Friday, 28 February 2014

The Journey

It was my birthday on Tuesday, and now I am thirty three. I say it to myself with something like wonder. It seems impossible that those numbers apply to me. They are vast, immense, as old as the stars; a whole universe in the curve of double figures.  
When I was twenty (and twenty five, and twenty nine), I imagined thirty three as a far off continent. Things would be different there, things would be simpler. I would be a mother, perhaps, with children clutching stickily at my knees, printing my face with their kisses. A writer (of course) with poems in the world and a string of accolades. A wife with a diamond ring and honeymoon sun in my skin, still, golden.  
And now I am on that continent -  childless, bookless, without a husband. And the strangest thing about it is that I am happy, for the most part. Happy in my life. Happy in simply having a foot on the place, like I imagine Columbus was, planting his flag in the earth of the Americas 
I have spoken, at length, about spending my twenties grappling with health, both physical and mental. Those years where every day was a whirlwind: food and booze, panic and bones; hair falling out in handfuls, fainting like the ladies in Victorian novels, blue-lipped, wasp-waisted, eyes swarming with stars.  
It seemed dramatic, then - life was crazy, amplified, passionate, intense – but in fact, my life was on pause in those years. The whole of my twenties a button pushed down and held. It felt chaotic but I was standing still. Nothing moved. Nothing changed,  except the numbers that flashed on a series of scales, the numbers that either praised or damned from the labels of my clothes.  
I could regret the waste – and I do, sometimes – but the experience has turned out to have its gifts. I dug in the muck for years and came up wild-eyed and bloody-handed with the effort, but I found my treasures in the end, my fistfuls of gold: respect for myself, and awareness; empathy and acceptance; a hunger for truth and for knowledge; a burning curiosity and a mad thirst for experience.  
Perhaps the strangest gift is that of girlhood. I had it, once, and wasted it; frittered it away in midnight kitchens, bent over porcelain bowls in bathrooms. I gave it, freely, in return for a body I could carve the air with, all knife-edge and cleaving slice. My friends were falling in love for the first time, and moving to cities, and kissing in bars, and buying spices in markets in foreign countries, and I was at home, alone, taking a savage delight in misery. All those years the other girls had, of trying, and finding, and fumbling towards something, I missed out on. I felt badly about that for a long time, as if I was behind, somehow, as if I needed to catch up. But the result of that now is that I feel like my friends did when they were in their twenties: like the world belongs to me in a way that it has never belonged to anyone else, that everything is new, and shining, and waiting to be experienced.  
Birthdays inevitably make me reflective. The sequence of passing years, the implications of mortality, the endless list of all the things I haven’t done or seen yet, the places I have missed. My thirties have been the first years in which this reflection has not been synonymous with panic. I think before, I saw my life as a sort of train journey with a beginning and an end, and a series of stations I needed to pass through in between: education, career, marriage, children, and so on. Only in my thirties am I beginning to appreciate that the point of the journey is the journey itself, not whether I’ve reached a particular platform by the time designated on the schedule (which isn’t, anyway, my schedule). Life isn’t the checking off of station-names until the final destination. Life is the miles of field flashing in between, the beads of rain on the glass. Life is the other passengers in the carriage and the sheep outside, sleepy-eyed, working mouthfuls of grass.  
It’s good to look forward, I think, but not too far. Not so far as to where the tracks converge to a single gleaming point on the horizon. You miss the wild flowers between the slats that way. You miss the way the dust turns like fireflies in the random slants of falling light.  

Sunday, 23 February 2014

"So, we beat on, boats against the current..."

I have worn new clothes to work this week. Shirts with lace panels, and dresses with ruffles, and cardigans as finespun and delicate as cobwebs. I have been spreading wings of blusher across my cheekbones. Fancily pinning my hair. For myself, I thought, but in truth it was for him. I wanted him to think of me as pretty. I wanted him to regret giving me up so easily.

One half of me thought If he wants me, I will tell him no. The other half thought If he asks me, I will go.

I was happy on Wednesday. I could feel a light in my face, a radiance. I felt soft and good and pretty. He stopped me by the copier, my arms full of papers, and told me what I wanted to hear: lovely, was the word he used. I blushed, and floated back to my desk.

Be careful, said R, He is trying to charm you. I laughed, waved an airy hand, said no, no,  even as a bubble of hope rose in me like the fizz in a glass of champagne. He is not good for you, said N,  You have to let him go. I nodded, said I know, said yes.

I drank wine in the evening. I wrote a poem about the moon. I painted my nails the colour of beaten tin. All I thought about, the whole time, was him.

It was late when he messaged, as I had known, deep down, that he would. He told me that he was thinking of me, that he missed me in his arms, his house, his bed. I should have stopped the conversation there, closed over it the way water closes over a stone. Instead, I put my spun-glass heart in his hands. Turned my thin, pale belly up to his teeth.

I know already that this is wrong. I am not the love of his life, but only the easy option. I am not the object of his passion but only a desire.

He bought me a rose when we went to Rome in November. I pressed it between the pages of a book to keep the memory. I feel, now, a little like that flower. Like a rose in a book taken down from a shelf. He only wants to look for a while, and remember. He only wants a known fondness, the old familiar.

And still, and still, and still I am tempted.

Already I am hanging, like a coat on a hook, waiting for him to fill my empty places and give me shape. I am losing myself little by little to the air. He is wind and I am sand, and he sifts me, endlessly, from myself.

I want him. I don't want him. I want him. I don't.  I write to convince myself.  I write to untangle the need.

I feel like a wishbone, snapped abruptly apart. My wishes spilled, unsortable, across the table.

Monday, 10 February 2014

"I believe that the Universe wants to be noticed..."


It's funny, the little bits of knowledge we collect without really thinking about it, the way children at the seaside, sandy, salty-kneed,  fill their buckets with shells, and stones, and the ghost-pale skeletons of tiny crabs. Mostly, we don't do anything with our scraps of fact. We just like the way it feels to roll them in a palm on occasion. We like their colour, or the shapes they make in our mouths. Giraffes have blue tongues. Bananas are berries, but strawberries aren't. Pearls melt in vinegar. Polar bear fur is clear, not white.
I always accepted the fact that moths steer their course by the moon. I repeated it when it was relevant. I thought it poetic: imagined them, earnest little things, owl-eyed, flittering moonward. And then, just this week, I found out that it isn't actually true. That although they do always head for the light - which is why many moths meet a quick, frizzing death in the heat of a candle flame, or spend hours batting at a lit window - they navigate, in fact, by smell.
This is how they do it: they compare the scent in two points in space, and then move towards the greater concentration. Immediately, they compare two more points and revise their flight accordingly. And then they do it again. And again. Which is why they move in those funny, hitching little paths; they’re changing their course based on moment by moment decisions.  
Do you believe in signs, in totems? I do. I think they arrive when we need them, little points of reference like a string of lights along a dark path. I think they hold meaning and metaphor, the way dreams do when you look them up in the reference books a stew of symbols, portents, patterns.
There is a beautiful quote in the John Green book, “The Fault In Our Stars”, which says that, essentially, the universe wants to be noticed; that it enjoys its elegance being observed. There are times when I feel that the universe wants to be noticed so much, it leaves clues like fairytale breadcrumbs or arrows chalked on a path. I can’t help but feel that I am being guided toward something. That there is something I am meant to see, or understand. It feels like a firm hand in the small of my back, setting me gently but insistently in a certain direction.  
Moths, at the moment, are everywhere. They have infiltrated my life, a quiet sort of coup like snow dropping softly in a dark street. They crop up in the books I am reading. In songs I’ve never heard before. Last week, a friend emailed me a poem she thought I’d like. It was titled, simply, ‘Moth’. A tea dress in a boutique shop caught my eye; when I took up a fistful of cloth, I saw that the detail I’d taken for flowers was actually a scattering of tiny grey moths.  And then there was the quote I read at random, the one that informed me how moths truly navigate, thereby debunking my previously accepted moon-myth.
Simple coincidence, you might think, this flurry of moth-related occurrences. Pure happenstance. I accept that that may well be the case; still, I choose to disagree.
There is an Einstein quote I have mentioned before, in which he states that we have two choices: to believe that either everything is a miracle or nothing is. (Everything! my heart says; everything!). I have complete and total faith that there is more to the world and the way it works than we can even guess at, that there is more magic than we can imagine. 
We can map weather systems nowadays. We can follow a front as it moves from  one continent to another and predict, with some accuracy, its consequences. Meteorology is a science with its own private language: isobars and kerafonts, anemometers, mesoscales, and Rossby waves. A few hundred years ago, this would have been unimaginable - this level of knowledge, this ability to make predictions. The terminology would have sounded like an incantation or a spell. Words like sorcery might have been used; words like hubris. And yet, and yet; it was only ever patterns, being noticed. Just cause and effect being studied and mapped.  
When these little breadcrumbs litter my life, I can’t help but think it’s a pattern or system I just don’t have the ability or knowledge to understand yet. When the moths kept happening, I noticed, of course, but had no idea what, if anything, I was meant to take from it. I had no personal affinity for moths. There was no personal symbology there, no discernible message. And then I read that quote about their navigation techniques - almost like the exasperated Universe was showing me the answers in the back of a complicated quizbook - and I knew, I knew what I was meant to take from it.
I have been doubting decisions I have made recently. Big decisions. I have been, if not in a dark place, then at least an ill-lit one. It felt a little like I was scrabbling about for answers, for reassurances that I had made the right choices. One moment I would be holding them tightly in my hands, understanding, with relief, that I had done what was necessary, that I had been truthful to myself. The next, they would slip through my fingers like water, like light, and I would be empty and answerless in the dark again. 
And then came the moths. The moths who, I learned, make their decisions moment by moment. Who pause along the way to rethink and recalibrate before making whatever decision is the right one for them in that moment.  And always, always, while heading for the light.
You may think this is far-reaching. Or wishful thinking. You may think this is me building a scaffold of hope, looking for meaning where there is none. You may, as I said earlier, think it nothing but coincidence.
I'll let you keep that.  I'll let you keep your doubts. I have my moths and my sense of wonder. I have peace, and a view of the light.
It turns out I don't always need hard fact.