Flying low

I flew to Ireland last week for an impromptu visit that could have turned out very differently. On Friday evening my dad was sent to hospital. On Monday morning I was told that things could go either way, that if they went badly he could deteriorate very fast, and that I should probably come home right away.

About an hour after I’d pressed the button to buy the flight, he was no longer flat on his back in a lot of pain. In fact, it was reported that he was now sitting up eating yogurt. This news enabled me not to spend the entire overnight flight anticipating the worst, and when I rang the hospital from Dublin airport, wondering whether I should take the Aircoach directly to St Vincent’s or proceed in a more leisurely manner to somewhere I could put down my stuff and have a shower first, I was told that he was about to be discharged.

Panic over. Welcome to Dublin. Have a nice three days here. Bit of an anticlimax but light years better than the alternative.

I did some shopping, I visited the folks, I saw some friends, I had some nice dinners, I hung out with family. My dad was up and dressed, sitting in his corner of the day room with his book, butter not melting in his mouth, as if he’d never seen the inside of a hospital ward, when I saw him the next day. (He’d been out cold sleeping when I went the first day, not surprisingly. You don’t get much rest in hospital, when they keep waking you up every hour to see how you’re doing.) He had things he wanted to tell me, important things he wanted to be sure I knew, about family history and his childhood. I knew most of them already, they’re safe in my memory banks, I promise I won’t forget. I’ll put it here too.

My father’s father fought in the First World War. He got injured playing football, he used to tell his kids, so they don’t know what really happened. In the second war, the family evacuated together from London out to Welwyn Garden City in Hertfordshire (not too far away) andĀ  – new, thrilling info, this – he was a member of the fire watch at St Paul’s Cathedral, using sandbags to put out incendiaries that fell on the roof. Dad said he’d come home soaking wet every morning. (If you’ve read any Connie Willis you may be extra excited by this snippet, as I was. Though it’s pretty cool either way.) His brother Sylvester won the Croix de Guerre. Uncle Sylv was English, but his wife was French so I suppose he was fighting in a French battalion, maybe? I don’t know really how that came about, but Dad is very proud of it.

‘When I was lying there in hospital,’ he said, ‘I was looking out the window all the time, and it surprised me that not a single aeroplane passed over that patch of sky.’ I was oddly astounded that he was looking at things, thinking about things, when he was meant to be possibly dying, but I suppose even then you have to pass the time. ‘I was thinking about the history of flight, and how my brother and I used to watch the planes going over in the war; we knew them all. They flew much lower then, of course.’

There he was, thinking about the Wright brothers while the medical teams buzzed around him wondering which way things were going to go and I dozed in middle-seat limbo umpty-thousand feet up, waiting to get there so that, it turned out, he could tell me this.

Funny old world, as he’d say himself.

An obelisk-shaped monument on a low grassy hill with a few people in the distance.
My 2012 photo from Kitty Hawk, NC, where the Wright brothers first flew.

 

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Polishing glasses

I know it’s Sunday now, and I suspect tomorrow is New Year’s Eve. But how to reconcile these two facts? It’s like apples and oranges. Wait, there were numbers. Yesterday was 29. So today is 30 and tomorrow is 31 and now I’m all caught up. Phew.

I’ve just finished reading I Found My Tribe (excellent; run out and read it) so I will be using short sentences filled with divine beauty and grace, except possibly for those last parts. And come to think of it, that first part too. I’m not very good at keeping my sentences corralled.

Anyway. I was drying glasses to put them away because we had some friends and neighbours in yesterday for ye olde traditional Christmas drinks, and I remembered the us who put all those wine glasses and cocktail glasses and highball tumblers on our wedding list for all the dinner parties we would have where people would need different glasses for pre-prandials and red and white and water. We haven’t given a lot of those dinner parties. Yesterday, I suspect people put all sorts of unauthorized drinks in unorthodox containers, probably necking prosecco from a wine glass or lemonade from a champagne glass or red wine from a paper cup, for all I was paying attention. It didn’t seem to matter.

Becoming a grownup is a process of doing things because they are things your parents didn’t do, and then slowly finding yourself doing things because that’s the way your parents did them, and meeting yourself somewhere in the middle and deciding that’s what feels like home. At least, I think it’s like that for me.

I learned to polish glasses in my waitressing jobs, two in particular that had a need for sparkly glasses without smears or fingerprints because they were just that sort of respectable establishment. Polishing the glasses was a big deal once you’d set the tables. You filled a small metal teapot with boiling water from the coffee machine and took a freshly laundered linen napkin or two. Then you went around the tables holding each glass upturned over the steam of the teapot for a moment, and polishing it to perfect clarity with the napkin. In at least one place we did the cutlery too – knives, forks, spoons – before they were put away in the big baize-lined drawers. No foggy-bladed knives for our distinguished customers. It was oddly hypnotic and very satisfying, much better than hoovering the carpet or sweeping the floorboards.

The girl who polished those glasses was a million years ago: half a million years before she picked the wine glasses for her upcoming wedding, another half-million to now, when we’re only just coming out of the coloured plastic cups from Ikea phase of the household and starting to pull out the fancy glasses again.

I need an ending, but I am not Ruth Fitzmaurice so I can’t effortlessly weave my little story around so that all the glasses are a perfect metaphor for the point I wanted to make. Did I even have a point? That’s the nice thing about a blog, though: you don’t always have to have a point, or you can have a few and let them fall where they may. Let’s raise our glasses to blogs, then.

Lake at sunset with overhanging tree branches

Paths

I will try to work out the words for this thing I thought. Bear with me.

I was telling my friend about this memoir I’m editing. I started working with the writer last spring, when he had a lot of words that made up individual stories that lacked a unifying theme or a coherent narrative. He’d just written down all his stories, the sort of stories you’d tell an old friend or a new one you happened up beside at the bar. They were full of repetition because in his mind each of them stood alone, so he had to explain things anew each time. He asked me to help him make it into a book.

It was a wonderful challenge. As I read, my mind hoppingĀ  from one era of his life to another and back again (because he’d arranged the stories not chronologically but with “the most interesting first, in case people got bored”) I tried to unravel the tangles and find out what happened to him from the beginning to where he is now. And I began to see themes emerging, silver threads gleaming from the page, begging to be picked up and drawn out, explored, rounded.

From where he is, it’s a bunch of stories. My job is to make it a narrative. Because, when you’re in your life, you can’t see the wood for the trees. Of course you can’t. Even at the end of it, looking back, it might take someone else, someone like me, to find your threads and pull on them to make something that feels whole and satisfying. I might be wrong, of course, and need to be set right: I might see threads that aren’t really there, make something out of almost nothing – or I might see things he never even knew about until I bring them up, glittering, a vein of ore that was buried.

It’s so satisfying to begin at the end and have the opportunity to impose an order on things. In my own writing, I have to start from nothing and create something. I might know where the end is going to be, but I don’t know how I’ll get there. I just have to write to find out, which is what I’m doing at the moment – I’m getting towards the end of a first draft that right now is terrible, to my eyes, but once it’s there I can make it better. Before it existed, there was nothing to fix.

And when it’s my life instead of my writing – my parenting life, for example – it’s so hard to see the path when you’re on it. You can look back and discern the road that brought you here, in one straight line or a winding one, but from where I am right now there are a myriad of options, just like with fiction, and I don’t even know where I’m going. Sometimes you don’t even feel like you’re moving; you’re just standing still and trying not to collapse under the weight of all the things the world is throwing at you, like a deluge, a hail of trash and random items falling on your head. One foot in front of another is enough achievement, never mind looking ahead and picking a direction. Who’s steering this thing? Am I supposed to be in control?

So I suppose the moral is that in my writing, I am in control. I can steer along the path both backwards and forwards until I make whatever needs to happen happen, because fiction is tidy and satisfying that way. In my editing, I can take pleasure in helping my client shape his many stories into a single narrative that tells of a life he recognizes as his and yet is in many ways tidier, more like fiction. But in my own life – my real life, unadorned, unedited – all I can do is I can just keep plodding and remember to look up now and then and try to see a little way ahead, pivot a bit, keep paddling.

A leaf-strewn path through woods.
One path, looking back

Sunrise, sunset

Here’s a thing. I remember when we moved into this house, and the new kitchen cabinets were up (though the countertops hadn’t yet arrived) and I started putting plates and glasses and baking ingredients in cupboards, thinking “I’ll put this here for now but I can change it later when I find something better” and simultaneously knowing that what I did now would probably just stay this way forever because entropy.

I still feel like I could easily change the locations of things – like the flour that I put ridiculously high up because I had a toddler who might get into it, and the cooling racks that get hung up on each other because they’re shoved in on top of the lasagne dish, and … you get the picture. But to my kids, those places for things are sacrosanct. That’s where the item belongs, now and for evermore, and the idea of moving it is as ridiculous as suddenly picking up our house and plonking it at the end of the road instead of here in the curve of the cul de sac.

I know this, because I know how I felt. By the time I was about seven, my mother had been married and living in my father’s house for eight years – just as long as I’ve been in this house. And her life, before me, may as well have happened in the middle ages, as far as I was concerned. When she met up with her friends from the bank, where she worked before she was married, that was ancient history walking around, like zombies. It hailed from another dimension.

I had no idea then that eight years is nothing. That I remember things that happened ten years ago as if they were yesterday. That I know how I felt and what I thought when I got married, a whole fourteen and a half years ago. That I was, in fact, the same person I am now, just with fewer grey hairs and a more impermanent address. I don’t even think of this house as my home forever and ever, I think of it as where we live now. Even though the 12yo vaguely remembers where we lived before here (he had just turned 4 when we moved) I know both kids would be horrified by such heresy. Here is now and now is forever.

There’s nothing quite so surprising as the passage of time. I probably shouldn’t be frustrated when my son repeatedly seems amazed that it’s now past the time when he can get his homework done before nominal “bedtime” because it’s an hour later than it was when I first mentioned that he should definitely start now. I’m just the same, only on a larger scale. I can cope with the minute-to-minute and hour-to-hour, but the decade-to-decade is decidedly shocking.

Clouds over the lake in autumn
Neither sunrise nor sunset, actually

 

Tilt/shift

Nothing very bad has ever happened to me.

I have never been raped or suffered a serious sexual assault. I’ve never been with a guy who didn’t stop when I indicated that we’d reached the point of no passing. I have had two small experiences – once a guy jumped up behind me and copped a feel over my shoulder; another time a man put his hand on my thigh in the bus, one finger edging weirdly close to my crotch.

I was 20 for the first one, in my late 20s for the second. I acted as you might expect – the first time I was scared, I yelled and proceeded quickly to a more populous area, spoke to a supermarket’s security guard, went straight home; the second time, I shifted uncomfortably, not sure if he realised what he was doing, afraid to embarrass him if it was an accident (of course it wasn’t an accident) until finally I shifted drastically enough in my seat that his hand removed itself. I blamed myself the first time: for listening to my walkman, for taking the quieter route, for wearing leggings, for being oblivious. The second time I knew better. I was just a female on a bus. No more, no less.

When something like that – or something else un-good – happens, I have noticed that my worldview tilts. For a while, I see things from the dark side. I expect everything to end badly: every trip to be a harbinger of disaster, every stranger to be a dangerous foe, every phone call to herald terrible news. I cannot see the way out of this tunnel, because it doesn’t feel like a tunnel, it feels like a heavy blanket laid over me. It’s the way I feel if I think too hard about climate change.

Usually, this rights itself after a few days, a week. My world pops back to where it usually is, buoyant, upright. People are mostly good, things mostly turn out ok, I am usually lucky. I am in control of my destiny again.

And then I think how long it would take for my worldview to shift back if something really bad happened to me, and I wonder if it ever would. I think that’s probably, maybe, how depression feels. I think it wouldn’t take much to nudge me over there.

I have immense admiration for survivors. #Ibelieveher

 

Longest road trip ever

Are we nearly there yet?

At the end, I mean. The end of the summer. The time when I can go outside and enjoy breathing real air instead of 99% water vapour. The time when the little darlings skip back into their classrooms of rules and regulations and I get to sit at my kitchen table uninterrupted by demands for toast and peach juice and What Can I Eat and I can put my rusty, summer sodden sponge of a brain to use again. Won’t that be nice?

Or I might just go wild in Starbucks with a large mocha or drive myself to a department store where I can walk around slowly in the cool perfumed air picking things up and putting them down without having to monitor the maniacal whirlings of my offspring in any public area.

I shouldn’t complain because they are now big enough that I have left them both at home and done the grocery shopping on my own several times this summer. It was blissful, until I arrived home to be roundly lambasted for all the vanilla milk and donuts I failed to buy. Apparently now if they come with me they get donuts. I draw the line at bringing donuts home to children who didn’t even get off their bums to accompany their aged P to the supermarket.

But I do complain, because the bigger they get the louder they get, and the farther their limbs stretch when flailing around in small spaces, and the faster they can push a shopping cart into my ankles and the heavier they are when they inadvertently step on my toes. (I remember stepping on my mother’s toes a lot, and my dad getting really annoyed with me on her behalf. I think it must be an adolescent lack of control, less awareness of where your body parts are thing, because Dash has started to do it now, and I am getting my curmuffins, with jam on.)

Call me when it’s September. I’ll just be meditating or something until then.

Two cats asleep in the window
Here are the cats. You’ve missed the cats, haven’t you?