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

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.

The Empress’s Old Clothes: On Why Every Ageing Woman Needs Patti Smith

Patti SmithCall me reckless and foolhardy, but I thought de-cluttering the attic would be a constructive way to spend a drizzly London Sunday. Fast-forward three hours however, and I was sitting on my bed in emotional turmoil, weeping over ‘old stuff’.

It all started innocently enough. The initial few feet of clutter comprised a series of dusty suitcases, lined up like dutiful soldiers. The first couple I opened were harmless containing as they did ‘Our Summer Things’. Sandals bent out of shape by last year’s sweat; beach dresses stiffened by seawater; t-shirts smelling of sun lotion from our holiday in Spain. I jumped when a couple of unspent Euros dropped onto the floor and noisily spun themselves into stillness. The next suitcases were more emotional, ‘The Ones With The Baby Clothes’. However, my nostalgia for the newborn days of my daughters was held in check by equally potent memories of how bloody hard it was.  So I happily kept the most precious items, things the girls might like ‘for their own kids’, and let the rest go to Oxfam. And then, just when I thought I was safe, I spotted the mother of all suitcases tucked away at the back of the eaves. Pillar box red and large enough to contain a small horse, it beckoned like Pandora’s Samsonite box.  “Open me” it said.

And so I did.  In it were layers of my old clothes, things I would have been wearing around the time I got together with my husband eleven years ago. I pulled them out one-by-one stroking the fabrics like and old lady finding stray cats. I tried desperately to remember the ‘me’ who wore the clothes, and found that rather like recalling the face of a dearly departed one, you remember the general idea, but the detail is lost. You think you won’t forget, but oh, how you do.

The clothes were all in sizes six and eight (UK sizes) like they belonged to a child. There was the top I was wearing when my husband proposed to me, and a t-shirt I was given when I toured Japan in my singing days. I found one of my few concessions to designer labels, a mint green Malene Birger skirt I bought off a friend who was at my wedding but who I’ve since lost touch with. There was a collection of eclectic items bought on Haight Street during my San Francisco years. “These are my old skins”, I thought to myself, “shredded layer upon layer, and I hadn’t even noticed I was changing.”

I was totally shocked to find these clothes defining moments in my past more powerfully than old photographs. The contents of the suitcase were like some terrible haunting, a ghostly revisiting of my old selves. I found myself almost superstitious about throwing any of it away. Perhaps because these things were there with me in the past, tangible witnesses to who I was then. They held my body, they were next to my skin and now they cannot even begin to contain me.  I couldn’t possibly get one of those tops over my burgeoning bosom now; my old waistline is my new thigh. That I was ever that small and streamlined strikes me as ridiculous and yet there’s a part of me that wants to crawl right back inside these acrylic and cotton castes of my old self.  How ironic it is that at a time when there is physically so much more of me in the world, I am at my most invisible culturally. I look up from Pandora’s suitcase and catch a glimpse of myself in the bedroom mirror.  I notice that I am kind of boggy now, moon shaped bags under my eyes, crevices when I smile. The angularity of my face has gone and there is no definition in my body.  The clothes remind me that I was once a wiry little missile, completely airborne, with a vision and expectations of the world that were arrow sharp. (The fact that I was this way due to lots of cigarettes, habitually skipped meals and a nervous system on fire matters not in my hankering for youth). The body I have now reflects what is needed now; be vigilant it says, buttress yourself against disappointment; scare the off the enemy  with the sheer size of your arse. I am a mother, my family’s frontline of defence, fattening for the domestic pot into which I would happily jump and boil myself if it would save my brood.

My outer appearance reflects my inner state. My mind, like my jaw line is ill-defined, constructed of fuzzy edges. How I long to forge sharp new neurological pathways in my brain or travel across America in a camper van, but instead I stick to what I know is needed for the greater good.  My goals feel less defined because they are less about me and perhaps it doesn’t really matter, but I do seem to find myself in an uncertain sea. Interestingly, the directionlessness I feel is being played out in the very cells of my being as my hormones shift towards menopause. There’s just no routine anymore. Yes ladies, perimenopause starts around age thrity-five and ends around fifty-five; that’s twenty years of chemical ping pong we all have to play without a goddamn bat between us.

I remember my granny  saying that she never felt old, that she never noticed time passing, and I know what she means now. In the Tarot of midlife, I am shifting from the Empress card of  fertility and family to the High Priestess, the goddess within. Sitting with a group of friends recently, I noticed how inward my energy has become. I am no longer reeling things in towards me, but instead am an observer, offering a bit of advice if asked.  On good days, I am journeying from Mother to Wise Woman, on bad days from youthful pretty hot stuff to boggy earthbound sloth. I would be lying if I said I don’t I miss something of the ‘me’ in Pandora’s suitcase; all that delicious youthful power that turns heads and breaks hearts. Now, I’m thankful if I get though a social encounter without breaking wind. But there are compensations; I’ve got funnier as I’ve got older, I have far more permission to be ridiculous now than I did when I was young.  And I have a bosom of Shakespearean barmaid proportions. Proper, bawdy lady bazookas that came free with child-rearing.

For those of you who aren’t there yet, midlife feels like this: You are standing alone in the middle of a large, flat desert plain; the tallest thing for miles is you. In the not so distant distance, a heady black thunderstorm is gathering and starts rolling towards you. Before you see the storm, you can sense it; the air is static and filled with moisture, pockets of heat surge and fall and lightening starts splitting open the sky and skewering the earth.  Man, I really wish I could put a tree somewhere in this metaphor, but there is nowhere to hide and there is nothing to do but stand tall and hope it strikes quickly.

If it had a soundtrack, midlife would be accompanied by the juddering strings of a suspense thriller or perhaps the ghostly crackle and bleep of one of those creepy satellite dishes listening for life on Mars. “Is there life over 50?”  The message is sent out across the universe and if you listen hard enough you can hear the whispers of invisible older women answering, “Yes, don’t be scared.”  But that’s my point, I can’t bloody hear them so I don’t want to throw the old me into the Oxfam bags yet. Where have all my cultural icons gone? Where are the amazing sisters who will pull me through the next phase of my life? Where are the older women who have survived motherhood (yes, it is a question of survival) AND the menopausal storm without resorting to surgery and its demeaning ugly sisters Botox and Microdermabrasion?

As I reached the bottom of the Dreadful Suitcase of Hell, I realized that Patti Smith is the only woman I could think of who can guide me now. She found her voice again at 50 and released a violent warrior of an album in the wake of her midlife fury. And so, with Patti on the CD player I finally found myself able to bag up the past and send it to the charity shop. I did however keep the shirt I was wearing when my husband proposed. That was, when all is said and done, a bloody good day.