The Art of Picking up Dropped Stitches

April 15, 2017

I am trying to separate it out, unknotting strands that become chaotically tangled.

 

Stitches dropped by the stresses I am trying to field.

 
Which do I cultivate intrinsically, cooking up a storm internally so that it’s my doing that my chest constricts and I battle for breath. I focus then. Lie flat. My palms on my abdomen. Breathe deep, I sternly tell myself. Enough self-remonstration and eventually I can feel the eagle trapped behind my sternum where its wings beat painfully morph and migrate as a soft cloud of manageable butterflies to my tummy, which obediently begins to rise and fall in smooth, deliberate, synchronization of thoughts reined, heart rate tamed.

 

I am trying to understand what I can control. What I cannot. And which responses to what I cannot control I can master better. A riddle.

 

I must – I know – lean to control the speed at which I live, hastily, always urgently trying to Fix what I mostly cannot. So that my bare foot, polish on painted toenails chipped, is pressed less urgently to the accelerator so that I do not hurtle out of control.

 

I do that alot: I do too much too quickly without thinking. It means I make mistakes. Alot. Rash decisions, commitments I cannot honour, not without dropping more and more stitches, losing the end of important threads. It means there is not enough time – despite my having an abundance of the stuff as I rattle in an outpost – to collect my thoughts and order them to compliant, tidy, rank.

 

But what of all the stuff I cannot control? And there is so much of that. A perpetual anxiety for my precious, darling, far away babies; my gently unravelling mother who one day is with me and the next a step further away so I am never entirely sure what I will deal with, a wonderful husband who is so strung with a big, unwieldy, job that I am often at a loss of how to support (you can’t Fix everything it turns out) that I must take cover from the inevitable fall out of his own stress. I worry about the past – how much have I wasted? – about the present and, especially, about the future. Which means I am Projecting which I ought not for that is useless wasteful energy spent on things I cannot know how to control, much less Fix.

 

Is this because of the person I am? The physiology of one who is wiry, woundtight, strung high? Is it because my memory of life’s side-swipes is more acute so that I catastrophize? That every dimple in my roadmap has the propensity to explode as a disaster? Is it because I expect the worst and strap myself tightly in (unlike my darling Ant who expects the best but prepares for the worst).

 

My GP says, ‘you’re Blood pressure is far too high’. So I swallow the pills he prescribes each morning and try to remember I ought not to accelerate a racing heart with real coffee. I sip decaff with distaste and wrinkle my nose.

 

I know what will order all of this. 522 words later, a single page of letters which have conformed to the shape I need them to be. Over these I have control. Over my words I have command. I must let them manipulate gentle power over me. Writing by its very nature demands solace, space, silence. It requires an emptying of headspace of the extraneous. It demands exactly the focus I need to slow my racing physiology, my scattered emotions.

 

Here, on the page, is the only place i can line them all up, give them a long, hard look, wag a finger in the direction of those that are slinking sideways and out of step.

 

I must write. I must write more.

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Everything and Nothing

April 2, 2017

rose natal grass

When we walk on the dam, we must drive first.  We load the dogs into the back of the car, in a lather of frenzied excitement so that they rush hither and thither to make sure you’re really coming, that you are really gathering up hats and shoes.  I almost never wear shoes. The dogs know something’s in the offing when I lace sneakers up. This morning the sky is hugeblue. Huge. And clean; rinsed of cloud.

We whip out on the new ribbonsmooth tar road, the rose Natal grass softly fringes its hard edge and blushes in clouds of pink.

It is a beautiful, beautiful day.

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This time a week ago I was a long way from dams and dogs and acacia trees fat and green at the thin edge of a slender wedge rainy season – half what we had last year and not nearly enough. I was in the Capital. Stocking up. Groceries. Butter. Prescription meds. I had my hair cut, my toenails painted so that my feet would look prettier than they normally do in their birthdaysuitbareness (given usual absence of shoes. See above). Ant told me to try not to gawp in supermarkets, he laughed as I stopped dead at the entrance of shiny new Food Lovers Market, my empty trolley coming to an abrupt halt; the shelves dripped Aladdin jewels of multi-hued fruit and veg that we never see in the outpost, ‘close your mouth’, he said, ‘you’re giving yourself away’.

The country mouse comes to town, I thought.

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At night, when I cannot sleep, I dig my earphones deep and listen loudly in the secret silence to the murmur of far away voices. Podcasts a boon, carrying a distant world into mine. My latest favourite: the BBC’s Book and Authors, I love Harriet Gilbert and her guests’ dissection of a Good Book. I discover many new joys here, in the dead hours: Imtiaz Dharker‘s poems and Jenny Offill’s, Dept. of Speculation, a sparse novel about marriage and motherhood, with language deliciously taut so that you know she has carefully weighted every single word and wasted not one.

‘The baby’s eyes were dark, almost black, and when I nursed her in the middle of the night, she’d stare at me with a stunned, shipwrecked look as if my body were the island she’d washed up on.’

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Talking words and books and language, I shouldered my way onto my Creative Writing course. I bullied, begged, cajoled, leaning hard against a door until I got my foot in and then wriggled my way through. I start in October. Course books already gather on my desk and the exercises they prescribe read as keys to unlock the block that descends too often now, in the void in which I tend to rattle.

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Best of all, my Hat is home. Briefly. For Easter. Long, lean, all grown up, half a head taller than I but small enough still that I can envelope her in an embrace and inhale the sustaining scent of motherhood.

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I began this blog ten years ago. What a journey. Thank you all for keeping me company x

The Rearranging of Celestial Furniture

March 16, 2017

At this time of year, when the rains are here, our night skies can be spectacular. Big banks of cloud that have bulked all afternoon – so that we know the sun that bakes our backs as we walk the garden is the type that conjures storms – huddle on our horizons, bruised and brooding, like a sullen crowd that gathers menacingly, shoulders thrown, expressions darkly glowering.

I gaze heavenward, my palm shielding my eyes, ‘do you think it will come?’ I ask Mum, ‘the rain’. Mum squints up: I hope so, she says, it’s too warm.

Sometimes the sun wins out and dissolves the clouds away, stares them down with hot glares so that they skulk to some other lucky person’s horizons and by dusk my sky is peachy pink and eggshell blue and you’d never know there was ever the promise of glorious rain.

But some evenings the weighty congregation of clouds win out, they drop their black shoulders and storm the sun and push it clean from the sky. Their rough eviction is championed with applause that rumbles and growls and cracks loud bright whips to hurry it all on so that the night is illuminated with a thousand bolts of hot white light as it hurls itself to earth.

And I lie in bed and listen to the gathering pace of raindrops on my tin roof, like a featherlight dance of fairies at first, tiny feet that race above me and quickly gather weight and speed so that soon all I can hear is a roar, like a train, and I can smell Africa don her earthy scent in celebration as the blackness of my room burns neon with every flash and the rain pours down.

By dawn the sky is smokegrey, stilled, silent; the storm and her entourage with its victorious clapping and loud shouts and bright lights has ambled off to deliver her show elsewhere. I skip out across a wet lawn in my barefeet to inspect the rain gauge. Sometimes it will be almost full, others barely wet and then I will report to mum, over breakfast, ‘all blow, no go that Ma, just 5 mils’.

Yesterday she asked me, ‘what makes the thunder? is there something solid up there, it sounds as if something is being moved around’. I tell her, ‘the lightening, Mum, that’s what we can hear’. She looks doubtful.

And memories rush in. When I was little and storm-watched on the farm with dad, he taught me to count between lightening strike and thunder clap, ‘one … two … three’, the number of seconds that lapsed, he said, told you how near, or far, the strike had been. Sometimes in the Outpost there is no time at all, between one and the other, I have watched lightening strike trees, the electricity poles, the road directly in front of my car. I have heard it and seen it all at the same time, no ‘one … two … three’; no warning.

I think of Mum’s reasoning that something so loud must surely mean something more tangible than the lightening speed of electrons and I remember that when we were little, she told us that the crash of thunder was the sound of the gods rearranging their furniture and I imagined them, backs to a bulky wardrobe, shuffling it to a new corner.

Mum’s stroke means that her view of the world is sometimes a little off, except that at times I think her logic is spot on. That’s exactly what thunder sounds like: like something solid and heavy and concrete being hefted around above us.

Come and Gone

March 14, 2017

Visitors come and visitors go and almost immediately it’s hard to believe they were here at all.

My sister C and her youngest arrived a week ago. And left yesterday. They travelled from their African Outpost to mine and the days rushed past in such a blur I cannot now remember what happened from one day to the next.

It was a joy to hear my small, too-quiet home ring with the sound of a child’s laughter, to watch K swim, to listen to her ceaseless chatter, to observe her, too-long -limbed, unbrushed hair, starfish sprawled on a bed rendered still and silent only because she had a book to hand. Immersed in some other far away world.

And I think of my Hat and how she filled all my Outpost days first time around. Ten years ago: I first arrived here ten years ago.

We walked on the dam, we ate too much ice-cream, we watched telly that made us laugh, we swam endlessly, we played cards and we teased Mum so that she responded in mock horror: ‘don’t give Gran another biscuit, she’s verging on the morbidly obese as it is’. K shrieks with mirth, my sister giggles at Mum’s expression. Precious, precious days of nothing and everything. Family touching hands, re-connection, brief, blessed. I want to distill these days, to bottle them as heavenly scent that I may pop the lid and inhale deeply whenever I need to feel less lonely.

And when they leave I am momentarily unhinged. A day of floating aimlessly. Until I can find my groove, where my head goes back down, my shoulder to the wheel and I get on with the business of Getting on with It.

Fat Africa

March 1, 2017

one-mum-two-babes

The southern Serengeti is fecund with life. Everything is fat: the wildebeest as they trail to and fro across these vast plains, so big you wonder that you don’t fall clean off the edge, honk and bleat and call. This is an ancient, circuitous route: each year a million of them meander across the savannah driven by primal instincts to eat, to breed. Almost all of the females are accompanied by a calf, pale newborns with black faces. They tumble to the ground on delivery and are up and racing almost immediately, such is the urgent life into which they are born.  We are always just too late to witness this extraordinary wild miracle of birth: the calf is getting to its feet, the afterbirth still evident.

mama-and-baba

The zebra are even more more fatbottomed than ever. The grazing here is plentiful, newgreen and tender. They eat, noses to the ground but rear pretty head up and skip skittish when they hear our vehicle, plump girls in a dance hall. Then from safer distance they regard us bashfully through long, long black lashes.

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We come upon a male lion reclining in the shade. He is the most handsome specimen I have ever encountered, his eyes bright amber, his skin unmarked,  his mane thick and glossy and fully, L’Oreal Lion I think, because he’s worth it?

king-of-the-jungle

A little way off we encounter the youth, four plump males lolling, siesta still. They are so well fed – all those meandering wildebeest, heavy with life, all those zebra with their generous derrieres – they wear rolls around their middles. I have seen lion torn eared from fights over food, I have watched lioness savagely, hungrily, rip the last shreds from a carcass.  Here we find still born wildebeest still intact, not even the vultures are hungry enough to pick them apart.

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Dung beetles roll their prizes – perfectly round brooding balls of dung, plentiful now on these well-fed plains – each pair busily tumbling so that when I pick them up in my hand I can feel the tiny might of their efforts in my palm. The females will lay their eggs inside.  The dung beetle is related to the scarab which the ancient Egyptians revered: the god Khepri renewed the sun every day before rolling it up above the horizon.

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Our rising suns here are clouded in blankets of cloud which settle low on long horizons and deliver their bounty of rain each evening so that the greenness of this vast spreading place is topped up a little more. This is fat Africa, a place of such perfect balance that even in the harsh dealing of death to the weak and the slow, everything seems sated.

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And we do too as we bounce the five hours home.

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The Drama of Storms

February 18, 2017

So the rain came down.

After two weeks of suffocating, sittingonyourchestinthemiddleofthenight heat so that you almost can’t breathe, the rain came down.

For days I have watched, and willed, hulking clouds nearer, pleading with them to bulk up blackly. And every evening they dissolved on my horizons and left just whispers of white against a cornflower blue. And the heat grew.

But last night the rain came. Here, in the Outpost, it comes with pomp and ceremony, no timid drizzles, no bashful shower. Here it announces its arrival with an orchestra of sound and light, thunder crashes as cymbals I can’t see and the lightening which is as a searing strobe illuminates my room as hot phosphorous and neon that burns my eyelids open, and then it’s gone and I’m plunged to inkdark again. Briefly.

And then the rain comes and you will it to stay so that dust may settle and heat may dissipate, for a few days at least, and you hope this is not all show no go.

I listen to fat drops fall on the tin roof, a clamour of applause and I feel the cool envelop the room and I smell Africa quenching her thirst.

And later I hear the storm move on, I picture a busty opera singer, a diva, bouncing from the stage to her dressing room, all bossy instructions and high notes that fade as she moves down a corridor to a place I can no longer see or hear her.

With sun up I skip out onto wet, wet grass in bare feet and lift the rain gauge to see what was delivered: an inch, a whole glorious dust laying, heat stealing, promising inch.

kwäləfəˈkāSH(ə)n/ or, How Meaningful Are Degrees, Really? or, Why I’m not eligible for an MA in Creative Writing

February 8, 2017

The following is an essay I am about to submit by way of arguing my way onto an MA.

Qualification. It’s a lofty word. Imperious. A mouthful; five whole syllables: qual·i·fi·ca·tion. What does it mean? The dictionary defines it, lumpenly, as ‘a quality or accomplishment that makes someone suitable for a particular job or activity’. My Roget’s Thesaurus spits out a long list of colourful synonyms: adequacy, competence, experience, skill, what it takes.

My son, MSc BEng (Hons), has a qualification as an environmental engineer, as described on his degree from Imperial College London. My signature wears no post-nominal letters , I have no pieces of paper framed upon my walls, winking glassy encouragement on sunlit mornings. But I am a mostly, hopefully, reasonably adequate, competent – mother. I certainly have the experience – 25 1/2 years and I’ve definitely got what it takes: three children. Does that render me qualified. Certainly.  As Just a Mum. My eldest daughter, MA (Hons) Cantab, is always irked by the ‘just’; ‘don’t diminish what you do, what you’ve achieved, with that silly little word, just’, she says crossly, ‘say I’m a Mum’.

Once, a long time ago, when I was young, less belligerent (like Dame Helen I wish I’d told more people to Fuck Off when I was 25 Mirren, at fifty I do), less confident, I minded that I didn’t have a documented qualification.  I thought it meant I was smaller, hadn’t tried hard enough, accomplished much. Oddly – or perhaps not so oddly, perhaps bloody-mindedly – it meant I was determined on two counts: to make sure my children – all my children, but especially my daughters – could always say they were something else, had been something else, somebody else, before they were mothers. If, indeed, they ever choose to equip themselves with the necessary accessories to be parents and then put in the gruelling hours that qualify them to be called Mum. And to busily prove myself. As something. somebody.  Somebody other than Just a Mum.

So I began to write. Whilst the children were at school, I wrote. I wrote a lot. And I set my bar high. I will write for The Times, I told myself. I had no idea how to approach such an ambition. Naturally I did it wrong, with gauche naiveté.  Happily – and very luckily – for me, my email landed on the desk of a female editor who, whilst she saw no merit in my advance (too wordy, too purple, too many exclamation marks, far too long for a busy editor on one of the UK’s most widely-read newspapers), she did spot the teeniest hint of value in my story idea. So she commissioned me. She daringly commissioned me; the measure of a real editor, bravely putting her neck on the line for new, raw voices.  Over a year she coached me, usually quite crossly, always impatiently. I learned not to smart at her terse ticking offs. I learned, instead, to write, to pitch, to sniff out a news peg upon which to hang my ideas. And I have continued to write, my words number in the thousands now, hundreds of thousands. They’ve appeared in all the UK broadsheets, several fat glossies (my words perfumed with Chanel samples and L’Oreal shampoo sachets), across the pond in the Washington Post and in the ether at the Huff Post; I wrote to Arianna Huffington to get that gig; the submissions desk kept ignoring me. Ms Huffington wrote back directly and within days I was launching my own blog on the site.

I didn’t write to her – or anybody else – out of a sense of entitlement or arrogance and certainly not because I thought I had a special talent. I did it because I had a story to tell, because I loved playing with the language, putting a word in and then plucking it out when I found a better one, building a necklace of precisely the right colour and length.  Because I had things to prove. What? That I had a brain? That I could fashion an identity all of my own, other than A’s Wife, B’s Mother? But mostly because I understood, somewhere, between the necessarily insistent demands of my children, school runs, eternal feeding and shopping, school plays, cricket matches, homework that one day there would be no happy – and sometimes unhappy – clamouring for my attentions, that one day my nest would be tipped empty and silent. I knew I had to – have to – sculpt another dimension to myself.   And words were the tools I had to hand.

So? Have I proven myself thus far? What recognition is there for these, my roles. Mother. Writer. My educated, mostly happy, children? The ones I encouraged towards the university endorsements I do not have, could not have for myriad reasons but not because I lacked the resolve or the intellect. Have I demonstrated that I can write? Are by-lines proof? Possibly not given some of the journalists who wear them.  Do commissions from illustrious publications attest to an ability to string a few words together coherently?  Possibly not; journalism is fraught with nepotism, favouritism, plagiarism. All kinds of isms.

So there remains the niggle: I still apparently need that piece of paper. But more, much, much more than that, I need – want – instruction in my art.  I want to learn more than I already know. I want to talk to others in the know about words and how to shape them and how to pull and stretch language so that it fits precisely the gap I am trying to fill.  And sometimes, some bleak days when the words are elusive, beads spilt on the floor escaping my determined clutches to thread them neatly, I need inspiration. A kick up the arse. The desire, a deep burning that sits below my sternum so that I feel it palpably, as heartburn, makes me wonder: could I have borne the passion to learn anything as much as I do now when I was 18?   It is not the yearning for A Piece of Paper, it is the longing for This Piece of Paper. How do I know? Apart from the fact I’ve already demonstrated to myself a passionate commitment to my words, to language, to framing the story? Ten years ago, rattling a little in the void borne of my emptying nest (as children grew up) and my emptying inbox (as commissions dried up) I said to my husband, ‘I think I might do a degree online’. Great, he said. ‘I think I might do a degree in psychology’. Don’t be a cliché, he said. He was right; my aspirations were about sterile, documented qualifications not burning, heartfelt vocations.  Ten years later, last week, I said, I think I might do a degree online’. Great, he said. ‘I think I might do an MA in Creative Writing’. Go for it, he said.

But I face an obstacle. Degrees are like stepping stones it turns out. You cannot plunge to an MA or an MFA or an MSc without neatly navigating a BA or a BSc first.  Those are the rules. You can’t short circuit the system. You cannot Pass Go. Cannot collect £200. You can’t get to D without going obediently via A, B, C. In that order. Which I think is funny (funnyanomalous, not funnyhaha): my mother’s neurologist told me that she would never learn to read again because her brain was too damaged post stroke; ‘messages will no longer route correctly’, he declared. I said, ‘I thought they’d learn to go D A C B?’. Not in the case of your mother, he retorted with finality, and stalked off. He was the expert, with the qualification, he was right. But he wasn’t; my mum can read again. The message got there in the end. It found a new road to take.  And it did that because she refused to accept that rules are there for anything other than to be tested, leant against, bent, sometimes even broken.  And that some rules are just stupid.

So the gatekeepers who stand at the river I am trying to forge, who guard the stepping stones, put a hand out when I rudely stretch ahead of myself in a bid to clamber aboard the rock marked MA Creative Writing. You can’t go there, they say. You need to spend time on rock BA first. I don’t want to, I say. Those are the rules, they insist. But I want to be on the MA, I say.  It is expected that your spoken and written English will be of an adequate standard for postgraduate study. Please see the website for details. But it is, I say. And I have: looked at the website, a dozen times. I have written at The Times, the Telegraph, the Washington Post. In English. I know how to write, how to spell. I even know when to use colour and when to use color. Nobody’s listening. If you do not have a background in creative writing, you are strongly recommended to undertake some preparatory work. I do, I have! The MA in creative writing assumes that a candidate for a master’s degree already has the knowledge and skills usually acquired by pursuing the subject at undergraduate level. Why! Why? Why does an undergraduate degree prove I have an aptitude for this course?  Why does the experience I have gleaned, the lessons I’ve learned, the commitment I’ve shown, the work I’ve already done not count? (Oh, all that stuff you picked up the University of Life you mean? Well yes, if you insist, though I hate the phrase – now there’s a cliché.)  Because, as a friend told me thirty years ago, as I wept into my drink when I didn’t get a job I had applied for simply because I didn’t, don’t, have a degree, ‘you haven’t got documented proof that you can think; you’re never going to make the shortlist’.  This is a module for candidates with experience of writing creatively and not for those who are just starting to write. Oh please, please listen to me: I write. I do. I promise! I have been writing for years, nearly twenty years. I understand the challenge of finding the right word, of testing it out, like a piece in a jigsaw puzzle: will it fit? I know the frustration of tossing it aside when it doesn’t, feel the fat satisfaction when it does. I see language in colours and shapes, there are words, single words, that I love for their vibrancy, their flamboyance, their sheer brilliance, the glorious way they roll from my tongue: onomatopoeia. I know the thrill that comes with reading a phrase that has used language so economically, so cleverly, that every single word bears significance so that a short, unassuming sentence is lent telling weight. The qualification will not offer remedial training for those who have an inappropriate undergraduate degree or inadequate experience. I know that. It’s also why I know this course is exactly right for me: no other course lends the opportunity to explore my passion in my genres: creative non fiction and poetry. No other course affords the indulgence of a sometimes compromised imagination but allows a delight in lyricism. Any such students beginning the qualification do so at their own risk. Is this a risk? If it is, it’s a tiny one. Writing to that very first editor, with my ill formed pitch, with no knowledge of how to interview a subject, no idea of how to navigate a style guide and only knowing I couldn’t ask any of those questions – how do I do that? (anathema for I am an asker of questions) for then I’d definitely prove myself the rookie I was. Now that was a risk.

So, I ask: have I proved myself adequate as a writer? Have I demonstrated competence? Do I have experience? Absolutely, yes. Does that mean I bear a qualification – qual·i·fi·ca·tion – the right qualification, the crutch to navigate my way from where I stand to the stone I’ve got my sights on, rudely pushing my way past the first? Depends on who you ask, apparently.

I told my children that their university educations were not a right, and definitely not a rite of passage. They were, I said, a privilege, to be earned, to be cherished, you had to want them, really, really badly, and you had to deserve them.

And I deserve this.

How to Write?

February 4, 2017

Sometimes I wish I were braver. Sometimes I wish I were bold enough to write everything down. Almost everything. Describe every day, every emotion, every challenge, every failing. My diary – handwritten, the scrawl illegible and on a slant so that you must tip the pages of my journal sideways to read – is testament to single days (mind numbing minutea much of it, who said what to whom why) but emotions, challenges, failings feature large. Private anger, concealed melancholy, occasional clandestine blowing of my own tinny trumpet. But here? Here there are people who would be shocked, outraged, saddened, disappointed.

Once, once a long time ago, I articulated my impotent rage at Outpost living. I ranted. Unabridged. Unadulterated. My husband never reads this. But he did that day. And the shock, outrage, sadness, disappointment was etched into his expression that evening; ‘I read your blog today’.

How must writing be to be believable? To register as authentic?

And what of the emotions, the challenges, the failings? My emotions, challenges, failings?

The emotions see-saw, vacillate between one day and the next, sometimes a single hour and the one that follows (a swim helps, a glass of wine, each narrows the gap between feeling wretched and feeling as if it’ll all be ok). The challenges are many. Where does one go in one’s head when one has been cast off in a veritable sea of silent space? So much space that thoughts have room to jangle. And jangle they do. I long to say, ‘there aren’t enough hours in my day’. But there are too many to fill. Tight schedules necessarily demand direction and discipline. If I don’t get out of bed in the morning, it won’t matter much. Most days. And the failings. Those are they that stalk large and cold at 3am. That’s when I wonder, ‘is it too late?’. Is it too late to write with real success? Is it too late to achieve all the things I want to achieve? Have I squandered the time – and I, for my geography and circumstances, have been gifted more than most: time. How careless to waste it.

How honest to be. Where is that fine line that divides a rant, a moan, the cumbersome wearing of hearts on sleeves and writing well with a believable voice, an empathetic tone, lightly about the dark.

And should we write what we know?

Insomnia

February 2, 2017

Why do demons loom so large at 3 in the morning. When the night is depth of dark and still and silent. Then, at that dead hour between the dawn and midnight, worries rear ugly shapes huge and I lie awake, my head full of loud voices and alarming faces. It is too late to sleep deeply and satisfyingly again, too early to rise.

Then, at 4 in the morning, I fret about time slipping by, I worry about not having achieved, I worry about the writing I promise myself I will do and the writing I don’t, I worry about mum, I worry that I am shrinking her world and not expanding it. I worry about aloneness and distance and how many more days I can cope in this peculiar hiatus of faraway living surrounded by walls and fences, tightly sewn up, claustrophobic, whilst Africa sprawls carelessly all around me. I worry about opportunity that has run away. I worry about never being able to catch up with it – with anything – again.

At 4 am I think I may never sleep again.

I do and I dream but my dreams are not peaceful places. Anxiety tiptoes around the edge of them.

I wake again at seven. The demons have receded a little. I can no longer hear them clamouring, no longer see their cruel profiles so sharply drawn.

But their footsteps are there to examine in the smokey grey of breakofday light.

They are big; have left a deep tread.

Just

January 29, 2017

My eldest daughter, A, is enraged when I use the word just. As in, I’m just a mum.

Don’t say that, she says, crossly.

I used to think she scolded me because, as a feminist, she was mildly embarrassed by the fact her mother had never forged a proper career.

Why do we do that? Why do mums who don’t go out to work do that – say I’m justamum – because I’m not the only one.

Is it because if I were a – say – a teacher, like my daughter, my sister, or if I were a journalist who worked on a paper, 9 to five, Monday to Friday, I’d say,’I’m a teacher. I’m a journalist’. I’d never say, ‘oh I’m just a teacher, just a journalist’.

Funny that. Because they’re proper jobs. With salaries? Employers? Recognition? Accolades?

Is it because, if we have children, we are necessarily mothers by virtue of gender and biology. Just like we’re wives or sisters or daughters. You’d never introduce yourself, ‘I’m A; I’m a wife, sister, daughter’. Even then I must qualify my position – I’m A’s Wife, B’s Mum. Because, ordinarily, I am meeting people within the context of others’ lives. Their work, their schools.

I’m a Mum. A pregnant pause. And …? What else are you?

It’s easier, always easier, to say, Justamum, and I deliver it with a little laugh. People know then not to ask anything further – and usually they don’t. Ah right. They move on and you’re spared the discomfort of having to say, because You’re a Mum, ‘nope that’s it. Just a Mum’. You’ll say it in end.

But I am, I say to my daughter the next time she ticks me off, it’s what I am. It’s what I do.

What I have always done.

‘Then say that’, says my daughter A with a hot glare, ‘say, I am a Mum’.

And then she says, so that I know she is not, has never been, embarrassed by what I do.

‘Don’t diminish what you do with just‘.