A Misspent Youth

It might be too dramatic to say that I feel grief for the time I’ve lost. Then again, it might not. You see, I have such fond memories of my childhood, yet I have unpleasant ones too. The night waking, which was always followed by a period of lying and listening, unable to sleep until I heard my dad cough or my mum roll over in their room, the reassurance I needed that they were still breathing. Then, as I got older, I remember the anxiety – not that I called it that then; I didn’t know there was a name for the heaviness that lived in my chest – the counting of steps, and the checking. The constant, constant checking. It – anxiety -was there, even when things were great.

You see, my teens and twenties are full of the happiest of memories: family picnics, heading to London with my sister when she turned 21, viewing the first flat my husband and I lived in, travelling, working, and being busy and surrounded by friends. When looked at like that, when admired through the tons of Facebook albums now locked away, my youth was a charmed one. And it was, in many ways, it really was.

But photos only ever tell half a story. Listing achievements only gives part of a picture. Because throughout those years, throughout all my years, there was an almost constant thread: anxiety. Pure, undiluted anxiety. Whether I describe it as a weight around my neck, as shackles around my ankles, or as poison in my blood, nothing quite captures the effect it has had on my life so far.

And this is where it becomes complex. I’ve had a happy life. I am very happy with my life today. To say that I have big problems in today’s world feels wrong and illegitimate. Yet I do feel grief for the time I’ve lost. The time that I’ve wasted. And I feel this sorrow, because during many a moment in time, whatever was happening – good, bad, excellent – was marred by a shadow of deep sadness and fear.

You see, I spent 7 months living in France. France. I made good friends, learned the language, and gained a dress size from the cheese and the bread and the pastry. Yet the whole time I was counting down until the next time I could visit home. I was scared and lonely. I was worried about locking up my “flat” (it was, honestly, a converted garage on perhaps the safest street, in the safest town in northern France) all the time. I was worried about whether or not there would be a strike, and I’d be trapped in the small town with my thoughts. For two weeks before a trip home, I would obsessively check the whether forecast – even though I took the train, not the ferry – to see if there were likely to be any travel issues. I was worried that my boyfriend would break up with me. I was worried that I will missing out. That one, perhaps, hurts the most. Missing out on what? I had money, all be it not a lot, I had a quirky living situation that I would look back on with absolute amusement in the future, I was becoming fluent in a foreign language, I spent my weekends in Lille, going to movies and bars and restaurants, and I was 20. I wasn’t missing out on life, I was living it.

The same goes for university. I did stuff, but not much. Now, when I would love to volunteer more, take a sports class, or learn a new skill, I have the desire but not the time. Back then, I had the desire but not the guts. I went to parties I didn’t want to go to, always leaving the house in another panic about the oven being on or my straighteners. Bloody things. They might have been the best invention for a frizzy-haired walking mop head like myself, but when I think of the hours I’ve spent worrying they were off, I’d probably have been happier in the long run if I just shaved my head.

These behaviours lasted long into my twenties. From my first flat to my first job, everything I did was done fuelled by nervous energy. Every day, it was exhausting just to leave the house. Every decision was taken under the influence of intense worry: what will people think? What if I get it wrong? What if? What if?

Written here in black and white, it all seems a little woe is me. Poor girl had a good youth but was unhappy living the life of many people’s dreams. Education, friends, steady relationship, job. Boy, she’s had it tough. But feeling guilty about struggling with mental health is just another symptom of a problem. No one chooses these paths and can just snap out of it (despite the obnoxious cups/tea towels/lunch boxes you can buy covered in a chirpy font that says I choose to be happy). So I’ll step away from guilt and return to this idea of grief. Sometimes I feel an overwhelming sorrow that so many good things have happened to me, and I experienced them, not in full colour, but in black and white. In just the past year, I’ve been at my most happiest and my saddest, struggling to cope with life as a new mother whilst being overwhelmed by the joy it has brought to my world. I regret how some of those precious first months were lived in a blur of depression, feel anger at the time lost, and wish I could change how it unfolded.

In all these situations, I regret, not the things I did, but the way I felt them.

Sometimes I joke that I am overdue my teenage rebellion. Nervousness, awkwardness, and shyness kept me back from doing many things I wanted. While I wouldn’t rebel in a getting a tattoo and announcing hatred for my parents kind of way, I do wish I’d rebelled more against my own fears. However, now, now that all the evidence suggests I am a bonafide adult, I have to accept that I can’t change the past. But man do I feel loss for some of the time gone by. Maybe I can still rebel, though, even if it is just against my own thoughts, so that from here on in life isn’t looked at through a lens of grey, but in proportion, with everything happening in its correct colour.

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Morning Monologue

6.20 am: Urghhgh, it can’t be morning already. It can’t be. Be quiet. Go back to sleep. Sleep.

pexels-photo-271818.jpegMorning, darling! How are you? Did you have nice dreams?

Shhh, I know, shhh. It’s almost warm enough. Damn it. Too warm. Shhh, milk is coming.

Ah, that’s better, isn’t it? Taste good?  Hello you. Stop grinning at me with those eyes and drink your milk. Cutie pie. You just enjoy that; I’m going to rest my eyes for five more minutes.

Now what? All dressed and pressed. Off you go. No, don’t take all that clean washing off the shelf. No, it doesn’t live in the wash basket. But thank you for helping. That’s very good. Argh, kiddo, please. Not the nappy cream. Ha! You make me laugh. Stop that. I love you. Fancy some breakfast?

Oh, okay, you want to hold the spoon yourself. No problem. That’s great. Nice job. Let’s take a picture to send to the family. Brilliant job, darling. Mummy’s going to watch and enjoy her own breakfast with both hands today. Ahh. Lovely.

Oh man! That porridge might as well be glue. It’s everywh… how on Earth did you get it there, sweetheart? Sweetheart? Where’ve you gone now? Sweethe…. hahaha, that’s hilarious kiddo. Yes the salad spinner is a great toy but mamma just needs to clean up the breakfast things. You hang out there, ok? Just don’t… uh-ho, how do you un-pause the washing machine? Hang on, wait. Yep, there it goes again. Brrrrr. Round and round. Cool, eh?

A cuddle? Oh thank you, darling. Ahhhh. Do you love your mamma? Yep, she loves you too. Heheh. Tickles! Right. Porridge. Got a clean it up, then playground? Yep. Cool.

You coming this way? I’m going to get dressed too. Ready: peek a boo! Where’s O? Behind my t-shirt? Boo! Behind my sock? Boo! Behind my trousers? B… where are you off to? Hang on. Teeth!

Aw okay, woo want to wrush wine? Wold on, wold on. There, that’s better. Mamma can’t talk with you sticking your toothbrush in my mouth. Here, here’s my brush. You clean my teeth and I’ll clean yours. Teamwork. Nice job.

8.15: Right, let’s get ready to go.

8.45: Sweetie, where are your shoes? Shoes darling? Oh look, there’s one. What’s it doing there? And the other… ah yes, in the draw with the tupperware. That’s where we always keep it.

8.55: Right, shoes on. Ready? Darling… Darling…

 

 

Learning By Example

Following the example of a toddler makes more sense than you might think. Seriously. At 14 months old, my little man does a lot of things better than I do. Here are just five of the things, in my reverse favourite order, that I reckon we could all learn from the littlest around us:

5. Eat your favourite foods first. There’s no sense is saving the best ’til last as you’ll be too full to enjoy it. Chow down on the cheese and pick at the cucumber if you’ve got room.

4. Look at things carefully. Turn them over, around, upside down, and back to front. Only then, with all your attention spent, can you decide it’s just a wooden spoon and toss it across the room.

3. Anywhere and anything can be fun. Standing in line at the supermarket? No worries. Chat and babble with strangers. Stuck in a waiting room? Take a second and look how the mirror is reflecting the sun. Then try and grab it. Only toy around a set of keys? Get jaggling and make music.

2. Strangers needn’t stay strangers. Meet the world with a smile, seek eye contact, and see who smiles back.

1. When you fall over, do one of two things: stand up and carry on without a backward glance, or sit there as if it was entirely your intention to land with a thud on your backside, ignore the surprised stares and start studying the nearest object with no reference to the fact that two seconds earlier you were running down the hall way. There’s an art to recovering from a fall that only those still learning to walk seem to pull off.

See. From making friends to not carrying two jots about embarrassing oneself, kids have got it down. How we keep them that way is anyone’s guess.

My Tree, My Apple

Most teachers have had multiple ah-ha” moments when they meet a previously unknown parent for the first time and suddenly realise why a child is like it is. It stands to reason that a kid, through a mix of nature and nurture, will turn out somewhat like his or her parents. Whether its inheriting their eyes, their chattiness, their confidence, their timekeeping or their humour, the apple rarely falls far from the tree.

Just yesterday, I had an “ah-ha” moment of a different kind when I realised something it probably shouldn’t have taken me this long to realise: I am a tree, and my apple is falling. At an age where he watches and where he sees that simple actions have consequences (if I drop my cup and say “uh-ho” everyone laughs; if I repeat this walking down the street, the cup disappears), my own little apple’s personality is getting bigger by the day.

That’s scary. Really scary.  Because this tree isn’t always at its best. I don’t water it enough. It doesn’t always blossom when it should. Its roots have a habit of coming loose, and its leaves occasionally fall in midsummer. It’s not a bad tree, don’t get me wrong. It has potential and beauty and grounding like all trees; it just doesn’t always show these things.

As I worried about the role I had to play in shaping my little guy, I worried that worrying would become his biggest enemy. How would I stop this? How could I make sure he saw the futility of some of my least favourite behaviours? How? How? By tending to the tree, not the apple, that’s how.

My example and my behaviour has to be that which I wish to instil. It’s no use trying to make him the opposite of me. He’ll follow the lead he is given. If experienced enough, he’ll think that walking through every room and muttering “it’s off” to yourself is completely normal. Given enough visits to family, he’ll think tapping on the side of the plane before you get on is essential. (I don’t think I can give this one up; I just have to conceal it). If heard enough, he’ll think that talking out every what if can stop the what ifs from happening.

So, the answer is simple if not easy. It’s time to get pruning. It’s time to work on ensuring this tree is one which I don’t mind my apple falling in the vicinity of.

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Gently Strong – Strongly Gentle

Yoga teachers often talk about setting intention for practice. (Actually, I don’t know if they do, my yoga teacher is a Youtube channel, and she does, so I presume this is normal.) Anyway, this part is often a struggle for me. My intention is typically to complete the video. Sometimes, however, words do pop into my head. Like the other day, when an intention popped up quite unexpectedly:

Strength.

I want to be strong. Strong of body and strong of mind as well as strong in my opinions and strong in my actions. Healthy, in control, and powerful.

Strong.

However, strength can blur with aggression. If the motivation for seeking strength is based on the wish to overpower others, then it is not for me. I want to be calm, kind and move smoothly through life, not be a powerhouse knocking over anyone in my way. On this note, in popped another intention:

Gentleness.

I want to be gentle. Gentle with myself so as to not push too hard or expect too much. I want to be gentle with others, taking time to recognise each person for who they are without being too quick to judge or condemn.

Gentle.

However, gentleness can become meek and passive. I often worry I’ve spent 32 years apologising for who I am, for my choices and opinions, and that’s no good. I don’t want to be a timid mouse, doing anything for a quiet life.

This episode of thoughts unfolded unconsciously as I landed on my intention in the space of two or three breaths.

Gently strong and strongly gentle.

I intend for my strength to be gentle so that I have power and control over myself without ever feeling the need to exert power over others. I intend to be strong in my gentleness, prioritising the need to act kindly towards myself and others. I intend to hone my principles and values so they are firm, not fixed, and so that I am confident to share them and confident to acknowledge that experience may cause them to change. I intend to be gently strong and strongly gentle, from this moment on.

Until the end of the video, at least.

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Fine Lines

I think the secret to a good life is found in the lines. The fine ones. The wrong side of the line, and life just doesn’t work properly. Too far on the right side of the line, and you’re headed for a giant fall.

Let me explain.

Feeling a little anxiety every now and then is good. A sharp kick of adrenaline keeps us fired up, alert, and ready for, well, stuff. All the stuff that challenges us. Even the stuff that threatens us. Our body has a fight or flight instinct honed in our cave-dwelling days wired up and ready to make sure we have it all covered. Step over that fine line, however, and alertness becomes wired, and a reasoned preparedness becomes spiralling panic. Feeling anxious becomes being anxious. Being constantly anxious, truly anxious, is absolutely no use. It makes us make mistakes and act irrationally Now, it might be tempting to draw the conclusion that one simply should not worry at all. One should be care free and laid back, the closer to horizontal, the better. But that’s no use either. We need a little worry, the occasional burst of anxiety. Otherwise, we’d run a daily risk of getting hit by a bus. And thus the need to pay attention to the fine line. The fine line between feeling anxious when it serves us and being anxious all the time. Walk along the line, and you’re pretty much okay. Fall into being anxious all the time, and you’re screwed. Fall into never feeling an ounce of worry, and you’re also pretty much screwed.

It’s true for almost anything.

There is a fine line between a couple of biscuits and the whole packet. One is a nice treat; the other is a recipe for not fitting into your favourite jeans. Attempt to resist all together and spend your time thinking about the yumminess you can’t have until you give in. The same applies for a couple of glasses of wine verses the bottle. The you of the future is always glad when you walk the fine line between a relaxed drink and inebriation, believe me.

There are fine lines between a deluge of things from the mundane biscuit to the influential role anxiety plays in our life. To name a few: nerves and fear; pride and vanity; accepting responsibility and drowning in guilt; the days with tinges of sadness and enduring depression; allowing people to lean on you and being a doormat; sticking to your guns and stubbornness; being principled and riding a high horse; relaxation and laziness; cleanliness and obsessiveness; sitting down to an episode of Gilmore Girls and binge watching half a season.  It goes on and on. And it’s exhausting. Plus, so many of these facets of life are hard, if not impossible, to control. (I mean, have you ever just watched one episode of Gilmore Girls in a sitting?)

So, it’s no wonder life feels hard sometimes. It’s no wonder we struggle trying to keep on top of things, to make the right choices, and to take control over what we’re feeling since we are always trying to find our balance. What’s more, everyone has their own position on where to draw the line. For one person, three hours on the sofa might leave them feeling rested and ready for the world while the next person despises such idling. There isn’t universal agreement on how far one should go to defend their ideals or at what point organised becomes too organised. We’re not only walking along these tightropes, we’re twisting the rope to our preferred level of slackness, then falling off anyway.

Is there an answer? Probably not. We seem destined to worry either too much or not enough and designed to be either too quick to please or not quick enough to bend our principles. We run around giving ourselves no time to breath, then veg out on the sofa until Netflix asks us how the hell we could still be in front of the TV (only more politely). Of course, we’d be robots rather than humans if we always reacted perfectly to every decision and choice. Still, perhaps a little awareness of the fine lines we walk might be the first step to not falling too far off the path.

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The Girl At The Window

You couldn’t see all that much from her window, really. However, Amy believed she could see the whole world. She spent much of her time looking at her imagination’s creations rather than the solid Earth in front of her, so the fact that her bedroom overlooked several houses identical to her own with neat, simple gardens made no odds. Each night, when her parents thought she was asleep, she sat up cross legged on her bed, head behind the curtain, looking out and across the rooftops to the town beyond. It was best in summer when the nights were as drawn out as they would stretch, and she could watch dusk creep slowly in, greying and muting the various garden sheds, rabbit hutches, and cooling barbecues. Those were the days, when summer was nothing but endless sunshine and darkness briefly trundled in and out.

Those safe streets and the peaceful town beyond remained for years a simple and comforting backdrop, something for Amy to let her eyes rest on while her mind did the hard work. She spent hours looking but not seeing, seeing instead the story playing in her mind’s eye. Inwardly, sketches and skits played out depicting the future she imagined for herself. Some were clear and crisp, others were hazy and blurred, but she was always an older version of herself, faceless, but herself none the left. She felt so rather than saw, unable to fashion a face for herself that she was happy with. Every evening, she would watch as a wiser, more collected Amy arrived in Africa – anywhere in Africa, the news told her it needed saving – and began doing something vital. The next night she was a translator at the UN. She was a writer. She could speak five languages. She lived in France. She had smoother hair. She didn’t worry about things. Her family were proud of her, and today’s cool kids were envious.

From that one window, sitting cross legged and daydreaming when she should have been sleeping, Amy planned her life. Through all the iterations – married with kids, living in Paris, travelling forever – the one place she never saw herself was at that window. The girl at the window was scared. She was naive and lost. She would never get on a plane and move to another country. She would never be able to talk to a boy or speak another language. The Amy of the future had found the key, the magic pill, the answer, the mysterious and elusive it that took her from being the girl sitting and imagining to the woman doing and being. The Amy of the moment, hands resting on the dusty ledge, was naive enough to believe in the it, never realising that all those idle daydreams were the first step. She wasn’t interested in steps; she was interested in arriving. All there was to do was wait for when the future turned to now.

Now, the girl at the window is gone and Amy’s hair is still the bane of her life. The window remains, of course, and Amy can sit at it whenever she comes home. The surrounding houses haven’t changed much. The odd neighbour is new and several grass lawns are a more modern decking, but the basic landscape is unchanged. Amy has never set foot in Africa. She doesn’t work for the UN, and she can’t speak five languages. She still worries and she is still scared.
She does, however, still look but not see, playing out the future in her mind’s eye, fiddling absent-mindedly with the rings on her left hand. Inwardly loud but outwardly quiet, she sits calmly, not wanting to disturb her sleeping child as the future runs like a black and white movie. It plays in that magical spot just inside the forehead, above the eyes. She speaks fluent German. She is waving her son off on his first round the world trip. She is a writer and political commentator. She is sitting exams for her second degree. She is revisiting the French town she lived in when she was 21. She is renewing her wedding vows. She is sitting at the window, an old woman, dreaming of what’s next.
The baby stirs, his father’s eyes blink open, and it’s time to come back to now, which she does, happily. Now was always a good place to be, she just had to look back on it to see it. Yes, mister, she thinks as she pulls her head out from behind the curtain, uncrosses her legs, and reaches into the cot, you’ll miss lots of the good looking forward, but look forward you must. Just don’t look too hard or too far. It is all in you, little man, I promise.