Archive for March, 2011

Cleared a Gap

March 31, 2011

This week I’m at West Dean doing an advanced glass fusing course with fabulous Alex.

This week I’ve been married for twenty two years.

This weekend I’m going home to my African Outpost, back to the day job: wife mostly (these days), part time mother (when the children come home), wannabe writer and – now – fledgling glass artist with plasters on her fingers.

Life dovetails neatly at times so that all the reasons – the reasons for my being here, here right now – merge as reminders all over again.

Chicks ruffling feathers and spreading wings and an old hen going home to roost.

So at a time when the vulnerability of morphing wife/mother/whatever-it-is-that-I’m-supposed-to-be threatens to overwhelm, I feel mildly gratified to have – for now – reined the flailing me in with (given all that glass cutting and hot kiln shelf handling) a slightly worse-for-wear grip.

The course wasn’t an after thought; my entire trip, the past six weeks, were built to accommodate these few days, this crescendo parting shot which – given the palpable jarring that struck as I stood on a cold east London street corner a few weeks ago saying goodbye to my son – has offered much more than better insight into the way glass fuses and how: it has reaffirmed what we all know but sometimes forget: life moves and changes so there’s no point in standing still for the stagnancy will mean the buffeting is harder.

I am the youngest in my group of eight. My class mates are all, mostly, grandmothers. I look around as they work and I don’t think ‘when I’m a granny I’d like to be like them’. I just think, ‘I’d like to be like them’. They have all trodden the well worn path that I’m on, found a way to mind the gap and, if ever they lost a bit of themselves on the way, clearly rediscovered it. I don’t see age when I look at them. I see grace and composure and strength and stories.

And when we take our pieces out of the kiln I see something else: an analogy: I see in their work the colour and detail and finesse of experience that my crude efforts lack.

As women we aspire to lots of things: when we’re 16 we aspire to size 10 jeans; 18 and it’s a place at university; 23 it’s a glossy career and a pair of Jimmy Choos, 30 and it might be a husband and our own home, 33 and it’s a child that will sleep through the night and understand the point of a potty.

45, I cast my eyes around the studio again, and it’s ‘I’d like to be like them: with stories to tell, an identity all of my own and the understanding that to keep learning means you remain forever young’.

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Flown.

March 16, 2011

So there. It’s done. I spread my hands flat, palms upwards, fingers splayed, breath tight, eyes grit-dry.

And I let him go.

I stood on a street corner in E11 and I watched him stride away as bravely as he could, four Tesco bags in his grip. They do not fly, our children, the move away is more tentative than that, more trying-to-be-brave wobble than reach-for-the-skies-soar.

Is it as palpable for everybody? For all mothers? Will we all be able to mark this point as definitively later on, as if with a Post-it note? Or a milestone? Or does my temporary geography render the moment more tangible for me? It doesn’t matter. What does – what did – is the urgency to commit the moment to memory in the (and this is a paradox) slipperiness of the ether.

He bought his own groceries. A first. And refused to let me dictate the contents of his trolley. Though he politely acquiesced and picked up a bag of salad and a net of sunshinebright tangerines.

His new flatmates, who received me with smiles and warmth and a mug of tea, share his – my – muddy heritage: White Africans a long way from home. There will be the necessary level of empathy. They will understand the imperatives and the challenges of making an alien city home.

So I stood there on the corner of a rattled siren singing Sunday afternoon in north east London where the world continued to whirl about me despite my stopped-in-time moment, and I watched my eldest walk away. I hope there was a shard of excitement to slice through his nerves, to shave the edge off inevitable anxiety. I told him that in a day it would be easier. In a week it would be easy. He looked doubtful. But I have been where he is now. And I know what I am talking about.

I have not, though, been where I am now. I have not been to this place where the first person I have helped forge and fashion and whom I hope will have the sense to steer clear of Stratford after dark (‘lots of knife crime down there’ observed our cab driver helpfully), whom I will to be happy,to eat properly, to keep warm and get enough sleep, must be delivered to the Big Wide World.

As scary as it might be for him, I know that it is scarier for me.

Teaching them the Ropes on Razor Wrapped Streets

March 8, 2011

On Saturday I, wrapped in trailing scarves and a woollen jacket, stood in a street in north east London, a street wrapped in razor wire as far as I could tell, waiting for my son to emerge from the flat he’d gone into. He’s about to move there, to London, to work. On Olympic Park. Lucky boy I tell him. Lucky boy say most of my friends. But he’s nineteen and too cool to exhibit palpable Lucky Me glee. So he needs a home. When we found the addresses we’d identified as alright (On the Page: obviously we couldn’t see the razor wire wrapped environs and nobody thought to mention them in the ad), he ducked inside whilst I stood shivering on the street. He did, mind, have the grace to articulate a modicum of concern at the razorwirewrapping, ‘will you be alright?’

It is an odd feeling this. This slow, tentative opening of my cupped hands so that this boy can fly. You imagine that it will be intangible the letting go: you feel the aftershock but you don’t necessarily witness the step-by-step loosening of tethers. Unless, of course, you’re obliged to stand shivering in E15 trying not to look nervous.

There is a crash course in grown up jargon. ‘What’s pcm?’ he asks. Per Calendar Month, I say (as in razor wire wrapped address – a room in a flatshare – 600 quid pcm ‘exclusive of bills’). What bills? He wants to know, eyes widening. Electricity, water, poll tax, internet, Sky Plus … When I flat-shared back in the dark ages (when, as far as my children are concerned, Londoners tossed the contents of chamber pots out of windows and lit street lanterns at night with a drop of oil and the strike of a match) my rent, in leafy SW6, was less than a quarter of that. Back then though there was no internet, no Sky Plus and mobile phones were as big as shoes. My children don’t believe me: the lighting of lanterns and emptying of chamber pots seems more plausible.

There’s the navigating of the underground. So that, in the swell of late Friday commuter traffic, it all rushes back to me: Keep Left I urge (so that you don’t get mowed down, I explain), understand the way the Underground works and have an idea about the general geography of your destination: North, South, East or West. My son looks blank. He’s more interested in keeping an eye on the cricket score on his Blackberry as we whip through London’s bowels. I stare at my reflection in the glass opposite. It’s much older than the one I used to gaze at. The reading glasses pushed atop my head are new. So are the lines.

We eat brunch watching the ducks and the tourists enjoy the Serpentine. ‘I’d quite like to live around here’, observes my son.

I don’t know if any of it helped. I don’t know if towering nearly twenty year olds listen to middle aged mothers who dig embarrassingly in cavernous bags for tube tickets they’ve misplaced en route. I don’t know if I made it clear how to use an Oyster card, that the Piccadilly line was the one he needed to take when he flies home, that he’ll get his deposit back, that he needs to be careful about razorwirewrapped streets late at night.

You do your best. That’s all. Your unfurl a hand and you let them go and you think you’re lucky to have been allowed to be a part of those shy and cautious early steps.

Even whilst playing Gooseberry to a Blackberry.

When Words Won’t Do

March 1, 2011

 

Sometimes Death leans on the door so that you know it’s lurking. You know it’s not going to be long. I don’t know if that helps.  I don’t know if the anticipation, the spectre, of the Grim Reaper sharpening his scythe serves as some preparedness.

I only know what it feels like when Death wheels in like a dust devil so that you don’t see it coming until it’s whipped your world up, tossed it about and vanished before life collapses as leaves and dust and debris. And you’re left winded.

See my morning  was quite ordinary. There weren’t any shadows to darken my sunny June day; I was 19; of course there weren’t. And then the phone rang and I was told, just like that: ‘Your dad has had an accident’. I didn’t imagine, not for one moment, that I was in the eye of a storm and about to be buffeted about and left black and blue and bruised.

He’s dead, they said.

That was a long, long time ago. A lifetime. I am more than twice the age I was then.  But you don’t forget the hollowness that follows. The cold. The utter, utter disbelief that that person will never ever appear at breakfast again. It’s the interminableness of death that is so painful.  And I am not sure that reality begins to dawn until long after the fact.

A dear flat mate said to me at the time, ‘your dad died once for us’, once on that single, fateful day when they all rallied, ‘but for you it’s going to happen again and again and again’. And he was right. For me Dad kept dying. Day after day after day until with time and as life, my life, picked up its heels again and began to move hesitantly on, some small corner of the wound began to stitch itself together and the gaping hole his going had left shrunk a little.

You imagine that the experience, that knowing Death the Dust Devil which whips into your world and cruelly throws your life into disarray when you least expect it, when you still have dreams and plans which include the person you’ve lost, would render me better able to offer some words of solace when it happens to somebody else.

But it doesn’t.

See my friend, who is beautiful and young, with children the age of my eldest (old enough to be leaving school but not old enough to be losing a father) was roughly shoved from happily married to widowhood in just minutes. Her husband, who had the wickedest, warmest smile and whose eyes really did bear a proverbial twinkle, was gunned down by ivory poachers whilst on a game drive with clients.

How can that happen? How can life be suddenly so cruel? How can it greedily snatch so much in one abbreviated instant.

And steal such a huge, huge, enormous and important and vital and flamboyant part of my friend’s life?

And so I sat down to try to find the words to tell her that as desperate and as hard and as hollow as life is this week, it will get easier. That fairy step by fairy step she will gather up some of the bits of her world that has been blown to smithereens and she will put them back together again. She will never be able match the shape, and there will always be cracks. But she will find the glue to mould some semblance of what once was together.

But it is very hard to find words big enough to fill even a tiny part of the cavernous void that losing her husband, her children’s father, has gouged.