‘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. 

First companions

The year I turned eighteen, I came home one evening to an empty house and felt for the first time a loss of companionship I had never known before.

I clutched my first pay check in my hands from my holiday job with the post office where I lined up with several other students and regular postal employees at the conveyor belt sorting out letters by size and postcode. 

It was a heady job for one who was not good with numbers and took me a while to recognise the four digits that signified the differnt suburbs.

It was a job that lasted less than a month in the rush to Christmas following my final year exams but it was a job that after that first week provided a yellow envelope with a payslip inside and a wad of cash, the largest I had ever seen in one place. And it was mine.

I had earned it and wanted only to share some of it with my mother so that I might join the ranks of my older siblings and be yet another helper in her bid to survive. But my mother was still away at work and my other siblings were out somewhere.

No welcoming party. No one to greet me and I cried furious tears at this moment of triumph when I had no one to celebrate with me. 

Although my siblings were not with me at this moment, I have learned to hold them in mind for all the years since I left home.

They’re always in my mind, milling around, jostling for position, each trying to outdo the other in our judgments. 

My siblings never leave me. Whenever I am part of a group, the people in said group morph into my family and I find myself counting, three, four, seven eight, as long as there are up to nine or eleven including parents we are at full compliment. 

I look around whenever I am in such a numerical group and marvel at how much physical room my family took up when we were all grown and sometimes met. 

I marvel at the space we occupy on the earth.

Much like my mother once said to me soon before she died, how pleased she was when her seventh great-grandchild had arrived on the earth that none of this would be possible without her. 

This puzzled me as if my mother considered it all began with her. As if she had forgotten about her own parents and my father’s parents and the ones who came before. 

I am often in a tug of war in my mind between the great chain of links from one to the other and how important we each are to one another and this other sense, my mother’s sense of wanting to matter and fearing that without her none of us would come into being, me and my siblings, who in my mind, never go away.