Oh no, it’s the first day of spring. I am not a spring person. I have barely got over it being winter. In fact, if I’m honest, I have barely come to terms with it being winter. I am not ready to extract myself from hibernation. So don’t try and drag me outside to enjoy it. I like having the heating turned up high and the blinds down, keeping out the miserable sight of the grey oppressive sky hanging there like a reminder of something half-done. I like getting into my fleecy jammies at 4 o’clock when it starts to get dark, hunkering down in my candle-lit cave to greet the night. I don’t like all this flagrant early sunlight which promises but rarely delivers warmth outdoors. It’s all a bit too bright, too soon. My grandmother was a wise woman who taught me certain irrefutable truths, like for example it being bad luck to reverse a garment you’d inadvertently put on inside out or back to front. Every year at the first sign of bulbs pushing their snouts above the soil she used to say: “Ne’er cast a clout till May be out,” and I’ve taken her at her word ever since. Whether or not we understand ‘May’ to refer to the month or the Hawthorn blossom of the same name, it comes to the same thing. March is not the time to be stripping off your many layers of clouts. Maybe one layer, or even two on a particularly unseasonably warm day (and with the whole climate change thing there have been a few of those lately to fool us into false hope) but please – leave it there. There is nothing so demoralising for someone who feels the cold even in the middle of summer as the sight of young foolhardy fashion aficionados strutting their skimpy vests and bare legs along the street, while I’m still debating whether I need a sweater and a coat. And possibly a woolly hat and gloves. You can’t be too careful. When I was at nursery school we used to have a big poster on the wall, telling you exactly what to expect throughout the year in terms of weather. “March winds and April showers bring forth May flowers” it proclaimed. And beneath that the chilling verse: “The North wind doth blow and we shall have snow, and what will poor robin do then, poor thing?” So don’t talk to me about cute little lambs and daffodils. It’s bloody freezing out there on the hills and in the fields, and I’m glad I didn’t incarnate as a sheep. Or a daffodil. Or indeed a robin. By the time Easter arrives towards the end of April, I might feel more grudgingly accepting of the fact that summer is bound to happen. Round about the end of May I start to get the hang of it. By then I’ve got stuck in with the hay fever that inevitably gets kicked off by the combination of all that pollen from the Hawthorn blossom and the reckless shedding of clouts. I am not an outdoorsy sort of person. I was one of those unfortunate babies under the dubious regime of Dr Spock. We had no option about being bundled up and stuck outside in our prams in all weathers to “get the benefit” of the bracing air. As soon as I was old enough to exercise some choice in the matter I decided I’d had enough of all that, thank you. So Vernal Equinox or not I won’t be fired up with enthusiasm about reclaiming my garden from the deathly arms of winter (and please stop sending me seed catalogues and cheery emails reminding me when I should be planting things.) The trees are still bare, the March wind doth blow quite aggressively down my chimney as I write, and my cat is still spending most of his 18 hour sleeping day either snuggled in his own duvet or mine (I don’t know why I still bother to make a distinction.) I will decide when spring has sprung, and it hasn’t happened yet.
“I don’t know why I’m telling you all this,” the woman at the bus stop said. “But you have a kind face.” I wasn’t sure quite how to respond. Was I feeling kind? I had smiled in commiseration as we both stood in the rain waiting for the fleet of buses that would inevitably all turn up at the same moment, despite what the timetables promised. One smile had led to another, and before I knew it she was telling me all about herself and how difficult her life was, especially today.
I sympathised. How could I not have done? It’s a hard job sometimes, being a human. We parted with a little wave as I got on my bus and she got on one of the three that had arrived behind it. I was heading for the station. I felt cheered by our conversation and was slightly lost in my thoughts about it when I noticed that the young woman sitting next to me was sniffing. As I turned towards her I could see it was more than that. She was actually crying, and being brave about it. She looked as though she could do with a tissue, so I took one out of the packet I always keep in my coat and handed it to her.
“Oh, you are nice,” she snuffled, as she blew courageously into the tissue. I handed her another so she could wipe her face. There was a bit of a disaster area under her eyes where the mascara had run, but I thought it best not to point that out just now. She sighed and said: “The thing is, my life is in bits. My boyfriend left me, I just lost my job, and I’ve fallen out with my best friend.” A tragic scenario obviously, against which the problem with the smeared eye makeup across her cheeks paled to insignificance – well, almost paled. Relatively paled.
It was about twenty minutes before we got to the station, what with the pit stop at the bus depot in the high street, where the drivers changed shifts and chatted aimlessly for a while, heedless of the busload of passengers, and then the long hold up at the temporary traffic lights where the road works were. By the time we got there the young woman was looking much brighter (apart from the mascara debacle) and managed a faltering smile. “I don’t know why I’ve told you all that,” she said. “But it’s really helped. You have such a kind face.”
We parted at the end of the queue for tickets. She already had hers. She was off to visit her parents for the weekend, where I hoped she’d get some more of the support she evidently needed. As I waited to get to the head of the queue, I reflected on my conversation with her. Well, I say conversation, but really it was more a case of listening attentively while she talked. Eventually I got my ticket and stood on the platform. I could see her on the other side, waiting for the train that would take her to Birmingham. She waved. Quite a cheery wave, considering.
Once on the train I got out my book and started to read, but it was hard to concentrate with the three people nearest to me all talking, laughing and generally being incredibly sociable with whoever it was on the other end of their mobile phones. I started thinking about the way we communicate now – what a strange paradox it is that so many of us are constantly updating one another with what’s on our mind right now while at the same time oblivious to the person sitting right in front of us.
I would have quite liked to share this thought with the man shouting into his phone inches away from my ear, but was aware that he wouldn’t hear me, never mind take any notice of my opinion. I caught the eye of the elderly lady sitting across from me, and she leaned forward and said: “Terrible, isn’t it, the way they carry on?” I shrugged. If there’s one thing worse than listening to someone else’s boring conversation on a mobile phone it’s listening to someone banging on about it.
I smiled – that damned commiserative smile again – and opened my book, hoping to pick up where I’d left off, or at least give the illusion of doing so. But that smile was my undoing. By the time we’d reached our destination – a rather tedious fifty minutes later – I knew everything there was to know about what this surprisingly feisty eighty-year-old thought was wrong with the world today. It had no redeeming features for her it seemed.
We were just on the verge of exploring an early, happier time in her life, when we arrived at Paddington. People all around us stampeded like escaping prisoners towards the train doors. I stood up, ready to join in the slipstream and allow it to carry me to the ticket barrier. “I’ll sit here and wait till the rush dies down,” she confided. “This train isn’t going anywhere any time soon. I don’t know where they all think they’re heading for. Like lemmings, over the cliff edge. We all die in the end.” Now there was an optimistic thought to carry away with me.
“It was good to talk with you,” she said. “People don’t have the time any more. But you have a kind face.” As I made my way out of the station I looked around me. She had a point. I started to think about myself as just another lemming, and it wasn’t at all a happy concept. I considered my kind face, and wondered at what point in my life it had become such an intrinsic part of me. For some reason the photograph of myself as an anxious four year old jumped into my mind. Was this the true face of what lurked beneath? Were we all really covering up that childhood bewilderment and anxiety with all the frenetic quasi communication and activity?
I decided to stop by a newsagents and pick up a paper on my way to the meeting that was the purpose of my journey. As I took it across to the counter I was still mulling over what the elderly woman had said. The young man behind the till took my money and grinned at me. “Cheer up, love,” he said. “It may never happen.” I looked at him, wondering where my kind face had vanished to, trying to muster a returning smile but miserably failing.
To add to my last post… The female wolf is a deeply significant image for me – I discovered her as my power animal a number of years ago, and when I was seriously ill a few years back she became somehow connected in my mind with that other grandmother – my mother’s mother, who had given me so much affection when she was alive. I had a strong sense that she was there in spirit, protecting me in the way that wolves do with their young, and giving me the strength I needed to get well. Later, when I had more of an insight into the core reasons for my illness, beyond the merely physical, I wrote this poem in gratitude.
So gentle, strong and wise
Walking between the worlds
On soft grey feet
Always at my shoulder
Watching out for me
My careful companion
On the path of truth
And silent spirit guide
Look on me with kindly eyes
Hold me where it hurts
Here at the very core of me
Heal the mother pain
And hold her in your heart
As well as me
This moon kissed bird
Inside my soul
On wings of love
That soar towards the light
Longs only to be free
© Lesley Hayes 2014
If you would like to read more of my poems, visit the FREE GIFTS page on my website: www.lesleyhayes.co.uk
I never knew my paternal grandmother. She died of pneumonia when my father was eight. He didn’t really tell me much about her until later in his life, so it wasn’t until I was already in my late thirties that I discovered she was Jewish. For some reason that had been kept a secret within the family. That’s so often how it is with families – by the time it gets to you the original reasons for secrets and ancient grudges and broken alliances are all lost in the murky mists of time and forgetfulness. There is very little on record about who my grandmother was. The photograph I have is the only one that was ever taken of her, as far as I know, and I didn’t see it until my father began to talk about her, and describe who she was for him. He was the youngest child in a large family, and her death had a profound effect on him which resonated throughout his life. One of his older sisters was married with a daughter about his age, and when their mother died she took over the task of parenting him, as their father could only cope with his brother Dick who was about a year older than him. I think my father lost touch with his deepest identity at that point, and spent the rest of his life trying to rediscover it. He spoke of his mother as a kind and gentle woman, who was often unwell. Because of an accident when she was much younger she only had one functioning lung, so it’s not surprising that pneumonia saw her off eventually. My father told me that when he was a boy she used to talk about heaven as a place in the sky, high above the clouds, and that after she died he used to imagine that she was there, transformed into one of the twinkling stars he could see at night – always looking down on him, and although remote reassuringly still within the universe. That must have given him great comfort, although by the time I was born he had revised his belief system somewhat and turned instead to a more humanistic atheism. I somehow always knew without having been told about his lack of extended mothering, because I sensed the Abandoned Lost Boy in him – a projection I brought with assiduous regularity to most of my intimate relationships in adult life. When the photograph of my absent grandmother eventually emerged from wherever it had lain hidden for so many years, I searched in her image for something recognisable, something I could glean about her character and relate to. I could see in her features the genetic inheritance I carried and had passed on to my children and grandchildren. It’s true that we always find what we are looking for, and perhaps if I hadn’t known the family connection it wouldn’t have seemed so obvious. Although that pose I see in her photograph is uncannily like the one my father so often struck when he was ruminating over something, and I realise that, quite unconsciously, I do it too. I tried to imagine what it must have been like to be her, to live in the age she did when being a Jewess married to a Protestant of Irish descent was something not to shout about, to bear all those children and manage a family in what nowadays would have been considered poverty, to be physically compromised in a time when there was no National Health Service and far less understanding about how to avoid and survive diseases that so frequently turned out to be fatal. I contrasted my non-relationship with her with the one I had enjoyed with my maternal grandmother, which was rich with intimacy, laughter and affection right up to her death at the age of 86, and for the first time I appreciated what I had missed. And yet… we carry our parents and grandparents within us, not simply in our genes, but in what has been introjected from our relationship with them. So I’m wondering whether she is like the dark side of my moon, the unknown aspect of the feminine, the part that is secret, hidden away, loaded with so many untold stories, struggling to survive and doomed to death by drowning. But of course she is also the part that continues to shine her tiny light in the fathomless dark of the night sky, promising the reassurance of eternity.
It seems like a strange beginning to talk about letting go, and yet nothing really begins until there is space enough to allow it to grow. Anyone who spends time gardening will tell you that. I often used gardening metaphors in my work as a therapist, talking for instance about how we needed gentle support to grow well, not rigid forcing out of our natural shape. And about how our instinct was always to grow towards the light, to respond to warmth and the right kind of soil, fertile enough to encourage us to spread out our roots. And the weeding…how essential it is to weed out the thoughts that strangle us and push their way forward to block out the light and inhibit our growth… Well, I could go on, but you get the picture. And for me, last year was a strange one of grieving for what was soon to be lost, letting go of my psychotherapy practice, one client at a time. So many goodbyes, and such a wealth of affirmation of the many years I had been wearing that particular hat. It was an identity that fitted me very well, and was an extension of my strong impulse to communicate, to encourage, to empower, to put something positive into the world. I seem to have been blessed with a natural optimism, and its the duty of us optimists to smile at life and encourage others to do the same. So I can’t say it was hard to let go of the identity as such, because it never had been so different from the me that wasn’t a therapist. But working as a therapist provided a specific structure to my days, and a focus for my thoughts and energy. Life beyond the role is very different. There was never a moment when I wondered: But what will I do now?…I always knew what I would do next, what part of me had been itching to do ever since I stopped devoting all my time to it, twenty years before… WRITE! Now I have a different routine to my days, and a very different focus. All those stories I became so deeply engaged in over the years… other people’s stories: so poignant, so personal… material I could never use in my fiction, and nor would I want to. There are enough stories in my own head, and I don’t need to plunder the ones told to me in confidence by other people. They remain sacrosanct. It hasn’t just been that identity as a therapist that I have relinquished over the past few years. Reaching sixty was a milestone that marked the beginning of the last phase of my life – or perhaps simply one of the last sub-phases that inevitably roll out in the final decades. It’s amazing just how much you are forced to let go of just by virtue of getting older. Things start not to work so well in the body department, and if you never used moisturisers and body butter before you probably ought to start doing so now. But actually there is an awful lot of stuff which gets jettisoned that you are much better without – like caring what other people think of you or your opinions, for example. Not that I ever cared too much about any of that. So here I am, having let go of many things I’m not even going to mention here… it’s enough that I know what they are. And here, on the other side of that process, beyond the letting go is the letting in… Over the years I have so often quoted from T.S. Eliot’s ‘Four Quartets’: “What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.” Perhaps all I really needed to do was to write that here.