An expanded version of a post from August. Or a middle-aged portly woman finds herself in a tin bath.
I haven’t had a bath in years. Really. It’s been so long that I can’t remember when I last had a soak in a tub. I know some people swear by bathing for its relaxing properties, candles, bubbles and all that jazz, but the vague memories I have formed of that type of endeavour involve only constant struggling with the hot tap with my toe to top the water up, dropped books and rapidly vanishing foam leaving me face-to-face with all my glories. It only takes 5 minutes for me to go from feeling like a Zen mistress to a puce and blowsy woman from a Beryl Cook painting. Cue heaving myself out, strongly channelling, not chilled-out bliss, but instead vibes reminiscent of the poem The Kraken by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
That doesn’t mean I’ve been soap-dodging for a decade. Hell no. I am as much a sucker for sweetly-scented body condiments as the next person (have you ever tried the divine Korres shower gel range?). It’s just that I did not have a walk-in shower in my life until I was 37 and since then, the whole wallowing thing (which to be fair I did almost exclusively for nearly 4 decades) has totally lost whatever charm it may have held – which to be honest – is not a lot.
So after nearly another decade of showering in splendour in Essex, I found myself this morning, somewhat to my surprise, sitting in an enamelled metal bath in mid-Wales. Wales was not a surprise (something to do with the summer holidays), but the bath was.
I don’t know for sure, but it seems like I may have uncovered some kind of special and hitherto secret talent in myself, because booking a modest holiday let with no shower seems like it should be an impossible feat. Try it sometime – everywhere has a shower. Everywhere.
However, I do not preach the TED brand of positive psychology for nothing, so I was not to be defeated, although the horror of the situation I had placed myself in had already led to going unwashed for the full 24 hours since arrival. The 24 hour delay had enabled me to do two key things: discern how much hot water there was likely to be available for a thorough sheep dip, plus decide when such an operation might be best timed, considering I was in competition for the scarce resources with two teenage girls (a species not known for general abstemiousness in the ablution department).
This morning, around 9.30 a.m. I took the plunge. My first thought was that the bath was not big. Or, worse, I was ample. My second thought as I lowered myself gingerly into the water was deep gratitude for the vintage rubber shower head attachment that I had hopefully jammed on the taps. At least I was not having to press a rented kitchen receptacle into service to rinse my hair. My third thought was: I am awfully fat. On paper, I like to attach this rider – I am awfully fat when, and this is important, when I am folded over like a soggy burrito in a small bath in Wales.
In a shower, I am majestic. I stand at the altar of the apothecary and anoint my hair, face and body with botanical essences and water streams over me at exactly the right temperature (unless someone has put the washing machine or dishwasher on downstairs, or has marched into the bathroom without a by your leave to clean their teeth and turned on the tap) but you get my drift.
In the shower, there is no pale saggy flesh pressed against the side of a cold white enamel tub.
In the shower I think great thoughts and I am triumphant.
In the bath I cannot think about anything except when the hot water might run out, whether this bath is truly small or something worse, and why does so much hair come out of my head when I wash it.
And the learning from all that, seemed to be this. My body is only my body in a shower. In a bath, my body belongs to someone else, some stranger.
How we experience the world in our bodies every day is one of life’s marvels. One only needs to watch a baby fascinated by its own feet to feel this might be true. With the passage of time, because most of us do the same things over and over again, in the same places, we simply don’t notice what our bodies do for us anymore. We sit in the same chairs, sleep in the same beds, drive the same cars, walk down the same streets, go on the same gym machines and so on. Rarely, do we suddenly experience our day-to-day physicality in a vastly different way, unless it’s through serious illness or disease.
And when we do, what do we do? My fear is that in a world sated with images of so-called perfection, we jump into judging ourselves unkindly. We want a body that we know, that we can rely upon, sometimes literally through thick and thin, but how often do we get to forgiving it the vicissitudes of age, those bars of chocolate, the odd cigarette?
For women particularly though there a few high days and holidays to note with a new compassion for our bodies and less harsh judgments – see the baby bump comparison brigade. New lovers, pregnancy and childbirth. The onset and cessation of menstruation. These events allow us to see (if we are brave enough to look) and feel our bodies behaving differently. How we approach these differences is important. Just as I couldn’t make the tub this morning any different from how it was, neither could I dictate how my body would deal with, say, having babies. Yes, there were things I could do that might help, or hinder, but in essence it is what it is. Sometimes things go well; other times, not so much. The control we think we have is, in many ways illusory.
As I approach my 50s, I try to help myself, my actual self that is the flesh and the blood and the bones of me, where I can. Keeping active, eating ok, getting my sleep, not sleeping in cold open fields, as I longed to do for half my life. I also do some things that might hinder at times. But I am aware that I am entering a time in my life where it is better to be kind to my body. To work in harmony with it. To be grateful for how it has served me so far. To use it, as they say, or lose it. Mainly, to notice it.
Yesterday afternoon, high in the green misty hills near our holiday hideaway, I walked down a slippery wet track in the rain, behind a woman who must have been well into her 80s. She carried a stick and wore sensible shoes. Mud was spattered up the back of her navy jacket. The slope was not steep, but the weather was filthy. Underfoot it was all loose stones, leaf mulch and water. The woman must have walked up the hill, and was making her way back down. I fell into step, a short distance behind her and adjusted my speed a little, so as not to overtake her.
She could not have been walking for the purpose of pleasure that day. I had seen her earlier in the morning, also in the rain, also walking back. Not far, but at her age, far enough. It struck me she was walking with and against the weather. The same for her heart, her legs, her lungs: with and gently against. Making her body work, for the good of itself, for as long as she could.
Age and disease is all about the body letting a person down, one way or another. Why wait until that moment to either regret taking our muscles and sinew for granted over the years, or not getting the most out of them all along. So what if I had to squeeze myself into that bath or not this morning. Was it not the same thighs and backside that powered me uphill and down dale for the rest of this day?
Make those bodies work a little people, and notice them kindly along the way. That I suppose is all we could and should do for ourselves, until we can’t anymore. In the meantime, give a little thanks for the service you get and give, and don’t forget the consolation of a hot shower, or bath, if you must.
There not being any suitable pictures of soggy burritos in baths to illustrate this post freely available on the internet, will you kindly forgive my eschewing images to accompany this post.
“The sea-reach of the Thames stretched before us like the beginning of an interminable waterway. In the offing the sea and the sky were welded together without a joint, and in the luminous space the tanned sails of the barges drifting up with the tide seemed to stand still in red clusters of canvas sharply peaked, with gleams of varnished spirits…”
Stephen Dillane reads from Heart Of Darkness
The inaugural Estuary festival was launched in dramatic style at Tilbury Cruise Terminal last night as Game Of Thrones actor Stephen Dillane read the opening scenes of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to a hushed audience.
It heralded the beginning of three weeks of brilliant literature, art, music, film and performance inspired by the Thames Estuary that have been organised by cultural organisation Metal, based at Chalkwell Park, in what will be a biennial event.
Starting this weekend (September 16-17) are the…
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Oh how the arguments have raged within the Labour Party for over a year now.
Last summer I vocalised my support for Jeremy Corbyn round an enormous dinner table, with rather high stools, in the middle of Wallonia, Belgium. I had been drawn on the topic, evidently, as I do not discuss politics at the dinner table, if I can help it.
The argument raged across the empty plates and dirty cutlery and quietly people slipped away from the table. I don’t blame them; my support for Corbyn has always come with caveats, the primary one being until there is someone better. Better how, I could not quite articulate last summer, other than to say that I had worked in his constituency in the 1990s and I recall some of his positions in those days made me uneasy.
Now, after nearly a full year, I do have a clearer picture of what better might entail. The ability to get the PLP functioning might be a place to start. Another might be to get off the back foot with the media all the damn time. Or to find more than the inner circle (McDonnell & Abbott) to get on message in the media – this last point leads me to the first and second points again which rather go to somewhat illustrate the problem of the last year.
However all this does not automatically translate into a vote for Mr Owen Smith. In fact, I look at those good people, who probably know far more than I, who support him and urge others to do the same, and wonder why they think we can turn the clock back a year and pick up where we left off, which was basically a thumping by UKIP that let the Tories in.
Labour is, to my mind, too far down the road now in terms of the division over a shift to the left. The cracks cannot be papered over with Owen Smith, or indeed anyone better than Corbyn. We are on the road we are on, and, rather like Brexit, we must make the best of it. As things stand, no-one who knows anything thinks that Labour are likely to win a general election in 2020 or anytime before that point with Corbyn in charge. Funnily enough, I never thought that he would last summer either – what I thought back then was that something interesting was going on: a recalibration of the party, something I wanted to see.
So those who know more than me, gnash their teeth about getting into power to turn back the Tory tide, and I look at that argument and think it’s a right one. Then I look at the Party I am a member of and think – really? If Labour cannot move left a little without eating itself from the tail up, it does not bode well for being a party of government any time soon. Britain, England particularly, is a conservative country with a small c. Socialism is a risky business as far as the electorate are concerned.
The best hope for Labour is that the Lib Dems resurge somewhat and that a left of centre alliance can be formed with the Greens and the SNP, but I don’t even see that, not really. It’s almost like the country like to be purged on a regular and prolonged basis by the Tories. Perhaps it’s ingrained in the class system, perhaps it’s an epigenetic inheritance from Puritan times. Who knows.
I haven’t voted in the Labour leadership election yet. Maybe I won’t. I can’t vote for Smith because he wants to openly learn on the job and I may not be able to vote for Corbyn because he is somewhat worse than I thought. Maybe next summer (when the leadership election has become the annual summer event) someone who really is a bit better than Corbyn will come along.
Turns out the woman on the walk in my last post is 98.
The deliberate walking is just that, although I am told that her hearing and sight are failing.
On a good day she can get not just to the top of the track, but to the top of the hill where the road runs out.
As it will for us all one day.
In my head, this is going to be an excellent blog post in the style of the excellent BBC programme What Do Artists Do All Day, or somesuch title that I have misremembered.
In reality, and because I have become blog rusty of late, it will probably turn into a mish of this and a mash of that sprinkled with the other, following no cohesive train of thought and (like a bad poem) there will be no change by the end in you, the reader. This post will likely be littered with long, poorly formed sentences and stuttering syntax and it will be a labour of love if you get to the end of it. Having said that, I will try to avoid such style screamers as my father sent me yesterday (bracketed content my own): Jenny (the dog) got a stick stuck in her throat and Annie (the granddaughter) started studying her driving theory…
What I wanted to say when I began writing this blog in my head about 10 minutes ago was that I spend so much of my life on the edge of panic that I am now officially fed up with it. By the time I had fired up the old blog on the laptop, I had forgotten that thought about having courage in the face of fear and remembered another thought I had today – when, at 46 years and 10 months old, I realised I knew what I wanted to be when I grow up. (I suppose it will have to be at 47 now).
I think the two thoughts are linked. And I think that they are linked a bit like this.
I am in Wales. I am in Wales with two children (my own) and the dog (who does not exactly belong to anyone but himself, but still). This, you understand, is tantamount to me being Wales on my own. The reason is that although I am with others, I am on my own with the responsibility of the others. Now, why this responsibility should rest on my shoulders more heavily when I am in Wales than it seems to when I am at home in Essex, I don’t know. But, it does. Perhaps because at home there is at least one other adult around some of the time. Now I may know that the bulk of what I do at home for the dog and the children is identical to what I am doing in Wales for them, but at least in Essex there is the promise of back-up, should it be needed.
Here there is no back-up. And that is why I think I am nearly always on the edge of panic, and not just as a parent. In work, there is support, and a listening ear, but at the end of the day the buck stops with me. In my writing: the same. I have a special academic project I am doing this summer too: once again there is no back-up. I am panicked by the life I have got, even though I get up and do the damn thing every damn day.
This damn day (otherwise known as today : Wednesday) I was driving back from market day in a town in Mid-Wales. The children had not enjoyed it (although they had insisted on going). The dog had not much enjoyed it either. During the expedition, deep into shuffling summer crowds, I had felt the responsibility for everyone’s general wellbeing and demeanour weighing heavily on my shoulders. Vegan child refused food and drink at the appointed times, wore her scowl like a tattoo, and refused to remove her duffel coat and scarf. The younger one who is more sensitive to other people’s moods took her sister’s temper too much into account for her own good and went without small pleasures along the way herself to keep the peace. For my part, I bit my tongue, a lot.
On the way back the children fell asleep in the car and I took an unscheduled turn left, off the main road. The road was narrow, steep and winding. Before long I was almost in the clouds. This made me feel panicky too. One part of my mind throws out various disaster scenarios: breakdowns, crashes and getting lost. The other part says, ‘bad things happen and you cope.’ It’s true, I do. Only yesterday I melted the washing up bowl of the holiday let, and today I confessed my sins and said I would replace it. Bad things happen; I deal with them. The dog gets a stick stuck in her throat and a granddaughter studies for her driving test. Life goes on, and so do we. It’s what we do. It’s what I do.
I have therefore decided that doing does not need to cause me all the angst it does. I do it, it’s fine. Sometimes I do it: it’s not fine, I fix it. Doing should not worry me. I’ve been doing doing for nearly 47 years and it’s time to trust myself a little and say: you have this.
- Writing: I do it
- Parenting: I do that too
- Teaching: tick
- Managing people: doing that as well
- Dog-owning: it’s not pretty sometimes but I’ve been doing that for 21 years and 3 dogs’ lifetimes
- Travelling: yes I’ve done that and bad things have happened on occasion but what the heck
I do these things, they don’t do me. I choose to do them. Why worry then?
The thing that should worry me, and does, is the thing I want to be. As it turns out, it’s a poet. I want to be a poet, and that is the truth of the matter. Yes I’ve had a few poems find some good homes in the past, but I couldn’t describe myself as a poet.
Time to ditch the panic and be a poet, for reals perhaps.
Or maybe you can’t be a poet without the panic?
I stayed in Manhattan once.
I should have ordered a Manhattan and listened to this track.
Instead I had a Vodka Martini and went to a jazz club in Bleecker Street, probably in that order.
Many, many months have passed by since then. Now, I would never be so conceptually unintact.
Since Brexit there’s been a lot of vitriol flying around. I’ve kept out of it, but I’ve certainly given it a lot of thought.
Part of my puzzlement has been that, according to the media, many people voting for Brexit were of the older variety – by which I take to mean not my generation. In truth, I am approaching 50, and my generation were the vainglorious crew who took us to the precipice and pushed us off the edge in the first place, so there’s small comfort in that thought.
So let’s be clear, demographically at least. The young (under 30s) if they bothered to vote were more likely to vote remain. The old (the baby boomers, post 60 year olds) were more likely to vote leave. There will, of course, be many, many exceptions to these broad statements and I am personally related to a few.
What I have been puzzling over is that some of those voting to leave must surely have been those who may very well have voted us in to the Common Market, in 1972. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away… or they simply changed their minds after a 44 year experiment. Chin chin.
Until I took a bus trip. And I heard old people talking to each other about such things. Their words threw a bedraggled doily over the tabletop of the referendum – of course we want our children to have a better world than we did they said… But the truth was the table itself was built of bitter wood. Cerebrally these people wanted the younger generation to have the world as their oyster, but emotionally they begrudged it. They begrudged it to their flesh and blood, and they begrudged it to anyone who had not earned it. Our parents had no help they cried. Why should they?
Young people: you have been robbed. Some of the contingent that makes up your grandparents and great-grandparents (unknown) have voted because they suffered, and many of them don’t see why the rest of us shouldn’t too.
They avow that they do not want the young to have it all on a plate. So that’s what that was about people. Now we know.
Edited to add: I can accept that those who voted to join a common market in the 1970s felt that by now they had got more (and less) that they had bargained for. I can accept that they wanted to rectify their perceived error. What I find harder is the general fuck you too from people who won’t be so affected (determined by income and life expectancy) by the very real consequences.