Season 3, 004: Tell me about a time of great love or purpose in your life that you return to often in memory...
He doesn’t deserve these words I don’t think. To be spoken about and made real again. To acknowledge his existence in mine. To dig deep into the tiny locked box in a corner of my heart that was slammed shut 25 years ago. My wild drunken self and his wild drunken self. My young shy, unknowing self from a tiny caged town. I dreamt of him before I knew him. He rocked my life, my heart in a city on the other side of the planet.
We met in a pub, drunk. He was always drunk. Suntanned, blonde, brown eyes. He made the blood rush to my head, wobbly, uncertain, electric. I regretted sleeping with him that night. But then I did it again and again and again for a whole year. We shared a magnetism, a connection that I couldn’t put down. I kept going back. He was so damaged and closed, confused and chaotic. He didn’t love me. He couldn’t let me in. But he wouldn’t let it go either. ‘Friends who have sex’ he called it, on his terms because it’s all he could give. A shut down heart but a wild open body. The second night we spent together, he showed me his passport photo. And I knew I loved him.
I went travelling around the vast, red, parched ancient land to escape him. I kissed other boys, propped up bars in outback towns and worked on farms in baking white heat to try and get him out of my heart. He had someone new for a while.
I had to go back to the glistening blue harbour city in the end and straight back into his bed. He sent me crazy with desire and pain mixed up with booze and confusion. I lost myself in him. I had to come back to the U.K. in the end, to recover. To lock him away before he broke me. A piece of him lives in me forever.
In my memory, I am sitting alone on a mound of grassed earth, on a recreation ground overlooking a mental health organisation's headquarters.
Every Friday afternoon I came to this building to counsel clients for the organisation. I was studying to be a counsellor, making up hours towards my qualification.
Back then, the purpose of what I was doing in my life was clear and sure. I would complete my placement here, then write my case study and qualify. After that, who knew? Private practice eventually and employment hopefully.
Right at that moment, sitting there on a late summer’s afternoon, waiting for my ride home, music in my ears from earphones, the atmosphere quiet and still all around me – I wanted to stay here. To bask, is that a word for it? Yes, to bask in the peaceful knowing of this time, where I felt some surety in the direction things were moving in. Things were not perfect, I knew that, but there was a positive sense of possibility in my life.
To stay in that sense of possibility for a while, the sun getting lower in the sky and that sense of peace in a day well used, yes I would most definitely want to sit within those feelings again. Before the lingering burnout, and the overwhelming presence of loss and sorrow that has permeated so many parts of my life in recent times.
I know that time has passed now, for me. Innocence lost is not so easily regained, if that is even possible. And yet, am cautiously hopeful for other such moments of purpose in my future.
I wanted to inhabit him, the one I loved back then. He was edgy; an artist, skate rat, punk rocker who pushed me way out of my comfort zone. I remember thinking, basking in the California sun on glacial boulders that dotted the lakeshore, that I will never really know this man. Though deeply enmeshed in each other’s emotions and bodies, there was a distance I could not cross. I felt a rush of blood rise when he looked my way, but he held the upper hand, always, could choose to be aloof or penetratingly present. To lose his gaze ached of failure. I fingered the coarse boulder, the frayed edge of my towel and felt the sun dissolving me into sleep, the scent of sunshine rising from his skin and mine.
Startled by a splash, I watched him moving beneath the clear surface, his pale skin otherworldly in the watery light. I followed, watched him, crab-like, climbing up a larger boulder with some friends, looking for a higher spot to jump from. Typical. He’d find the most dangerous thing in any given landscape to do and blindly leap. I ducked my head beneath the surface into watery silence, and heard a curious shimmering sound. I bobbed to the surface, to see if someone was playing guitar. Then dove again, rhythmic in an underwater breast stroke and heard a faint chiming like fairy bells. It was coming from me. My earrings danced and I jingled through the clear, cold water, twirling like a seal alive in its element. I had merged, not with the one I loved, but with water, my body delightful in fluid movement. Now, years later, surrendering to ocean waves, or enveloped by loon calls on a starlit swim, reverberations of that joy sing in my blood.
As he recovered from cancer, and caring for him became both stressful and exhausting, my husband would kick me out, metaphorically, for a walk. Some ‘you time’ he called it. For years, I have attributed my love for nature to these walks, but it wasn't as if I skipped there and was miraculously healed. I was driven by fear. With permission to escape, I hurtled towards an uncertain freedom; feral, scared, and confused. I found places to hide and hoped to be absorbed by the very ground beneath me. If I could merge into the darkness, if no one saw me, I’d be okay. Safe, I thought.
For several nights I crouched in a wood behind a fallen log, grasping wet, leafy loam in both hands, waiting for a badger. It never came. Instead, in tree-canopied shadows, a tawny owl pounced on its prey three feet away. An unsuspecting wood mouse squealed in pain and died. My heart lept, as if thumped by CPR, and came alive again.
Enlivened, I found another wood, hemmed in by houses but riddled with holes like an Edam cheese. This time I’d heard the badgers, seen fresh earth dug from their holes during a daylight recce. As night fell, I sat, shallow-breathing, knees tucked beneath my chin, beside the biggest hole, and waited. Snuffling breath, some scratching, bickering with family. Then it was there, white-striped, eyes kind before me. Wild. Free. Unaware and undemanding. The most beautiful creature I had ever seen, the dawning at dusk of a lifelong love affair.
When my babies were small, squishy, warm and all they wanted was to sleep on me and feed from me for what seemed like an eternity. At the time I was often desperate to put them down, why don’t they sleep on their own, just go to sleep… inexplicable seemingly irrational life of a small baby whose needs are so primordial, such life is incapable of reason. I felt I had lost myself, was desperate to be myself again, despite 9 months of growing, build up and preparation, in a short moment the cut of a surgeons knife had changed my life forcefully forever
and yet … when I am sad and mournful and harassed now I look back to those moments of just holding and being with the baby connected to me once again, their warmth and soft weight and dream myself there in those moments of pure bliss, I ground myself there in ephemeral joy and feel that love and bliss
Now that squishy infant flesh has been stretched out so that my babies are long and slim, vertically longer than me. But they are beautiful still, I will watch them whilst they sleep, or whilst they don’t realise I am watching and marvel at their beauty. I store those moments up again to return to and think about later on in any moments of angst so as to ground myself in the love of motherhood
It all began at that moment. The mama I was, the mama I am, was born of that moment. A moment I often return to many moons later.
It all began then, at that life-altering moment, a moment of unexpected transformation, a moment encapsulating uncharted emotions and feelings, a moment that I have since swaddled in amber and enshrined within my heart for eternity.
A gift of a moment that I could not have possibly prepared myself for, even though I thought I had. My one book that instantly became a mass of inked margins and tatty-turned corners could not have readied me. I might have had some knowledge, but knowledge isn't knowing.
That moment, that very instant when I knew you had moved, you had just danced for me, danced within me, for the very first time. In that second, I awakened to a deep ancient knowledge, a re-membering in my bones that told me so. Told me what no book could.
A movement so tiny yet so viscerally life-changing, causing my heart to respond in ways I never knew existed. In ways that I could not articulate because I did not have a language for any of this. Not back then, back when I was but a child in the form of a woman.
My entire body responded in achingly intense ways that I could not resist and, I could not deny. I could only accept and allow.
Your first dance changed me. It had brought upon my soul something so surreal, and I was no longer the same me anymore.
I had become a mama the moment you danced for me.
It was late, the lights low. There were others in the room. When they spoke, I didn’t hear. We were effectively alone. Gifted those thirty minutes, I was determined to use them well. Uncharted territory for both of us. Nervousness, on my part. In her eyes, only undiluted curiosity.
What did we talk about? Nothing. What did we communicate? Everything. All done through gazes, touch, and the close considerations of the fascinated. She intrigued me. Was she trying to outstare me? If so, it was in the gentlest way imaginable. I’ve never felt as intensely weighed up as I was in those thirty minutes. How could she seem so wise before her years? How could anyone teach me so much in a first meeting? I ran my forefinger across her soft cheek.
‘Could I ever be good enough for her?’
That mantra thought overwhelmed me. It still does.
It’s late, the lights low. Thirty years later, she’s back in the same building. I’m at home, waiting for news. Both of us awake. She’s on the verge of delivering the next generation. It won’t be long now. No surprise that I’m taken back to those thirty minutes that I revisit often.
What times, what sharing we’ve had in these past three decades. The obvious highs, of course: days on Alligin, An Teallach and Seana Bhràigh; the thrill of seeing a lesser-spotted woodpecker or a capercaillie; academic triumphs. But the challenges faced count for more. We’ve held each other’s hand with resolute tenderness when the going’s been rough, a tenderness forged in the crucible of those first thirty minutes.
What have I learnt? A father knows no greater privilege than to stare into his first-born’s eyes. That’s when he gets to lay the foundations for the purest love he could ever know.
Motherhood is the greatest love of my life. I lived in my head for a long time and was indifferent to my body. Pregnancy has changed that; I was humbled by the magic of creation that was happening inside. The sense of connection to the beauty of nature, and to its mystery. I could never complain about a single cell of my flesh after that. Motherhood has changed me in ways I never expected. It was a sacred initiation into becoming myself, making connection to what’s possible without any claim of certainty. For the first time I felt the icicles in my heart were melting. I was moving through my fears with purpose and calm, even though the calm was often a pretence, the purpose was always real. I caught a wave that carried me and filled me with love that I never experienced before. I stopped questioning if love was just a poetic invention. I was mothering myself alongside my children. My childish self-centeredness was turned inside out and out into the world. Motherhood showed me the cracks I wasn’t noticing; it shone the light on reasons to face the pain that was numbed and hidden away. It gave me strength to enter the darkness and head straight through it. My children taught me how to live openly and bravely. Tamed heart rediscovered long forgotten but wise wilderness of Mother Nature. And now, as I sit still under an oak tree where I first played ball with my two baby boys and read messages from them from miles away telling me about their adventures, my heart fills with happiness, a moment I want to treasure forever.
Leaping onto the crest of a breaking wave, waist-deep in the ocean, and hurtling to the shore on a bodyboard. Deposited sprawling, on the sand, as the sea ebbs once again;
Or that moment in choir, a few bars in, when the vibrations of sixty bellies and breath from one hundred and twenty lungs meld, in soaring harmonies. At first we are hearing the notes, but then we become the music. When our final notes fade away the applause startles us;
Or, when seated at the piano tinkling the opening to ‘The Heart Asks Pleasure First’, the tune demands my hands to start moving in opposing directions. I must commit to the music. I plunge, the notes taking over.
Or the moment, at a kitchen table in the early hours, when someone suddenly says “what time is it?” and you realise you have been surrounded by the warmth of friendship for eight or nine hours and it feels like a minute.
Or, making my Dad comfortable in the minutes after he died. Ruffling his thin grey hair, smoothing the wool of his jumper against his chest, tucking a soft blanket around his waist to ease his passage between worlds.
It is a feeling I return to. Weightless, timeless. Perfectly alive. Between worlds.
A sense of being in this world and no world.
You only know you were there after you have returned.
When I think of moments to live and relive over and over, they are like photos taken, developed, carefully pocketed in albums. And one I return to often, rests within the leaves of a family photo album. I am sitting on a rocky outcrop, near the highest point on Mendip, cradling my infant son, windswept with his two sisters at my side. It is a vantage point which gifts the climber a view of gentle Somerset hills, patchworked fields, lakes and woods, interspersed with villages; including the one we called our home. Ed and I marvelled at how we’d found ourselves there, in a life starkly contrasting with the city-dwellers we’d been in earlier years, happy in urban edginess yet yearning for the expanse, now before us. Our family longed-for, now complete.
Gone in that perfect moment were our doubts and those of others, that we were ready for this. We were young parents still fresh from the turmoil of younger years. But why not, climb with a babe in arms and feed him on what felt like, the top of the world, whilst his sisters immersed themselves in imaginary worlds, on the rocks around us?
In the months and years before our youngest was born, Ed and I shared a strange feeling whilst walking in the woods behind our house. The girls would be up ahead, hiding or scrambling about, we knew they were there, but someone was missing, another child who was waiting to be called into existence…
And there we were, together and truly alive - my son more than just imagined into being, my daughters laughing and united in their imaginings of elsewhere, myself with the wind in my hair cradling my baby - Ed capturing us forever in that moment.
Your sucking slows, glistening nipple slides out, staying close to your partly open lips. Your breathing regular and calm. Eyelids round, lashes interlocked. Silky, tousled hair. Your heartbeat and mine.
On the breast to sleep still at almost three, I am in no rush. This primordial connection overrides the trauma of your beginnings. A longed-for, second baby…. your conception didn’t follow intimate lovemaking, but instead multiple medical interventions.
I even saw you and your sibling as multi-celled embryos magnified on a black and white monitor in a darkened room before you were placed back deep inside me. I willed you both to burrow into the walls of my womb; it was you alone who did.
I made sure your birth was far from any sterile labour ward. Riding waves of contractions in the fullness of our June garden on a balmy evening, I hugged trees and moaned at the sky. Then, into the warm water of a birthing pool in our kitchen and you emerged in your slimy, newborn way, strong and vital.
I savoured these moments every night when you drifted off gently by my side. I lay beside you, drinking in your smell, your little fingernails, your perfection.
You are grown now and away, but your room not much changed. I sometimes lie on your bed and stare at the clouds. I hug your pillow, close my eyes and am back briefly in those tender times.
We collided. Nebulous, amorphous. Desperately pulling apart to continue on our paths. We’d each caught a comet by its tail, but too hot, too much, too soon. We lay on that embankment in the foothills of the Alps that first summer. I said I loved you because I felt it then, under the Milky Way. You didn’t respond in the dark. I blinked away tears. After a while you told me your heart had five sections, one for your dad, one for your mum, one for each of your two sisters. And one, the last, for me. I don’t know why you said it like that and I don’t know why, but something broke inside of me, the tears now, like a thaw. You held me. I wanted completion. All. Obliteration of everything come before. I don’t know why. Chaotic love, all-consuming. Later we sat together in the bar, surrounded by others. We sung Hit Me Baby One More Time, you strumming, me humming, slowly getting into my stride. I was never the star, burning bright like you were. As I joined you, my voice rose, more sure, soaring, in harmony. Your eyebrows rose, eyes wide, smiling, me now louder than you. For once. You saw me then. Not in love. In admiration. A deeper thing between us.
Because the beach hut belonged to someone else my parents couldn’t change it. Because they couldn’t change it I adored it. Nothing was plastic, nylon or fake. Everything was wooden, cotton, and faded. Worn-smooth. well-loved. A telescope, striped chairs, thin towels, swimsuits with skirts. Books about birds, shells, boats.
It must have been hard for my parents to stick to the rule. After the poverty of their war-time childhoods, the gadgets, fashions and designs of the 1960s dazzled their untutored eyes and they stuffed our home with Formica, white carpet and cheap prints from the high street.
But in the beach hut, on Hayling Island’s epic shore, everything was fit for purpose and the eight-year-old me curated the space diligently. My parents and their friends slapped on oil and luxuriated in the heat, flirting gently, drinking solidly and dozing happily. I curled under the old lady’s pink eiderdown that they thought disgusting and read a paperback. I kept an eye on my parents flirtations and I suppose they kept an eye on me.
At nine-o-clock Dad wrapped the padlocks in greased plastic and we’d drive back to the neurotic suburbs where they could wreak havoc in their own home. Until the next weekend when I could rest easy in the dark wooden hut again.
In the garden of Bramhill's General Store in Plymouth, Massachusetts lies a huge fallen catalpa tree, still growing. The hulk of its horizontal trunk is shaded with homegrown leaves.
I drove past last Wednesday, from a detour to find coffee—four shots of caffeine to awaken my leaden limbs. I'd been at a veterinary ER with our cat half the night. The cat was saved but I was paying. Leveraged from a few hours of sleep, I had nevertheless driven my youngest child the fifty miles to the living history museum of the Pilgrims of Plimoth. My daughter's weeklong camp would put on a play there by the end of the week and she was on time. I could now sketch and rest and take my ease. As I drove back to the museum, the morning already pulsated with heat. Ice clacked and rattled in my latte as the narrow road bumped and curved.
The scene of the fallen tree flashed past. Two or three children clambered along the sideways trunk. The sight of the fallen catalpa yet growing and the children so carefully, bravely stepping along the curved hump—whale? wave? ocean of firm, rough bark?—sucked me from time and now and 'drive.'
"Those children are this moment making the memory that will be their definition of summer," I said aloud.
("Remember that old tree at the ice cream shop? How we used to climb along its trunk? How hot it was that summer? How the leaves still grew?")
Now, my daughter's week is complete, her play a marvel of remembering and joy.
And now I wonder, was my moment of summer any less poignant, poised on the fallen limb of parenting, fresh growth still shading me, and life still burgeoning from my old tumbled dreams?
My mothering pre-school son decade was purposeful but felt Sisyphean. From the moment I bloatedly left hospital, wincing at bumps and cursing oncoming cars, it was gruelling, lonely and frustrating but I would love to go back. Do it better. Enjoy it more.
We didn’t have Mumsnet, or nearby friends with babies. We couldn’t afford good childcare. “Calpol is your friend,” said a GP passing free sachets. “Buy a bottle, as soon as you can.”
“Sleep when your baby sleeps,” wrote Penelope Leach in her baby-bible-manual But he didn’t so I drank Guinness instead willing the dark metal taste to give me strength. We kept socialising, then wondered why it was so hard to get through the next day.
The days were interminable. My husband taking longer and longer to return to a grizzling wife and slap-cheeked baby. Bliss to escape to my parents in their freshly retired life in Dorset. They had energy to lend. We could sleep, walk, breathe.
Second son was born in Dorset. We’d escaped. The first of our group. My husband got a job running an arts centre. Long hours, little money. Endless tables to move. Being lonely was bearable by the sea and I found work to squeeze around nursery, and later school.
I learned to pace myself, enjoy the Babygro-washing-line and fish fingers. The library, the school gates, the cafes had no interesting women with fringes then, but I got through. Somewhere in the storage containers is a VHS I shot of my youngest son rolling on the living room floor, trying to sit up. I hear my voice encouraging him. Resisting his warm body, not moving the cushion in his way, capturing the moment before it’s time to grab the pushchair and hurry to the school gates to pick up his brother.
On a beautiful clear morning in the Swiss Mountains, I am pegging out sheets to catch the early sun.
I settle into the rhythm of straightening and pegging, smoothing and aligning, making the most of every available space on the lines. The task is simple and satisfying. My mind and heart ease into a peaceful expanse as my fingers steadfastly work.
The first train of the day slowly pulls up the cog railway. I see the faces of the passengers in that brief moment, as the train passes by the hotel and my sunlit terrace. I am greeted with waves and smiles which I heartly return. Bouyed by that fleeting glimpse, I feel less alone in my task, connected in some small way to the greater unfurling of the day ahead.
The sweet simplicity of the moment swells in my chest, an outpouring of which floods through my fingertips. I feel momentarily giddy in love with the generosity of the sun. I am in delight with feelings of contentment in labour well done.
I imagine the future guests, nestling in their beds, within the sheets still sweet from the sunshine and mountain air. Perhaps they will feel the love too, that poured frrm the hands of a woman half a world away from her home who is searching for belonging.
For all the grand gestures and big moments, I break into a wide smile, for love is the small detail.
I could stay here forever.