perspective is king, and that grace is his queen.

At the end, whenever that may be, I will reflect on my choices, made by me, for me, and be content to know, not that I got it right, but that I got it at all.

Island Blog 72 – Back to the Future

Island Blog 72

I’ve been digging.  Not in the garden, which, this year is doing without me.  First, I announced I was no longer the Little Weed Weeder.  No, not true.  First I looked out across the brown shrubs and trunks of winter resisting furiously the spring urge to spring, and not surprisingly, as the sky was still the colour of ice and the wind sharp enough to cut through fast food packaging. Although part of me longed for the warmth, there is a price to pay for warmth I have found and it arrives overnight in wide seas of determined green, growing more determined as the days follow the nights.  I had gravel outside the door a month ago.  Not any longer.  Now it is a wondrous display of dandelions, plantains, campion and thistles.  Much softer underfoot.

That’s when I made my announcement.

Yesterday I did waiver eversoslightly when Guilt nudged my elbow and made me take a good look at the sloppy trollope I have become.

No, I said, No….go away (or words to that effect) – for I have a book to write, a new one and if I start following your fat batty guilt as I have done for centuries, I will find my gravel but lose my raison d’etre, and, having only just found it, I don’t plan to do that.

Back to my digging.

In boxes, cupboards, drawers and the like, I am finding trinkets and gewgaws from 200 years ago and marvelling at the quality of materials and workmanship. These things may be cracked or damaged, and they all smell funny, but they still work, still open and close as they did at first and that is a lot more than can be said of pretty much anything for sale on our high streets today. I am careful how I word that bit for there are indeed exceptionally high standards of workmanship spread right across the material world, but the attitude of care and accompanying skills in crafting each item as an individual piece is no longer something we expect.

As I find each piece, I can tell you nothing about it.  Chaps no longer keep a personalised manicure set bound in leather, each piece resting in a nest of soft blue velvet.  For a start, it is cumbersome, and would probably make his hand luggage too heavy.  For the ladies, a weighty and heavily ornate ladies make-up mirror.  Something else to dust and polish and blow that for a lark.  Leather bound snuff boxes, cigarette cases, monogrammed and silvered up enough for royalty, silver lighters, personal ash trays, also monogrammed, for waistcoat pockets or handbags.  Nobody smokes anymore and those who do have packets in pockets and hide round stony cold corners.  There would be little interest in the sporting of flashy pointers towards the habit they would dearly love to break.

And so on and on.

So, what to do with it all?  Do we, as Keepers of the Past, keep it?  And for what?  Our ikea children?

I don’t think so.  I think we should hold the stories and tell them into the ears of the children who want to know.  After all, not everyone is interested in great granny’s trinkets, having never even met the old girl.  And then, I think we should clear our attics, empty our veneered cabinets of decorative cups and quaintly useless fal-de-lal, and move them on.  Otherwise, trust me, when we are pushing up the daisies, some poor soul will have that awful job of clearing it all out in a volatile atmosphere of ignorance, guilt and sentimentality.  In my own role as Clearer Out, I struggled a lot.  Not with the clearing, for we could hardly breathe in this little place for lumpy trinkets and I could hardly wait for the new wheelie bins to be delivered- but with the familial tussle over letting anything go, as if, in doing so, we would threw out granny’s memory as well.

What we need to learn is to let go of things that do not take us forward in our lives.  So many of us, including this sloppy trollope, waste our precious days in general maintenance, allowing our God given gifts to float away into the recesses of our minds like clouds.  Come the day we lie, wondering what on earth we have achieved in our life, we just know we didn’t get it right.  Oh we may have polished, and labelled, looked after and managed, but did we create something completely new?  Did we say Poo to all that grey mind-numbing drudge and turn towards doing what we know we love, even if we don’t yet know how to make it work?  Did we risk?  Did we clear out the ‘granny junk’, still remembering her sparkle, her wisdom, her humour, those things that changed us and made us who we are, or did we store it in the loft, in mice-chewed boxes, moaning every time we had to dust or polish things we hate looking at?

Letting go is not easy for most.  And yet, it is the only way to clear space for the new and I do not mean substitute material trinkets.

I mean space.  Emptiness.  Nothing.  Patience.

One day, an idea will come.  Let it settle.

Then begin.