Monday, 23 March 2015

My grandchildren.

An update on the Blur (formerly known as the Wretched Wretch) and his younger sister Sardine.

My five-year-old grandson (I have to say that so you know - as the Blur patiently explains to people - 'I am not a girl. I am a boy with long hair') :

His sister, nearly two:

Unusual people. I like them.

Pictures by Buzzfloyd, their mother.

Woven, knitted or what? Is the future in kaftans?

Heavy emphasis is put on appearance, for women. We all know it and there’s no getting round it. I started out prefacing that first sentence with the words ‘in our culture’. Then I deleted that phrase, because I can’t think of a culture where appearance isn’t important for women. Even if you live where the women don’t wear clothes at all, I’ve generally seen the ones in photos wearing earrings or necklaces or with permanent skin decoration. Even in the countries where women have to be covered from head to toe, that’s still an appearance and it’s still mandatory.

So, for women, appearance is of profound importance. Men care what they look like of course, but when I watch TV I notice that rude, socially inept characters played by elderly men with jowls, pot bellies and hair growing out of their noses still sport elegant, slimmed, tanned, depilated young women groomed with dyed hair and make-up, on their arms. And fat women only ever get comic or character parts; no one ever lets them play heroines. The feminist movement has been going since the 1960s but it still seems to have made barely a dent on the media. We all burnt our bras in the 1970s and then along came Trinny and Susanna to tell us where to purchase better ones. Oh, well.

It matters, then. I’ve noticed this.

So I have this in my head, and I also have a permanent internal drift towards Plain Dress like a car that pulls to the left. And minimalism speaks to my soul.

So you put this all together, add in ageing, and what do you get? A problem.

When I was a young woman – let’s say, in my twenties – I was very slim. I am tall, with broad shoulders, big hands and feet and a big head. I was quite bony, then. I also have something funny going with my collagen, in that I’m hyper-mobile – soft joints. And, just to help things along, I have low blood pressure too. This mixture creates  something like a mermaid, kind of human seaweed; a person that drapes and flops and bends – good on supple but less great at standing up. I have trouble sitting on chairs. That makes me feel ill. I have to be able to curl up, and be propped. Like this.

So what I wore, back then, was long flowing hippy skirts and t-shirts, and on my slim, bendy, supple body, that looked fine.
Then my body changed. Not once, but multiple times. I was pregnant, then breast-feeding, then pregnant again, then breast-feeding again, then wholefood-vegan for a year and vanishingly thin, then pregnant with twins, then breast-feeding twins, then between babies a while, then pregnant again, then breastfeeding (for four years). My body morphed through a bewildering array of different forms, different emphases on weight location. I kept going with long flowing skirts and sweatshirts and t-shirts and flat shoes as before – but with this difference: elastic became my friend.

Then, with the decade of bearing and feeding babies behind me, in my mid-thirties I went on a huge slim, lost three stone, became thin and angular and thought I looked marvelous. Of course, over time I put it all back on again and then some, so that a year or so ago (in my mid fifties) I weighed five stones more than when I did my big slim in my thirties. So I Atkinsed it off and got slim again – though nothing like as slim as in my thirties.

In the meantime, with all this fatting and thinning, I also had forays into Plain Dress, which has no cultural reference points in the UK and just looks weird here. Plus also, my beautiful mama is forever in my head and in fact in my life, with very clear opinions on how women should dress (like her) and what looks good (she does), and my appearance is evaluated accordingly.

And now, I find myself not so much at a crossroads as marooned on the roundabout at the core of a massive intersection, with no idea which road to take or how to proceed from here.

The thing is, in my late fifties, the droopiness, bendiness, floppiness my body always had is now augmented by the droopiness, floppiness and flabbiness of ageing. Just as my joints are hypermobile, so also my weight destabilizes very easily. I get fat very quickly, and thin equally quickly – except the getting thin involves a life regime that drives a coach and horses through all social engagements and removes one of my biggest cheerfulness assets – going out for afternoon tea / lunch / coffee and cake. And life without grain brings peristalsis to a crashing halt, I discover. 'Peristasis', even. Atkins: effective, unsustainable. Sigh. Take it off, put it on, reign it in, try again, oh boring!

Then also, the truth is, I no longer look good in stretchy fabrics. They sag and droop with me and the effect is tragic. But tailored clothes are equally unsuccessful. If I wear a structured ladies jacket with a nipped in waist, with my bendy back and much chewed, saggy old boobs I look like a bag of groceries being carried home from the market. If I wear a skirt or trousers of woven fabric, it might fit me this month, but not necessarily next month. That’s not very conducive to a minimalist wardrobe, is it?

Modest dress should be the answer, but it isn’t. Those floral fabrics and slightly raised waists and puffed sleeves, those crew necks – where my bustline comes perilously near the waist seam and a long way from the neckline – gee! I look like a grotesque travesty of a hideously ageing bridesmaid. Nooooo!

I look at Carmelite nuns in floor length habits, scapulars and veils and think, well, that solves a problem. But not if you aren’t a Carmelite nun, of course.

I could just go with kaftans now from here to the end. But do I want to look like that much of a hippy? And plus, there’s something else I forgot to mention: the lizard neck (to which kaftan necklines offer no favours). Throughout my life, the scoop-necked and v-necked tees that have been my wardrobe staples are no longer doing the job. Collars R us, I realize, as age creeps on. Same with the hair do. As a young woman, my long hair was my glory, just like it says in the Bible. In early middle age, an up-do looked graceful and a short cut, neat and modern. But now – oh, dear. I remember some story I read about India once – written by a man (you’ll see what I mean) – in which the writer described the beautiful young woman with their rippling, glossy black hair, and the old woman with their lank, grey lifeless hanks. Oh, yes.  I see what he means. Long hair . . . it’s not the same as the long hair of youth. And long hair with an ageing jaw-line makes you look like a Mystic. I don’t mean like Hildegard of Bingen, I mean The Dark Crystal: I mean one of these. But very short hair with the ageing jawline just creates a jailbird effect. Oh dear, oh dear. So shortish and softish seems to be the way forward. With shawl collars, blouses in woven cotton a size up, underneath something warm in winter, over a vest top or tee in summer. And long enough to skim past the wobbling rolls held in by elastic in stretchy trousers. At least the flat shoes don’t need changing.

It’s like being left in charge of a living, shrinking, expanding metamorphosing blancmange. And oh my goodness, does it cost a lot of money!

Saturday, 21 March 2015


Ah, late middle age! Extraordinary! It’s like unending jetlag without all the bother of a transatlantic flight. In the evening, by seven thirty, eight o’clock, my eyes are closing, no twaddle on the TV can engage my mind. I make a hot water bottle and spread out a bed under the skylight windows of the attic, lie down with a crossword puzzle and am past concentrating five clues in.

Then, one in the morning, two, three o’clock, I lie wide awake. I watch the moonlight in the scudding clouds, I listen to the soughing of the wind across the valley, to my husband breathing, softly snoring, turning in his sleep. I feel the comfortable warmth of bedding tucked around me. I think of the day gone and the life I live. Of the foxes playing at dusk in the garden, flowing over the wall in an easy stream of russet, coming for their supper set out on the grass under the washing line, where they know it will be. Of the moss garden at the front of the house, with its violets and primroses and ferns, the pond with its frog and frogspawn, the half-buried rocks, the sleeping Buddha, all of them cushioned and shawled in the slow green mantle of moss. I think of my daughter Fiona in Herne Hill, coming home to us soon – of her laughter and shining red hair, her singing; perceptive, kind.

I think about my mother . . . my sister . . . part of me and distant from me . . . entwined with me and dislocated from me . . . lodged in my heart but entirely strangers as well; rinsing slowly out of my soul, receding.

I think of the people in my life, name them and pray for them in the darkness. The ones struggling with ailments, with bereavements, facing the apprehension of beginnings and the sorrow of endings, worried about money, resigned to what human reality means in their particular set of circumstances. I show them to God, and he sees. And then that sets me wondering, what is God? With his tsunamis and volcanoes, his cephalopods and fish that live inside corals, his eyebrow mites and smoke. Who is this? His thoughts are not my thoughts, that’s for sure. Even so, I bring to him the raggle taggle of troubles I discern in my friends, and I thank him for their brave kindness, their patience, their wisdom and love.

Eventually I get up, quiet as I can so as not to wake anybody, stealing along the shadows of the house. It is awake with me, noticing my passage through, but cold in the grave hour of four o’clock. I wrap myself in a blanket. I think about a cup of tea. I look at skirts on eBay. I muse on the oddity of living and wonder when and how I will die. I open the curtains in the living room because I love the moment when day wrapped in her soft grey robe wanders sleepily into the world to pick out the colours of the dress she will wear this morning.

Happiness saturates me.

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Truth and writing

Writing a magazine article about seeming and being, this morning, left me mulling over the nature of truth as I ate my breakfast.

I’d written about aspects of my childhood, and it left me feeling uneasy. Certainly I’d described reality, the way things were . . . and yet . . .

Can you encompass a life in fifteen hundred words?

What I’d written was true, but in expressing one truth I’d cloaked another – by bringing one aspect into the light I’d thrust another, equal, truth deeper into the shadows. Made things look like something that they were . . . but were not.

Something Oscar Wilde said stopped me in my tracks:

‘I wrote when I did not know life. Now that I do know the meaning of life, I have no more to write. Life cannot be written; life can only be lived.’

Writing is inherently two-dimensional. For all it may seize the imagination, it paints a selective truth. It cannot do justice to the fullness of being, of reality.

Interesting that Jesus said ‘I Am the truth,’ and didn’t write a book.

The way gets more strait, more narrow. I have less and less to say.

I am working on crafting a novel. I’ve promised myself to stick to a thousand words a day. It’s like climbing a wall with small handholds sparsely placed. Not that life lacks depth and wonder, but that I cannot find the vocabulary to communicate the contentment and satisfaction of the simple, the ordinary, or the angular unremitting pain of failure and disappointment. How to speak the truth of the average human heart without doing it the most dreadful disservice? A truth once spoken immediately becomes a lie.

Sunday, 8 March 2015

Look both ways

We walked to the end of the quiet street, came to the busy road and saw, painted on the tarmac at the edge of the crossing, the caution: LOOK BOTH WAYS. “Can you actually do that?” I asked, and it made us laugh as we considered the possibility of trying to look both ways. I think maybe some animals’ eyes look both ways.

Like the god Janus with a face front and back of his head. That’s why they called January after him, first month of the Roman calendar. Poised on the threshold of the new year, looking back on the old, contemplating the new, like us at the crossing for a moment you look both ways. Then you step out.

Thinking about looking both ways joined on to some thoughts passing through my mind about how freedom and security are two sides of one coin. They can seem like opposites at first – as though the person who loved freedom would be quite different in temperament from the one who loved security. ‘Security’ has associations with guards and imprisonment for us; not freedom, certainly. But they do belong to each other.

The insecure person is driven by doubts and anxieties. Those act like adhesions inside the soul, creating painful pulls and tugs and stuckness. The one who relies on the approval of others, who follows the herd, who tags along with those who are admired, influential, ‘successful’, rich – hoping some of the shine will rub off, wanting to be the same. The one who candidates on ‘X Factor’ or ‘The Voice’, hoping to build a career out of being noticed, humbly waiting for the verdict of the judges. Grateful for the opportunity, gushing ‘this means everything to me, this means the world to me, this is the biggest thing in my life.’ Waiting in anguish to know if they are chosen or rejected.

For countless children life is like that. Trained by the judicious application of isolation, punishment, disapproval and rejection – conditional love – so they learn to please and to follow, to second-guess, to read the parent’s mood. This is how you grow a jealous and contemptuous adult, this is how you foster habits of scorn and criticism, and a culture of blame. This is how the ethics of not-being-found-out are shaped, and a society forms in which the laws protect corporations against individuals and the poor are castigated for the dodges expected of the rich.

But security, inner emotional security grown from unconditional love and simple acceptance, produces freedom. The free child feels secure in himself. The secure individual does not suffer from the weary burden of endlessly watching for crumbs to fall, waiting on the permission of others to come, to go, what to do, who to be.

Self-indulgence is not freedom. Freedom is not irresponsibility. The secure person is free to love, where the insecure knows only of attachments and transactions, not really understanding the peace and simplicity of love.

I like watching quiz shows on the telly, and often marvel at the numbers of people who, asked what will they do with the prize money of thousands of pounds, say they will buy a car (depreciating asset), go on holiday, or throw a massive party. Nooooooo! Don’t let it run into the sand! Think of something purposeful, something to seed the new. Put it towards the freedom that creates security or the security that creates freedom. Money is for conferring hope.

In managing money, opportunity, relationships, there are thresholds, crossings. And on the road is painted LOOK BOTH WAYS. The cautious traveller pauses – Freedom? Check. Security? Check – before proceeding.