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.

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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.

 

My Digital Hangover: On Deactivating Facebook

On Leaving Facebook

I’ve spent the past two months on a self-imposed ban from Facebook. I didn’t like the way it had crept into my daily routine or its corrosive effect on my time and family life. When I actually dreamed about a status update, I knew it was time to take a break.  I needed to compare my Facebook ‘withdrawal’ with something else, so I decided to forgo my evening glasses of red wine too. What would be harder to give up I wondered, the liquor or the likes?

For the first few days of leaving Facebook, it felt like I had left a party too soon, just before the main event when it was all going to get really good. I suffered from a kind of information-underload anxiety and I didn’t know what to do with the new found stillness in my life or with the silence. Very quickly however, I realized that there is never going to be a main event, that Facebook is always going to be more soggy party nibbles and pineapple chunks than sushi.

Interestingly, both Facebook and alcohol are implicated in situations we commonly mistake for sociability. The two things play a role at the interface between our inner and outer lives; booze and Facebook make it more possible to ‘reach out’ without really risking anything real. We say a drink will ‘loosen us up’, that Facebook enables greater social interaction, but actually, both alcohol and status updates are shields behind which we hide and present funnier, happier, freer, more successful versions of ourselves.

Researchers have commented on Facebook’s ability to engender what is known as ‘ambient awareness’. This awareness, comprised of thousands of little clues gleaned over hundreds of updates, supposedly reveals everything about the intricacies of our friends’ lives without them explicitly telling us. Researchers say this ambient awareness is comparable to the subtle things we pick up in one-to-one interactions such as eye contact, body language and tone of voice, so why doesn’t it feel like that?

Studies show that when we have positive interactions on Facebook, we get a hit of the ‘love hormone’ oxytocin whereas too much alcohol has an inhibitory effect on its release. Oxytocin is the feel-good’ hormone that surges through postpartum mothers encouraging bonding and breastfeeding; it’s the hormone eddying through us when we orgasm or fall in love. But not all our online interactions are positive and I wonder if the oxytocin boost we get from Facebook is partly thwarted by the fact that our exchanges happen in front of a computer or over handheld devices. Our ‘real-life’ oxytocin surges are rewarded by touch, intimacy, and meaningful eye contact whereas frankly, Facebook leaves us hanging in a kind of ‘social medius interruptus.’ We go offline and are suddenly alone negotiating a confusing juxtaposition of closeness and absence, digital coolness and heart-centred warmth.

To my surprise, the warm, fuzzy feeling that I have missed is not of the red wine variety but of Facebook. I’ve missed the way it defies global time zones enabling me to laugh and cry with friends and family who live continents away. I have missed the human drama of the platform, the humour, the pathos and the support. But I have not missed the subtly undermining subtext of Facebook; the passive aggressive games of exclusion and inclusion that go on; the milieu of competition; the frustration that what could be a powerful tool for change is instead a global Village of the Bland. But most of all I have not missed the uncomfortable feeling that somehow, in some way, our blind passion for Zuckerberg’s rambling digital labyrinth might just be our downfall.

I have realized that much of my unease around Facebook is fuelled by the persona of its creator. If only Zuckerberg were more likeable, if only the network had not been born out of his need for vengeance. Hell, maybe if his teeth weren’t so vampirey it would all feel better. The fact is that we feed Facebook incredibly private data but its figurehead doesn’t have enough of the PR-friendly humanitarian guru chic of a Steve Jobs to make us feel comfortable.

For many, especially those in isolated or isolating circumstances, the sociability of Facebook is not just entertainment but a lifeline. However, just as some people’s relationship with alcohol can be unhealthy, our dealings with social media can also be addictive. Certainly for me, status updates have never been a casual affair ~ perhaps it’s the writer in me, perhaps the egomaniac, or maybe it’s because I know that to have a free voice is a privilege in a world where so many still die for that right. With each update, I was simultaneously hiding and casting myself out for validation and before I knew it those little ‘like boxes’ became life-sustaining as food. But, I tell you this: Facebook ‘likes’ are the currency of the damned. Damned you are to the refresh button, damned you are to the desire for validation, damned to the digital thing you think loves you but in fact just increases the value of its IPO.

Yet here I am, back in the digital space that both inspires and terrifies me but with renewed consciousness. I have learned to make better use of the list functions of Facebook and have streamlined my user experience blocking anyone who is likely to fuck with my oxytocin high. I have learned that when Facebook truly reflects my ‘real life’ social experiences, it works. It augments, it doesn’t replace.  I keep in mind anthropologist Robin Dunbar’s proposal that there is a cognitive limit to the amount of people we can have durable social relationships with (somewhere between 150-230 is the estimated number)**.  I finally see that, as with all long-term relationships, the one we have with Facebook has to be worked at. Sometimes, we’ve got to blow the whole thing apart and sift through the ashes to find the diamonds in the dust and decide if they’re enough to keep us together. Facebook can teach us nothing or it can show us why, how and who we love.

Now, where’s that bloody corkscrew?

**NB: If your Facebook tribe adds up to substantially more than this, consider the possibility that you are mistaking your personal profile for your brand which is more effective as a Page rather than a Profile.