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“You’re like a bird with a broken wing,” my daughter said.
Which was something I’d often thought, but now it did feel like that. My right arm is next to useless and I really should not be typing. Every muscle from my shoulder to my wrist aches and the more so when I do anything. For the last six weeks or so the pain has come and gone, rendered acute by playing tennis, but having a multitude of causes. Anything as mundane as lifting a cup of tea, or a kettle full of water, or an iron, or driving my car, or carrying a bag of shopping, or holding the dog lead, leaves me sore. It aches when I wake up in the morning and when I go to bed at night. I cannot do most of the things I would like to do. I cannot play tennis or paint or ride a bike. Sometimes it is excrutiating, especially when I have been driving, and one day I spent in bed. For the last two days I have refused to drive, and one evening we came home and my daughter had ironed my clothes which made me want to cry. I am reduced to reading War and Peace.
For so many years being a wife and mother has been about doing things for my family. Many aspects of my role as a mother are passive. I respond to what my daughters need from me, and I meet those needs. Meeting their needs has defined me.
Now they need less from me in practical terms, and want to need me even less, and I have to re-think what being a mother is about. It’s been a long time since I had to bath them, or help them dress. Now there are really only two practical things that they need from me and that I can do for them. They need me to drive them places and they need me to provide money. Even meals are no longer an essential as both daughters enjoy cooking and like to have a say in what they eat and will help themselves when they are hungry and my younger daughter does not take pleasure in food the way my elder daughter does.
If I am no longer needed, am I no longer necessary?
Those practical needs have only been the visible clothing of what I am to them. To switch metaphors, those daily acts of housekeeping have been the tip of the iceberg. What lies underneath is larger and equally essential to their survival and is my life’s work. “Existence precedes essence. Hence one is not born a woman but becomes one”. I will never know how my daughters have seen me, or continue to see me, any more than I know how others see me, and so much of what I do requires me to draw on the depths of my becoming and to hope that who I am is good for them.
I am their most important female role model. Whether they like it or not, I will have influenced their idea of what a mother is, what a wife is, what a daughter is, what a sister is, what a daughter-in-law is. What a woman is. They can kick against me, reject me, try to be like me – as they choose. I have been their pattern that they must adapt to fit themselves, the definition that was given to them and which they can embellish and embroider with their own ideas, the outline which they can rub out or fill in, the equation from which they can add or subtract. Everything female for them began with me. I am the starter kit to which they can add all that they have seen and read and experienced. Together with my husband, I will have shaped what they think about what love is, about what work is, about what women do, about what good food is, about what art is and what is beautiful, about what is right and what is wrong, about what is good and what is not, what is fun and what hurts, about who they are and who we are, about what is worth fighting for and what is not worth a piece of fluff.
Much of what is between us is a constant process of modelling and remodelling, of chipping away at corners and curves, of not looking and looking, of putting me out of sight and of examining critically at what I am. I am the sculpture that they are rendering unrecognisable and transformed, made of their own imagination and ideas until it takes on their likeness, and the neverending process of becoming a woman, a wife and a mother is handed over to their own children and the clay is remoulded all over again.
I needed to have a broken wing to be reminded that I am more than the meals that I cook or the miles I drive.
From Clearances 5, by Seamus Heaney
In Memoriam M.K.H., 1911-1984
The cool that came off the sheets just off the line
Made me think the damp must still be in them
But when I took my corners of the linen
And pulled against her, first straight down the hem
And then diagonally, then flapped and shook
The fabric like a sail in a cross-wind,
They made a dried-out undulating thwack.
So we’d stretch and fold and end up hand to hand
For a split second as if nothing had happened
For nothing had that had not always happened
Beforehand, day by day, just touch and go,
Coming close again by holding back
In moves where I was x and she was o
Inscribed in sheets she’d sewn from ripped-out flour sacks.
For the first half of the reading, Seamus Heaney was “in conversation” with another poet. They sat on the stage in wide modern chairs, either side of a low table, and the other poet leaned forwards to ask questions. They were questions that prompted factual answers, and they were not the questions to which I wanted to know the answer.
The answers constructed a cold chronological curriculum vitae, bloodless. The small farm on which he grew up. His large family and the two women in the house. The village school housed in two Nissan huts and later the grammar school a world away from the village. His teaching jobs. Giving up the teaching jobs to be A Poet. Moving from the Ireland of Ulster to the Ireland of Wicklow. Working apart from his family at Harvard. He read a couple of poems. One called “Digging”, about using his pen to find memories. Another, from his brand new collection, about a fountain pen given to him by his parents. But I struggled to find Seamus Heaney in the answers. Finally, time running out, the other poet asked what poetry was for. Heaney answered, he said, as a “reader”. He talked about how the threads connecting one poet to an earlier poet bound us together. How we shared collective emotions through our reading of poetry. How it constructed a culture where we all had read the same things. It wasn’t an answer that was personal, it didn’t address what a poem means to an individual, nor did it address what a poem means to the writer of the poem.
I chased my thoughts around with my literary friend during the interval. Afterwards Heaney read some poems. A few about his mother. I envied him the memories that he encased in his evocative words and threw into our laps. I searched around in my head for memories to match the poignancy of his and came up with nothing. In “Harvest Bow”, a poem about his taciturn father, he wrote of “gleaning the unsaid off the palpable” and I rolled that beautiful “palpable” around in my head and could think of fleeting moments of connection that I will forever hold dear, but never with her. I’ve wondered whether that moment of connection is felt by the other person and whether that matters. Did his mother remembers peeling those potatoes with him? Was it a memory she cherished and polished as he did?
As you plaited the harvest bow
You implicated the mellowed silence in you
In wheat that does not rust
But brightens as it tightens twist by twist
Into a knowable corona,
A throwaway love-knot of straw.
Hands that aged round ashplants and cane sticks
And lapped the spurs on a lifetime of game cocks
Harked to their gift and worked with fine intent
Until your fingers moved somnambulant:
I tell and finger it like braille,
Gleaning the unsaid off the palpable,
And if I spy into its golden loops
I see us walk between the railway slopes
Into an evening of long grass and midges,
Blue smoke straight up, old beds and ploughs in hedges,
An auction notice on an outhouse wall—
You with a harvest bow in your lapel,
Me with the fishing rod, already homesick
For the big lift of these evenings, as your stick
Whacking the tips off weeds and bushes
Beats out of time, and beats, but flushes
Nothing: that original townland
Still tongue-tied in the straw tied by your hand.
The end of art is peace
Could be the motto of this frail device
That I have pinned up on our deal dresser—
Like a drawn snare
Slipped lately by the spirit of the corn
Yet burnished by its passage, and still warm.
From Clearances 3, by Seamus Heaney
In Memoriam M.K.H., 1911-1984
When all the others were away at Mass
I was all hers as we peeled potatoes.
They broke the silence, let fall one by one
Like solder weeping off the soldering iron:
Cold comforts set between us, things to share
Gleaming in a bucket of clean water.
And again let fall. Little pleasant splashes
From each other’s work would bring us to our senses.
So while the parish priest at her bedside
Went hammer and tongs at the prayers for the dying
And some were responding and some crying
I remembered her head bent towards my head,
Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives–
Never closer the whole rest of our lives.
“Looking back on her topsy-turvy past, she is philosophical. “You can’t live your life blaming your failures on your parents and what they did or didn’t do for you,” she says. “You’re dealt the cards that you’re dealt. I realised it was a waste of time to be angry at my parents and feel sorry for myself.
“The low points I had all helped make up my character, so I probably wouldn’t want to do away with them because I like being flawed and I like having them help me grow and change and become better and stronger.””
Drew Barrymore, interviewed in The Telegraph today.
She’s right, of course. It’s not just a waste of time. It’s admitting defeat. The thing is to keep on going, not to give up. To pick yourself up when you fall. To brush yourself down, have a quick look in the mirror, and smile.
I doubt that it has been any more straightforward for Drew Barrymore than for most of us, though she might make it look easy. The earlier part of the article refers to her drug and alcohol addiction, her suicide attempt, her several spells in rehab, and her failed marriages and numerous short term relationships, and I wonder at what point she became so philosophical. It sounds as if she had to wade through a lot of mire before she could climb out the other side, and I imagine that she cursed a great deal before she came out smelling of roses.
The thing is, if Freud is right, we have this unhelpful subconscious compulsion to repeat our worst experiences over and over again until we have found a way of dealing with them. Whether we want to or not, we find ways of feeling those horrible old familiar feelings which are as painful as ever, until we learn to screw them up and consign them to the rubbish bin rather than allowing them to continue to screw us up.
That is why apparently intelligent women find themselves in disastrous relationship after relationship. That is why a man junks one addiction only to replace it with another. That is why yesterday’s hell comes back in a new disguise, creeps up on you unawares and then jumps out and shouts “Boo! Here I am again!”
To which the correct response has to be a rebellious and deafening “NO!” to the past, and a triumphant “YES!” to Life.
But to portray that “Yes!” as easy is to insult the struggles of millions of people, it is to denigrate the humble efforts day in, day out, made by ordinary people who will never look like Drew Barrymore, to break the mould and create a future that is not just a continuation of the past. Many people have every right to feel angry with their parents and to feel sorry for themselves. In fact, the best thing they may ever do is to feel sorry for themselves, to start to love themselves and care for themselves as a good parent would have done. Feeling sorry for yourself does not necessarily mean wallowing in a deep depression. It is not passive: it is active. It is not pity for the victim, but compassion for the survivor that is required. It is being as kind to yourself as you would be to a friend in the same situation.
I refuse to be made to feel “less than” by the ghost of my parents or the whisper of my sister, or their reincarnations that I am still slow to recognise. But that is a battle that I have to fight every day, though the skirmishes on some days are shorter than others and there are happy days when the enemy seems to have vanished altogether. I still need to keep a careful eye out for those hanging off the underside of the ladder.
And this is where I disagree with Drew Barrymore again. I think it is essential to feel angry. Though it is a mindful anger, not an ugly instinctive rage. I need to harness the anger in order to ensure that I am not the victim pinned down. My anger is my best tool and is the rocket boost to my will. It is what energises me, what drives me forwards, what refuses to allow me to huddle in a corner. I don’t have to feel angry with who people are today, but what they were when things were bad. My anger says I am worth more than that: my anger prevents me from being the victim now.
You don’t like me? You prefer somebody over me?
You know what? That is your loss.
I want the attention she has. I want the love she has. I want to be like her. I want to be funny. I want to have lots of friends. I want people to smile at me. I want to have hair like her. I want to have her unassailable confidence that she is loved. I want to be free to be angry like her. I want to do naughty things like her. I want to be bad like her. I want to be mean and spiteful and selfish like her. I want to be lazy like her. I want to say “I don’t care” and “Whatever!” like her. I want to be preferred like her. I want to be adored like her. I want to be loved unconditionally like her. I want to play like her and joke around. I want to compete like her. I want to be aggressive like her. I want to do what I want like her. I want to lose my temper like her. I want to be forgiven like her. I want to be the one who sits on your lap. I want to be the one who you go to when she cries. I want to be the one who shares your bed. I want to be the one who is comforted when she is frightened.
I don’t want to be responsible all the time. I don’t want to be boring. I don’t want to be the one who keeps quiet. I don’t want to be the one who is grown up and doesn’t make a fuss. I don’t want to be the one who is expected to behave well. I don’t want to be the one who has to turn the other cheek. I don’t want to be nice all the time. I don’t want to be the one who has to achieve to get praise. I don’t want to have to look after and care for everyone else. I don’t want to be the one who puts others first all the time. I don’t want to be the one who tries to please all the time. I don’t want to be the one who lives on crumbs. I don’t want to be the one who is anxious. I don’t want to be the one who is sensitive. I don’t want to be the one who allows herself to be a doormat. I don’t want to be taken for granted. I don’t want to have to compromise. I am the one who is strong and kind and reliable and generous and principled and intelligent and fair and unprejudiced and thoughtful and dependable and gives good hugs. Though you cannot see that. Or perhaps you can, and I just cannot see it.
We watched the Pavel Haas Quartet play Dvorak’s American Quartet. I closed my eyes a lot of the time. The music was sublime, a rhapsody of intimacy which challenged me over and over again to separate out each of the four instruments from the melded sound that tumbled over and over in endless variations, rising, soaring and falling back down to earth. Intuitively they read each other’s playing, perfectly in time and tune. Somewhere there was bird song. A swallow swooping, a lark rising. A violin rose above the complicated patterns to sing solo. A cello interrupted to insist wistfully. Like a revolving mobius strip the music turned, turning, turning this way and that. The quartet tickled the music, teased the notes, drew them out and blew them in our direction. Sometimes a high reedy melody, sometimes a luxuriant liquid like folded chocolate being stirred.
“So, as I said, I have been reading about triangling, but that led me on to a section on “cut-off” and how it’s not a good thing to do in relationships because when you have cut off you preclude any possibility of the relationship improving. You don’t solve anything, you just get rid of it.
I don’t want to have anything to do with my sister. I feel relieved that I do not constantly have to be watching my back for the next attack. There is no part of me that wants to have anything to do with her. But I feel guilty, I feel that I “should” have contact with her, that I should keep on trying, that it is incumbent on me to make the first approach to her, that it is “wrong” to want to keep my distance. I feel it only at the level of an imperative, not a desire to have contact with her, an obligation rather, but it bothers me. As does the internal criticism that I haven’t done enough to keep the relationship on tracks.”
“Isn’t there an assumption underlying what you’ve just said?”
“Yes, there is. The assumption that every relationship has the potential to improve.”
“Do you agree with that assumption?”
“I think I had to agree with it, as a child. I think the alternative was too awful to contemplate. As a child I could not afford to believe that some relationships are not capable of improving. It would have been death. Certainly the death of hope. So I think it’s a habit that I acquired, of assuming that there was always the potential for improvement.”
“And what do you think now?”
“Now? I think that if I had tried harder or done something differently, things might have worked out. I blame myself for not being more tolerant, for not being less needy (of praise), for not being able to brush off aggressive comments. I think if only I was a different person, we’d still be getting on.”
“That sounds like someone else talking to you, telling you that those things should be true. It’s a fairly critical voice, isn’t it? Is that how you would talk to a friend in a similar situation?”
“No, I’d probably say to the friend that they were a wonderful person, and they’d done all they could and there was nothing else they could have done, and sometimes things don’t turn out as we would like them too.”
“So you are much kinder to a friend than you are to yourself?”
“Yes, in a word.”
“How would it feel if instead of that voice running in your head running you down all the time, the voice was encouraging, sympathetic?”
“It would feel very different.”
“Which voice do you think is the most accurate? The one who says that you did all that you could and now it’s time to leave it? Or the voice that convicts you, that says it is all your fault, if only you had been able to behave differently, and so on?”
“I think the first voice is more accurate. I have tried really hard and I’ve just run out of ideas.”
“So, do you really think that if your behaviour had been different, things would have been different?”
“I don’t think my sister is aware or willing to acknowledge how she feels about me, and so I don’t think her behaviour would have changed, however I behaved. She does not want to address the issue of sibling rivalry at all, yet it colours all of our interactions and comes down to there not having been enough love to go round. If I had changed, it might, our relationship might have appeared better on the surface, but I would have been compromising my own needs and that would lead to a deeper depression.”
“Which, presumably, would not be a good thing?”
“No. Definitely not.”
“So that would not be a path worth pursuing? Does that mean that you do not believe that any relationship can be salvaged by one person?”
“Sometimes, I think one person has to swallow their pride and give a failing relationship a kick-start, but then the other person needs to follow on. No one person can do all the work, nor should it always be one person who makes the first move. Now, I think there are some relationships where the capacity for improvement has disappeared if it was ever there at all. I also think that it needs both people to be working on the relationship and if only one person is able or willing to do the work, then improvement might not be possible.”
“And, in that situation, if the person carried on assuming that there was potential for improvement, but they were doing all the work, what would it feel like?”
“As if you were banging your head against a brick wall. And besides meaning that nothing was going to change, it actually hurts to keep banging your head against a brick wall. So, I suppose it is not just that the relationship is not going to get any better, but that it is going to make me feel worse, that it is going to carry on hurting me.”
“Certainly, it sounds as if you would find it depressing to be continually trying to mend a relationship, but not making any progress. Aren’t you allowed to give up?”
“I think I am, now, as an adult. It isn’t as if I haven’t tried. I do not need to have a relationship with someone that continually hurts me. What would that say about how I view myself? That that is all that I am worth? No, I don’t think I have to have a relationship with someone who is not also trying to make the relationship work.”
It was 1939. Austria. I was there learning singing from Herr M. Albert, the brother of my old school friend Binky, was there too, learning about art. It was wonderful. We used to go skiing every weekend for free. We shared a room. You know how people talk, but there was never anything between us. We were just good friends, still are all these years later.
We were at at dance in Garmisch-Partenkirchen one night. You know, it was a wonderful resort just over the border in Germany. They’d had the winter Olympics there a few years earlier and I was only just twenty. A dashing Luftwaffe officer came up to Albert and asked if he could dance with his girlfriend. Albert said “Oh gosh, she’s not my girlfriend” and laughed. The officer clicked his heels and I danced with this tall handsome German. He had some connection with Scotland, can’t remember what it was now, but he was nice and charming.
“There’s going to be a war, you know,” he said. “You should leave.”
I was having too much fun to be bothered much but he told me that I was blonde (I wasn’t blonde, but I was fair) and Scottish and he presumed I was a virgin so I’d been sent to a breeding camp. And Albert would be sent to a detention camp. It was the first I’d heard of a breeding camp. We just didn’t hear about those things.
I had a train ticket to Berlin the following day for a concert, I think. But a telegram arrived from my parents saying that my grandmother had died. She’d died years earlier. Albert had a telegram from his father saying we must go to Switzerland. So I didn’t go to Berlin and we both left immediately.