Rants in My Pants: The Art of Being Constructively Cross

Sara Bran Angry EyesI’m so grateful for blogging; how else could I give voice to my acidic internal monologues? Is there any point to having a rant in private? My years of diary entries just don’t compare to the validation I get from blog ranting (branting as I call it). All it takes is one kind person to confer a typographic nod or virtual lemon-taster face in the comments section of my online dribblings to satisfy my vented spleen.

The thing is, I’m only any good at ranting on paper. I can’t do it in person. In reality, my brain goes fuzzy and I spit out inconsequential rubbish when moments in my life become heated. I’ll come out with things like, “Yeah… and your car is the same colour as my grandfather’s teeth!” in a flash of road rage or, “I’m packing my suitcase… the only one we have that still has a really good zip… where did we put that again?” in a moment of domestic pique. I’m a non-sensical, semi-hysterical arguer, as articulate as a kumquat in a fruit bowl.

Whenever my youngest daughter throws one of her hissy fits of star-exploding, galaxy-forming intensity, my husband will just glance at me for a second, left eyebrow ever-so-slightly raised in a way that it says it all. She. Gets. It. From. You.

If it’s any excuse, I have never been taught how to argue articulately; it just wasn’t my childhood experience of conflict. Things in our household were always either in first gear (sulky, silent, behind-closed-doors, simmering) or fifth gear (violent). I was incubated in a walk-upon-eggshells, glass hot- house type situation, and I’ve never learned how to do the in-between. It’s one of the many reasons I could never be a politician. I would definitely end up calling the opposition ‘toss pieces’  or some other spittle producing insult that would leave the House of Commons microphone so drenched in fury that no one else could use it for days.

It’s a real skill, being able to not lose it, and yet still convey one’s wrath. My husband is brilliant at perfectly articulate, constructive and appropriate crossness. For me not to do the ranting harpie routine would require an actual personality transplant. Am I too late to learn? I’m just not sure I can get the angry woman out of me unless there is some kind of extraction thing that can be done, like liposuction but for vitriol.

Maybe if I reframe my ‘rants’ as ‘passion’ things will work better for me. Perhaps I am passionate about the environment rather than foaming at the mouth like a myxomatosis-riddled bunny about wanton littering and waste. Maybe I am passionate about women’s rights rather than being a bubbling cauldron of fury about everyday sexism. Is it working? Not sure if I’ve convinced myself yet.

I fear that if I don’t at least write, my rants will stay in my pants, and we all know how irritating cystitis is. Wish me luck, I’m trying to get good at fighting.

A Chaos of Edges: Welcome to the Perimenopause

Sara BranMost women are born with their life quota of egg follicles, somewhere around 2 million of them. In an average life, these eggs diminish to about 750,000 by the onset of puberty to around 10,000 by the age of 45. Medically, the menopause describes the moment when a woman runs out of eggs and has her final period. The menopause is only ‘diagnosed’  after a year without menses, but actually this varies greatly from woman to woman.

For a long time before this menopausal ‘moment’, women experience seismic shifts in their chemical make-up at a pace as individual as their life stories. This is the perimenopause, a process which begins around the age of forty to forty-five and takes several years to complete.

Although many women (and men) view the prospect with dread, the perimenopausal years present a precious opportunity for healing and spiritual growth ~ if only more of us embraced them fully, fiercely with wild and open hearts. Yep, the PM. It’s where it’s at sister. Provided there’s somewhere to sit down and it’s not too far from a toilet.

Perimenopause is a time of enormous change as significant and bewildering as its reverse mirror, puberty. Women’s later years are potentially  a time of crystallization, a process of obtaining clarity as we gather up the fragmented self and cluster into new forms. The elements are all the same; we are still us, but we are arranged differently. I personally feel a need to reclaim the missing pieces of myself, those fragments lodged in unfulfilled dreams and unfinished business; those pieces still stuck in the hearts or minds of old loves. I feel the need to gather myself home before it’s too late.

Many of my female friends over forty are feeling daunted by the imminent onset of the ‘change’. It looms on our horizon like a gathering storm of ancient soot and carnage. Our air is heavy with anticipation, we’re all forecasting doom and it has to stop.

Native American traditions view the older woman as ‘the gatherer’ who ‘walks in beauty’ replenishing her internal landscape while her external shell decays.  For women with children, the perimenopause can feel like a homecoming, a reintroduction into a extraordinary place called “the self” after many years of caring for others.  Sadly these days, there are few elders lining the streets and cheering us on in this endeavor. Many women, just like me, are going through this stage of their lives with young children to look after and the push/pull of opposing needs is aching.

As far back as fairytales, older women have either been the ‘stepmother’; malcontent, skeletally thin and brimming with poison, or the wizened yet wise. In the mainstream media,  older women are pretty much invisible. With such a narrow choice of role models, it is no wonder that, although the menopause is not a disease, around 2.5 million women in the UK choose to medicate their journey from fertile to infertile. We commonly turn to HRT or antidepressants at mid-life and risk increased chances of developing breast cancer, thrombosis and strokes among other side-effects.

Botox may freeze an older woman’s face into a fictional eternity, but we still rot inside if we hate who we are. We are so terribly bad at ageing in the West ~ it can feel lonely facing the challenge of these years in a world that takes it’s beauty one way; neatly packaged and low-fat.

As I age, I am a chaos of edges, an ill-defined mess, a burgeoning of bosom, a geology of indiscriminate crevices and I am determined not to loathe it although, sometimes, bravado crumbling, I do.

I am so tired of women hating the skin they’re in. So, so tired.

[This piece is abridged from an article, “Coiled Snake Unwinding” originally published in The Mother Magazine]

The Enduring Perfection of Nadia Comaneci

One of my most abiding Olympic memories is of the Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci at the 1976 Montreal games. As I recall, there was a heatwave that summer, one that scorched its way across the US like a smoldering fuse-wire, raging through cities and forests, melting tarmac, setting prairies alight and drying my lips to paper.

I was 9-years-old, watching the Games while on holiday at my grandparent’s house in the New Hampshire mountains that smelled of pine trees at sunset. A chunky colour TV beamed Nadia’s hipless frame right into my pre-pubescent consciousness. In her unforgiving white leotard, stripes up the sides popping like arteries, 14-year-old Nadia Comaneci performed like no gymnast had ever done before.

She was fearless and focused way before life coaches brought the Gospel of the Goal to the mainstream. Nadia was angular yet kittenish, pure muscle, with an anatomy of metal and spirit of steel that shames the chronic public anorexia of today. She also had these huge, brown, sorrowful eyes that betrayed the fact she was still a child. I was transfixed by her every move both on and off the apparatus.  She was like no girl I had ever seen before.

Back home in London, my city was agitated.  IRA explosions had rocked the West End earlier in the year, the punk movement was bubbling under with the Sex Pistols just months away from signing to EMI. I was slightly too young for punk to get under my skin, but Nadia felt like a peer. To me, she embodied subversion with every sinew of her slight yet powerful frame. She was the pale, mechanical, aloof ‘other’, perfectly fitting the cliched perception of ‘Eastern block’ citizens we had back then, before the walls and Ceausescu came crumbling down.

Nadia’s performance on the uneven bars on July 18th 1976 is etched on my mind forever. After a gravity-defying routine, there was a delay before the Omega scoring system showed a result of 1.0. The crowd and the commentators were initially confused before it became apparent that Nadia had actually scored the first ever Olympic perfect ‘10’ in gymnastics. “She broke the machine!” I thought in wonder. The computer had, quite literally, said “No”.

I was entranced by this idea of unexpected perfection. A completion so exquisite that it broke the rules, a perfection so persistent that an outdated system had to redesign itself. We did not know then how symbolic this would come to be. Nadia’s faultlessness seemed so transgressive and useful and desirable, anything less seemed suddenly pointless.

I learned everything I could about perfect Nadia. I was delighted to find she shares my birthday, 12th November, my Scorpionic twin ~ I took this as symbolic of our probable affinity. She was my first female icon, the one that led me though puberty. Nadia set the bar for what one could achieve by aged 14; suddenly the possibilities of my life as an adult had some tangible form.  Whatever I did, I wanted it to matter. In my young mind, she was the embodiment of Cold War austerity and pain and I was embarrassed by what I perceived as the flabby ‘too-much-ness’ of the West. Our gymnasts had breasts, curves, cellulite and no medals. It is probably because of Nadia that I studied Russian at school.

But over the years, like my personal dreams of perfection, Nadia’s image was replaced by pictures of women who symbolized other ambitions, new guardians of my creative journey. My photos of Nadia would be covered over by ones of Chrissie Hynde, Debbie Harry, Joni Mitchell and other goddesses of music. Then by writers and artists who stole my heart and weaved their magic; Sylvia Plath, the Brontes, Toni Morrison, Frida, Georgia, Elisabeth Frink.

Sometimes I think of that bedroom wall in my childhood home and imagine how an archeologist, chipping away through the layers of my own personal iconography would find at the foundation, a pull-out-and-keep spread of Nadia Comaneci in the saturated inks of 1976, still perfect.

6 Vintage Children’s Books That Formed My Views on Motherhood

One of the things I love most about being a mother is rediscovering books from my childhood and enjoying them all over again with my daughters.

My childhood books were my dream catchers ~ my world view was woven from their threads. As we didn’t have a TV until I was in my teens, these vintage classics provided me with an entire cultural landscape. I still find the lithography and print styles of the 60′s and 70′s as evocative as perfume and the illustrations in these books are so familiar I could crawl inside them just as I did as a child. I realize that when I received stories as a kid, it was in an immersive way that I have since forgotten.

Make Way for Ducklings 2

Introducing my first feminist icon... MRS MALLARD

I love the poignancy of touching a crease made on a page forty years ago by the four-year-old me and the sense of continuity that comes when my daughter traces her tiny fingers over my name, the ‘S’ handwritten backwards in my childish scrawl, on the inside cover.

I adore my Kindle, but I know that the tactile world of books is leaving us and it makes me sad.

When I decided to compile a list of the vintage favourites my daughters and I have enjoyed, I noticed that every book featured a mother of some kind.

So while my own mother was reading Fear of Flying and the Female Eunuch, I was getting down with some of the greatest feminists of the era, many of whom had beaks. Here they are along with the notes I would have made to myself if only I had known how to spell at the time.

Make Way for Ducklings1. Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McCloskey (1941)

Synopsis: One reviewer at the time of publication in the 1940’s commented on the pre-feminist tone of this story of Mr and Mrs Mallard who search all over Boston for the perfect place to raise their family of eight ducklings; Jack, Kack, Lack, Mack, Nack, Ouack, Pack, and Quack.

Favourite quote: ‘”Don’t you worry,” said Mrs. Mallard, “I know all about bringing up children.” And she did.’

Notes to self:

  • Mrs Mallard is in complete control in spite of having eight children, and was probably my first feminist icon.
  • It’s mothers who teach their kids everything important and husbands are a bit rubbish.
  • Give your children rhyming names for ease of communication. Think Jenny, Lenny, Lily, Billy, Gilly etc.
  • Don’t mess with ducks.

Blueberries for Sal2. Blueberries for Sal by Robert McCloskey (1948)

Synopsis: Set in Scott Island, Maine, the characters Little Sal and her mother pick blueberries to store for the winter months. There is a parallel story of a mother bear and her cub who eat as many blueberries as they can to fatten up before hibernating. Sal and her mum and the little bear and her mum get all mixed up on Blueberry Hill.

Favourite quote: “Ku-plink, ku-plank, ku-plunk!”

Blueberries for Sal illustration

Mrs Blueberry: Fearless in the face of furry adversity!

Notes to self:

  • Mothers are supposed to know how to make jam.
  • Mothers are fearless even in the face of wild bears.
  • Your own mother could be easily mistaken for a bear.

the giving tree3. The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein (1964)

Synopsis: The metaphorical tale of a tree (aka mother) and a little boy. The tree gives and gives and gives to the snivelling, ungrateful (my interpretation) little boy throughout his life until she (the Giving Tree) is just a tired old stump. This tour de force of martyrdom versus self-centredness is actually one of the most moving children’s stories ever written. If The Giving Tree doesn’t make you weep at the end, YOU HAVE NO SOUL.

Favourite quote: “And the tree was happy…but not really.”

Notes to self:

  • Kids, they’ll suck you dry.
  • And if the kids don’t get you, age will.

story of ferdinand4. The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf  (1977)

Synopsis: Ferdinand the Bull likes to sit under a tree and smell the flowers instead of fighting like all the other bulls. His mum worries about him, but lets him be who he wants to be. Ferdinand caused controversy when first published as he was considered to be a pacifist symbol.

Favourite quote: “His mother saw that he was not lonesome, and because she was an understanding mother, even though she was just a cow, she let him just sit there and be happy.”

Notes to self:

  • Mothers, even if they’re a cow, know their kids better than anyone.
  • Don’t mess with bulls.
  • Or bees.

little runner of the longhouse

5. Little Runner of the Longhouse by Betty Baker (1962)

Synopsis: It’s New Year and The Basket Woman has come to collect gifts from all the families in the Long House. Little Runner wants to go and play with the big kids but his mum thinks he’s too little. Instead, he pretends to kidnap his Little Brother to try to trick his mum into giving him maple sugar.

Favourite quote: “It was cold in the longhouse…”

Notes to self:

  • Mummies always have a secret stash of sweets.
  • Mummies are weirdly telepathic and TOTALLY know if you’re fibbing.

Are you my mother6. Are you My Mother? by P. D. Eastman (1960)

Synopsis: Frankly terrifying plot where a baby chick hatches while his mother is out searching for food. The baby chick leaves the nest in search of mum and ends up asking all kinds of creatures and inanimate objects if they are his mother including a scary dog and a giant digger that snorts at him.

Favourite quote: Mother: “Do you know who I am?” (The baby chick does indeed)

Notes to self:

  • Your mother will quite possibly abandon you in favour of searching for worms and the journey to find her will be perilous and strewn with large vehicles.
  • Mothers are human and can make heart-breaking, gut-wrenching, awful mistakes.
  • Mothers can be many things: scary, kind, neglectful, loving, forgetful; but we all had one once, even if they didn’t stick around.
Are you my mother

It's all about the headscarf for me...

So there you have it ~ my six vintage motherhood classics. I’d love to hear about yours.