What I actually am is frustrated. For the last four or more years I have done very little writing, and it’s taken a toll on my esteem, both self and in the eyes of those who thought I was a writer. Having argued with myself daily about the merits vs. futility of writing in a public space, I arrive at the same inconclusive point every time: there is no particular benefit to letting others in on what I think/do/believe/struggle with, except to me, in that I get to relieve the word-pressure build-up in my head. Not writing is especially a problem when you’re not a talker either, and when you do try to say something intelligent, you can’t find your words. I blame this partially on living in a French environment, and now understand how people can lose their native language. Panicsville.
I am a perfectionist about very little in my life. My current knitting project looks like a dog’s breakfast but I’ll wear it anyway, if it ever gets finished. The house gets a lick and a polish every couple of weeks, but I am incapable of maintaining order in the long-term, or even in the medium short-term. The vacuum hasn’t been upstairs in months, and won’t be until and if somebody comes to stay or we get ready to rent out the house again. But when it comes to writing, there’s nothing I won’t do to make sure that it’s as good as I can make it. I edit obsessively – constantly re-reading, re-arranging, substituting and deleting until my brain is exhausted, or I’m sick of the thing. I know that even if I think I’ve arrived at perfection, there’d always be something to change to make it better. Unsurprisingly, this has the effect of making me want to do anything but write.
But inside, I’m at it all the time. My head fills up with unexpressed – and lo, unexplored – observations and bits and pieces of ideas, but with no exposure to the light, they dry up and and fall off like the fronds of the bathroom plant. (The thing was at the brink of expiry before I realised it was direct radiation, not water, that it lacked).
So I’m going to try again, and hope that I can just have some fun writing, without the nutty obsessiveness. To grease the wheels, get some practice. Stephen King, whose memoir on writing and life a kind friend gave me, hammers in two imperatives for writers: read lots, and write often. I’ve tried the Artist’s Way stream-of-consciousness stuff, sitting at the breakfast table among the crumbs, teeth unbrushed, scribbling laboriously in my yellow notebook, but I don’t like writing by hand and those Cartesian gridlines discourage creative thought. You can’t get ordinary lined scribblers here in France, although the Italians are more accommodating.
This was a big weekend for France. Nearly four million people came into the streets all over the country, in remembrance of the Seventeen – the staff of Charlie Hebdo, three police officers, a maintenance man and the four hostages of a kosher supermarket – whose lives were taken by fanatics intent on silencing freedom of expression. Yesterday we joined about three thousand others to march through a village a few kilometres away, many holding up signs with the three words now familiar to the entire world. 99% of the marchers were European, or at least so I assumed by their faces, this despite the significant number of local residents of North African origin, often called Maghrebans. Two young men in cycling gear who might have been part of that community watched from the sidelines, but neither of us acted on our common thought to invite them in. When we later watched the video footage from Paris, I wished we could have been there. I’m curious to know how it would feel to part of such a massive demonstration, driven, in the main, by empathy. There’s no point lamenting the past, and the world as it used to be, but there are times when I don’t want any reminders of how deranged things have become, and opt for cute cat videos instead of the news.
In other news, I’m putting my money where my mouth was. Despite making numerous public proclamations about the benefits of yoga, and how it’s the single best thing you can do for yourself ( apart from eating well and being generally useful), I hadn’t regularly seen the inside of a yoga studio for about ten years. Last week I started up again, and it was a chastening experience – while I can still touch my toes, my knees refuse to submit to a child’s pose, and age has not improved my ability to stand on one leg. I notice, however, that I am way more patient with the whole breathing-and-philosophy aspect that I was at 40, so maturity does have its benefits. Turning sixty has been a surprisingly uncomfortable experience, and if this will help me regain my fast-receding youth, I’m all for it.
My mother railed against getting older. She used to stand at the mirror, flicking her nascent jowls with her fingers, grimacing at what she saw as a sagging face. She was only about forty then, and I didn’t get what she was on about. She looked fine to me. When I got to forty I blitzed past the marker, proud to feel as strong and lithe and bendable as I had been at twenty. Well, maybe not quite – I stopped doing backbends during my first pregnancy and never went back. Fifty was pretty OK, too – I laughed in its face. But this last one got me. I’ve got less time in front than I have behind, and I’m beginning to see what older people, especially women, meant when they said they’d become invisible. I spend a lot of time thinking about my mother, and how she never saw herself as others did (‘I don’t want to hang around all those people – they’re old!!’) and my dad, who walked for miles every day until emphysema stopped him, and from there it was all downhill. I’m not ready to accept that I’m not a kid anymore. I’m not ready for those looks, those tones of voice, those presumptions that because my laugh lines are permanent and my hair is white (white-blonde? Please?) that I’ll be a little slower to take things in, that I’ll be a little out of touch with what’s going on, that maybe I shouldn’t move the piano all by myself.
I could go on. But there’s a risk that the small excitement (at writing) that has replaced my earlier bad mood and frustration will transform into something less positive if I get too serious, thinking too hard about the point I want to make. Time to put this to bed, and to catch up on Downton Abbey Season 5, months after the rest of the world.
Thanks for listening. Thanks especially to Susie and Jocelyn, who continued to encourage long past the time any normal person would have given up.