Decisions

The path forks
I retreat
Into the vacuum
Of my whirring mind
Determined to polish my decision
To a high sheen of certainty
To imagine a future
So controlled
I can see my own face
Reflected in its surface

But the faster I spin
The more lost I become
In a black hole
Of my own creation
My core feels empty, expanding
(Was that once a bellybutton?)
To a fathomless void
Ready to swallow me whole
Then I remember
There is another choice

Instead of looking within
For answers
I turn my gaze outwards
For adventures
The risk of the unknown
Is somehow less terrifying
Than being alone
In my own sterile consciousness
The best decisions are experiments
In the laboratory of life

Note: This poem was inspired by a moment in a counselling session – where my counsellor observed I was withdrawing into a vacuum. This is a familiar, if unhelpful pattern. But by connecting, and trying to make decisions by doing rather than preempting, a whole new world of possibilities opens. I figured I could probably articulate the feeling better in a poem than in a blog post, but it’s nice to be able to remember its genesis.

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Tin

For Zachary

Ten years
Named for tin
Because after that all time
It is strong and durable, so they say

But I find myself thinking of tinkers
With hammers and shears
Perhaps marriage is
That too

There is beauty in the dented, mended watering can
That can still hold water, that can still nourish life

Note: I wrote this poem on 20 January when the idea was fresh – for once not leaving my anniversary present until the last moment!

I hadn’t planned the structure of this before I started writing, but the lines seemed to grow in a beautiful crescendo in the first stanza. I wanted this mirrored, paired, equal in the second.

Likewise with the last two lines – I wanted them coupled, to match.

The effectiveness of this will depend on typography, but they line up pretty well from this view.

Somehow, the idea of having ten lines also felt right.

There is so much more I could say, but the love lurks between the lines.

Photo by Steve Mushero on Unsplash

The bird’s nest

For Holocaust Memorial Day

Preserved
As a necessary
Monument
To brutality

A wind blows
Through
The draughty
Barracks

Shelves
For piled bodies
On the cusp of
Silence

Empty
Except memories
Just walls now
Floor

People lived here
Died
Survived
Human souls

Death
Shadows
Watching
Witnesses

And yet
In the rafters
Life
Endures

A bird’s nest
Empty
Preserved
Life

Photo by Serafima Lazarenko on Unsplash

Note: Many years ago, I visited Auschwitz with Zach while he was living in Poland. The image of this bird’s nest has stayed with me ever since. I can’t remember now if I took a picture – or if this felt inappropriate in this strange place – but I can see it so clearly in my mind’s eye.

Beware

Beware the ones who say
I’ve read that
To every book you mention
Who always have a counterexample 
Or a riposte, who are never caught
Without a ready answer
And exist in a state of impermeable poise

Beware the ones who file away
Knowledge like munitions
Trapped in an intellectual arms race
Who consume to increase their power
Rather than to appreciate their ignorance
And cannot understand anything
That cannot be put into words

Beware the ones who read
To tick boxes on a list
Who aim to dominate with language
Rather than to have their hearts
Rent open and repaired again
Or to savour the simple pleasure
Of escaping into another’s mind

Note: I have met many of these people. It’s easy to feel intimidated by encyclopaedic knowledge, but now to me it mostly looks sad.

But this poem was written with equal intent as a warning to myself. Because I have also been that person.

Reading is not the same as understanding. And understanding is not the same as empathising. I just need a little reminder from time to time.

Photo by Laura Kapfer on Unsplash

Where’s mama?

(This poem / might be triggering / for some people)

Where’s mama?
She’s working
Where’s mama?
She’s in the bathroom
Where’s mama?
She’s cooking dinner
She’s writing
She’s busy
Where’s mama?
Tonight she’s meeting a friend

Where’s mama?
She’s off on a visit to the doctor
Where’s mama?
She’s cleaning
It makes her feel calmer
Where’s mama?
She just needs a moment alone
Sometimes we feel better
After a good cry
Where’s mama?
She’ll be out of the shower in a minute

Where’s mama?
She’s getting groceries
Where’s mama?
She’s acting normal
Where’s mama?
She’s buying a bathrobe
She’s texting a friend
She’s looking in the mirror
She’s looking away
She’s vacuuming up her hair
Where’s mama?
She’s laughing
She’s playing
She’s happy

Where’s mama?
She’s making a phone call
Where’s mama?
She needs to go
She’s visiting the hospital
Where’s mama?
She’ll be home soon

Where’s mama?
She’s sleeping
Where’s mama?
She’s getting dressed
She needs to do things slowly now
Where’s mama?
She’s taking her pills
She’s buying a cane
She’s trying to eat
Where’s mama?
She’s tired

Where’s mama?
She’s in the bathroom
Where’s mama?
She’s in the bathroom
Where’s mama?
She’s still in the bathroom

Where’s mama?
It’s just for a night
Where’s mama?
She’s home again, see?
Where’s mama?
She’s calling the doctor
She’s listening to the doctor
She isn’t saying anything to the doctor
Where’s mama?
She’s going back to the hospital
Where’s mama?
She’s packing
She’s writing a list
She’s cleaning again
Where’s mama?
She’s looking for her phone charger
Where’s mama?
It’s just for a night

Where’s mama?
She’s in bed
She’s looking out the window
Where’s mama?
She’s in bed
She’s staring at the wall
Where’s Mama?
Shall we remind her
She needs to drink water
C’mon, let’s tell her she can do it
Where’s mama?
She’s so happy to see you
Where’s mama?
Maybe later
She’ll be able to play

Where’s mama?
She’s googling and googling and googling
She’s sorting delivery for dinner
She’s trying again to eat
Where’s mama?
She’s yelling at the insurance company
She’s using words we don’t say
Unless we’re talking to
Insurance companies
Where’s mama?
She’s ordering her pills
Where’s mama?
She’s sorting her pills
Where’s mama?
She’s taking her pills
Oh wait, sorry –
She’s ordering more pills

Where’s mama?
She’s in the hospital
Where’s mama?
She’s right here on the phone
Say hello
Where’s mama?
I can hear her smiling at you
Where’s mama?
She’s in a special home for sick people
She lives there now
Remember?
They can take really good care of her there
Where’s mama?
She’s sleeping
Where’s mama?
She needs to sleep a lot
But she visits you in her dreams
Where’s mama?
She’s –

Where’s mama?
Where’s mama?
Where’s mama?

Where’s mama?
She’s in the fields and flowers
With all the other mamas
Who came before her
Look –
I think I see her
In the curve
Of that daffodil
I want to be a flower, too
Someday, sweetheart. Someday.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Note: Medium is fantastic at knowing exactly what stories will make you click to read, and today my digest included a story by Heather Macleod about trying to help her four-year-old prepare to lose his daddy. This hit me so hard that I had to stop reading a few times and take a little break. I feel every day how very lucky I am – and a deep awareness that my story could have gone very differently (and still could).

The feelings from this article felt like they collided together with my own experience at the moment, where Rosie’s days begin with ‘Mama, mama, mama, mama’ and end with ‘Mamaaaa! Maaaaamaaaaa!’ (Definitely lots of ‘Daddy’ too, but I think the Ms are more satisfying.) Even in a two-bed flat where no one can leave during a pandemic, it’s amazing how often you hear the words ‘where’s mama?’ or ‘where’s daddy?’ Which has now progressed to ‘Whatchyoo doooooing mama!?’

In the article, the author Heather Macleod writes about how hard it is to juggle her son’s ongoing questions about his father:

“These spontaneous questions are like little paper cuts. But it’s our job to answer him truthfully and patiently. I’ve read that children who lose a parent have to re-deal with their grief from different angles over and over again as they grow up. The questions and challenges Isaac has around his dad’s death as a four-year-old will be different from those he has as an eight-year-old, or a 14-year-old, or a young adult. I’ve dreaded this ever since I read it.”

We always tried to be honest and open with Rosie, honestly I’m not sure we could have done anything different given the enormous impact it had on our lives. But I really admire the way Heather Macleod is managing to do the same with much harder questions – and that the answers she gives her little boy about where his father is now are exactly what I want to say to Rosie.

As I wrote this, I kept thinking of my husband, and the way he took on the role of primary parent during these challenging experiences. He did so much, without every making me feel left out. You become so reliant on the other people around your child to reinforce your love for them when you aren’t able to give it in the same way. In this piece, the constant questions might be about Mama, but it’s the answering voice that gives the child their anchor of safety. Zach was the main person in this role – but we were lucky to have the support of friends and family also giving that love and security.

This poem came because I just started hearing these questions and this dialogue. I think ultimately this poem might need to be shorter, but I just went with what came spilling out today.

Tell your friends ‘I love you’

Do you remember the first time you said ‘I love you’ to someone, and you were scared they wouldn’t say it back?

Or maybe this hasn’t happened to you. Some people never want to be the person to say it first. Personally, I’ve always felt like we need as much love as possible in this world, so my bar is probably on the low side.

The first time I had someone say ‘I love you’ to me first was not in a romantic relationship – it was a friend.

This was someone who was very special to me as a friend and a mentor (and not interested in women, just to make that clear from the outset). One time, we were getting off the phone, and he said ‘Love you, Al.’

I felt hot-faced, and touched, and awkward, and giddy all at the same time – he had caught me so off guard. But I realised in that moment that I loved him too. Not in the way I had expected love to be, not in the way it would be with a romantic partner, but a deep and abiding enjoyment of and appreciation for this wonderful person and the relationship we shared together.

The words felt awkward coming out of my mouth, but I said it anyway. “I love you, too. Goodbye.”

I thought maybe it was a one-off, but nope. It was the start of something new. This became our regular signoff. ‘I love you.’ ‘Love you.’ Each time it gave me that little zing of emotion – the rush of emotional intimacy.

These are words most of us don’t hear often enough, and it’s almost impossible to hear them too much.

Bit by bit, I started saying this to my friends, too. Not to everyone – just to my closest friends in the relationships I really treasure.

I think it’s important to name this and claim the value of this kind of love. Love doesn’t have to just exist in one person. Love isn’t just romantic. The ancient Greeks had words to explain different kinds of love. Maybe we need something like this in modern day English.

Or maybe not.

There is the same anxious thrill of saying it to friends as there is in saying it to a partner. The fear of loving and not being loved in return never goes away. But there is a heady magic in this vulnerability.

I know some people think that using these words too much cheapens them – but I have found the opposite to be true.

Being willing to say ‘I love you’ – to recognise my most precious relationships – has undoubtedly helped me draw these people closer.

In that moment of emotional risk-taking, we create the opportunity for an even deeper friendship. I love the moment of surprise the first time the word “love” is brought into a relationship. It’s nerve-wracking and exciting and awkward and wonderful all at the same time. Every time I say them, I get the same buzzy glow and can see this on my friend’s face as well.

Yes, there is a risk that you might not hear them back. But that’s okay. We as human beings programmed to look for this reciprocity. And crossing a line of intimacy can put people’s guard up – but if you’re saying this to true friends, this is a risk worth taking.

And its’ worth remembering that just because someone can’t say the words doesn’t mean they don’t care for you in the same way. And being bold in cherishing each other is a wonderful feeling, even if the feelings or the words we use to describe them don’t entirely match up.

If you feel shy about it, start with just ‘…love you.’ Somehow it feels less formal and less official once you leave off the ‘I’.

Everyone deserves to feel this magic.

Photo by Mayur Gala on Unsplash

Hot

The heat starts deep under my skin, pushing towards the surface with the force and inevitability of an oncoming wave.

I can feel when it starts, but by then it is too late.

I can tell myself that I am not actually hot, just flooded with sensation, but it makes no difference. I am warm, wet, dripping.

My internal thermostat is broken.

Every month, I go to have an implant injected into my stomach. And it freezes my body’s cycles. I feel I am standing on the knife’s edge of menopause.

It’s not much fun during the days, but it’s the nights that really get me.

I wake up, shivering and sweating at the same time.

If I get up to use the toilet, or tend to Rosie after she cries out, I know I have to budget at least fifteen minutes of lying in bed before I can put the covers back on. Otherwise the heat will come.

I don’t think women were designed to go through this change while looking after small children.

Bit by bit, it makes my sleep unravel.

I am doing everything in my power to cling to my potential to rest. It seems strange to think I used to be a champion sleeper.

There has been some improvement. One night, when I couldn’t sleep, I borrowed a book about insomnia from the online library at 2am. I proceeded to start following every recommendation in the book to the letter.

It seems to be working.

The most important part is sleep restriction – you are not allowed to do anything but sleep in your bed, and if you are stressing out, or not tired, you have to get back out of bed.

Maybe I am just so exhausted that it helps me sleep through the heatwaves? But somehow, my overall energy does feel better.

I don’t touch sugar. I meditate every day (mostly). I do yoga, even if just for five minutes, every day.

And then for one day I stop doing those things. I eat a bowl of ice cream. I sleep in instead of doing yoga. I write instead of meditate. And suddenly I am hot again.

Correlation or causation? Who knows.

Let’s blame sugar. It’s always easy to blame sugar.

It’s the same red-faced sensation that accompanies embarrassment, where you feel the warmth flooding your face. Only this time the trigger isn’t shame. It’s something else – but what?

The root cause remains a mystery.

I thought maybe these episodes wouldn’t be as frustrating if I understood why it happened. So I googled it. And from what I can tell from my amateur research, it is a mystery.

A mystery…

No one knows why women find themselves suddenly at the mercy of an out of control internal furnace. Despite the fact that every woman eventually goes through some version of this change, there simply hasn’t been enough research done to understand it.

Why don’t we talk about this more – what it feels like, how we cope? Sometimes it feels like I am the only person in the world this is happening to. And yet, it’s hard to think of an experience more universal. Not every woman bears a child. But every woman travels through the menopause if she is lucky to live long enough.

There are sometimes I don’t mind the sensation of the heat. I can observe it calmly, almost as if I were outside myself. It’s fascinating, feeling it move through my body like a row of dominoes, toppling one after another.

I thought hot flashes were boring before I experienced them, but each one feels like a dramatic episode: inciting incident, build to an overwhelming climax, denoument.

I was someone who was always cold. No longer.

I keep blankets in layers. I look longing at clothes made from synthetic fabrics I can no longer bring myself to wear.

When this change happened to my mother, she joked about it being a kind of game: “she’s hot, she’s cold, she’s freezing”.

It isn’t fun. But I can keep things in perspective: the sensations were infinitely worse during chemo.

I imagined my ovaries screaming, shrivelled up, dying in reaction to the toxic chemicals bathing my body.

In the space of just a few months I had gone from breastfeeding, through IVF, to this hormonal wasteland. No wonder my body was crashing.

When people asked me how I was coping, I would tell them “I can’t control my temperature.” Which on the surface doesn’t seem like a particularly devastating side effect, given the challenges cancer can bring. Listening to myself, it sounded like complaining about trivial things. I had no way of communicating how excruciating it was. I came to dread bedtime, when it was at its worst.

Between the headaches and the hot flashes and the gastrointestinal distress, I reached a point where I forgot what normal sleep felt like.

By comparison, now is a walk in the park.

And yet, I am still hot.

Sometimes, when I feel the heat start to spread, I imagine that I am lying on a beach, with the sun warming my body, and a cool drink by my side. It’s the closest I will get to a vacation during these crazy times.

I will be glad when this rollercoaster eventually stops. There is a surgery in my future that will take care of that. For now, I just try to accept it.

I don’t know how to be honest about it without being melodramatic. (Maybe it’s the hormones talking.) I’m worried this makes it all sound unbearable.

It isn’t. It’s just another strange experience of living in a female body.

It is almost bedtime. I have no idea what awaits me, sleep or sauna.

But as the heat rises and the blood rushes, at least I can take comfort in this undeniable evidence that I am alive.

Photo by Armando Ascorve Morales on Unsplash

Space vs stuff

It seems to me that keeping a home environment nice and tidy comes down to a fundamental conflict between space and stuff.

What is clutter?

We talk about clutter as a noun, but I think that actually, it’s more a condition – a way of being.

Clutter is the state of having too much stuff to fit in the space it needs to go into.

As human beings, we naturally gravitate toward finding a balance between stuff and space. An empty room feels soulless and unsettling. One packed to the brim feels overstuffed and anxiety-inducing.

Where that golden spot is is different for each person – it’s a matter personal preference.

Most of the dialogue around this right now seems to present clutter as being a kind of moral failing, and minimalism as inherently virtuous.

Clutter is not necessarily a bad thing, if you are happy in that space.

In my grandfather’s old shed, he had all kinds of treasures – half built inventions, coffee cans filled with screws, fishing poles, bits of wood, seeds to plant… I can’t even begin to recall the volume and variety of strange and half-broken things in there. But it was magical the way he could rummage around and find just the thing that was needed for any situation.

Was it cluttered? Undoubtedly – the amount of stuff he had packed into that small space was much more than it was designed to hold. But it worked for him, and it made him happy to be in his workshop.

Clutter only becomes a problem when it makes your space less usable.

Clutter needs boundaries

Here’s the thing – my grandfather’s mess was contained to that shed.

The home had one junk drawer – everything else was lean and clean. My Granny ran a tight ship, and was ruthless about removing any clutter or unnecessary items in the house.

Granny was a brilliantly pragmatic housekeeper – not someone who delighted in the domestic, but who got it done without a fuss. (My mom always liked to point out how her furniture was perfectly spaced so the vacuum would fit without having to move anything.)

Are you a space person? Or a stuff person?

The first step to building a happier relationship to your environment is working out if you are happy in your space.

The next thing you need to know is – are you a space person or a stuff person?

Which one of these things is the priority that drives your decision making?

For space people, the main priority is how the space is working as a whole, and how the objects fit together – for example, the person who would give away a book that doesn’t fit on their bookshelf without thinking twice.

For stuff people, the perspective is different. I naturally fall more in this camp. Every object has a story: a past, or an as-yet-unrealised future potential. I tend to be more attached to the individual things than I am to the overall environment.

Here’s an example in action, drawing on that image of books…

I have spent hours meticulous researching bookcases to try to find things that are exactly the right size to house my writing papers. The goal is making a home for the stuff. This is a stuff first approach.

Whereas my sister is the type of person who would see a bookshelf that works with her decor and buy it, then figure out what fits on it and get rid of the rest. This is a space first approach.

Both personality tendencies have benefits and drawbacks.

If you’re a space person, you run the risk of missing out on the details (and you have probably thrown away things that you shouldn’t). But you almost certainly have a space that is working pretty well for you.

If you are a things-first person, there is very likely a disconnect between the number of possessions you feel attached to and your available space. Meaning – you have a clutter problem.

To create a nice environment, space has to win

I hate to admit it, but I’ve come to believe that the space people are right. When these two approaches are in conflict, space has to win.

This requires an evolutionary shift in our thinking. Human beings have been programmed to stockpile with good reason – hanging on to things and building resources is historically an important way to be prepared for lean times, particularly unexpected ones. (i.e. You may not like your old shirt, but it’s better than naked. Or you may hate canned peas, but it’s better than hungry.) This is the heritage that has been passed down over centuries.

But for most of us today, the dangers of living in a space with too much stuff are far greater than the dangers of scarcity.

Untidy or overstuffed spaces make it harder to keep healthy habits – no one wants to exercise on a floor they can’t see or cook in a cluttered kitchen.

Clutter exists on a continuum, but you don’t have to be at a hoarder level for the baggage of extra stuff to make your life difficult. And it’s surprisingly easy for this to become hazardous. (After a difficult move our house was in total disarray, and I was really thrilled to meet the personal goal of not having to trip over piles, or worry about things falling on my head when I open my cabinets.)

When the accumulation of objects starts to veer into true hoarding behaviour, that’s when the danger gets really extreme. These spaces are unhygienic, they can be firetraps, and the risk of excess stuff causing injuries grows exponentially. And the problem only gets worse, because the fact that you can’t find what you need leads to buying even more stuff.

I can’t change the fact that I’m a stuff person, that I probably will always hold onto things a bit longer than I need to, or take a stuff-first approach.

But I have to recognise that if I want a space that feels good, then I have to make the big picture the priority.

You know the saying ‘can’t see the forest for the trees?’ That is exactly what happens for those of us who prioritise stuff.

So, how do stuff people learn to manage the clutter?

I am still very much a work in progress on this. But I’ve come to believe there are strategies that can really improve things for us stuff people. We don’t have to ignore our natural inclinations, we have to learn to work with them.

That is exactly the issue I will be tackling next in this project.

Photo by Luca Laurence on Unsplash