Monday, November 17, 2014

'Dear, you never have it'

Poem for a Daughter
by Anne Stevenson 

'I think I'm going to have it,'
I said, joking between pains.
The midwife rolled competent
sleeves over corpulent milky arms.
'Dear, you never have it,
we deliver it.'
A judgement the years proved true.
Certainly I've never had you
as you still have me, Caroline.
Why does a mother need a daughter?
Heart's needle, hostage to fortune,
freedom's end. Yet nothing's more perfect
than that bleating, razor-shaped cry
that delivers a mother to her baby.
The bloodcord snaps that held
their sphere together. The child,
tiny and alone, creates the mother.
A woman's life is her own
until it is taken away
by a first, particular cry.
Then she is not alone
but a part of the premises
of everything there is:
a time, a tribe, a war.
When we belong to the world
we become what we are.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

New York, Delusions.

This time last month I was in New York, all by myself. I didn't take Nye and the girls, which is what everyone asked me, both before I went and while I was there. I didn't take them because I was going to photograph a wedding and flying four people to New York for a week is inconceivably expensive and somewhat inconvenient when two of those people are three years old. Which is when people looked askance and said 'doesn't your husband mind babysitting the kids for a week?'

When I'm done rolling my eyes I explain that firstly, it's not babysitting if THEY'RE YOUR OWN FUCKING CHILDREN. Then I tell them that he went to the Alps for 12 days in the summer to ride his bike down a big hill over and over and over again, leaving all of us at home without him. At this point everyone breaths a sigh of relief, the world makes sense again. Because god forbid that the scales of Who Does What weren't balanced in a relationship. . . I sort of regret telling people about the Alps thing at all to be honest. The version of myself that exists only in my head just says neutrally 'no, he doesn't mind. Should he?' and watches as people's sweet little brains struggle with the idea of a man happily looking after his kids for a week while his wife goes gallivanting. But my actual self doesn't want people to think that I'm a bitch, that my husband is put upon or to make people uncomfortable. Sometimes I'm deeply irritated by my actual self. 

Anyway, New York. I went, by myself and it was both more than and less than and completely different to the trip I had played out in my head. I was there to photograph the wedding of a dear dear friend and that bit was exactly as wonderful as I imagined it would be; the wedding, the husband (whom I hadn't yet met) and their relationship which was a beauty to behold. But the rest of the trip - the me bit of the trip - that was not what I was expecting.

It was in large part because that imaginary version of myself is deeply, inescapably pervasive in my ideas of how things will be; how situations, conversations and interactions will go. Imaginary me is sharper than real me, less socially conscious, more gregarious, outgoing and funny. She cares less what other people think, both in good and not so good ways. I had pictured her sitting in bars, laughing with strangers, going to see some plays or music or literary stuff and meeting interesting people, staying out late and immersing herself in the culture and life of New York City. HA! I don't chat and I don't stay out late. I don't ever chat to people I don't know, interesting or otherwise and I don't know why exactly I thought I would do so just because I was away from home by myself. I didn't talk to a single person without prior arrangement or specific need ('can I have a white wine? How much is this yarn?' (in the same glorious store!)) the whole time that I was there, which was fine, I don't like chatting with strangers, it makes me anxious. Even when it goes swimmingly and people are interesting and funny and I come away thinking 'they were nice', even then I leave with my heart racing, my adrenaline flowing, my need to immediately find a dark and quiet place raging. I know it's not an ideal response and plenty of people have told me that I'm unfriendly/anti-social/weird, many times but I would much rather eat and drink with a book in absorbed silence and cut off any and all attempts by strangers to engage me with a polite reply, a close-lipped smile and a pointed glance and whatever it is I'm reading than start a conversation with someone I don't know. I went to therapy for a year but it took a week in New York for me to accept a) that I am not the version of myself that acts out the imaginary situations in my head and b) that THAT'S FINE. 

That I didn't want to talk to anyone but my family back home and the friends I was seeing while I was there unlikely surprised anyone but me. When people asked what it was that I was looking forward to about going away 'lots of food and lots of quiet' were always my answers; a break from the constant chatter and noise of two almost-four year olds (do you know how often almost-four year olds shut up? When they're asleep, that's it.) It's easy to forget when you are a part of a family of four people that spend most of their time together what it is like to be alone. It's blissful, but it is also lonely, in almost equal measures (let's call it 60/40).

Both the bliss and the loneliness were good for me. The silence gave me space to do nothing, to be nothing to anyone, to please only myself. To leave an hour in the morning between waking up and doing something about breakfast because absolutely no one but me was going to lose their shit if they went hungry for more than five minutes. To go out at 9am and stay out until whenever I wanted, because no one needed to come home for a nap (actually, I really needed to come home for a nap but after three days of waking up at 2.30am (7.30am GMT) ready to get up and make breakfast for everyone, staying asleep at night was more important than not sleep-walking through the days). To eat somewhere noisy and crowded because I only had to fit myself in and no one was going to get stressed about not being able to hear each other speak. Or to buy some tortilla chips, guacamole and prosciutto and eat the whole lot for dinner in bed, in my pyjamas, watching Friday Night Lights. These things were all blissful. And then there was turning the light off, switching my phone on and sobbing into my pillow while swiping through pictures of Nye and the girls. Or walking down the street behind families with small kids and realising that I had missed the way home as I had become so entranced that I was effectively stalking families with small kids wondering if I could just hang out with them for a few minutes. Because I missed my family like breathing. I missed them and I loved being by myself which is exactly how I would want time away from my family to be. Had I been unable to spend time alone any more or had I not wanted to go back to them I might have been a little worried, they might have been a little worried.

I was going to tell you what I did and where I went, but honestly I mostly just wandered around, slowly and hungrily. I took no photos with an actual camera and I only felt bad about it for 3.4 seconds. I drank a lot of coffee, mostly Australian it turned out. Why are Australians so good at coffee? (Genuine question). I looked in shops full of useless crap I didn't need and had no intention of buying and grocery stores full of things I quite fancied but couldn't afford. I bought the most expensive box of muesli of my life ($7 and no it wasn't from fucking Wholefoods, before you ask, just a regular bloody grocery store. My friends from Brooklyn are the only people in the world who have ever gone to Iceland on holiday and found it 'no more expensive than home.') I spent days walking slowly up one side of the street and then slowly back down the other, gazing wide eyed at truly terrible parenting (bookstores are NOT playgrounds), eating yellow popcorn in the cinema, drinking wine and spending my food budget on Japanese silk yarn. I ate food both amazing and bizarre (a 'steak and cheese sandwich' is made with neither steak nor cheese, fyi). I went to Williamsburg looking for the hipsters but they weren't there. I met up with friends I have made through blogging; some for the first time despite following each other's lives for the last five years, others for the second or third time over the years and yet others who despite the physical distance between us have become my dear friends, my people I talk to when I need opinions and advice or just to shoot the breeze. And it was the best. They are all the smartest, funniest, most interesting and thoughtful women, the kind of people you want to spend time with when you are missing your family and having a small existential crisis.  Not just because they're nice and funny and spending time with nice and funny people is distracting, but because they have smart, smart things to say, things to comfort and reassure and inspire. They are good people, and a timely reminder that the internet can bring magic and riches, not just stupidity and vileness.

I've been back for almost a month now and it sort of feels like it never happened, like it was all a dream. At the moment everything that happened more than 6 hours ago feels like a bit of a dream though, I'm living in a perpetual state of too much coffee, not enough sleep, no exercise and too little time by myself that isn't sitting in front of a computer screen. I still have scar tissue on my feet from that first day I went out without socks on, I'm pretty certain that my digestive system is still working on that 'steak and cheese' sandwich, and the ache of missing my friends is definitely real. Oh, and I can't stop thinking about doughnuts. So, probably not a dream then.