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For the last few months there has been some quiet activity going on in the background of our lives here: a hall booked, a band engaged, and invitations sent out. Last weekend it finally happened: our family had a party.

We are not the kind of people who have a lot of parties. We’re quiet, and even before Julie got sick we would rather have had teeth pulled than arrange a big event. But when Julie got sick, we became very very unsociable indeed. We just didn’t have the time or the energy to talk to people, or even begin to explain what was happening to us, or how terrible we felt about it. We could scarcely get to work, or look after ourselves, let alone share a cup of coffee or send a Christmas card. It was only very imaginative and very determined friends that managed to keep in touch.

It’s been five long years and for the last couple of years we’ve gradually started to dig ourselves out of our shell. We lost some friends during the bad years, but adversity meant that we made some new ones that have become much dearer to us. We’ve recognised how vital friendships are, and that different friendships have brought us different things, the value of which is not always obvious at first. Sure some people shared our grief and pain, but we’ve also learnt to appreciate the people who didn’t really get it, but still stopped to talk to us, and offered help. We’ve got better at talking, and better (and bolder) at talking specifically about mental illness. We’ve also learnt to incorporate a near-permanent state of crisis into our life and carry on regardless.

This year, I decided I wanted to have a party to celebrate everything we have achieved, and to mark the fact that we have survived (so far) and that we do have such good friends. At one point, feeling very unwell and forced to have an operation, I almost called it off, but I’m so glad I didn’t.

It was a fantastic party: everybody was on good form, the food was great (not my cooking, but caterers!), the music was brilliant. People came from great distances, everyone stayed until midnight, people brought out guitars and jammed with the band, teenagers fell in love. The next day we just sat around and dissected it endlessly, reliving the funny moments and the nice moments, while other people sent us dozens of emails to say what a good time they’d had.

It was a brilliant night – a night to remember. Now when I look back on these years I won’t just be remembering the rubbish bits, I’ll be able to say, “Do you remember when we had that party?”. And we did it all by ourselves.

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So I come back from a week away in Portugal to find the family in a sad state. Joe has worked really hard to make sure that everything is provided, but it’s clear I’ve been missed. Everyone looks exhausted and joyless, and Julie has self harmed repeatedly.

There’s a certain pleasure to being Mary Poppins when your children are young: setting the table, tidying up the toy box, bringing out the sunshine. It’s nice to feel that you can make everyone happy, soothe tears, resolve arguments. But it’s not something you want to be doing for adults. You want to be able to come back and hear all the amazing things they’ve been doing in your absence, be glad to see one another, but not find that you have to pick up all the pieces of their lives for them again.

I enjoyed my holiday: it was good for me to take a break, even though I missed the family while I was away. It gave me a chance to look at the rest of the family in perspective, to think about what they need from me, and why I appear to be so essential to them. And whether that is a good thing.

Surely someone has written a song about this.

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I’m going on holiday. I’m going on my own. It’s not as good as going with family or friends but it’s better than having no holiday at all! I wasn’t well enough to go with everyone else in the summer so now I am stealing away for a week in the late autumn sun.

The most difficult decision is not what clothes to take but which camera. I love my photography, I love that feeling of seeing reality in front of me in a new and deeper way. Taking photos often feels a lot like writing poems: trying to capture the essence of the subject succinctly and keep everything else that is irrelevant out of the frame or out of focus. I find it impossible to take good photos with other people around – it’s too distracting – so if I’m going to have to holiday on my own I’d better take the opportunity to dig out the camera.

So Portugal here we come!

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If you keep doing the same thing over and over again, it’s easy to go a bit on automatic, even if it’s something glorious. So sometimes when I go on my lunchtime walk round the Botanic Gardens I try experiencing it in a different way. Like taking my ears for a walk.

Trees have very distinctive sounds. The poplar trees at the entrance gate of the Botanic Gardens make this incredible sparkling rushing sound, like the sea. It can be heard hundreds of yards away and close to it is almost deafening. Why does no one else notice them shouting? There are other trees in the garden that are almost completely silent: the majestic sequoias seem severely mute even in the highest wind. Horse chestnuts are another mute surprise, but they are all sick with the leaf miner. Beeches and hornbeams both make pleasant murmuring sounds, and tucked away in another corner of the garden I find a catalpa tree sweetly rustling. Bamboos of course make a soundscape all of their own, whispering, squeaking and mysteriously knocking.

It is a tactile time of year too, full of fruits and seed heads that are knobbly, spiked, furry. I touch them surreptitiously (is one allowed to touch the plants?). I find one flower whose seed heads are like tiny velvet purses.

Scent, not so much, except some of the more exotic limes whose sweet scented flowers still linger, and the hot spicy scents of the herb border. The tropical glasshouses are another matter: still a riot of sweet and earthy smells as everything competes for space and attention.

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Jane Eyre: how I hated that book! For two years we slaved over it at school, reading and rereading it, our set text for O level. It’s strangeness, it’s originality, it’s rich vocabulary, all ground into dust. I can still remember the horror, when we read it aloud round the class and I was handed the midsummer night scene in which Jane and Rochester finally declare their love to one another. I was fifteen: I was scarlet, mumbling the Victorian endearments.

It was thirty years before I could bring myself to read it again. I had remembered the plot, there are still a few passages I remember word for word (“Reader, I married him.”). I had forgotten what an odd-ball Jane is, and what a bully Rochester can be. But I was surprised at what I had misremembered.

Everyone remembers the madwoman in the attic: Rochester’s first wife. Bronte’s nightmare depiction of madness is still haunting, still buried somewhere deep in our collective unconscious. The lunatic, shut away from sight, raving and dangerous.

But though that image had remained vivid, I had misunderstood it. According to Rochester, “it is not because she is mad I hate her.” He hates his wife, he declares, because she has “a nature the most gross, impure, depraved I ever saw”. Had Jane gone mad, he claims, he would care for her tenderly. The madness is an inconvenience, preventing him legally divorcing from a monster. His wife’s former “vices” are rather vague, mixed up with the discovery that her mother was “a Creole”. We are left with the distinct impression that the first Mrs Rochester’s sin was not so much to be secretly mad as secretly black. “Her family wished to secure me because I was of a good race” says Rochester smugly, and Bronte does not bother to discuss this.

It may have been obvious to Victorian audiences – comfortable in their notions of racial superiority – that Rochester’s West Indian marriage was “impossible”, even before his wife went mad. But all that remains to modern audiences is the raving lunatic with her hideous strength and low cunning. In endless dramatisations of the book, this is all that appears on screen: any undercurrents of racism are written out. Perhaps they, like the book’s religious fervour, are too unsettling.

Myths about mental illness are strangely persistent. Downton Abbey, written recently, screened last year, rehashed the Rochester plot line: a character, under pressure to marry his girlfriend, reluctantly reveals the existence of a wife in an asylum from whom he cannot divorce. There is not even a fig leaf of “incompatibility” here: it is clear we are meant to sympathise with this man’s plight. He is, after all, a good chap, and clearly the mentally ill are unlovable and not fully human.

Give me Charlotte Bronte any day. An old unreconstructed racist she may have been, but she did try to give Rochester a better reason to hate his wife than her descent into illness. As Jane herself says: “It is cruel – she cannot help being mad.”

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It’s that time of year again: the start of another academic year. Everyone who has ever been a child or raised a child in the Western Hemisphere will recognize that this is the time of new beginnings. Small children start school, bigger children chafe in new uniforms, and many teenagers leave home for the first time against a backdrop of reddening trees and the freshening winds of autumn. 

For me it is also the time to pick up the exacting routines of housekeeping after the laxness of summer. Everyone has to get up, eat and shower and be out of the house on time.  Everyone has to return home safely at the end of the day and be fed again, listened to, commiserated with, supported and soothed and finally nagged back in to their beds.  The fridge must be kept supplied with food, everyone must have shoes and the lights on the bikes must be working. 

This routine, though somewhat monotonous, is necessary. Without it we rapidly sag downwards into the chaos that awaits beneath: skipped meals, forgotten medication, chronic sleep shortages and abandoned homework assignments. I will know my children are truly adult and independent of me when they finally recognise the importance of getting enough sleep and eating regularly.

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I am very lucky that my work has moved into offices alongside the botanic gardens. Just as I gain a little more free time with Julie safely settled at college. I walk there almost every day during my lunch hour.

You can walk in a garden – even quite a large one – every day and still not get much more than a general impression of quiet paths and nice flowers. This is how I have been walking all summer, aware that different plants come into season around me, but still something of a visitor.

I’ve decided its time to go deeper, get better acquainted. I can’t walk there every day and remain a stranger. I’ve decided to start with the trees. The trees in this botanic garden are so many and so venerable, that someone has even written a book about them. I bought the book and I’m slowly working through the different sections – oaks, pines, cedars, sycamores, limes – meeting each of the trees in turn and paying attention to them.

Trees are like people – very individual. There are several giant redwoods, for example, each one a complete character: one has layered off several new trunks for example, turning itself into a grove, while another one has budded off one single massive branch lower down that looks for all the world like an elephant’s trunk. There are trees which have turned into splendid specimens, elbowing out their neighbours, and ones that are weak and spindly. One or two are dead by fungus or gales. Some have big weeping canopies, so that you can walk under them into a private world. Some are extremely old, and others are quite ephemeral: beautiful silver birches that will have to be replaced several times before their neighbours die.

And like so many things in life, once you start to look at trees, your eyes are suddenly tuned to them. Everywhere you look there are trees that were invisible before! Suddenly you notice your neighbour’s fine copper beech, or wonder why a cedar was planted on that corner.

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