Cultivating gentleness

I ebb and flow – the tides, the Moon, hormones, the weather. Whether or not I’ve managed to sleep, whether Lily has been in a cooperative mood. Anxiety levels rise and fall, energy, motivation. Sunshine helps, the returning light after the dark of Winter. Two weeks ago I could barely function, this week has been all go; the kind of go where you’re up at 6am baking brownies for a friend’s fundraising coffee morning, dashing from the school run to the supermarket to buy Lily’s ingredients for cookery and delivering them back to school, driving back for the coffee morning, then home for the boiler guy – the latest home visit in the Help to Heat saga – back to school to pick up Ivy and drive her to therapy, quickly head to the shops to buy food for dinner, back to collect Ivy, then back to the shop to collect Lily from the bus, home to cook dinner, wash up, and then remember to pay bills and renew library books online.

I’ve made it through to what seems to be the final round of the Boiler Lottery, another phone call and another engineer sent to the house to photograph radiators and pipes. The first guy could maybe have taken the same photos himself, rather than Guy 2 being paid to do the same thing, which might mean that there’s less of an admin cost in running the scheme and therefore more money available to pay for actual boilers, but what would I know? It will have been over a month without heating or hot water before I get the verdict, at which point either my boiler will be replaced, or I’ll have to get a quote to replace it myself. The not-knowing doesn’t help my anxiety, you can meet all the criteria yet still not necessarily get the grant. A mystical points scheme is in place. My fingers are crossed, and my Mum’s knitting group appear to be holding a candle-lit prayer vigil for my boiler rather than actually knitting. If I had money, I could have replaced it weeks ago. If I have to take out credit, it will cost an extra £1000 to the total amount payable, an additional 50% of the original price. Mum recalled working as a cleaner for a woman who obviously had more money than us, and who couldn’t understand why poor people didn’t take advantage of the deals at the shops, buying in bulk or the 3 for 2 offers. “I couldn’t afford to pay the extra,” Mum explained to her. When you don’t have money, you always end up paying more. Life is a lot less gentle without that financial cushion.

Anyhow, there were two major factors to Boiler Guy’s visit. One; there was no way that I was going to re-live the mortifying experience of Boiler Guy 1, in which I had made an effort to tidy up the kitchen largely by shoving everything into other rooms, only to discover that he needed to go into every room. Every. Single. Room. All of which were a total mess. I wanted to cry. It’s hard enough having someone else in the house, but for a complete stranger to come in and go through every single cluttered, messy room, including my own bedroom, was beyond hideous. So this time round there was much panicked tidying. Sunday = emergency tidying of Lily’s room, including mending her bed which she’d broken and not told me about, and trying not to scream because yet again she had completely trashed her space. That added a considerable workload to the panic clean, but it’s made so much of a difference; what seemed entirely overwhelming last week has been tackled in a couple of days. The house is far from done, but it has at least reached a state where I wouldn’t cry if someone else saw it.

One day later though and there is a pile of clean pants on the kitchen table, a stack of Lily’s loose recipes that should have been glued into her cookery book, and a fresh round of paperwork for me to deal with. I have to accept that my home will never look perfect, but then most people’s houses don’t look like a copy of Ideal Homes either.

Two, if you’re still counting, it was a beautiful sunny day on the Tuesday and I was desperate to get outside and garden. There simply wasn’t enough time, but the longing to be gardening felt positive, a recognition that this is what I need right now, body and soul. Another round of acceptance; it’s counterproductive to set myself artificial rules or deadlines – I must get out and garden every single day – as my life just doesn’t look like that. All or nothing tends to result more often in nothing, giving up. The process of making my garden needs to be as enjoyable as the final result; cultivating gentleness as much as seeds.

The Easter Rebellion

The kids make their feelings known. They are NOT too old for an Easter egg hunt, apparently.

Remember that year when you wrapped huge long pieces of string all over the house and we had to follow it and it led to our eggs? Can you do that again?

Remember that year when you wrote all those clues and we had like a treasure hunt to find our eggs? Can we do that again?

“Can’t I just buy Easter eggs from the shops and give them to you like any other normal person?”

NO!

They tell me I did an indoor egg hunt last year. I have no memory of it, having been caught up in the ongoing court case with Simon at the time, but I’m glad to hear I was still capable of making an effort. A small bell starts to ring somewhere in the dim recesses of my mind as they go on to remind me that one of the eggs was hidden in a mug in the kitchen and it took ages to find… ah, yes. It did happen, after all. I remind Lily that when she came home that long ago Easter to find string wound everywhere, she burst into tears, threw a massive tantrum, and refused to play. The joy of Aspergers; it’s only taken about six years for her to come to terms with that idea. I also remind them that it took them about three hours to solve my evidently more cryptic than intended clues in the year of the treasure hunt, and that this year I don’t have enough brain left over to attempt it.

This year Ivy can’t have dairy, so I had to resort to getting dark chocolate eggs, and a few small packets of Haribos. The rain stayed away long enough for me to quickly hide everything in the garden. Ivy bounced about like a toddler and demanded a proper basket to carry her stash in, then they both shot off outside like fireworks. Lily, as usual, rocketing past all of the eggs and sweets in a bid to be fastest, while Ivy gathered up packet after packet into her basket and examined places that I’d never thought of hiding anything in. I had to point out that it was not very likely that I’d risk life and limb climbing through the large patch of rosebush trimmings and brambles, but Ivy was determined to search there. We marvelled at how Lily had managed to run straight past the packet of Haribos dangling from the washing line without hitting herself in the fac, while Ivy unpegged it and dropped it into her basket. The last couple of eggs required a few hints, then they were back inside, giggling and ripping into their chocolate while I retreated to the kitchen sink.

I’d intended to leave the kids to their egg hunt while I cracked on with the chores, but instead found myself standing watching them, laughing. There hasn’t been enough laughter recently, and so a few moments in the sunshine watching while the kids ran about and everyone was happy and joking… it was well worth the extra bit of effort, and the slight delay to the washing up. Easter egg hunts weren’t that common when I was growing up. My Mum occasionally apologises for what must have been an incredibly boring childhood when she sees me frantically trying to make events like this happen – yet things like egg hunts just weren’t part of the culture at the time. At times I question whether I’ve made a rod for my own back when I’m making Halloween costumes or planning treasure hunts, but when everyone is laughing and enjoying themselves, it’s all worthwhile.

This is recovery too. Taking time out to celebrate, to create new, positive memories together. Picking and choosing so as not to overburden myself (no string, no treasure hunt) while still making enough effort to delight the kids. In many ways, it’s an act of defiance, a chocolate-based rebellion; we will be happy, no matter what.

Spring Healing

I did it! Finally, I gave myself permission to get outside and garden, despite the chores piling up in the house; thanks too to the comments I’ve been left encouraging me to go for it. The goal was to plant a couple of snowdrops; one I’d bought this year, and two stragglers that have survived a full year in their little pots, as well as a pretty snakeshead fritillary, Lily’s favourite flower. I managed to get out a couple of times last month to attempt to prune the apple trees at the bottom of the garden, at which point the one existing clump of snowdrops was in full bloom. This time around, the snowdrops were well and truly over, but signs of Spring were peeking out – the celandine beneath the trees, daffodils, primroses beginning to awaken. Somehow it was a surprise to see them, perhaps the snow threw off my sense of timing. Seeing the first of the primroses out brought an instant craving for primrose tea, my Springtime ritual; put 4 or 5 flowers in a mug and fill with boiling water. It’s a very subtle, slightly sweet taste that feels like drinking the Spring sunshine. I’m looking forward to my first cup, another thing to lift my spirits. If you’re going to try it, be mindful of where you get your primroses from, avoid anything that’s been sprayed, including any new plants as you’ve no idea what’s happened to them in the nursery, and don’t take too many flowers at once, leave some for the bees.

In the end, I managed about an hour and a half before grabbing a cuppa and setting off on the school run – I planted out a few things that had been sitting too long in their pots, replanted one of the tubs that sits outside the front door and gave myself permission to buy a few more little violas or similar in the next week to replant the second tub. The plum tree close to the house got a prune as the branches were getting very long and whippy. I’m not sure if I’ve done it any good or not, but it was getting too tall. I’m not even sure whether it’s actually a plum or not, maybe a damson – all I know is that the fruit wouldn’t ripen on the tree and fell to the ground still green. Maybe it’s a greengage? Maybe they’re supposed to be green? I’ll have to do more research this year.

What’s more important is that my instincts were correct; I felt so much better for having spent that time out in the sun, getting my hands dirty. Yes, I still forgot to do the other stuff I’m supposed to be doing; the important email I should have sent a month ago, the payments I should have made by now, the laundry… but hell, I would probably have forgotten to do them anyway, and at least this way I’ve got something to show for it.

Back in the House in the Sky when I didn’t have a clue where my life was heading after my marriage broke down, I vowed to follow my instincts, listen to my Soul. The first time I sat still and tried to listen to what my Soul was telling me, expecting it to involve meditation and inner peace, I was surprised to hear her clearly telling me to tidy up the back porch. We tended to use the back door as the main entryway, and the small porch/pantry/utility had become a dumping ground – things had landed there when we first moved in and just stayed put. It didn’t seem like the most inspiring thing that my Soul could say, but I went with it, clearing everything out, stripping down the ugly brown gloss woodwork, painting it all white, sorting through the stuff and reorganising the shelves. When it was done I realised the value of having followed my instincts in this way – now when we came home, we were met by a tidy, welcoming space rather than having to squeeze past the hoover, the step stool and the kids’ scooters. Previously the clutter had dragged me down whenever I came through the door, now I felt uplifted, with a kick of pride in my achievement.

Until now I’ve tried to do right. Be sensible, follow the rules, trust the System. It’s got me nowhere. Following those small whispers of Soul has proved to be the right direction every time. While I desperately want my house to be fixed up, decluttered and calm, my Soul is telling me I need to be outside. That healing is in the soil, the flowers, the wind and sky, not in sitting inside, anxious and overwhelmed, trying to summon the motivation to carry on. Healing needs to be my priority this year; healing first, organising later.

Overwhelm

How can I make a garden when there’s so much to do in the house? Time, energy, money, all are limited. The one thing I have in abundance is overwhelm. When it comes to fight or flight, I freeze. It’s taking all I have to stay on top of the regular chores, the endless cycle of cooking and washing up, laundry, the relentless school run, the demands of two teenagers, and even the barest attempt at cleaning. We’ve never properly moved in, the whole house feels cluttered and chaotic. The shower broke soon after Lily starting using it; this time I can’t really blame her as it’s probably around thirty years old. Ivy’s attic bedroom isn’t properly insulated, and I’m scared that this includes the entire loft, creating condensation, damp or rot, which accounts for the apocalyptic numbers of woodlice in her room. The boiler has stopped working on account of the snow, leaving us without central heating or hot water during the coldest week in living memory. The back porch has a leak, the back door is rotting and the front porch isn’t watertight either. There’s a list of phone calls to be made to builders, to advice lines, to doctors, school, therapists, solicitors. The car broke down – yet another bill to pay. Every time I manage to save a bit of money, whether for a financial cushion, or to put towards one of the jobs that needs doing, another bill springs up to snatch it away. Right now I want to shut the door and walk away from it all.

People get through trauma in different ways. Through the domestic abuse support group, I met women who lost their appetites due to stress. Instead, I’ve been comfort eating to the point where I’ve put on around 4 stone in as many years and most of my clothes no longer fit. I met women who combatted their anxiety by throwing themselves into the housework, cleaning late into the night. I find myself hiding from the dishes piled up in the sink, avoiding the clutter, sitting motionless on the sofa and wondering what happened to the day. Why can’t I have useful anxiety? I ask myself, berating myself for not having the “right” type of stress-response, one which would see me lose weight and gain a clean, tidy house. Occasionally I manage a burst of activity, complete one of the big projects – building wardrobes in mine and Lily’s rooms, putting up shelves in the tiny hallway. Since Lily moved in full-time last December, it’s gotten harder and harder to get anything done; the added pressure of living with her ADHD/Aspergers adds an extra level of stress and chaos. At times it’s like living with Taz, the Tasmanian Devil in the Warner Brothers cartoons, a whirlwind of mess and fury.

So how am I going to manage to create a garden when I can’t stay on top of the dishes? Without heat and hot water it’s even harder – I now have to schedule swimming each week so that we can get clean, while dish-washing means repeatedly boiling the kettle to get hot water. It’s almost impossible to dry clothes, so the amount of laundry I can get through each week is reduced to one or two loads, carefully planning the timing so as to make sure that school uniforms get priority while also hoping that no one runs out of clean pants. Ivy has developed gluten and dairy intolerances, making mealtimes more complicated. Life seems to be an endless round of school runs, shopping, cooking and washing up. When I’m in the house I feel overwhelmed by it all, not knowing where to start – especially given that the house is too small for us and that no matter how hard I work at it, the mess will take over faster than I can clean it up. The same tasks, over and over, the same nagging at the kids – can someone please put the dishes away so I can wash the next lot, you’re both supposed to cook at least one meal per week, can dishes be brought down from bedrooms, can dirty laundry be put in the basket, can people please reclaim their clean laundry and put it back in their rooms? Homework! Have you done your homework? Please don’t snack on the food I’ve bought to make dinner with. And for the love of God, can you both please set your alarms and get out of bed on time in the mornings, without me having to yell at you to get up for school every single day? I am a nag, I am a skivvy, I am a mind-numbingly boring housewife, a drudge and yet I can’t even get control of my drudgery.

There is nowhere to put the Hoover. Henry should probably live in the pantry cupboard under the stairs, but that’s where the step-stool currently resides, making it easier for everyone to reach the top shelves. So Henry sits glumly cluttering up whichever room he was last used in. He seems to symbolise so much of my struggle to get on top of things; an item we need and use but can’t find a place for in a too-small home which is chronically short of storage. With everything, the avalanche effect. In order to find Henry a home under the stairs, I’d have to clear out the entire pantry and reorganise it. In order to clear out the pantry, I’d have to clear up the kitchen to make space, and in order to do that I’d have to do a lot of sorting in the kids’ rooms, and so on. Each job is a chain reaction, and it’s hard to find the starting point. Along with the suspicion that I have undiagnosed Aspergers, I also fit the criteria for ADHD – something which feels more like a relief than a diagnosis, explaining why I find it so hard to get organised, why I can’t get started, why I never get finished. My current state of mind, the anxiety and trauma and depression, mean it’s even harder; I have no mental clarity, no focus and precious little motivation. Whichever room I’m in, I don’t know where to get started. Each item I look at either creates a fresh chain reaction of To Do’s or throws up more questions – do I need this, do I use it, where should I put it, or if I’m going to get rid of it, where should it go, should I donate it or try to sell it, how can I avoid it ending up in landfill? And all of this is only on a good day, a day when I have the energy and motivation to even try to get started. On a bad day – forget about it.

I need peace. I need order. Being out in the garden would almost certainly improve my state of mind and wellbeing, yet it’s hard to allow myself to get out there when so much needs doing inside the house – and so I end up achieving next to nothing, caught in a trap of indecision, guilty feelings and anxiety. There are days when my anxiety levels are so high that I struggle to leave the house – which includes even going out into my own garden. There are days when my sense of overwhelm is so high that it’s easier to run away, to stay out and not come home to face the laundry. At times I need to remind myself of how much I’ve achieved under difficult circumstances, that when we moved in just over a year ago, none of us had beds, or wardrobes, and every single room was piled high with boxes. I need to be kind to myself, talk to myself the way I’d talk to a friend, encouragement rather than blaming and shaming. The past few years have been so hard, without respite from the abuse and stress and anxiety. I’m gradually trying to build a new life for us, doing my best to help the kids through their own struggles while not getting any support for myself or for them. I need to accept that many of the negative voices playing out in my head were placed there by Simon, and that my home doesn’t need to be picture perfect.

Be kind. Be kind. Be kind.

For me, that might mean giving myself permission to begin my garden before my house is ready. To trust that by following my instincts, my gut feeling that creating the garden is part of my healing process, it’s more likely that I’ll find the peace and clarity that I need to get control over other areas of my life. That it’s not possible to be perfect – ever – never mind when you’re healing. That I need to follow the small breadcrumbs that my soul is trying to lay down in the forest, tiny morsels of comfort in the moonlight, before the birds of doubt swoop down and gobble them up with the drudgery of each passing day.

Mossy Cottage and the House in the Sky.

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again…

Our homes have such a hold on us, our subconscious minds pulling them into our dreams no matter how long it’s been since we lived there – sometimes even homes we’ve never actually lived in, like my Nana’s council house, the place of sleepovers and family gatherings. In dreams, the home might not look anything like the house we know, and yet we still recognise it as home, despite the extra room that has appeared halfway up the stairs, or the fact that it’s now beneath the sea and a shark has taken up residence on the sofa. These can dreams infuse our waking state with nostalgia, longing or regret; hiraeth, a Welsh word with a sense of longing for a lost home or home we’ve never had.

Mossy Cottage is my hiraeth, the house of my dreams, a far cry from the Victorian two-up, two-down that I’m currently living in with the children. Our last home – the place that was bought on the basis of it being our forever home – is sorely missed. During the divorce I struggled to decide whether or not to fight Simon for the right for the children and I to remain living in the family home. Friends urged me not to give it up, that he can’t kick you out of your home. The domestic abuse support worker warned me to stay put, that we’d never get a place that was anywhere near as nice. My mother, horrified by the lack of gas central heating, the thought of me shovelling coal early in the mornings, and the overgrown, uncontrollable garden, tried to persuade me to get the hell out of Dodge. The children pleaded to stay. The mediator took a brief look at the figures and assured me that there was no question about it – I could keep the house, Simon would keep everything else. Even if all I fought for was a stay of execution, Simon retaining a charge on the house until Lily had finished school; Lily, our Aspie child, who had developed epilepsy shortly after we separated. I worried what a house move would do to her, particularly an unwanted one. I even offered for Simon to keep the house while the council rehomed me and the kids, knowing at least they’d still get to spend some time in their home. For me, a different house might be a lot easier to run, especially if it had central heating, which only added to my ambivalence. And yet – it was our home.

The House in the Sky. At a creative writing workshop I went to shortly after we moved into the family home, I met an older woman who had considered buying the house a couple of years earlier. Her daughter had very sensibly talked her out of it, listing the many difficult practicalities, but the house haunted her dreams – The House in the Sky, as she called it, high up on the hill, with the sweeping panoramic view of the valley beneath, the hills climbing up away in the distance. “There was just something about it,” she confessed and I nodded. There was. The first friend to visit stood in awe of the view in front of the massive window in the living room – a window so large that the double glazing firm we brought in told us it was the largest single panel they’d ever installed into a domestic setting. “Ah, you’ll take it for granted soon enough,” she told us.

I didn’t.

I was grateful to my friend for that phrase, for pointing out the dangers of familiarity, how soon we get used to the very thing we once longed for. For me, it was the lure of green that had me aching to leave the city, tired of looking out of my window and seeing only grey. Once she’d said it, I decided that I would never, ever take my new view for granted. Every single time I looked out of my windows, I would appreciate the beauty of those views. Simple pleasures can bring the greatest joys in life if we take the time to relish them and for me that was sitting on the huge, snuggly sofa, cup of tea in hand, looking out at the view. Watching the tiny subtle changes that grew day by day marking the seasons go by, the bare sticks of winter gradually studding with tiny green buds, unfurling into leaves and blossoms, the colours shifting from bright to darker green, to reds and oranges until Winter brought bare branches again and the wonder of a landscape altered by frost and snow.

In the end I had no choice. We had to move. It was clear that Simon’s abuse would not stop until he got what he want, which was to sell our home and buy a new place with his girlfriend. Their actions meant I no longer felt safe, meanwhile he was subjecting the children to emotional abuse. Agreeing to the sale seemed to be the only way I could protect us; Simon clearly believed that the house was his, not ours, had no thought as to what was best for the children, and would never allow us to live there in peace. Naively, I thought the situation would improve once he’d got his way. I was wrong.

My God, I miss my home. Miss it more than I thought I would, like a void inside me, something hollow in my belly that can’t be filled. A huge part of this hiraeth stems from the fact that the new place is now too small, too impractical for the three of us. When I chose it, the tenth house that I had been to view, the children were only supposed to be living with me for half of each week, meanwhile the available houses were flying out of the estate agents’ windows in a sellers’ market. It didn’t matter so much that the place was small – after all, the kids would have half of their possessions at their father’s new house. It didn’t matter that there was nowhere to park, or that it wasn’t as convenient for the school run – I would only be taking the kids to school for half of the week. And so on, and so on, with all the difficulties I could list about the place. But of course, both children now live with me full time, and so it matters. You should have fought him, the voice in my head now tells me. You should have fought to stay. Yet the abuse would have continued, would have worsened, and at least he doesn’t have a key to my new place. At least we are safe here.

I miss my House in the Sky. But this tiny terrace is my home now, and I must make the most of it. Despite the regret of having to move, I welcomed the security that the new house would offer – I looked forward to making it a home. Unfortunately, my first year here was instead marred by Simon’s second malicious court case, my time and energy wasted on legal battles. I struggled to just make it habitable and functional while dealing with the endless statements, correspondence and admin that court required. Now that court is hopefully over, with only a few remaining legal issues to clear up, it’s time to turn my attention to making my house our home. Except of course, a year down the line, I’m even more drained and exhausted, without having had a chance to heal. The house feels overwhelming, the struggle being to manage to just stay on top of the daily chores, never mind improve the place. Is it possible to find gentleness and healing in creating a home, rather than stress and overwhelm? The question seems to merit an obvious yes, and yet I find myself exhausted before I start. During counselling I could think of nothing that was a possibility for my new life, other than perhaps I might enjoy creating a garden for myself. And so: Mossy Cottage, my attempt at creating both home and healing, starting over while trying to leave the past behind.