‘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. 

5 thoughts on “‘What a small amount of space we’re allowed to inhabit’”

  1. My dyke sister is on misogyny roll about ‘Karen’. I don’t really get it. It’s meaning and the loading of the name seems to be an American import.

    1. And like so many American imports, Andrew it takes hold here. I’m with your sister, it is a loaded word. why not try ‘Kevin’ for all those privileged white dudes who flaunt the rules? Something about the fact it’s a woman seems to add weight to the insult. Thanks, Andrew.

  2. Mullein, yes? It’s an interesting herb. Good made into a tea for respiratory ailments – so fitting for the times. I do like these European weeds that thrive in the antipodes, so I’m with you husband there 🙂

    ‘Taking up space’ is an interesting conundrum a writer. We’re made to create space and noise on social media, indeed it’s an imperative set by our publishers. I’ve found it a difficult roller coaster ride myself. So much of my books’ process has been sitting in a room alone and then we are made to draw attention to ourselves. Unless we are a certain internationally renowned WA author, we have to shout about ourselves. Oh for the luxury of hermitage.

    1. It is a conundrum, Sarah, this taking up of space, especially during a pandemic where we must hide away for our own safekeeping and that of others. Interesting times indeed. Thanks, Sarah.

  3. I’m a private person. I’m also a writer. This is a problem because I want to be read but I don’t particularly want to be seen. I don’t need to be read but I do need to write. I think if I’d been lavished with praise from the start or even acceptance (can one be lavished with acceptance?) it might’ve made a difference but I was surrounded by people who only looked to art for entertainment. For me it was a source of meaning or at least a piece in the puzzle. Of course the great thing about art is it’s one step removed from its creator. I don’t have to stand in front of the world and struggle to find the right words. I scribble my tuppenceworth on a scrap of paper, read it, revise it, scrap it, start again and when I’m sick of looking at it send it out into the world for people to make of it what they will. I get where Winnicott’s coming from, I do, but I’m not sure how much I agree with him. I don’t so much want to be found as I want to be approved of by the finder. Better not to be found I’ve found than risk disapproval. Of course you’ve met me in the real world so you know the online version of me isn’t a complete fabrication but he is, as I said in my last comment, a more considered version, a more thoughtful one. Is he the real me? No more than the me you had coffee with. We all live in small spaces, many small spaces, too cramped to accommodate all of us and only the worms get to see our roots.

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