Island Blog – Pas pour Moi

I wake with the sun, can feel the warmth and the promise of a new day ahead. Impatient, I leave first, walking from the apartment down the little hill towards the village. Bonjour Monsieur-dame, I greet an older couple coming towards me with bags of shopping. I can smell the baguette and see it too, peeping out as baguettes always do, refusing to fit in. She, Madame, appraises me, her eyes covering my body like a touch. She is, I know, looking for an inappropriate bare of skin. She won’t find it, for I know this old fashioned place and am respectful of its rules of thumb, its unwritten laws. She, naturally, is dressed for a winter’s day in Alaska, all in black and so buttoned up as to appear more like a seal than a woman. Her face, pinched into a critical catch tells me that her smiling Monsieur will be disappointed at my coverings and also that her life has not been an easy one.

The streets that wind through the village are cobbled, worn by thousands of feet over hundreds of years, smoother around the entrance to the cafes and bars where feet have scuffled and stopped, turned around or opened the door for refreshment and friendship. Picasso painted here, as did Matisse and Dali and it is to the painters I am bound. Through the archway and down to the rocky harbour I find them, placed like buskers and probably with their own pitches considered sacrosanct. Bonjour I say and more than once as I walk by with only a glance at their work. I know the rules. No artist wants to be gawped at and most certainly do not invite comment. as they apply oils to canvas, eyes on their subject. I look out to where the sun rises pinkly perfect over a calm and submissive sea. Around the curve of the natural harbour an old stone edifice stands sentry. Much of its face is gone but once it would have stood proud as Punch. This is the way in, it would have said to the fishermen and sailors seeking sanctuary.

On the edge of a spit of rock stands a woman in white. Her long dress floats a little in the warm morning breeze but nothing else of her moves. Her hand below a bonnet of white satin is shading her eyes as she looks out to sea. Searching for her husband, says a gruff smokers voice behind me. I am startled back to myself. How did he know I was English? Ah, Madame, he says, English always look English, no matter where they go. I am momentarily disappointed but concede he is probably right. She will not move all day, he continues. She is an art student and this is how she earns money for her studies. I smile and move closer to her. She doesn’t even blink. The heat, I think, the heat! Already, at 7.30 am it is 20 degrees and she has enough clothes on to kit up the whole cast of Hamlet.

I move towards my favourite cafe and sit outside beneath the shade of a tree, one I cannot identify. Cafe Madame? Our, mercie Monsieur. In moments he returns with a small coffee, black, thick and hot. Beside it he places a tiny shot glass of something and winks at me. For the heat, Madame, he says and swings away.

Later we swim. There is a storm gathering and the waves are restless and confused. Himself, snorkelled up, is ferreting about among the rocks whilst I sun myself on the stony beach. When he returns to me I can see something is wrong. He has lost his teeth, pulling them clean out along with the snorkel tube. Lost, he lisps at me. I roll my eyes and feel a small panic rise but the storm is closer now and the waves too high and mighty for a search. I resign myself to a toothless husband who doesn’t care one bit. For three days as the storm rages he orders omelette or scrambled eggs for dinner and thinks the whole thing hilarious. I smoulder across the table. It is, after all, one thing to lose all your teeth to the ocean and quite another to think it amusing, having no intention whatsoever of either organising a new set once we get home or to have any regard for the way I feel watching him lose food through floppy lips and talking like a drunk.

After the storm has moved away and the waves, their skirts still upskittled a bit, have calmed, I move into the water. Point at the place you lost them, I call back. He looks at me as he might a crazy woman and guides me. There! he says and turns back to his book. I duck beneath the water and there they are, sitting atop a rock, complete, waiting. Triumphant I lift them to the sky and call out to him. The whole beach looks up as if I had just found gold, which, in my opinion, I have.

We are the talk of our favourite restaurant. C’est impossible! They say and I am a Cheshire Cat. Pas pour moi, Monsieur, I reply. Pas pour moi.

Island Blog – Inside Out

My washing machine, which, by the way, has behaved normally for a long time, has suddenly begun to turn clothes, bedding and other things, inside out during each wash. At first it annoyed me. What do you think you’re doing? I asked it. I mean, you have washed things as I rendered them into your maw for, oh, years now, and all of a sudden, without consulting me, you turn things about. Yes, I know that most goodly women wash everything inside out. We are advised to do this. It says so on the label. But I never read labels and there was a frisson of excitement that arose in my goodly breast as I pushed everything in with the outside on the outside. I love to break the rules anyway.

As I fight with a huge cotton/linen duvet cover that is half inside out and half outside in, I have some thinks. Going deeper, I wonder if the Universal Mother Protector is trying to tell me something. What could that be? Is she advising me that, before it is too late, I begin at the age of 67, with a hec of a lot of washing years under my belt, to obey the rules? Surely it can’t be that. This bedding, these jeans and tops, frocks and socks have managed with my disobedience for as long as I can remember and nothing has fallen apart. Well, not many things, anyway.

Then I walk my thinks into other areas of life. I ponder the inside and I ponder the out. I know only too well that if the inside of me does not relate and connect with the outside of me there is trouble. If I feel one way and communicate another, I am lacking congruence. My inside, feeling as she does, is sloshing about in my drum if I don’t show her to the world. If I see injustice, feel the pain of it, the wrongness of it, and say or do nothing, I am disconnected from my own self and I will carry that disconnection like a lead weight for a long time. Regrets, shame, crimes of omission, admissions of guilt, apologies proffered, wounds healed, all will fester in a darkling silence, challenging the health and well-being of both my mind and my body. You, on the outside of me will see none of it, feel none of my disconnection. But I will.

The start point is to admit this disconnection to myself. To acknowledge that I am outside my inside and that the two haven’t been on speaking terms for way too long, is critical. Do I want to? Well, no, not really. I want the outside of me to look goodly. I want the inside of me to catch up, to hurry up and fit the space without me having to do any of this tedious inner work. But this is not how we learn, not how we grow, develop and understand the vital need to be inside out. Now, I am not saying that we need to rush out to tell folk a thing or two about what we don’t like about them. Not at all. In fact, what we find, as we admit our fear of being inside out, is that we don’t want to do that at all. What we find, as we gently open up to our own fears of being naked before all men (dreadful thought) and women (slightly less so) is that compassion arises like Venus from the waves, gentle, soft, loving and at peace with both ourselves and all those who are not us.

As I pull out the washing nowadays I smile at the inside out-ness of random things. I know this washing machine, this behemoth of importance, has a lesson to teach me. Nowadays I can inside out-flip a big duvet cover in minutes. In paying attention to something that most of us would dismiss with a worldly snort, I am learning to reconnect with the inside of me. I recommend it.

And so, it is.

Island Blog – Extra the Ordinary

Although I live my life according to the rules, most of the time, my heart and soul are pure Paris. As a girl, as a young woman, I could feel the inconvenient wild in me, this fire blaze that burned no matter how politely I crossed my ankles or demurred to the authority of a man. The confusion of living with the two opposing women inside came with a great deal of trouble, most of it unseen by anyone but me. The trouble was my lack of enough experiential wisdom to accept both the Paris and the Quiet Suburbs and to love them both. How can I, how can anyone, hold two contradictories in one head at the same time? Well, practice, and a lot of self-love. En route to this acceptance brought tantrums, a smouldering silence, spots, ridiculous clothes, lost friendships, poor decisions, all of which came with legacy, one only I was forced to live with and through. Those in ‘authority’ over me called me names; deluded, hysterical, rebellious, ornery, bloody difficult #needsprofessionalhelp, possessed, reckless and so on. I was, in short, impossible and would never fit in. Until one day I overheard my French teacher, whom I adored, saying to my mother #headinhands that I had a lot of the Paris in me. I suspect that was the beginning of my quest, one that has led me over the bumps, into walls, off chasmic edges and on and on to many wonderful places and times.

At this age of ripeness and with a completely marvellous and exciting past, I smile at my journey. Even now I can meet good women of my age who, on recognising the rebel in me, say that they were never wild; that they never felt anything like an incendiary bomb. I always question that. Did you ever fall head over heels in love, I ask, when your whole world is thrown up into the air like a beach ball, and do you remember hoping it would never come down again? I usually get them on that one. Okay they didn’t lock matron in the phone cupboard and go back to bed, nor set fire to the school shed (didn’t burn), nor did they get back home at 10pm, check in with parents and then climb out of the window to rejoin the party. But I did, and that wildness is still here, still within, now honoured and loved, appreciated and respected. Paris is part of me.

I have never been to Paris and may never go there. I call her Paris because of what I have read, since my French teacher said what she said, and I have learned about that city of bohemian rebellion and energy. I will have added my own imagination, naturally, and together we have got me all the way up to this morning in a lively and unpredictable way. Living as I now do inside my own structure of discipline is just where I want to be. I have no desire to travel in order to find myself. Myself is right here with me and we are an excellent team. Rebelling against my own rules of engagement would be foolish. Rebelling against other people’s rules of engagement was exhilarating, terrifying and often self destructive, but I could not have avoided one minute of it. It is in my DNA and that is irrefutable.

My message in all this is to encourage you all to remember who you really are, not to fanny about with who someone else decides you are. This would be like trying to fit politely and tidily into an empty Weetabix box. So don’t. And, if any of this touches you in any way, there is work to be done. We can die with our song unsung or we can take a risk, open our mouths and sing it out, at any age or stage of our lives.

We can make an ordinary life extraordinary just by living half in, half out of the box, our own box.

Island Blog – Words and Showing Up

When I was a student, I learned how to write good English, to enunciate clearly and to employ slang or swearwords only in the playground or in whispery corridors. Now, still a student, still learning, I play with my words. Words are like music, they sound soft or harsh, harmonious or discordant, resonant of the very thing they describe. Onomatopoeiac. My dad would have a fit at some of my words. I think he considered loose language to be a sign of laziness, an unwillingness to search for and then to produce a word most fitting. He had a zillion words in his mouth and was never short of just the right one, bringing in a goodly measure of humour and exaggeration, just like a pro. Once, with his head inside the drinks fridge, he announced that ‘we are perilously low on lemonade’. He could spoof it anytime he chose. I think I get my passion for word invention from him, from Roald Dahl and from other great storytellers who lifted words up for scrutiny, oft times laying them down again, all tapsalteerie, just for effect.

To play with word assemblage is to dance with fairy feet over the rules of engagement. Words have double flipped over the generations. Some have been lost, new ones found and elevated to dictionary standing. Playing scrabble with me is never going to please a dictionary pedant. In fact, no dictionary pedant would even consider it. There is only one person I can play scrabble with and that’s my youngest son who has more crumjumbling words in his head than anyone else I know. The game invariably dissolves into hysterical laughter as one or other of us attempts to explain the meaning of whatever word we have just laid down on the board.

We are taught not to exaggerate, not to overstate with words and yet where’s the fun in rules like that? Sounds very beige to me and I love colour and lift, nonsense and musicality. Life is tough enough already. We do well to remember that having fun is good for our health. And, in that, I take courage and inspiration. Could be the lyrics of a song, a line snatched from Twitter, Facebook or Instagram; could be a flow of words from a passerby #therearelessofthosefornow; could be a crash landing in my own head whilst buttering a salmon steak. Could come from anywhere but if there is music in it, then it grabs my attention and I take a good look see.

This morning, around 5, the sun cast red across the sea-loch. A fingermist hovered over the still waters, tree reflections shimmying like dancers. The goddess of the breeze obviously thought it was her turn. Tickling the surface with her fingers, she lifted the runnels and rivulets into bubble swirls and sent them all on a trajectory for the wide open maw of the Atlantic Ocean. Gulls dipped, oystercatchers twillopped overhead in a cacophony of oystercatcher-ness, and one lone young whitetail soared like a big showoff almost level with Cirrus, although, of course, he was nowhere near those ice clouds. It just looked like it from down here, from stuck down me, gravitously cemented to Mother Earth with my neck a paperclip as I watch and watch till, with barely a wing beat, he slides 10 miles to the other side of my looking. A lift of light and the starlings arrive like a football crowd to the bird table. There have to be 15 of them, babies open-beaked and squeaking, parents madly gathering seed, feeding, gathering seed, feeding and on and on till Lady Night finally says Enough! Sleep!

I remember it well. And I am glad I do. I have known the times of overwhelming, my times of flight, high as Cirrus but not quite, my lifts, my joys, my swollen ankles, my sleepless nights, my troubled days, my moments of supreme peace, my ages of gloom. All of these colours, all of these states of being, these words are me, are you too. It is how and who we are. It bothers me (for about 3 seconds) that the greatest requirement in this life is to keep showing up, first, to keep learning, second, and to keep applying said showing up and said learning, ad infinitum for all eternity, forever and then some.

Easy Peasy.

Island Blog – Little Fires

I believe that grandparents have a gift. One that is gifted to them. They also have a gift to give, through translation, nothing lost, unless they choose to ignore the opportunity it brings them, and by extension, the generation below and the one below that.

On the first gift, I can say it comes as a surprise. This gift is one of a second childhood. Not physically, of course, but in a renewed lease of life. From banging on about arthritis to clambering over a fence with a cackle of glee; from medication programming to random acts of play; from soup at midday on the button to fish finger sandwiches just because we’re hungry – with ketchup, naturally. The awakening of the sleeping child is painless. Sparkles return to rheumy eyes and stolen carrots from the veg counter at Tesco’s are an absolute must. An old woman who has plodded, fallen- arched, and for many years, up one aisle, politely rounding to the next, might suddenly find herself speeding up for a swing-wheelie at the top. The giggles of the little ones egg her on and she just can’t help herself. Her mind is full of naughty ideas that came from nowhere. After all, these half-pint charges of hers have been sternly groomed for a perfect public face and mummy never does any of these things.

As mummy, we don’t either. Many of us are so caught up in right and absolutely wrong that we contain, without intending it, the free spirit of our children until their bodies can barely bend at all. And here comes the second gift, the one given. With granny we can fly and fly high. My granny was like that and we all adored her. The mischief in her eyes set little fires in our own and although she was in all ways the perfect lady, she showed us a side of her true self that my mother rarely saw as a child. I feel sad about that and wonder how much, and how often, I contained my own children in boxes at least two sizes too small for their exuberant personalities. But how else to protect, teach and develop a child into the adult we want them to be, hope they will become? This, in itself sounds like a box, but only to my granny ears. So is it just that we can ‘hand them back’ or is it that second chance to what, make amends? My own children, now parents, are not always delighted at granny’s antics. Initially I faced a few stern reprimands on my behaviour, feeling like the child in trouble and most uncomfortable. Can I say God or should I pretend he doesn’t exist? Can I answer questions on where babies come from, asked by a ten year old, or should I say “Ask Mummy’ thus making it very mysterious and serious? I get my nickers in a right knot at such times, and dither like an old woman who never thought an original thought, or was never allowed to.

9 grandchildren in, I now am more relaxed about the nicker knot thing. I pause a lot after a question is asked. I might distract, as I would a puppy chewing on a cat, suggest some toast or a bounce on the trampoline. I might answer the baby question, but vaguely, with something safe, like ‘Mummy’s tummy’ and leave it at that . As to God, I might say, some believe he exists, some don’t, and round with a question for them. What do mummy and daddy say? Always a safe bet, that one.

I don’t remember my mum having any bother with dithering. She just answered as she saw fit, no matter what parental bans we had put in place. And blow it. Thats what she said. She had no intention of bending to our whims and I cannot imagine ever being brave enough to challenge her. In my day and with my mother, challenge was verboten. However my generation have been confounded with all the new information about parenting. Strait jackets were out, for starters, and choices offered to small people on the best dinner plates. My own children, and I have heard them all employ this, would ask their 3 year old what she would like for supper. I managed to keep my snort silent, although it gave me indigestion and required my scrabble into handbag depths for a Rennies. Now, I am used to it. I remember, once, tapping a child on the leg when her tantrum threatened the entire neighbourhood, and being strongly warned never to touch a child again in anger. It wasn’t anger, I began to say, but said no more after making eye contact with the parent in case. The Childline number is readily available, after all, and there are posters in every school in most of the rooms, and at a child’s eye level.

However, the joys of playing hooky with grandchildren are the best. Naughtiness and mischief fan the embers of my internal fire any time I am with them. And I am reminded, often, of the gift I have received and the gift I can give – that reconnection with my own childhood and the chance to be the child free, the child outside the box, setting all the other children free from their own boxes and, together, heading off into a fantasy world of mischief and fun and laughter.

I am going to have to live for decades more, it seems.