Happy, sad, inspired, terrified...or the truth about post-graduate study.

posted on: Saturday, 31 October 2015

It's a Saturday and I am fresh off the back of what will come to punctuate my life for the next two years: College. Or University. Or what should I call it? Higher education? My Masters. That thing I am doing that causes people's eyebrows to shoot up and then come down again in an abrupt effort to disguise their surprise. Writing? A Masters in Writing? 'Ohhh.' Gosh. I might toy with it and sometimes say I am doing a Masters in Molecular Physics. I don't even know if there is such a thing as molecular physics...I could google it but my computer would probably recoil; how unlike me, normally my google searches are things like: winter leather boots, not too expensive. Or how to treat an aching shoulder. Or recipe made from just three ingredients, one of them kale (past its sell by date).

Logistically, this time it was tough, it's half term and my gadding off to spend three days immersed in literature and writing was badly timed. Farming my children out to friends and family and doing the good old faithful 'double drop-off' before my working day even started brought back memories of my previous corporate life. Sickening memories actually; I did it for so many years, that treadmill of the working mother. Anyway, once everyone including the dog were dispatched, I went and got educated.

Day one of the three day sequential: oh so happy. Look at me, remembering stuff, being clever, having erudite conversations with academics about feminism and narrative structures and getting feedback on my work from real and proper tutors who Know About Writing. Carrying my satchel around feeling pleased with myself.

Day two: exhausted (already; brain hurts from effort of being clever), terrified, realising that, shit, I have to write a whole bloody book by May. MAY!! Yes, I know. wtf.

Day three: resigned, it's nearly over, fond of my writing class mates, feeling goodwill towards all writers ever. Pushing negative thoughts away - mantra: banish self-doubt. Keen to get back to my normal life of being less clever and having clean laundry and something to eat in the house.

It's a curious thing. It's time and soul-sapping. My sister in law texted from Dubai me saying: Earth to Lou. Where are you?

And so I sit here thinking. And writing, and then deleting. And writing a bit more.

Meanwhile, life does go on. Post-grad study is all that I thought it would be. True to form: I want my tutors to be impressed with me, like I used to want my bosses to be impressed with me. I want to get good marks. I want to do well. But then I tell myself - at times when it's feeling really hard and challenging - I am not doing this to be impressive, I am doing it for a multitude of other complex reasons.

My children ask me how school was in a strange reversal of roles. They still, despite themselves, get cross that the normal level of housewifely service has temporarily ceased.

And then in amongst this we shuttle back and forth to the nearly-built house and check progress, get excited. This was a big week; they started fitting the kitchen. It resembles an actual habitable place. I am, despite what anyone might think and however un-ready it is, planning to move back in next weekend. I literally can not wait any more. Quite aside from the ironic fact that after all this, we may end up destitute having spent all our money in the whole wide world on that house.

I figure there's only one thing for it; comfort googling, mindless Pinterest-stalking, going for a run, walking the pup, eating recipes that don't include kale, getting back to my life until the next time...

Dressing, style, rural life and me...

posted on: Thursday, 22 October 2015

Recent observation: I notice what people look like way too much. I actually don't mean their physical appearance, I mean what they wear. I remain obsessed with clothes and how they hang, what they are made of, where people get them, how they go together and on and on. This is why this book is one of my all-time favourites. The idea that people get up in the morning and decide what to wear is one that has an enduring fascination for me. It's not that I judge necessarily, I am interested in what motivated them to decide on what they decided on that day. Or there are those who didn't appear to make a conscious choice - who have thrown on any old thing - and I am fascinated by them too. Everyone has a story and maybe right now - as I have lumbered into writing fiction - that I am searching out character motivations all the time. There is no down-time to this pursuit; when you are writing a book, every single day brings some element or interaction that informs the writing.

But back to clothes.

I am obsessed.

Always have been.

I hate not being able to find the right outfit. I can literally ruin my mood. True.

But with my lifestyle being what is it - the 'right' outfit is morphing into something different. The combination of rural life (tick), mother (tick), driver (tick), 40-something (tick) and Pinterest-obsessed (tick) all conspire on a daily basis. I need it to look good, have style, be comfortable and be appropriate but most important of all: NOT BE BORING. I can't bear boring clothes. And the older I get the more boring clothes become. I find this a distressing side-effect of being older.

I am older. It doesn't matter how many times I write that, it never stops surprising me. I sometimes, in my mind's eye imagine some cool young 20-something reader stumbling across this blog and thinking: this looks like a nice place, I'll stay and read. Then along they go and suddenly they realise they are reading the words not of a contemporary, but of an older lady! I don't make anything of this really - it just amuses me. I feel like I am playing at blogging in a younger girl's world. If you have a comment about fashion in blogging you have to be i) 25, ii) work in fashion or iii) be a self proclaimed older lady who has a view on style. I follow many blogs who do this very well but it makes me smile how many blog titles announce the 'over 40' truth!

But back to clothes.

I'm wishing there was a brand who made smart clothes in natural fabrics (cotton, linen, wool) which could cope with modern life. So many brands I like are just too smart for my lifestyle and need dry-cleaning (seriously; who has the time?). And the brands who are not smart are too much like 'leisure-wear'. This is an conundrum. I'm wishing that Isabel Marant's style was proliferated more readily in high street brands. I'm wishing that there was worldwide shipping from on line stores in other countries. Shipping is the bane of my life. I'm wishing that there wasn't such a mummy 'uniform'. Hate to look like everyone else. I'm wishing that I lived in a climate that did not require a massive winter coat over everything, from October to April. And then I think, actually, maybe this preoccupation is not a good one... ;-)

The week that was...

posted on: Saturday, 17 October 2015

A week consisting of highs and lows. I have some weeks where I am in the company of others all the time and then times where I am alone for hours and hours a day. A few months back, being in my own company was penance and I sprang from thought to thought (many of which were, I see now, rather dark) trying to fill my day. Now, I have found a mental space to inhabit in which, when I get the heebie-jeebies about what I am doing with life, I say to myself: calm down Lou, you're a writer now. This has a remarkable effect as clearly I am no more a writer today that I was a year ago. But somehow, inside my mind, it's given me a room of my own in which to get comfortable. All this time I have been searching for that room and now I have found it, it brings calm.

But of course that does not account for my week of everyday reality - of early morning school runs that have taken hold. I concluded this morning that I had not had a lie in for about SIX weeks. Not one! Even Sundays are spent at far-off rugby tournaments, with 7am starts, where I stand on muddy sidelines with other parents. I realise at the end of a sport season that I have spent more time with these parents than with anyone else! Strange.

I loop around the sartorial challenges of the season (again) and have spent some time wondering if I will ever wear high heels again. A well-meaning and wise friend pointed out to me that our lifestyle was governed by function more than anything else and she is right. I am what I am. It is what it is.

I still make daily pilgrimages back to our real house which this week suffered a major set back. I had actually allowed myself to think we might be back in in a few weeks but one of the contractors let us down (in monumental fashion) and we have had to accept a hefty delay. I can't sugar-coat the renovation process. There is so much to do and it goes on and on and on. Makes me want a lie in.

On one of the afore-mentioned match sidelines a parent asked me what I had learned about doing up a house and what I would do differently. My response? I could talk for hours about the merits of architects and the skills of various trades. But at these later stages of the build, we have gone it alone, my husband and I like a tag team of two; we are weary project managers (and I was never that good at keeping to a critical path anyway). We talk endlessly about deadlines and scheduling of work and which trade is coming next and all I can think about is when can I sink into a new sofa and enjoy the space?! It is relentless. Our kids want to go home, we do too. But at the moment that seems like a long way off. And most people say: 'will you be in by Christmas?' to which I used to say 'yes!' and now I find myself wondering...

Our temporary dwelling is getting fuller and fuller as we stay longer, an interesting human experiment in how much stuff we can accumulate wherever we go. It started off looking like a holiday home; now it has a lived in quality.

Still in readiness for the turn of the weather (obsessed with staying warm) I have scoured the web for every kind of winter parka there is. Literally. I think I have found the one...from here. I am going Canadian because if anyone knows cold, it's Canada. I have seen Anne of Green Gables. And so it goes...waiting for winter to make an appearance, trying to see the upside!

1 year, 6 months and 21 days....

posted on: Saturday, 10 October 2015

This is how it goes with blogging; a post lives in my head in a sort of semi-baked internal dialogue about anything that may occur to me. It is then, sometimes time dependant, transcribed onto the page here. Sometimes not. Sometimes I read back on what I have published and there are recurring themes that have been on my mind, even without my knowing to what extent, until I note that I have mentioned a lament about skinny jeans three posts in a row. Other times I read back and see a little glimpse into something that was brewing and hardly recognise that I ever felt so strongly to write about it.

So, the topic for today is: how I freaked out when I hit 40. I have recently seen the same neurosis set in amongst friends of mine who approach or are lurking around this milestone. I would say that many women sail past this particular buoy in the ocean of adulthood and hardly register it. For me it had a profound effect. That might be because around the same time I left my job and stopped working; bye bye definition of my role. Also my daughter turned 13; bye bye her childhood and hello her burgeoning adolescence with all that it entails. It became a perfect storm (maelstrom?) of converging life events that, over time, had conspired to mess me right up emotionally.

Not that it was an altogether unhappy time. I was - and am - well evolved enough to see that this stage is just part of the process and thinking too much about what it all would be Bad, Capital B. So I tried to just get on with it and it's only now, as I am a year and half living on the other side of 40 that I can acknowledge it.

Can I be honest? Turning 40 made me a little bit miserable. I wrote extensively about it at the time, on this blog (here and here and here) where I can sense in the words a search for meaning. I used to observe friends of mine who were over 50 for clues; these vital, beautiful, interesting women who seemed to be in their prime. I would ask them about their 40's and they'd smile knowingly and say 'yes, tricky times; you get to know yourself all over again in your 40's.' This didn't make sense to me; I knew myself, I had spent 40 years with myself. I thought I had it all figured out. But no...

To start with, there were the physical changes. These arrived imperceptibly and furnished the ongoing lament about skinny jeans. My body and face started to change, not unrecognisably, but subtly. I would see photos of myself and would see an old self. Having a teenage daughter who would, at random times of day, pull in and take a selfie with me would underline this. Her unlined beautiful youthful face - and then mine! I took this on the chin; I'd never compete with her, I entirely accept that it's her time and not mine. But still, nothing like a close-range dreadful photo to make you wince.

Then the loss of my role. Shortly before I turned 40 I left my job; the one I had done for many years and which, I see now, almost totally defined what I was about. In my job I was respected, analytical, consistent, assertive, interesting. Of course I sugar-coat it now, but what that job represented to me was a semblance of power and youth. Giving it up meant that I was stripped bare. Just Lou. I again looked at my contemporaries (and wrote here) and observed how many women my age did not work at a job, looked after their families, supported their husbands and so on. It didn't seem to fit for me. I saw that each day that passed after the euphoria of giving up my corporate citizenship I was confused and alone. It shifted how my family saw me. I kept speaking in the past tense: 'when I was working, I did x, y, z...' I had become one of those people I'd never wanted to be: defined by their past. And my inability to drag myself into the present, let alone the future, became a source of massive frustration.

So those dark, long winter days became the messy interim of being 40. I started asking everyone I met: how is this meant to feel? Aren't I meant to be happier? Is it meant to be this hard? Then I would read articles about the 'sandwich generation'; those women in middle age who had the double responsibility of looking after their teenage kids and their ageing parents and were, in the process, having the joy of life sucked out of them. I read that antidepressants were being dished out like sweeties. And I felt in myself that literally as I reached one day over 40, I was on a different, largely downward trajectory from the one I had been on prior. For an introverted, thinking soul like me, cue: existential mid life crisis of Herculean proportions.

This all played out amongst the usual life/family/life conundrum, as busy as ever, actually thank you very much, trying to hold it all together and ignore the insistent thrum in my head saying: is this it?

What has made me write this today, is that I spoke with a friend yesterday who is having a shit time. Monumentally shit. And I was trying to tell her that these times pass; that the very definition of adulthood and life and the space/time continuum is that it passes and a new phase starts. That's what Back to the Future 1, 2 and 3 were all about ;-)

But of course this fell on deaf ears as she is so 'in it' right now, that she can't see out of it.

And I thought to myself: I think I am out of it. I think I might have started a new trajectory. I think this could be it. A revelation. As ever was the case, it's only afterwards that you can see a change. I accept I am never going to take a good selfie these days; grey hair, wrinkles and sun damage have become a life-long guest. I have to work hard at staying fit. Skinny jeans are no more comfortable. All of that I can cope with, but I couldn't cope with the anguish associated with feeling that life was on a downward tilt.

So I changed the tilt. I had to redesign what I was and it took me about two years to work it all out - as of course, I see that much of what I am doing now was linked to why I stopped work in the first place. I wanted to get back to the person I was before I sold out to the corporate. I wanted to start writing properly. I wanted to learn something new. I wanted to be around smart, clever people again. I wanted to have something to say, to further my own agenda. So last week, as I sat in a multi-disciplinary academic lecture with a room full of creative people, all following their own agenda - from Grandmothers to twenty year olds - I thought, yes, this is better. This is what my 40 should look like.


posted on: Sunday, 4 October 2015

So enough of the wah-wah that we have no habitable home; the waiting continues.

We have had a run of sunny weather which has contributed well to everyone's mood. I dispensed my daughter on her 'Duke of Edinburgh' expedition this weekend, where she trekked 30K and slept in a tent. She's back and limping now and it's nice to see her so spent; young people don't seem to do that enough. The rugby season has started again and my son is playing it, watching it (ouch - England in the World Cup) talking about it. Our family is a rugby family and it runs from now to May. It's a long haul.

I started my degree! I don't even know where to start in terms of my impressions. To be back in academia after so many years in the corporate world: bizarre. To meet people whom I would never meet in my normal life: bizarre. To spend the day talking about books and writing and words...heavenly. The work itself - the prospect of actually writing a book...terrifying. But I came away brimming with ideas and dare I say - inspiration? I guess it is to do with allowing oneself the possibility to even think about being inspired. So much of my life is functional, practical, involved in the transit of others to their destination. It's so cliched to say that it's 'time for me' but honestly, I suppose that is what it is. My first assessment has to be handed in in two weeks. I type, delete, type, delete...early morning writing sessions. Getting there.

The season is gathering pace and I feel like in no time it will be winter. I allow myself to think about wearing wool every day again. We cook a roast on a Sunday and feel like we might hunker down with trashy TV.

Incredibly, incomprehensibly we got Glastonbury tickets!! They sold out this morning in less than 30 minutes. I have never been; this is a bucket list item. Agghhhhhhh - what to expect??!!

I am thinking of starting to run again. I stopped a while back and have now started dreaming about it! I think it's a sign...

It feels a little bit like we are hovering right now, this half-life spent away from our home brings with it some side effects. We have come to appreciate what we had and long to go back, but at the same time I wonder about my own motives. All the time I have lived in that house (over ten years) I have had a love/hate relationship with how undone everything was there. And old house; a money pit, it felt at times like we were never going to get there. And now, as we near the end of this phase, I do think - will it ever be entirely done?! The machinations of getting it close to perfect have been exhausting. And then, when we move back in, I know that within weeks - days even - it will be a scuffed, lived in version of itself. We will 'family' it.

I figure this a good thing. Isn't it?

I do feel it's a time for looking forward and that has been an almost imperceptible shift, as I realise I have spent much of the last two years looking back. Or at least looking at right now. It feels better to have a plan; we all like a plan!