‘What a small amount of space we’re allowed to inhabit’

A bunch of them have sprouted in our front garden this year. Every year they reappear. Wide spreading leaves that unfurl like oversized flowers on the ground, a pale and insipid green/pale turquoise that looks to be fading even as it’s young.

 

I dislike this plant mostly for the furry coating on the top side of the leaves. It reminds me of whiskers on a young boy’s chin, not yet fully formed and gives me that creepy feeling when I encounter something yuk. 

My husband loves these plants, so we don’t pull them up. 

By summer they will sprout long stalks that in time carry top-heavy yellow flowers, tiny petals in large clumps that I think of as Triffids. Those creatures from the John Wyndham novel of the same name, which I read as a schoolgirl and therefore remember well.

These plant-like creatures stung people in the eyes and caused blindness in the population throughout the world. 

A scary book for a fifteen-year-old but in those days,  I was into scary books. I read all of Edgar Allan Poe’s stories and revelled in the way they made my skin bristle. 

I had a similar feeling, though not one of fear, when I peeled the plastic off the morning’s paper and saw on the front page the image of a man I know indirectly through a friend.

He was masked up but apparently smiling, his son on his shoulders. 

The caption read something about the way you can still smile underneath a mask.

Without reading the article, I imagined it was telling people to keep smiling behind masks and know that we communicate a great deal with only our eyes and the lines around our foreheads. 

The mysteries of body language.

It’s rare to recognise a person from our own life on the front page of the newspaper, not a dignitary, but someone ordinary, only this person is not ordinary, not that any of us are as such. 

My first thought, he’d have been chosen because he and his wife have contacts in the newspaper world. 

I chastised myself for that familiar feeling. Why them then? 

It goes deeper. It’s not that I want my picture on the front page of the newspaper. But the wife of this man is a writer who is recognised. And that recognition seeps into me with an uncomfortable twang. 

I know enough writers to know we all want our writing recognised and that there is a degree of pride and pleasure in getting our books out there, but also of having people read our words and resonate to them. 

I was young when I first read Gerald Manley Hopkins’s ‘Glory be to God for dappled things’.

The nun who took us for English admired this poet-priest who did not seek fame in his lifetime. He wrote for the love of God.

He did not care that his poems were out here in the world for others to read or so the nun told us, and once more the message was clear. 

Do not be seeking of fame.

Do not be seeking notice.

Hide your desires from everyone, including yourself. 

In those days, I wrote poetry, too. And had a first whiff of the pleasure that comes from recognition.

My big brothers praised my efforts. 

Until then nothing I did was in any way remarkable. My older siblings could read and write and draw and were far ahead of me, or so it seemed to my small mind that said I should be able to do just as they did and so I was useless. 

Everything I did came late such and had a secondhand feel.

Was this where my jealousy first reared its head? 

Even writing this here

fills me with the revulsion that comes of words from the back of my head, words like: solipsistic, self-seeking, naval gazing. Too much introspection. Stop writing about yourself.

Go into the universal, write about other people. We are not interested in you and yours. We do not care what you think about your life or your feelings. We care only for much loftier themes that relate to other people. 

Get out of our way.

Donald Winnicott wrote words that stay with me. He was describing the peek a boo game for babies when they begin to understand here and there, self and other. 

‘It’s a pleasure to hide,’ he wrote, ‘but a tragedy never to be found.’

But to be found does not come with fame or notoriety. 

You can have your picture on the front-page of every newspaper. You can have yourself admired for all manner of achievements in your life. But to be recognised for yourself beginning when you are very small goes a long way to helping recognise yourself within.

I modelled myself on my disappearing mother. When we had visitors you could see her strip off her apron and the oppression of her life as a mother of nine children tied to an abusive husband and almost skip around the room on the company of people like her brothers and sisters in law and the few friends who entered our house. 

You could see her open up like a flower. But you could also hear the criticisms behind her back from people like my father and brothers.

She’s vain. She cares only about other people’s admiration.

She’s fake false and shallow. 

A friend yesterday workshopped a series of poems in our small writing group. All of which spoke to her sense of invisibility as a woman. 

‘What a small amount of space we’re allowed to inhabit’. 

She groaned about the continual pressure she experiences to stay silent, to stay invisible, to behave within the narrowly circumscribed role allocated to women. 

And then I heard Alexandria Cortez’s speech in the US Congress and I rejoiced to hear another woman call out the verbal abuse heaped upon women by men who call themselves decent because they have a wife and daughter and know something about woman hood. 

But a decent man would, and again I come back to my thoughts about jealousy and the seeking of recognition and the sadness that accompanies enforced invisibility and wonder about my wish to rip up those plants in the front garden all because to my mind they are old-fashioned and wan. 

‘Why not let them be,’ my husband says. ‘They look good in winter. 

‘That’s true,’ I said. But by summertime we need all the water and sun we can get the other plants to shine, the ones that belong here, the succulents, not this self-seeding exotic plant that would have fared well in an English country garden. 

Olive trees, white paint, and a pandemic

We have two olive trees in our back garden, in pots. One has its first black olive ever, the other is dead. It fell over too many times in the wind, slipped adrift and with its roots too often exposed to the winds, could not muster the strength it needed to survive. 

It’s still outside in the garden on its side. I haven’t the heart to remove it. Besides there are tiny green bits of moss that have rooted around the surface that please me. 

I like to be reminded that life and death coexist. As if I need reminding in the middle of a pandemic. 

I have a friend and every time we talk on the phone she says, let’s not talk about the pandemic. But invariably, towards the end of the conversation, one or other of us will slip in some question about which hand sanitiser to buy, what mask to wear or what do you think of the new rules?

The new rules that bind us to our homes as never before. It’s tedious because it’s everywhere. Ubiquitous. As ubiquitous as the time in my life when I served carrots with almost every meal to the point my husband now calls carrots ‘ubiquitous’.

It’s part of the human condition to talk about the things that ail us; the things that surround us; the things that make us happy, sad or otherwise. Our health, the weather, whatever viral theme floats along in the online world, including this pandemic. 

Until it happened, we could not have cared less. But now. Wow. Now we pay attention because our lives depend upon it.

In like manner, I find myself irritated by my generation’s frequent conversations about how much we’re relying on the digital world these days, for our work, for our human connections. As if it needs further analysis. 

Perhaps it does because it’s a change and change needs attention. But it’s hard to get to grips with what things mean when we’re in the middle of them. 

I watched a movie last night about the artist L.S. Lowry, about the life he led caring for his lonely, sad mother in Pendlebury, Lancashire. A woman who could not get over the fact that she was not living the life she’d imagined she’d live, a quality life away from Pendlebury so lose by the mills in the early 1930s when she saw herself as made of superior stuff. 

Disappointed in her husband; she was disappointed as well in her son, despite his paintings, which to her were so much wasted space. Except for one painting of yachts that her son had painted for her many years earlier. Not until a neighbour admired the yachts, a woman Mrs Lowry also admired because she wore fine clothes and was a kindred spirit. Until this woman admired Lowry’s painting, his mother saw his work as without merit. 

‘Underneath every picture is the colour white,’ Lowry said. White, blank, open and empty. ‘I paint what I see,’ he said. ‘I paint what I feel.’ Such simple notions from a man who painted sublime images against much opposition, in the absence of his father who left little but debts and his over-demanding mother whom Lowry spent all his time trying to please.

There’s something tragic about these stories of children who can never leave a parent’s side. A son who grows up at home and never leaves. Never finds a partner of his own, always wedded to his mother. 

It gets to me, unsettles me, especially when it’s obvious this mother is working to keep her son glued to her by two things:

One, her constant insistence he must never leave her. She needs his care.

And the other, her constant undermining of his goodness and capacity. 

Parental envy of children is insidious, and it happens more often than we like to admit, literally and figuratively. 

During this pandemic for instance. The older generations lamenting the fact that we only have technology to hold us together and an insistence that it’s an inferior medium from what we enjoyed in days gone by. 

Inferior to the radio and newsprint. Inferior to the television even.

Why must everything be digital? some lament. And decry the young folks who swim around in their digital soup with ease comfort and satisfaction.

It’s not good for their brain development, they insist. They won’t be able to write by hand. They’ll lose all those basic skills. They won’t be able to read a map. 

The list of all the things the young won’t be able to do is endless. When in truth they wheel around us online with such alacrity, it’s breathtaking.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not all wondrous good in the digital world, the world of spammers and scams, the world of fake news, the virtual in preference to the so called real, but my goodness, it’s here now. 

It’s here to stay and we getter get used to it.

For one thing, this pandemic has forced us to face our need to slow down, to stop hopping over the world like minions following one another on the trips of our lifetimes or tripping over to London for a half-day business meeting. 

One thing the digital world has allowed is a way of negotiating our distances while reducing our fat footprints, and at the same time keeping us closer together.

And yes, like everyone, I too miss the actual presence of my children, the people with whom I work, and friends, the comfort of being in a room with real people.

This will return but our digital life will not go away and long may it live until the next revolution in evolution comes our way and we begin to rely on other methods to survive in a world that increasingly needs our help to reduce our impact. 

Otherwise, like the parasites we are, we will overcome our host planet, expose our roots to wind and rain, go back to the basic colour white of Lowry’s pictures, or the bare-rooted tragedy of my olive tree and die out.