Season 1, 004: in fairytale fashion: those rare moments in life when we are brought to a sudden need to decide on something that will alter the course of our days.
The Courage to Grow .
Today, I am aware of the times that call for bravery and I have come to see that in life there are many times where it is required .
First I experience a rush of wild energy in my stomach, it is fear but not in the all-consuming sense , it has more of an excited tone and it seems to be enveloped by a knowing wisdom, a quiet voice that urges me to summon courage and push on for the natural evolution of things .
I remember now that facing things maybe uncomfortable and even painful but by moving towards and through that, there is growth and learning.
I couldn’t imagine being so mindful of how I was feeling when I was in the chaos of alcohol , besides it was the act of drinking that 'stopped' me from feeling, and that was what I thought I wanted , it was a kind of perverted courage. The fire in my belly from 'gin' had long been mistaken for something of mystical and heroic state to arrive in and all along it had been a deception, a complete and utter lie that I told myself , for so long that it had fabricated itself into a whole belief system. A backwards myth that I chose to believe so I didn’t have to face the truth and ‘feel’.
I knew it wasn’t fair to deprive him of children because I was scared of being unable to protect them. His longing had been thickly veiled, supportive as he was of my agency as a modern woman. It was painfully visible to me, observed on my daily rounds of the ward that was our relationship.
I couldn’t get past the fact that the harms I had known since age 9, were impossible to prevent. After all, I’d had a loving mother; a protector who would tell of the time she lost her shit when a wasp hovered over my cot. And yet.
I felt no desire for motherhood.
My therapist said to gently hush the concerns of my inner child. It was all in the past. My friends wanted me so badly to join their gang; there was no reason they could fathom for me not wanting to experience such profound love. Society told me in coffee shops, laundrettes and family parties that it was time to stop being selfish. My GP told me most people don’t think this hard about it. Just Do It. How I hated that thoughtless trope. God probably spent less time thinking about creating life than I did.
A decade of interrogating myself and us, meant there was little time left. With the chances now so slim, it was perhaps safe to leave to fate.
I was pregnant as soon as I allowed myself to be. That very day. My restlessness had, after all, been a signal to jump. Ambivalent action, the way forward. I felt vindicated for my years of indecision. It was always going to happen when it was meant to be.
That no longer felt true 12 weeks later. The first scan was a cause for celebration: the doctor was pleased I had managed to empty my womb safely the night before. My attempt to alter the course of my life, shown for what it was. I’d interfered along with the best of them.
The Blue Hyacinth
Terrible homesickness engulfed my first term at boarding school. I was adrift in human flotsam. Trying to tread water in wave after wave of relentless change.
The magnitude of the unanchoring was masked: new rules, new subjects, new campus to map. No time remained to think.
Soon though, unfamiliar tasks became routine, left more time for retrospection. Laying the table made me cry. Eating school food made me cry. P.E. and the sadistic ex-gymnast who taught us made me cry. This last one was the most humiliating. Not only was my fear-rigid body inflexible and unyielding, but my large and overwhelming emotions were on show, too.
I learnt it was better to weep in what little privacy I could find; back turned to the room as we did homework; in a largely deserted changing room stall; under the duvet at night. Great silent suffocating sobs, these.
If crying in public was disorientating and mortifying, crying alone was worse because it felt as though it might never stop.
At the end of the Christmas holiday, I was bereft; a tidal wave of tears ready to wreck my return. Grandma handed me a hyacinth bulb, proto-leaves already sloughing skin at the top. She put her arm around me. “You don’t see me crying for Grandfather, do you?”
And because I loved Grandma more than anyone in the world, I chose to stop being homesick. If Grandma could stop the flood, so could I. I was never homesick again, turned it off like a tap.
The most important lesson of my first year at school was this: plants offer hope, excitement, reward. And, if you’re really lucky, beautiful blue flowers whose scent transports you far away to a warm conservatory where there is only love.
I was aware of the gamble of looking online but I had exhausted all other avenues. I was keen now that the time felt right, and I was hoping that I might get lucky.
His photo immediately caught my eye; such was the proud way that he held his head and looked directly into the camera. I felt he was looking right at me, but I guessed that I wasn’t the only one to feel the intensity of his look. His certain ‘Je ne sais quoi ‘ spoke volumes through the screen.
The next thing I knew, we were meeting! As the day arrived, I tried hard not to expect too much. I wanted to appear nonchalance, hoping it would disguise the bubbles of hope that bumped against each other in my tummy.
There he stood, looking every bit as imposing as his photo, with his intense stare and jaunty bandana, enough to make anyone look twice. He watched me as I walked towards him, and he certainly wasn’t playing it cool. His face lit up and softened as he continued to gaze at me. I was smiling hard and trying not to break into a grin. His eyes were the sort one reads about in romantic novels, deep luminous pools that you could get lost in. Eyes flecked with every shade of autumn and large glossy pupils that would pull you under if you dared to look for too long.
As I crouched and stroked him, I let the grin break free because I knew the choice that I was going to make.
This beautiful (deaf) dog, Boof, is still with us today. He was badly abused for the first year of his life and has been left with scars on his head, however he could not be more loving and gentle. Along with our other rescue dog, Lu, Boof is an absolute blessing.
Choosing a memoir
In the high school bushland across the road is a dead blue tree. Only dead trees are painted this shade of blue in ‘The Blue Tree Project’. The project mission is “to help spark difficult conversations and encourage people to speak up when battling mental health concerns, by spreading the paint and spreading the message ‘it's OK to not be OK’.”
The project founder lost a brother to suicide then painted a tree as a memoir. After awhile she encouraged the gesture, promoted the idea and grew the project. Blue trees scatter the landscape throughout my home state. This memoir choice began as her love song but ends as a lump in my throat. Nearly four decades ago I was grounded with loss from suicide and crawled through the undergrowth. I had learned to manage the difficult emotions that pierced my heart. Then just like that, it was painted. The day I saw the bright blue trunk over the road I felt flooding pain for the school community and my friend. I saw the tree throughout the day. Light reflected it to me in my kitchen, lounge and garden. I didn’t want this stabbing memory of decades old grief from far away. That’s why we have cemeteries and choose when to go. Months passed. The tree haunted me. I phoned the school with condolences and an enquiry about tree relocation within their grounds. The street is sparse and only I see the memorial. Except that it’s not. They said no one died. The tree was a gift. A suicide-tree gift. I let that sink in. Then I wrote to the school. I wrote to the project. I wrote to the paper. I wrote to the board of psychology. My not-OK-ness with their project wasn’t what they meant.
Lying in my sister’s guest bed, watching my husband sleep beside me, my forehead aches with all the choices we have suddenly found ourselves facing. Middle-age up to now, had brought a mixture of smugness (glad to have got the hectic part of life over), sorrow (the losses, the deaths, the disappointments) and loss of ambition (too late to be starting anything new now). I had chosen my adventures, created a life I loved and thought my future was set, but I hadn’t reckoned on this war that would sour the predictability of our lives, throwing new, unwanted choices in our faces. We could have done nothing of course, stayed, ignored, carried on…
It’s funny how other people’s actions, their choices, seem incomprehensible when you’re not in their shoes. Like imagining getting up at the crack of dawn on your day off from work. You know someone is doing it, and you know you will when it’s your turn, but from the cosy warmth of your quilt it seems unthinkable.
We chose to explore what those choices were. We left everything: jobs, school, friends, flat, even our car, and ran straight into a whirlwind of choosing: bus rides, flights, borders, job interviews, college courses, English exams, visa applications. The pressure of having to make all these decisions weighed heavily over our in-between lives alongside the knowledge that we didn’t know where we were heading, but, gradually, the choices we had been forced to make took on a new form. They became new opportunities, new adventures, an invitation to reshape our lives, choices that would have been ignored before.
I kissed my husband and he rolled over to hold me. Soon we would get up, leave the warm bed behind and face our new day.
Tanya, Thanks for that gentle push. It is now posted.
I long for the days before perimenopause when my body did not feel every emotion as if stung by a jellyfish, as if it was bound in electric wire, both exhausted and thrumming with energy, a woodpecker inside, tapping on each nerve ending. I am in this land of mixed metaphors, no certainties. Human skin sheds dead cell by dead cell, millions a day, but still, just a patchwork, change unseen, leaving one essentially the same. Mid-fifties and change must now come snakelike.
Snake skin does not grow with the snake and the snake eventually cannot abide being contained. To allow this change the time it needs, it will hide away, days, weeks, vision impaired, alone. When ready, the snake will rub against something abrasive to shed, to crawl out anew, enlarged, old skin left there, intact but empty. I was that, but now I am this, that old skin reminds.
Women, too, know the itch of wanting to crawl from one’s skin, past lives no longer fit. Snakes who do not do a complete shed risk infection, blindness, death. Women, the same. Women forced to shapeshift in public, if they dare.
“You are so lucky with all the choices that are out there”, I used to say to my children. I only repeated what I was told as a child myself. How many other empty words that I chose to copy?
So much choice of stuff to repeat without pausing, questioning, and valuing. And so many choices we have now with words and labels.
How do you choose to understand the word freedom? Kindness? Self-Love? Self-Trust? How do you choose to see your role? Your path? Where is your left and where is your right?
How much choice do we all really have? Unimportant things – yes, far too many; but if you sift through it, is there more choices now than before?
When I’ve started consciously examining choices I’d made, so many questions popped up. But the one that troubled me most – could I trust myself after years of putting trust in others, who I thought were better qualified.
Who do you trust when making choices? Could you truly trust others if you don’t trust yourself? And could we ever feel free to choose what we want?
One of my old university teachers used to sit in an art gallery by his favourite painting for hours on end before making decisions about his choices. A good friend of mine listen to Bach for guidance.
I’ve chosen to follow my primal instincts into the woods and meadows for answers. Only in nature I found that freedom and self-trust, when an invisible force guided me to what I needed. My senses rested and danced at the same time and suddenly the whole new way of living opened to me.
sat too still, for too long
missing the way that breath seems to expand more in my chest,
when its outside breath,
or puffed post swimming breath,
or dry lips, many words spiralling friend breath,
or hand cramp drawing breath,
oh, what about wet summer rain soaked inevitability breath,
and even more, the lifting forehead to beams and feeling skin blooming breath,
with the nose itching grassy blade breath -
keep those breaths.
gulping back enough to fill the wind pipe,
smack it with the good breath,
smother it with the nutrient breath,
the scraped back salt swim skin breath,
the content, settled in my shoulders, solo reading breath,
the silent kitchen group dance breath,
the oh, you feel that too breath,
the slump but feeling forearms lifting under your armpits breath -
keep those breaths
remember what my lungs feel like,
when they’re filled up good and green,
pushing out with growth,
sliding through the alveoli, between the cauliflower gaps,
with buds and uncurling leaf fingers,
with the haze of that grey blue mist calm, that lands on my neck and
lets me roll my head on a sigh.
that achey into white duvet cloud breath,
that sand in socks on pebble shore breath,
that burrowing of your spine downwards in knowing who you are breath,
that eyes slightly widening with words of praise breath -
I choose what keeps me going to be there always
I choose to feel turned inside out by connection to the big bigness of it all
and also the tiny little music moments that tinkle against my heart
more tending, less tackling
more asking for, less stamping panicked feet
more fruit, less packets,
more listening, less lonely,
more walking, less re treading
come on now fluttery butterfly light bulb inside,
lets feel silky comfortable in silky skin made silky from the silky sun
lets feel sliding comfort up and down our length from the knowledge of choosing ourself,
not a best version
just a good one, a kept breath one.
There he was, for just that moment. The back of his head, lit by the stage lighting. Then gone. Again.
Twenty years before, he had asked me for a date. He was coy, and seemed genuine, but I had been the subject of gossip before. If I were to say yes, I would be the talk of this small town, as I had been of the last small town. I was tired of the watching eyes, and the bitchy tongues, and in any case, I was still in love with someone else. Someone who no longer wanted me, but had warned me off this other man with kinder eyes. It was easier to say no, as hard as I found it to reject anyone who looked at me that way and was brave enough to pay me a compliment.
I had regretted it, days later and through the years. My past love had married the next woman he met. Twenty years on, I was nine years into a relationship that I couldn’t imagine leaving, nor committing to for life. Life was comfortable and settled, but there was little joy and it was heavy with guilt. Prior to this, I had been open to the idea of 'true love' but with no success. I had eventually persuaded myself that my expectations were too high, after all. This, in spite of the evidence against, provided in the form of failed flings with drop-outs, alcoholics and older divorcees. It was time to accept my losses. I’d never find him. This would have to do.
And yet, on a night out far away from any small town, I had walked into a room, just before he left it. Fuelled by drink, regret, hope and the knowledge that if another twenty years passed, it would be too late, I went to find him.
Sociologist Susie Scott writes of ‘myriad lost, forgotten, unreal selves that never came to be’. She argues that beyond the storied looking glass, the unlived life unfolds in parallel.
Growing up, I devoured ‘Famous Five’ books. I didn’t identify with George because I wasn’t a tomboy. Nor with Ann because she was wet. The ‘best’ character was obviously Julian. He knew stuff, solved problems, took charge. I didn’t identify with him, though, because he was a boy. A prototypical male.
Georgette Heyer arrived. Julian morphed into suave heroes who met their match in feisty young women or rescued quiet ones from bullying families, the ‘resolution’ always the woman bagging the man. Aping the former hadn’t worked for me, so I sought further guidance on how to ‘fulfil my destiny’ from other sources: the coming-out-as-a-debutante novel Coronet Among the Weeds (which allowed me the fantasy that I was rejecting various ‘Chinless Wonders’ rather than being rejected by blokes with and without chins); and the guide-book ‘In Search of Charm’ which imparted essentials like how to walk, sit, stand, get in and out of cars; which gloves to wear with evening dresses and how to remove them before eating (“Take a firm but feminine grip”).
A working-class girl whose gender identity formation was shaped not only along the class lines promoted by her Wykemist Headteacher, but by a femininity that led her to fall in love with traditionally ‘masculine’ boys/men in literature and life. I’m not sure when that ghostly girl became a vanishing wraith but what was lost along paths not taken…? Certainly opportunities to allow dinner companions to guide my menu choices; and getting out of sports cars elegantly. But also the realisation that the Julians of this world are not the font of all knowledge. So not all bad.
Do we make choices or do choices make us?
I think I got into the habit of feeling that if I drifted through the days; if I let things be, choices would present themselves. Maybe I was scared of the responsibility of decision making. Maybe letting stuff happen was just how things were now.
It was Tuesday. Dad had gone. Just like that. Mum said so. On Monday he was wandering round the house in his too short towelling dressing gown from 1978; Tuesday, “Your Dad’s died”.
In my teenage mind he’d made choices- the wrong ones and that had left me to make mine by myself. So, he didn’t love me then? I decided not if he could be so selfish and just piss off so easily like that.
It didn’t really add up though. I could feel his love surely and deeply in my bones; in all those memories that tumbled over each other. I had to rethink. Yes, he’d chosen to live life to the full; to laugh, to drink (quite a lot), to cook and to eat- (even more), to entertain and to charm.
I have a big question though. How was he chosen? He was adopted and this fact has come to absorb me more and more. I watch Long Lost Families and wonder about his mum and about my grandpa and grandma Stead who chose him. They would never share what they knew. Why not? Shame? Fear or just because they wanted him to be only there’s.
What made him choose to make our family with mum, to write stories about us when he was a journalist for The South Wales Echo?
Those choices created a childhood for me. One of days at the beach, shepherd’s pie and amazing fishcakes, camping and a holiday in California, of house moves including one to The Solomon Islands and of treasured letters at boarding school and water fights and “get out of that” grips in his arms.
So, he can’t have chosen to leave us. He loved us too much.
I desperate needed a break from my increasingly stressful work life in a senior public service role; I chose to go on a ten day camel trek in the Sinai desert with a small group of others, led by Bedouins. We rode on the camels during the coolth of early morning and early evening, resting in shade in the heat of midday. We were spending the last day and night in a hotel on the shores of the Red Sea. I stood with in the sea watching tiny jewelled fish swimming around my feet and, looking up, marvelling at the far shores, where something (dolphins or big fish?) were leaping. A sudden determination gripped me and I said to myself, “if I want to feel anything like this again, I must leave my job.” On my return home, I handed in my resignation, took a year’s sabbatical and, via stints stacking supermarket shelves to avoid bankruptcy, I set myself up as a self employed deaf, disability and diversity equality consultant and trainer, supplementing the inevitable troughs and peaks of income with a couple of public service roles. A life changing and life enhancing choice.
Is this where I should type my contribution Tanya?
It was raining and I was happy sitting cozy in the bus. I was on my way to office. Where I live, rain means terrible traffic snarls, which makes me happy. It means more time to read a book. Perfect excuse to be late. That day, I reached office an hour late. It was still raining when I got down from the bus. I was prepared with an umbrella. I crossed the busy road. I was looking forward for a nice smoke in that gloomy weather. After I crossed the road with some difficulty, I saw an old women, a beggar. She had thick glasses and was sitting on the pavement. Whenever I saw her I gave her a ten. That day I did not have change and I walked past her. I could have given her the umbrella instead. But I didn't.