I’ve been reflecting a lot lately on the concept of character. Not just as a writer, as someone creating a character; because even to be in the position of creating something like that, that person has to go through a questioning process to understand themselves and the world and their place in it. I’ve been going through a major change lately, I’d say over the last two years. I’ve been aware that I’ll be turning forty in 2017 probably five years in advance, and the closer it gets to my birthday this year, the more inward I’ve been feeling. I don’t feel apprehensive about the age part of it, but that in getting to this age, it proves beyond a doubt that time does not stop; that this is not some reality television show in which I am the main character. Around about the time I turned 25 or so, I started to truly become aware of the subject of dying. It scared the shit out of me for some time, and I can remember walking around knowing that everyone I laid eyes on — young, old, rich, poor, man, woman — they would all die some day. And they knew it, too, or at least knew enough to try to avoid risks of bringing it on too soon. Dying always happened to other people; it was just one of those things, at least that’s what I’d always thought about it and what I assumed other people thought about it. If that wasn’t true, I doubt people would place emphasis on half of the crap that they do, like Daylight Savings Time, Black Friday or social customs like shaking someone’s hand. In the French language, there is a formal “you” and an informal “you” and if you use the wrong one, it can be awkward. That’s the kind of thing I shake my head at — we’re all going to die one day, so what does it matter if you use tous or vous?
These are the kinds of things I would think about as I got older. Then something happened that I never expected to happen, which was that I had children. I always wanted to have children, but I never thought that I’d be lucky enough to experience it. In a way, I always viewed parenthood as the most selfish and irresponsible act one human could commit: who the hell are we to call forth life, to put another person into this chaotic state, of having to learn signs and signals and understand the meaning of them all, with the pretty much universally accepted guarantee that you’d die before them, hence never truly ensuring that they got through this “business” safe and happy? Why? Because we want to love something and take care of it (what, like a pet?), or because we are so jaded in our own experience that we long to taste the novelty of childhood again? It’s truly the most selfish act anyone can ever commit, and yet people do it all the time and sometimes completely recklessly so. I don’t know why I wanted children, but I did (it’s wired into our historical psyche, to be sure) and even now, when I see my kids, I get a sense of happiness that I can’t explain. I always say to them, “I’m so lucky to be your mom.” Because to me, I’m the lucky one, despite the fact that, technically they’re the ones who owe me their lives, etc. It’s really me who is fortunate they came into my life, they’re not fortunate that I put them here (they never asked to be here, after all). Sometimes I am too impatient with them; sometimes I should take more time with them, spend a bit more time in that small world where everything is a wonder. And I’m sure that there are a thousand other ways that I fail them on a regular basis. But, so far there is no limit to the sacrifice I would make for them; this has been proven to me in large and small examples. For instance, despite being extremely tired, I continue to get up, and feed them in the morning. Not just sometimes but every single day. It’s a small thing but it’s also a big thing, because if you don’t feed your kids, well, you’d be a pretty terrible parent. Meeting their physical needs is the bottom line really. But then again I’ve sacrificed in other ways, in situations that I never realized I’d have to choose against my own wishes so that they would be happy. People tell you that’s what it’s really all about, and it should be. It is the only way that we, as the parents, can reconcile the ridiculously risky move of making other human beings.
And this is one of the things I’ve been thinking about as I turn forty. My daughter, who’s six, says to me now that she wants to grow up and be a mommy. It reinforces that sense of urgency that I took for granted at the time I gave birth, which is really becoming apparent to me only nowadays. As I approach forty, it waits for me like an entity of its own; it knows I’m approaching, and it waits, patiently, as I stumble toward it. I feel like I’m going to an important meeting, only I don’t know who it is I’m meeting.
And then recently I realized what the hell is going on in my mind. The person I’m meeting with is supposed to be me — only not the me who screws up and makes mistakes all the time, but the me who I want to be. And I’ve been trying to change into that person, while also fighting this other part of me who won’t give up the ghost. And that part of me is the one I should really considering; not the idealized version of myself but the one that I think needs to change so much. I had this really great opportunity to teach writing at a university in Michigan, and I’ve been rushing towards that goal as if it seemed part of the whole “turning forty” plan to get my shit together. It felt like fate, the way it happened. I’ve always wanted to teach and for me to get the chance to teach writing is something akin to the way I felt when I had my children. I never thought such a good opportunity could happen to me. And it’s sad really that I think that way, that good things don’t naturally happen to me, but it’s as if, when they do, I’m surprised beyond belief, like I don’t deserve it. Because that’s how I have always operated. Well, it turns out, at the moment I’m writing this, I don’t know if I’m going to be able to take that job or not; I won’t now until next week. But the irony is, if I don’t end up taking the job (my dream job) then it will basically be because of my children, because the courts deemed it against their best interests to be so far from their father in England. So, this is the example I was referring to above — it just may be that I will have to sacrifice this opportunity, this dream that I had, because of my children. And if that’s the case, I’m just going to have to accept it. Because that’s what being a parent is about. Yes, it’s about getting up and feeding your children every day, even when you want to sleep. But it’s about the big things too. It’s about the decisions you have to make when the choices come down to being either your kids, or something else, and you’ll always choose your kids. You’ll always choose that feeling of happiness you feel just watching their little bodies running and jumping around. Because they give something without even knowing it; and it’s not something you can buy in a store or see advertised on television. It’s just them. Just them being themselves; asking endless questions that you get annoyed answering; it’s you explaining how this ridiculous world works, long after you’d forgotten you’d learned all its rules and were simply operating on auto.
So I’ve been hit fairly hard with the idea that I am potentially/in all liklihood going to lose this job. It’s left me in a pretty bad state lately. I’ve been preparing for this job, creating lessons and making course syllabus and things like that. I’ve been constructing lessons based on a lot of ancient material on rhetoric, and that’s been interesting. Rhetoric, this dirty yet important concept in the history of mankind: is it a tool to manipulate the masses? Or is it a way to express those key concepts that everyone feels and most people learned to accept or ignore long ago? This has led me to study the ancient orators who had a lot of things to say (yuk yuk) on rhetoric, so consequently I’ve been studying a good deal of Aristotle, Cicero and Quintilian. It’s fascinating to me because when I read these old masters, I get to verify a nagging question I’ve been wondering for awhile, which is basically that everyone on earth, from time immortal, experiences the same feelings of fear about the unknown; people from the past have always fought wars with each other; there were always Hitlers, there were always the Ghengis Khans of every generation, and then there have always been people like me: people of little consequence who just kind of go through it, without knowing what the hell any of it means; they try to be happy when they can, through the shared meaninglessness of the latest music, technology, books, etc. And then they die. This has been happening for centuries. And the thing is, when you read people like Aristotle, and even Plato before him, even THOSE guys were sitting around at the time, wondering how to make meaning out of any of it. It made me laugh when I read that Plato believed that the plays that were being staged at the time should be censored, so that young people would not be influenced to the murderous or other bad behavior they would see on the stage. Isn’t that exactly the same thing people still say (only in modern days, about television programs or video games)?
I’m very fond of Cicero. I’ve only barely begun to read the astounding amount of things he wrote; he was prolific and I may never have the time to finish reading his work. But he talked about the importance of gardening. In fact, the Greeks did too; I believe Aristotle even created a school of philosophy that took place in his garden. So the idea of gardening has been on my mind. Today is Saturday, the day that my kids go to their father’s house overnight. Saturday just kind of happened to me this week; I’ve been in a daze since Tuesday when I found out that I’d not gained the support of CAFCASS in my request to move to Michigan with my children. What a hell of a week this has been. Tuesday, I was suicidal. And I’m not saying that to be dramatic; I’ve suffered from depression all of my life and never felt as close as I did on Tuesday to actually going through with it. That feels shitty to say, but it’s true. And what’s scary to me about that is not even that I had the feeling of wanting to die, but that for the first time, the idea of my children did not act as a barrier to following through on it. I always thought I could handle those thoughts, because in the end I believed I loved my children too much to abandon them on purpose. But something just broke inside my mind on Tuesday; it was this whole thing about forty. It was the ripping away of this vision I had of myself and what I wanted to accomplish in my life — FOR my children. It was like a candle that someone just came along and blew out; CAFCASS didn’t just blow out the flame of my dreams of moving, but they blew out my ability to see anything. I was in the dark. It’s like if Plato had let all of the people come out of the cave in his famous allegory, only to march them back down into the darkness again. They’d seen what was out there, the beauty that was possible, but they couldn’t have it. They couldn’t look at it or be a part of it. I remember saying to my mother, I think it was Wednesday at this point, but I said “I feel like someone died, or as if I had a breakup.” It felt like a forced parting, the idea that I would not, after all this time and all my daydreams and all my planning — be able to move back home, to take up a job that would be the first in my life that had anything to do with the one thing that interested me. It was a forced parting, or a death of someone — it was the death of me or the vision of me that I was working so hard towards and was just within my reach. It would have paid more money than any job I ever had, and the best part was that I would have had a lot of time for the kids, because I only had to work nine hours teaching in the week to make enough money to live off of. It felt like God was putting all of these stones in front of me as I walked. I didn’t know that a path was there but as I took every step, a path appeared. I felt like I was heading towards the vision of myself that I always wanted to be, and the vision of myself that I wanted my children to see of me. And that was gone, in an instant; snuffed like a candle flame, leaving me with nothing.
And man did I struggle with that for a few days. It was probably the hardest few days of my life. It’s right up there with the week my stepfather died. I spent the first day just shaking my head, inwardly shocked at how stupid I’d been. I had been so caught up in this idea that God was placing the path down for me with each step, that I’d not given any thought to the idea of failing. I was 100% certain that the CAFCASS report would come back in my favor, which is the odd thing really because the guy from CAFCASS who wrote the report did state that my reasons for wanting to go were perfectly valid and that my plans were very well thought out. So why turn me down? I’m not sure exactly. But one thing I noticed was he made this very dismissive comment about how I could just “get over it” (the job) and made a reference to my previous attempt to move back to the USA in 2015: “She did it once, she can do it again.” It felt like a suckerpunch. I realized (not for the first time, since as they said, I tried in 2015 to move back home but was denied then too) I DO NOT HAVE POWER OVER MY LIFE. And no matter how hard I work, how great plans I put in place, I still have no power or authority to rule my own life. This guy, who never met me aside from one brief conversation, got to rule over my life and say where I could live, where my children could live, and basically what job prospects I could pursue or whether I would continue to stay in Britain, living off of government handouts. Interesting, isn’t it? This is the hand that feeds me, the hand that rocks my cradle; I wanted to climb out of my cradle, and feed myself, but I’m not allowed to go. They don’t think I can look after my children the way I say I will, apparently. They think what’s in the best interest of my children is to stay here in England, where they’ve always lived; seeing their Dad, who they’ve always seen part-time. They don’t care what opportunities they’re taking away from me, because I can just get over it. I did it once, I can do it again.
And so I’m angry, a bit. But the anger is tempered by the fact that I can’t do a damn thing about it. I can’t just go without my kids. I’ve thought about it, but how could I leave them behind? Living out the dream of who I want to be, without them around to see it, is meaningless. Besides, they were part of the dream: everything I wanted to do, I wanted to do FOR them. BECAUSE of them. So to go without them would be pointless, because I can’t really be happy if I don’t have those two around, because they are the only things that really give me happiness. True happiness, not the kind that you get from checking a goal off your bucket list. They ARE the bucket list. On the other hand, I can’t just snatch them away either. Not only because it’s highly illegal (the US and the UK are dual signatories to The Hague convention on international child abductions; it’s a felony) but also because in doing that, I’d basically have to cut off their relationship with their Dad. Who, despite never being able to work things out with me, is a good father to them. I’m not going to deny it. So running off and making a felon of myself and cutting their Dad out of their lives, who poses a positive relationship for them, would be hurting them and me. Again, pointless.
So, here I am. It’s Saturday. I’ve been kinda farting around all morning, watching YouTube videos. Then, I decided what the hell, I might as well go outside. Which is odd for me, because much like a vampire, I do not tend to spend time outdoors. But it was a beautiful day today (a rarity in England) so I decided to do some yard work. Hell, I guess I must have been truly inspired by Plato and Cicero. I felt the need to tend to my garden. Which truly has been a source of neglect lately; the grass was overgrown and there were weeds growing everywhere. I was particularly struggling with this weird type of vine that grows on top of other plants and bushes. It’s like a type of vegetal velcro; it’s sticky when you touch it, and after you’ve handled it, you find yourself covered in its tiny little hairy seeds that attach itself to everything.
And as I’m cutting this vegetal velcro (since I don’t know what else it’s called) I’m thinking about why the Greeks and Romans thought it was so important to garden. It’s a bit like making the bed, in my mind. You make it, but then you sleep in it again, so you have to make it again… and so on. I cut the grass, and the grass grows back, and then I cut the grass. And as I’m considering this, I’m starting to notice another feeling, which is a deep sense of RELIEF when I start to see how good the front yard is looking. Why???? I don’t know, but I just know that every time I walked over all those weeds that were growing in between my cement porch slabs, it annoyed me. But I dismissed that feeling, telling myself there was no point doing anything about it — because I was going to be gone soon. I was so sure I’d be moving to Michigan that I didn’t feel obliged to take care of simple jobs like yard work. And as I’m pulling away all of these weeds and picking off these little seed balls from my clothing, I’m thinking about this and how I’ve been neglecting not only the yard work but other things too. I’ve not been doing the house work much (and I’ve never been a domestic goddess in the first place, so when I say I was neglecting it, that means things were going downhill enough for even ME to notice). I’ve also been neglecting myself lately, and this has been a conscious thing. I used to be utterly fastidious in my hygiene habits, showering every day without fail. But lately, I’ve not been bothering. And I’ve even acknowledged that I’ve not been bothering. I can literally SMELL myself, and it annoys me, but much like the yard work I just ignored it. Why???
And this is the thing I am confronted with, as I’m pulling the weeds in my front yard: at what point did I accept that I do not need to put any effort into anything, and what is the reason why? I’ve been alone here, in this tiny terraced house, which is so small and awkward that I have to drag my lawnmower through the back door to the front door because I have no access to the back of the property. I’ve been confused, for a long, long time. Maybe I stopped putting the effort into making myself presentable(if not look good, then at least nasally acceptable) because I’ve been living a kind of fantasy world. I’ve been living too much in the future — the “me” that I might magically awake as on my fortieth birthday, while the real-time me is falling apart, much like my garden. In all of my attempts to get to this idealized place of where I thought I should be, I was ignoring the only one who could get me there: me.
This is why it is so difficult, now that this flame has been blown out, taking with it my ability to see anything. Everything was dark because without this fantasy to push me forward, I wouldn’t be alive at all. My life had become a metaphorical Amazon wish list: “Some day, I’ll have this situation, and this situation, and this situation…” It was all lined up on a piece of paper in my mind.
And where do I go from here? The one thing that made me feel like I wasn’t going to fail at being forty was the idea that I could be living my life, taking care of my kids, providing for them doing what I love to do. Writing is my life, and the fact that someone was willing to pay me to teach other people how to do it is crazy to me! It confirmed to me that I was actually good at something, and that I could make a living from it. Regardless of whether I had financial success as a writer wouldn’t matter, if I could still make money teaching people how to write. I could be wrong, but I just feel like that opportunity isn’t going to happen again.
It might still happen. I could be writing all of this down for nothing, because I ended up hiring a lawyer because some time between Tuesday and Friday, I realized I didn’t want to give up. I have been waiting ten years for this and I’m not going to just give up without a fight. I realized that I don’t think that I should have to choose between my children and a job that makes me feel worthwhile and happy. This situation sucks; I’m pissed that I’m being placed in this position, but I want to prevent it from happening again. Because essentially, I’ve given up my freedom. I’ve given up my control; nobody is forcing anything on me that I didn’t submit to in the first place. So I need to learn from that. I am responsible for tending to my garden. And I spent a lot of time out in my yard today, trying to decide whether the bushes and plants were a better analogy for human beings in general (a parasitic weed will grow all over you if given the chance; left to its own devices, it will flourish because the sun shines and the rain falls on all life, the weeds and the flowers both) or whether it was a better analogy for the internal mindset. It can be both really, but I like the idea of using it as an analogy for an internal mindset, because if I just ignore myself, if I ignore the exasperation I feel when faced with my own neglect, then that shows an internal decay. I am suffering inside. And outside, everything will be strewn with weeds, dumping their seeds anywhere they can latch on, hence perpetuating a cycle of chaos and neglect.
I’ve shared before on this blog about the importance of self-care. It was a glaringly obvious lesson for me today: we are responsible for our self care! We must not ignore the jobs required in keeping the internal mindset healthy. We cut the grass not because the grass will stop growing once its cut, but because it does NOT stop growing. Keeping it trim only makes life easier: we know where we’re walking; we can see clearly; hence keeping it trim prevents an injury. It’s less dangerous when the grass is trim. But, as I witnessed in my pure sense of relief at seeing my garden free of weeds, taking care of yourself feels good. Why? Because, it’s the difference between being someone’s child and having a child. A child needs to be told to do something before they do it; they need an explanation or an understanding of why it’s needed. That’s their job; they have to make sense of the world around them. When you’re not a child anymore, you’ve learned how this life works, and you know when you just gotta get on with things. Somewhere in between making sense of the world, and finding that nothing really makes sense so you start operating on autopilot — there’s a place where you know that autopilot isn’t really ideal, because things get chaotic. That’s the place that I’m hoping I’m approaching as I get to forty.