Monday, 25 March 2013

Where is love in my life?

If you keep wondering 'Where is love in my life?' Anita Brookner (Undue Influence) knew: 'love was on offer to those who knew how to deal with it.'

If the criterion for 'knowing how to deal with it' is that you must have experienced true love in childhood - unconditional, attentive, joyous - then I would, had I remained who I was born to be, prove a complete failure. People who claim to have 'no baggage' don't know what they are talking about. They merely mean: no wife or husband, no children, no wooden leg, nothing that shows. But if we have come to realise that we learn soon after birth the principles of love inherent to our family, then we come to that first meeting with a potential mate laden with unseen gifts or crippled with incompleteness if not seeping wounds.

For my mother, love was imbued with need; for my father, it seemed a distant attachment of sorts, he didn't seem too sure, and soon came to spoil it. My sister and I learnt practically from the breast that 'love' is needy, anxious, conditional, demanding and finite. I came to understand that the kind of loving I had learnt was possibly crippling and abhorrent to others, because it was incoherent, damaged, and consequently harmful. Hence a rich history of wrong choices and heartaches. I got a great deal better over the decades though. I have also learnt that I mustn't necessarily sacrifice my well-being to other's.

I never used to think I had a right to be happy, so much did childhood feel like a slow death. Happiness always seemed such a fleeting grace, something granted rather than acquired, even less deserved. Aware of the haphazardness of its delivery, my aims were elsewhere, and although I certainly sought love out, I never really assumed it should make me happy, examples were everywhere. I knew from books what real life could be like; I thought I knew. In my early teens, having read Jack London, love took the shape of a tall man in a lumberjack shirt standing in the doorway of our humble abode, after a days hunting, crowned by the light behind him. Childhood planted inaccessible dreams in my head: between father, who was sad in a quiet but stern way and mother's poorly buried anger, the anxiety of growing up was placated by books and a friendly teacher's support. Among the vignettes in my head, I still have a vivid memory of that glorious young couple: I used to lean at our kitchen window, staring out at the road outside our house for signs of another life, and I often saw them, cycling side by side, his arm always around her waist or shoulders, smiling, chatting, him with his dark wavy hair and her with her sweet blue eyes and shoulder length blond curls. They seemed to have a halo around them. The image left me disconcerted, wistful. Another is of my mother coming home one afternoon, having had tea with a new acquaintance, the wife of a writer who had a house in the hills nearby. She came back excited, at once elated and thoughtful: 'do you know what she told me about her husband? "He is my friend, my son, my brother and my lover...."  Isn't that wonderful? It's the most beautiful thing...' She was silent after that. Maybe it was just for other people...

Two's Company: Love Again, A Woman's Journey by Helene Pascal

Monday, 11 March 2013

So Who Was Mick?

I was, as is my way, intellectually outraged by his incapacity to describe himself. I was sure my daughter would know how to reply: Adam, her boyfriend, obviously knew, who told her recently she should have three initials after her name: G L B: Generous Loving and Busy! This should be a dinner party game I thought. I felt I knew who I was, my only problem had been to restrict my own description in my ad to a few words so as to leave room to describe my desired partner. The limit of twenty five words rather concentrated your mind!.......

The very first philosophy title I was given in the upper sixth form had been: 'Who Are You?' It hadn't seemed difficult at all.....I immediately poured myself into it: 'I am a passionate person without any passions..' describing the disarray I was in but never the less knowing my place in it. Having been brought up a Catholic had certainly provided me with many an occasion to ponder, search and at times agonise, as we were at all times prompted to 'examine our consciences': looking for sins seemed to be a favourite activity....

It had, I suspected, been easier for me than for most to reflect on my supposed existence as mother always seemed to put it into doubt, brushing my tentative thoughts or remarks aside when they suited neither time, place, or her vision of my unessential role in her life, since she only attributed to me and my sister as much existence and usefulness as was required by her needs: we were accessories. By no means unusual in those post-war days, we were children of unthinking and selfish parents who were absorbed and affected by the many traumas of the war, the need to survive and salvage what appeared like order. No wonder existentialism flourished at the time: it was easy then to feel that existence was accidental, aimless, therefore perhaps unnecessary. With so many hidden enemies to avoid or fight, no wonder I strove to make a small place for myself to start with, as a writer-in-waiting (I had to wait to have things to say) who would initially wait on an artist of talent, my husband Paul, until I decided that a life of subservience didn't appeal and left. Still not knowing what to do with myself I threw myself headlong into a passionate and destructive affair with the above-mentioned David who casually provided me with a much-desired daughter as well as many reasons to discover the whys and wherefores of my life.....

Two's Company: Love Again, A Woman's Journey

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Have you found out who you are yet?

Just to test him, I asked my friend Arthur:

-Arthur, if I ask you the question 'who are you?' how would you describe yourself? eight to ten words.
-Ah well......I don't know....sarcastic, helpful, nice, sincere, slimmish, good cook, err ......
- Right! That's not bad of a man of thirty five!

My daughter, later on the telephone, obliged fluently as I took notes:

-Loyal, gregarious, demanding, happy, loving, chatty, thoughtful, conscientious, adaptable, busy thinker...of course some of that I've been told, school reports, that sort of thing....why? 
I explained about Mick and she sounded outraged: 
- Mu-um! You've only just met him and you give him a philosophy essay title! You are so demanding!

Philosophy should be on the curriculum as a life skill, I insist, and 'Who are you?' should be the first homework: any child would be happy and intrigued to find out: I am an ogre! I am mummy's little astronaut!....I am the Queen of Sheba! I am nice..I am sad...

And I wondered to myself: how come someone so demanding found herself such lousy men? Was I setting myself up for disappointment? And could I now avoid what used to be the inevitable? I still felt strongly about the necessity of self-awareness: wasn't knowing oneself an affirmation of who one was?

I am curious about all of you who read this blog: how did you find out about yourself? 

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Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Self Knowledge and Fantasy

If you were to put an ad in a newspaper, how would you describe yourself? 

You only have about 25 words in newspapers which concentrates the mind. This exercise requires self knowledge hopefully, but how well do we know ourselves?

Someone called Michael had no idea how to reply: 'I have no idea.....' I found that extraordinary. How was this possible, a man in his 60's? How could one properly BE without knowing oneself? Surely, he was intelligent, educated, had been married and had children, got divorced, and the latter usually taught you a lot more than you wished to know? Wasn't it like living blindfolded, at the mercy of others and events? I had felt moved on hearing David Blunkett speak with heart breaking honesty about his disastrous love affair 'I misread the signs': you don't need to be blind although it obviously helps. There are many ways of keeping our eyes closed, and this is where the fantasies we may have about ourselves play a part.

As an adolescent, having read Jack London, I dreamt of a tall man in a lumberjack shirt who would appear at my door, the sun shining behind him. This fantasy cost me a lot. You may have yours...........

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Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Two to Tango

It was a lovely day and I was enjoying it, quite. The sun reaching us through the trees felt wonderfully warm as my friend Alice and I strolled towards the tea-rooms of Kenwood House at the end of that June afternoon: we had walked and talked ourselves dry, and tea and cakes felt well-deserved. The large converted barn building was now full of young families and a rather large number of older couples. These days, ‘older couples’ means people my age, broadly, and most appeared quite animated, talking and listening to each other with great interest. I was touched, envious: so it could happen, companionship, togetherness, how lucky some married people were!

I was then jolted by a most unexpected realisation: they weren’t married couples! These lively pairs were dating! Of course, silly me, married couples don’t talk, or at least no longer do: so many got tired, bored of each other, ran out of things to say. They even ran out of the desire to share things with each other, that wonderful desire that launched them towards this marriage, this family, these children in spite of life often getting in the way with its accidents, illnesses, the demands of work and others. What happened? We all had expectations...

I saw myself too at the age of sixty-seven (not that long ago) launching with renewed hope into a search for what could give new meaning to my life since I still had so much to give, and wrote a book about it to help myself make sense of that ‘enterprise’*, which can be easy for some, and not for others... There was so much to say. And it occurs to me that before we start playing with ideas of separation, those of us who weren’t born yesterday, why not make sure we have exhausted all avenues for renewal, in new conversations, new exchanges or projects together, for it can be cold out there on your own.

If there is a chance that we may find within us enough good will and IMAGINATION to reverse the flow that’s carrying our present couple apart, let’s switch off the television and invent new conversations, and if spoken words are hard, why not leave a note (not a diatribe!) on the table? Or visit a loved place, start a joint project, go on a date; do something new, fun,’ naughty; give a place to an old wish. Think of what would fulfil you and see if you could share it. Above all, keep communicating, since words are the first things to die, as well as the first things we share.

Well, what do you think? 

*‘TWO’S COMPANY: Love Again, a Woman’s Journey’. In all good bookshops.

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Beddy Bye Blues

My old bed was ridiculously large
for my life-style
-for my night style-
so had to go. It went
to a couple who wanted more distance
between their dreams.
I bought instead
a mid-sized wooden bed
with a carved head of golden harmonies
that would welcome opportunity
in style,
but the mattress forbade joy,
or peace, except eternal:
it had to go.
Reality stepped in
when my tiny new house
gave storage a priority:
my new bed can now hold
in its base my old wedding trousseau:
cotton sheets and fine lace,
table cloths, soft blankets.
It stands like a monument in my little room,
makes too many demands on the eye
and the heart: so it will have to go,
be replaced by a bed of sensible size
for the sensible dreams
of a sensible life
                                                           -and if I strike lucky
                                                           we can always go t
o his house.

published in 1996 in Magma Poetry Magazine under my then married name of 'Armstrong'.

This Poem, Beddy Bye Blues, which I wrote quite a while ago now, describes very well the state of ambiguity I found myself in at the time - and many other times since: Am I too old for a relationship? Is it too late? Do I stand any chance? Have I learned better?

However, good health and vitality helping, I found it impossible to repress the urges towards engaging, sharing, loving and a sexual relationship: I was alive after all, like so many women feel after 50, 60, 70....... Not just a question of health, but of attitude, of being able to share in life at all levels as we do when we are younger, because we live longer, because bereavement or divorce are not an end to it all, and because we can still find in us the generosity of engagement.

So I wrote a book: Two's Company: Love Again, A Woman's Journey which is a chronicle of my attempts to find love again at the age of 66. Understand that I felt 36, 46, or was it 16? was far too early to give up, roll over and die. (Male) friends who read it, in a spirit of discovery, were amazed, touched, amused but said: 'There is no sex at all!' 'You must put in some sex!'

I dared to disagree. First of all there hadn't been any sex during that particular period of exploration. I could have called the book No Sex in the City, making sure that at least the word sex was in the title, but it would have been a lie, and it's not as if I wasn't yearning for sex; I just wanted to stay true to the spirit of the book. I didn't want to distort my account with an artificial ploy that only served the purpose of selling. I knew I was depriving myself of a possibly important card, but was extremely reluctant to spoil what was a frank journey into loneliness and reflection with something that was not true at the time. So I stuck to my guns, and amid many meetings with possible or totally improbable men, reflected on how I had learnt to love - in childhood as we all do, the examples our family and acquaintances give us as well as books, etc. For good or ill, I had romantic notions. Was I however prepared to make a sensible choice? Had I changed to the point where I could be loved and not exploited?

That's our common journey isn't it?