3. nostalgia ain’t what it used to be

Any time I take a dawn flight into the outrageous pinks of sunrise, I am floored by feelings of nostalgia.

I am reminded of the long-haul travel across the Atlantic of my 1970s childhood. Airlines back then had names like Trans World Airlines and Pan American World Airways. Air-hostesses gathered static in their nylon uniforms and there was no vegan option on the menu. The in-flight entertainment consisted of one film projected onto a wide screen at the front of the cabin; the interior was stained with nicotine.

I would sleep for most of the journey, missing the endless yaw of the Atlantic and the icebergs of Canada, and wake up as the plane banked towards Logan airport, Boston. The cabin flooded with the purple hues of another dawn and I would peer out of the window, imagining that I was reeling America in by magic. Landings in those days were different, sudden and screeching.

Waiting for our luggage was a humiliating family ritual of heaving half-open cardboard boxes off the carousel to the amusement of our fellow passengers. The boxes contained ‘very-important-papers-my-dad-needed-for-the-novel-he-was-working-on’, fishing rods, golf clubs, surf boards, guitars, packets of British biscuits. Suitcases, apparently, were bourgeois.

US officials, bemused by our British accents and US passports, would wave us through immigration. Then I would run into the expectant arms of my grandparents, swooning at the delicious smell of my grandma; Emeraude by Coty. During the journey from Boston to the Uncanoonuc Mountains of New Hampshire, someone would roll down a window and the smell of pine trees would fill the car. To this day, the smell of pine makes me feel inexorably at home.

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Nostalgia, which translates as ‘a painful longing to return’ was considered a sickness when the term was coined by Johannes Hofner in the 17th century to describe the malaise experienced by Swiss mercenaries yearning for the mountains of home when traveling through the flat lands of Europe. The army even banned the singing of Swiss songs, likely as this was to induce the ‘disease’ of Nostalgia among troops. 

By the 19th century, nostalgia was considered less of a disease and more a melancholy state, a psychological yearning which helped fuel the Romantic movement and the tubercular masses who headed for the Alps to dream and recuperate.

Now, in my later years, nostalgia is a daily occurrence; it’s an ache, a hunger for something I cannot satiate, a mote of dust in the corner of my eye. In the time between the then and now, I imbue my experiences with an emotional potency they didn’t necessarily have originally, and it serves a purpose. Research suggests that nostalgia has many functions; increasing well-being, providing existential meaning and comfort. Feelings of loneliness can lead to nostalgia, which in turn provides feelings of social connectedness. It worries me that super-connected Generation Z, are, according to research, also the loneliest*. Locked behind their smartphones and Fortnite games, they are less exposed to the complex nuances of sensory experience that might bring them nostalgic joy in later life. Potent triggers for nostalgia are smell and touch, which pass straight through to the emotional seat of the brain, along with things like music and even the weather. Instagram and Snapchat offer fleeting histories, they are memory banks owned by someone else. Perhaps the reason online connection feels so incomplete, is because it lacks the subtleties of smell and touch, and the small visual clues that one day in the future, will give us a past.

I’ve heard it said that ‘memory is let down like a rope from heaven’, and the older I get, the more conscious I am of determinedly creating sensory moments in time, of making memories that might one day be ‘ropes from heaven’ for my children when I am no longer here.

I have some home-movie footage from the 1950’s of my grandparents and my father skating on a lake in the Uncanoonuc Mountains. At one point, they all turn towards the camera, squinting in the low winter sun, and wave towards the lens, arms around each other, laughing. All three of them are gone now, but this is the way I like to remember them; in grainy, saturated colours, surrounded by pines, skating joyfully on some ethereal surface between now and then.

 

* https://www.cnbc.com/2018/05/02/cigna-study-loneliness-is-an-epidemic-gen-z-is-the-worst-off.html

2. notes on Italy

There is almost certainly some place in the world that contains the essence of your story, somewhere that makes you pause for a moment when you run your fingers over a map.

Perhaps a crucial chapter of your life was written in a particular house, maybe a definitive kiss was stolen under a singular, flickering lamp post.  The essence of your story may be a river into which you fell, which changed the way you breathe forever. It could be a restaurant where you struck up a crucial business partnership over Ouzo, or a mountain top where you gleaned a life-changing insight. In this age of travel, there is nearly always somewhere other than home that carves some indelible mark on us. For me, that place is Italy.

The first time I ventured into The Boot was with my then 5-year-old daughter and my boyfriend. We slipped in, unnoticed, from France, the showy claustrophobia of Monaco giving way to the rugged green of Liguria. We took the autostrada south, through severe tunnels gouged into ancient rock. High viaducts offered glimpses of a distant Mediterranean so enticingly blue it set off an indescribable yearning within us.

We dropped down to the crazy coastal road and found our canary yellow car rental outrun by mint green scooters, braiding through the traffic like metallic wasps. We reached Chiavari, a busy seaside town where we met up with friends of ours, one of whom grew up in the area. They drove us to a restaurant in the mountains which offered dramatic views of the surrounding hills, wrinkled and warm, deep crevices unfolding into an abundance of flowers and green. Glasshouses sparkled in the sun and vines spindled upwards towards the light. We ate the best meal of our lives on that mountainside. A fresh tomato melted in my mouth, extra virgin olive oil dripped down my chin.  The restaurant owner was dismayed when my daughter asked for butter, “Cosi inglese!”.

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Later that night, hazy with wine and laughter, our friends took us to Sestri Levante and made us close our eyes while they lead us somewhere by the hand. When we opened our eyes, we were standing in a crescent moon of sand, the Baia del Silenzio – the Bay of Silence. Lights danced on the black waters that lap the shoreline. A few boats tinkled and rolled, tugging at their moorings like impatient puppies. The bay curved around us like a mother’s arm and we were bewitched. Our friends call this place Mermaid Bay as it is where wishes come true and the air sparks with enchantment. On cue, my 5 year old (who couldn’t believe she was up so late and still warm in her cotton dress) looked down and found an abandoned bucket and spade at her feet. She squealed in delight at the magic of it and rushed to the shoreline to build night castles for mermaids.

A few days later, we went back to the Bay of Silence alone to watch the full moon crescendo over the mountains. My daughter paddled in the magical waters while my boyfriend and I leant up against a beached rowing boat watching her. The moon took an hour to fully ascend and was joined by a carnival of twinkling stars.  As we sat on the damp sand, my boyfriend asked me to marry him. I said, “Yes” and the ragged magic and romance of Italy was etched into my heart for eternity.

We married a year later and over time, life happened to my husband, my daughter and I. Back in England, we lost jobs, and began new ones.  My daughter, then 12, was quarantined in China during the Swine Flu scare, and I could not get to her for days. I miscarried a baby, before giving birth to another daughter. My father died suddenly, two weeks before my 40th birthday and my husband had to spend large chunks of time working abroad while I was adrift on a sea of grief.  My ‘baby weight’ just stuck around and became, well, just weight. The joy and exhaustion of parenthood and a thousand tiny things wore us down and we worried. A lot. An aching nostalgia for a different time and place set in.

We needed Italy.

>>>>>>>>>>>>

Rome in August shimmers in a fug of dust and heat. As my husband and I walk through the Villa Borghese, the grass is straw-like beneath our feet. The sun pummels our shoulders and a trickle of sweat makes its way down my back. We take in the view and spy St Peter’s Basilica, its rooftop shining like a dull coin as we contemplate the power and weight of it. There is something available about Rome, not in a whorish way, but in a simple, inclusive way. ‘Here is my food’,  it seems to say, ‘Here is my weather, this is my history.’ But it feels like so many secrets lie in the Vatican City.

My husband is bolder in Italy and in Rome, he is alive. We walk hand-in-hand with no smaller hand between our own. We take adult-sized strides up the Spanish Steps and stroll briskly along the banks of the liverishly yellow and rumbling Tiber without stopping to study every piece of gum and cigarette butt on the pavement. We hop on and off buses with destinations we don’t know, we get drunk in the 30 degree evening air. And we kiss like lovers do. We fall into the cool shade of Pantheon and are haunted by the Colosseum where the floor is cut away to reveal the labyrinth beneath where slaves once paced the hours before being catapulted above to face their nemeses. The terror and intensity of the past is embedded in the walls of the Colosseum the way sheets soak up sweat. Blood and sand, pain, death and power, they’re all here, embedded in the brickwork as ink sinks into skin.

When I look for the women of Rome, I find them in its ghosts. There is Lady Olimpia Maidalchini-Pamphili whose angry phantom crashes a black carriage over the Ponte Sisto towards the Trastevere. The restless spirit of Beatrice Cenci, beheaded for murdering her violent father in the 1600’s wanders the Castel Sant’Angelo with her head under her arm. The beautiful hand of Costanza de Cupis haunts a window of her palace in Via dell’Anima. The lustful ghost of Emperor Claudius’s wife, Messalina, roams the Piazza Navona pinching the bottoms of young men, while Emperor Titus’s lover Berenice avenges her execution for witchcraft by refusing to leave Portico di Ottavia.  The women are phantom witches, vengeful and sad, caught in loops of their own searching. They remind me of how very easy it is for a woman to become invisible; through motherhood, through the careless privilege of men, through histories which do not honour her, through middle-age. And by their persistence, the ghosts remind me of how very real I am.

The more time we spend in Rome, the more we fall in love with the idea it conjures for us of both the ferociousness and grandeur of age. It is a city that counters the frivolity of youthful perfection with the fierce beauty of its decaying monuments. Suddenly I am a Colosseum, a Gorgon head, and all the Venuses in the world cannot reach the depths of me. Rome shows me that we are at once both beautiful and ancient, sculptors of our own histories, twisting and rumbling through the years, changeable as the Tiber.

In Rome we relearn how to mark our course without the boundaries of a map or the constraints of a watch. We fall in love with our beguiling new world of cracks and things breaking. As we step through the doors to board the plane home, a new chapter begins and we decide there will be grandeur and grace as our marriage matures, not decay and sorrow; we will be a goddam fine wine.  

 

1. notes on gravity

On Kronos versus Kairos time…

So… anyway, I’ve been freaking out about getting old. I’m 50 as fuck. It happened last November, the day was just suddenly there like an unexpected wedding where you’re meant to marry yourself and have the right dress and vol au vents, but all you have is The Fear and a sense of diminished bladder control. I’m now 8 months in to the gestation of the mid-life me, and rather like the in-utero equivalent where you’re almost ready to be in the world, I find myself uncertain whether I’ve got all the bits I need. Am I ready for the big ‘hello’? How will I breathe? Who will lovingly wrap me up, feed me and coo over me for the next bit? What the hell is on the other side? What the actual F?

I blogged for several years as Notes from the Edge of Motherhood. The blog was well received. I was part of a fantastic community of women writing and (over)sharing similar things about nappies, school playgrounds and the odd behaviours of offspring and other halves. I got an agent quickly and we did the rounds with publishers for a potential book that never materialised. And so I gave up. Just like that. I got fed up with being skint, decided I was shite, and returned to work. I gathered up all ideas of being creative, of writing, of doing the things that make me happy, and dumped them in a metaphorical parking lot resembling a Brutalist, abandoned, concrete labyrinth, covered in Japanese knot-weed, sealed with un-lockable locks in Caracas where no buses or non-murderers ever go.  In true ‘me’ style, I went for it on the work front, quickly getting myself great jobs in exciting companies like Mills & Boon and Disney. I can now afford holidays. At last I have a pension and new bras. I am luckier than many,  I made it to 50. I have awesome kids, a great husband, my health, a corporate career at my fingertips, but also this irrefutable sense that I haven’t got it right…yet.

I have renamed this blog Notes on Gravity, for two reasons. Firstly, because it feels like it all gets a bit serious now; just at the point where you’re pretending time doesn’t exist, things happen to remind you how real it is. Close friends and family die or get seriously ill, kids leave home, and parents, rockers of that first cradle, are no longer around. Crevices appear in relationships and skin. Solid partnerships around you disintegrate and lives are rearranged like meteors blasting apart well-ordered and familiar constellations. Kronos time, that linear clock that marks out our journeys around the sun, gets louder and louder, ticking you into panic as you anxiously await the chiming of the hour. 

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It’s time, but not as we know it.

Secondly, my blog’s new title references the fact that gravity is what I’m interested in raging against now; that pull towards the ground, the sirenic, magnetic force that whispers, ‘Look how easy it would be to head downwards’,  like my boobs and the corners of my mouth.  Well, balls to all that.  I managed to get a metaphorical Uber driver to take me to my metaphorical abandoned parking lot in Caracas, and I’ve started to recruit an army of outcasts and pirates to help me pick the locks and dig out the box I have locked away. It has pieces of me, and possibly you, in it too.  I’m wondering about what might happen if I place Kronos time in that box instead, and retrieve the power of words. I am wondering what might happen if I, if we all, begin to measure the days in Kairos time, marking our lives in moments where great things might happen. In that crackling, dazzling pause between the inhale and the exhale, where fates can change, and anything is possible, you will find me searching. I am wondering what it might be like to begin again, from this place of suspension between two halves of one life.

 

The London Marathon 2016 begins at home

Here is a list of things I hate:

  • Shorts
  • Massive crowds
  • Asking for money
  • Physical pain
  • Blisters
  • Bleeding nipples
  • Peeing in the street

But, more than I dislike any of the above, I hate the idea of living an ordinary life. Which is why, just before I turn 50, I intend to run the Virgin London Marathon in April this year.

It’s my version of a mid-life crisis.

The thing is, a number of seismic changes must occur in order for this to happen. I’m talking metamorphosis on a grand scale: grub to Lacewing, tadpole to Kermit, acorn to mighty Oak. I have to go from non-runner to marathon-ready athlete, hysterical quitter to stoic finisher, a chaos of desires to the vigorous structure of a training program. And all in 100 days.

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On top the monumental personality and physical transformation I must undergo, my nearest and dearest are, frankly, not pulling rank in the encouragement stakes. On hearing of my successful ballot entry, the teenager momentarily looked up from pulling faces on Snapchat  to declare, “Mum, you’ll probably die.”

The 10-year-old worries that all her meals between now and April will be substituted for shakes containing kale and bulking agents. (She has a point). Meanwhile, the husband leads the kids in endless debates on whether I should dress up as a chicken or an ant.

The endurance test has already begun…

There’s An Unexpected Item in my Bagging Area

unexpected item in the bagging areaI want to talk to you about shopping, those tiny exchanges conducted under strip light.

Buying stuff is the coal-face of human material desire,  the location of our drama about value and fairness.  It’s a simple and ancient idea, the swapping of one thing of value for another of (what we deem to be) equal value.

Buddha and lots of other enlightened beings tell us not to do it, but most of us do; we buy shizzle. We buy shizzle we don’t need. Singing fish, unwearable hats, items that go from gift to thrift store in days.

There’s the ‘necessary’ shopping, for food and pants, and then there’s ‘trigger shopping’ (for me, books, can’t resist the buggers). Then there’s what I call ‘human’ shopping where we’re telling stories with our purchases:  the new suit that reveals the first job interview in 10 years; the size 10 dress indicating small victories in the gym; the pots and pans for the kid who has just left home; the newly weds sheets; the funeral flowers; the fresh set of acrylics that give away a creative surge.

One of my favourite jobs was working in a health shop that smelled of patchouli and lemongrass. People would wander in like walking wounded and all with stories. Shell-shocked new dads looking for something to stop the wife crying, old men and their goiters, a lot of beleaguered eczema. 

So, it will come as no surprise to discover that I hate self-service tills. To me, they sum up the cold, hard, robotic vision of the future predicted in the 1950s. The self-service process offers no warmth, no humanity – for heaven’s sake, human experience is not binary.

Self-service scales are more sensitive and spiky  than a dopey end-of-season wasp. The SKU codes on items are unreadable, and loud accusatory alarms go off if you try to purchase a bottle of wine or condoms. Then, there it goes, “There’s an unexpected item in the bagging area”. Except there isn’t.

You shuffle your skin-thin plastic bag around a bit, as if re-jigging your items will somehow calm the hissy-fitting machine. You try talking to the till, escalating from reasonable to exasperated within thirty seconds. You wait to be rescued by someone in polyester, but help is busy manually inputting the SKU code for a fellow customer’s kumquats. 

I think perhaps it is the Ghost of Redundant Shop Assistants Past setting off those scales. Or an incumbent fly.  More likely however, is that the unexpected item in my bagging area is simply the unbearable weight of words unsaid, pleasantries unshared. 

Once you have extracted the lottery of coins from the obscurely-positioned change tray and fended off the vomiting of vouchers, you may think as I do,  “Fuck you Robo-Till and your cold, steel heart.”

I just want someone to chat about the weather with.  I want someone to say… ‘Oooh I love these too .. I ate them when I was pregnant with my first’ as they pass my jar of gherkins through the scanner. 

I want snippets of lives freely offered and freshly packed. I want a mutual exchange.

Give me a human, give me a human story any day.

Returning to Work: From the frying pan into the mire

The commute

My poor blog has been more neglected than a bikini line in winter. 

I’ve been working full-time you see, and I’ve also been letting things fall through the cracks.

Like many working women, I am still holding the domestic space together while trying to cope with the demands of full-time work. (This survey found that working women generally still do + 17 hours of  housework per week compared to men’s – 6 hours . Hang on, what?)

I’ve managed to forget music lessons and food shops, I’m haphazardly organising birthday parties, homework and play dates. I’m burning pizzas and missing school plays, concerts, and parent’s evenings.

I’m out of the playground and into the commute; away from the frying pan into the mire.

I’m trying to rally the troops, the children and my partner, with lists and memos; I have employed help – a cleaner and a child minder, and I know what a luxury that is.

And yet, and yet…

The jumble and scatter of life squeezes out my writing, these words that are my yoga and my Prozac.

Working life smooths out my edges as I polish myself down and re-imagine a woman I had forgotten; Our Lady of the Meeting, Doyenne of the Filofax, Director of Deadlines. Employee.

No more coffee mornings. No more spending hours honing a blog piece about pants or being a wanker mum.

I’ve been away from office life for so long, I fear that my brain is no longer malleable enough to accommodate the new connections I need to make. All my neurological pathways lead to my kids; they are my entrenched pattern, my learned behaviour.

While my part-time existence as a writer was isolating and badly paid, there was space. Time to reflect and get some perspective… too much fucking perspective to quote what’s-his-face from Spinal Tap.

It is a special kind of asthmatic wheeze, this squeezing out of the days, this stringing out of the hours to the last mote of air. Where are the morsels of time, those spaces in which we breathe?

Tell me how you do this thing you fellow working mums…

How to Take Great Photos With Your Smartphone

Gilbert & George by Robert Goldstein

Gilbert & George by Robert Goldstein

In the age of the smartphone, many of us are recording and sharing our entire lives digitally. Nostalgia-infused phone apps such as Hipstamatic and Instagram are just some of the accessible tools that have catapulted the idea of ‘capturing the moment’ into a new age. The instant share-ability and old-school feel of photographs edited with these apps create a bizarre juncture where nostalgia and modernity meet.

But, is something being lost? Is the art of photography being diluted, and can a smartphone ever do what a ‘real camera’ does? Are our children being robbed of a ‘proper’ photographic record of their lives?

I spoke to photographic ninja Robert Goldstein whose exhibition ‘Still’  is on at the Whitfield Fine Art Gallery in London.  Robert has been capturing enduring images for over three decades and, in his spare time, he teaches street photography to kids who have been excluded from mainstream education for social or behavioural reasons. Goldstein explains that photography helps these kids gain confidence and take control of their lives. His students are as likely to use the phone in their pocket as a DLR camera in their work, so I asked Robert for tips on thinking like a photographer when using a smartphone. Here is what he had to say:

“1. The thing about photography is that it’s instinctual. There is no difference between a  film Leica camera and a smartphone. Technically the smartphone thinks for you as you don’t have to worry about shutter speed or film. You just have to concentrate on the subject. At the end of the day it’s just a tool –  it’s in your eye , that’s where it begins.

2. Keep clicking till you think you have it – delete what you don’t like.

3. Notice how light falls on your subject . For example, dark skin or dark tones need more exposure or more light to get definition. A black labrador needs more light than a golden labrador. Darkness eats the light, keep this in mind when you’re shooting. Your smartphone will try and compensate and automatically put the flash on unless you deliberately switch it off. Experiment.

4. Composition is everything. Think about framing and how you are composing the scene. You can leave on the grid setting on your camera phone to see how the picture divides up. Where you put your central subject matter is important. For example, a face in the middle of a photo tells a different story from a face over to the right.

5. Be a Ninja! What I mean is, develop your spatial awareness. You have to learn how to be a ghost to take great photographs. You must be there but not be there. It’s Bruce Lee like; to practice the art of not disturbing your subject. “The art of not being seen” – it’s a book that hasn’t been written yet.

6. Think about colour. Personally, I mainly use black and white in my work because there is nothing to distract from the subject I am photographing. For me, B&W doesn’t sway you from seeing exactly what is being photographed whereas colours can bamboozle you into thinking it’s a great photo through the viewfinder, but then when you see the print, the colour is more present than the subject. B&W is more real for me. Experiment!

7. Practice, practice practice! If you enjoy taking pictures, do it like you should do everything else you love in life; with total passion.”

Robert Goldstein’s Exhibition of photographs, ‘STILL’ is at the Whitfield Fine Art Gallery, 23 Dering Street, off New Bond St, London W1 S1AW  +44 20 7355 0040 until November 15th 2013. Gallery open 10.00am to  5.30pm weekdays, 11.00am to 4.00pm Saturdays. http://www.robertgoldstein.com