Is it writer’s block /chaos /lack of discipline /general laziness that has kept me away? A combination of all, probably. Having no formal help at home for a whole year is of course how the vast majority of the world lives, but at least in my case, it comes at the expense of personal pursuits (exercise, reading, writing etc): When there’s constantly a child tugging at my sleeve, a doorbell to answer, a dishwasher to unload or a supper that needs cooking I usually do not succeed in ring-fencing time for myself, or when it eventually rolls around it is akin to drinking a cup of cold tea. I can’t concentrate with music on, let alone with the drip-feed of interruptions that accompanies childcare. I’ve touched on this before, the frustrating return to the starting blocks your mind has to execute numerous times a day. I have a new-found respect for actors and the umpteen takes they pull off to deliver one successful scene.
So the last year has been eventful albeit undocumented. I turned 40, our youngest child began nursery, we dealt with a very upsetting inter-familial Cold War, we pulled our kids out of school (for a variety of unpleasant reasons) and in to a different system, we lost two sparkling and intelligent friends, both in the prime of their lives (both had young children and beloved spouses), my best friend nearly lost her newborn in intensive care and we also faced a possible move abroad for my husband’s job… So 40 was jarring not because I was anxious about aging, but because I felt all too mortal and vulnerable. What I wanted to feel was satisfaction and accomplishment, a sense of reaching my peak and knowing in which direction I was headed. Instead I found myself at a huge cross-roads with the feeling I was embarking on an arduous yet mysterious and possibly quite perilous journey. This instability induced a form of commitment-phobia, and this frustrated fence-sitting was not conducive to writing… or reading… or in fact any valuable activity that requires thoughtful rumination / dedicated chunks of time. So I avoided signing up for gym memberships and buying my usual rafts of books or picking out new clothes (I’ll just have to move them when we move I told myself), I turned down invitations and avoided booking holidays and dinners months in advance, I ran down the supplies in my kitchen. I lived in limbo as the ground shifted beneath our feet. The undercurrent of uncertainty sent ripples through all aspects of our lives and touched on how I slept, how I faced things. I stopped relaxing and I basically stopped investing myself. I stopped building new relationships and I skated on the surface. I felt like my inner life was in suspended animation. Social media and browsing online not only suited my short-term thinking, it aggravated it. It’s compulsive, fragmentary, non-committal and deeply unsatisfying – like cerebral fast food. I didn’t know what to focus on, I rushed, I rejected the blog.
Eventually I dug my way out of this slump with literature. Reading had a curiously antidepressant effect and actually scrubbed my mind while restoring it. It was addictive, the time I spent reading and the enjoyment I derived from it both grew exponentially, and as this occurred I got more comfortable with nurturing my own needs a little, I started to read without guilt. I loved feeling my synapses firing, I was able to leave damp laundry in the machine and to let the phone ring. I went to bed early with the sole purpose of plunging myself in to these alternative worlds. I kicked off with something light: the Girl on the Train, then moved on to The Secret Keeper (written by a talented and beautiful friend of mine), then Stephen King’s On Writing, Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth. I finally got around to finishing The Shadow of the Sun that had knocked around my bedside table for a over a year, and then, gloriously, I chomped through the entire series of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels – in Italian to blow out the cobwebs. It felt amazing! I also finally got around to watching the last season of Mad Men. It is so thought-provoking, both bold and subtle, aesthetically and culturally detailed and well-researched, the characters drawn so well and in such depth, that as a creative experience, it is not a million miles away from reading a great book. Above all it is the story arcs and the cohesive themes that reverberate through every relationship that ring true in each episode that appeal to me, that influenced me. It allowed me to turn that more detached eye towards my own life, I saw with more clarity that this phase of my life had too had a theme. This theme was vulnerability. It was about fear of the unknown, fear of investment, “no-strings” / short-term thinking, the struggle to enjoy the moment when facing an uncertain future. As a nester (you already know I like to cook) I like to be at home, spend time with my loved ones, have meaningful relationships, think long term. I am someone who thrives when putting down a broad and deep network of roots so this phase of my life has been tricky. I now know that only one thing is certain and inevitable, and that is change.
Not being able to predict where we were headed and for how long, I reluctantly started to grasp at more attainable, meaningful snippets of joy. 10 minutes with a good book, a great coffee in the sunshine, a walk one-on-one with the kids, a phone call from a friend. I realised I had no choice but to park my frustration. I had no choice but to be less controlling. I’m pretty sure it’s my return to reading that provided me the distance to see these patterns and although I didn’t like the lie of the land, I did realise that where I had felt stuck, I was, in fact, anything but. What looked like stagnation, lack of progress, just treading water from a bird’s eye view, was in fact proof of my stubborn buoyancy, my dogged motivation to make tiny bales of hay while the sun intermittently shone. Had you glimpsed beneath the surface of the water you would have seen my limbs working frantically, that in fact I was swimming against a strong current of nasty events.
All this to say that that was a bit of an epiphany that was a long and wobbly time coming, and the Summer provided a desperately needed reset, a change is as good as a rest after all.
It wasn’t strictly a relaxing “holiday”, if you bear in mind the earthquakes and the home renovations involved, more of a working break, but it was in every sense a shake-up. We returned to Italy by car, as ever, for 5 weeks. Firstly Maratea, replacing last year’s disappointing hotel with a cool and breezy house with pool and spectacular sea-views a moment further up the mountain. Shop owners and stall-holders greeted us like old friends, the kids were given treats at every turn, the weather was good, the nights were cool and we went only to the restaurants we knew were good. It was just the five of us, on our own terms. Thanks to the delightful layout, the “baby” napped while we read by the pool without the nagging worry he would be swallowed by waves or crowds. I started to regenerate. Despite the idyll, it was there that we felt the first three tremors. A bizarre headache would give me sea-legs and within 24 hours tremors would ensue. The first time it was 6am and I was still asleep. Initially I thought it was the tube rumbling all around me in my dream, when P and I both sat up in bed to the yelling of the farmers “Terremoto!!!” that we realised what was happening. It was actually the roaring which in Italian is described as the boato of the earthquake. You can hear the yawning of chasms that could open beneath you and most of my friends agree that you lose all sense of time and can feel paralysed, rooted to the spot. It was funny, that is how I had felt all year.