Kissing Boys & Saving Pandas: A Few Failed Resolutions

Years ago, at the beginning of every year, I would always start my new diaries with grand sweeping proclamations.
I will stop biting my nails.
I will stop throwing my sister across the room when she calls me goofy.
I will never kiss a boy.
I WILL SAVE PANDAS.

A week later I would have forgotten whichever promise I had written (far too neatly for it ever to be real), and the diary would be thrust under an unloved teddy never to be written in again.

I had sort of forgotten about new year’s resolutions until a young wide-eyed girl asked me last week what my resolutions are for 2014. I stared at her a bit. I was about to fob her off with “eat better and drink less”, but being as hungover as a fat man’s belt buckle I didn’t have the energy to lie.

As I shook off my haze I found myself pondering resolutions and the nature of making promises to ourselves. New year, new start, we say. Perhaps the act of making a resolution makes us feel that we have a degree of control over an unknowable future.

Sometimes we don’t wait til the end of a year to resolve to change things. Some crazy kooks mix it up a bit and start a new thing, perchance, in April, or September. Our impetus to change things can happen at any point, and those are perhaps the better promises – the resolutions that rise up from deep inside irrespective of what time of year it is. Maybe those are the ones we stick to.

I once, after a long relationship ended, changed almost completely overnight. I didn’t make a promise to myself. I didn’t write a list of things I would or wouldn’t do, but every day I would quite unintentionally, in the process of adapting to my new life, find something I was now no longer happy doing or not doing or putting up with. I began to establish a new, brave, ramshackly codified way of living – a life I was now open to, not afraid of. Every day seemed to have a fresh happy thought or sunburst of realisation or skip in the heart as I looked around me and saw that life was beautiful. I always knew it – but I hadn’t felt it for a long time. You can know a lot of stuff to be true but unless you actually feel it the theory all counts for diddlysquat.

To help me remember to try and always live that way, I did a thing I never thought I’d do. I got a tattoo. Freedom birds. I could have got a nice little book of Dalai Lama quotes or taken up yoga or something that probably would have done the trick, but when you’re drunk on free gin in the first class carriage of a train to Edinburgh you make some peculiar choices. And thank goodness. Thank goodness for peculiar choices in the spirit of the moment, in defiance at the protracted bad choices you have made in more sensible unhappy times.

I have stuck to that collection of wordless promises; they still shape my days. Others I have failed at. I still chew my nails. I have not saved the pandas. And I have kissed a lot of boys, some girls, and one I can’t be sure of but the club was dark and I left soon afterwards so that’s all fine.

We can make the best of ourselves at all sorts of times, and new beginnings can be found in any month, if we are open and honest and brave enough. We don’t need the new year to restart ourselves, but it’s a good place to start in the meantime.

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Gin & The First Pantomime

I think a part of me was broken as a child. The part of me that should laugh at fart jokes or whoopee cushions or someone burping Happy Birthday. WHERE DID THAT BIT GO? Maybe I lost it on the beach while I was singing dead crabs to their eternal rest, aged 7. I was quite a serious child, I suppose – not that I felt it. I still don’t laugh at any of those things. Someone could burst in right now and effulgently perform an ABBA medley at me in armpit squelches and I would raise a cold eyebrow and quietly leave.

What a dreary cow.

Maybe it was when my father took me, aged 8, to see an obscure opera called Un Re In Ascolto that my sense of fun was essentially squashed. As the 20p red plastic binoculars fused to my eyeball sockets, something sparked in my cranium and I became forevermore unable to appreciate things that weren’t old men operatically lamenting the end of their days. I became blank to the funny boo-boos of the bum-bum. The playground belchings, the joke-shop dog turds left on teacher’s chair. They were dead to me. I tutted and yearned for a bit of higher-end sarcasm or at least a bit of predictable well-staged farce. When someone wrapped up an Oscar Wilde book of quotations for me at Christmas, aged 12, I was like “Boom – FINALLY”.

What a stinky little child. If I had not been resolutely obsessed with grubbing around with bugs in alleyways risking rabid deaths dancing with the corpses of lost cats I would worry that I was a snob.

Other things I still don’t get: Carry On films, popcorn, and panto.

Ah. Panto.

I went to my first ever last week. I didn’t quite know what to make of it. I knew I wanted to love it because some lovely and very funny friends were in it. But I don’t mind admitting here, in public, that I didn’t really ‘get it’. What is it?

I watched the vaguely recognisable narrative of Aladdin unfold – a princess, a poor boy, a genie, a flying carpet, other motley devices – and sat there with a happy tumbler of gin, waiting to be deluged by my own laughter. It was nearly Christmas and I wanted to hoot til festive glitter spurted from my throat. I waited for a whole new thing to open its arms to me and make me feel good, like that time I discovered that Advent calendars had chocolate inside and you weren’t supposed to just admire the perforations in the unbroken cardboard.

But I didn’t get it. Stock characters in big costumes and cartoon make-up make me a bit tense. And I don’t like calling out things like “Oh look, there he is” and “yes, I promise you it most definitely is – the incontrovertible proof is right behind you” over and over again or whatever it is you are required to do at panto. I don’t even like clapping if I’m honest. It makes my palms itch.

Fun is subjective I suppose.

But then so is everything. Humour, charity donations, sandwiches. And Christmas.
All our ideal Christmasses will all differ slightly. All of us trying to create or recreate a Christmas we once or never had but hope for. I will hate the paper hat on my head, I will love the carols and wish I was in a choir. I will find time to watch It’s A Wonderful Life for the thousandth time. I will probably cry, definitely eat too much, and it’s as sure as eggs are eggs that I will squeeze in about five naps before pudding. And that will make me jolly for my own reasons while everyone in the land ejaculates over Del-boy falling through the bar after the queen’s speech (something else I’ve never seen).

I suppose the art of Christmas – the art of every day I suppose – is finding, stuffed and sleepy as you climb into bed, that you did at least some of the things you wanted to do and would choose no differently if you had the day again.

Choose well, and Happy Christmas, lovely folk! X

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The Shrieking Christmas Carol Man

High Street. A week and a bit before Christmas. Busy. Noisy. Cold.
A man is shouting “Leave me alone”. I assume he’s having an argument with his wife whose Christmas list is very long, specific, and unattainable. But he’s shouting to no one in particular and follows up the odd shriek with a hoarse ‘fa la la la la’, scraps of an old yuletide song bursting from the frayed end of his roll-up. He is quite mad, but nobody seems to mind. There’s nothing like unfortunate souls wandering about in public to make us feel better about our own lives, especially at Christmas.

Further up the street is a nice Irish lady singing operatic versions of Buble/Barlow/Groban shopping precinct classics. She’s offering to sign things so she may have been in Bewitched or The Corrs once or something. Some kids are trying to mimic her vibrato and aren’t doing a bad job. I feel bad for her. But not when she starts You Raise Me Up for the seventh time. I feel bad for myself then.

People are rushing about with bursting bags, bemoaning all the stuff they have to do and for whom. Lots are rude, impatient, sulky. Lots don’t acknowledge the humans around them as they bash bags, rub sleeves, and obstruct paths.

I watch the man ambling slowly off, bagless. Part of me feels more kindred to him than to the frantic money-spenders pinballing around. Which is a bit worrying really. He’s probably got voles living inside his army coat.

“Leave me alone”. I think it might be the refrain of his whole life rather than just his mood for the day.

“I hear you, mad dude.”, I thought, wilfully mistaking myself for a cantankerous misanthropist.

It’s easy to start feeling a bit grumbly when you’re tired and busy.
It’s easy to wish the nice Irish lady would suddenly develop chronic laryngitis as she begins to crucify Hallelujah, a song constantly wrongly commandeered by the twee, faint-hearted, and nice and unbroken by life.
It’s easy to wish the bustling shoppers will all fall over and roll around on their backs like beetles until all the bags melt away and they forget what they were even charging around for in the first place.
It’s easy to wish you were somewhere away, alone and quiet, with no encroachment of Christmas or other people or general life to stop you from doing what you really want to be doing; writing, reading, thinking, kissing, being.

But then you bump into 3 old friends in quick succession – people you haven’t seen for ages – people who make you instinctively throw your arms open wide then around them and hold onto them a bit while you chat in their ear. And you natter happily over each other as you take in each others’s faces and observe how they’ve changed, and know they’re thinking the same of you, and you think how cute they look with their nose all red from the cold. None of you want to stop for long and that’s ok too, and you enjoy the thick woollen thud-patting as you clap each other’s arms and wish each other a happy Christmas and move on in different directions, a little warmer for that minute of hugging a person you used to see all the time and now don’t.

The shrieking man has moved on, scattered with the pigeons and the leaves and the rubbish, and the Irish lady is still murdering songs not in her register that she doesn’t understand and you forgive her even though you won’t give her fifty pee.

And realise you wouldn’t be without all the bustle and noise after all. Not yet.

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The Tiger

My mother called me. It was very important. “Sadie. You must, I repeat MUST watch that programme about the woman who wrote The Tiger Who Came To Tea. Deborah Carr. Not Deborah Carr. She was in the The King & I. What’s her…JUDITH. JUDITH KERR. That’s it. Anyway. She’s got a thing on the dooberry and it’s wonderful. Watch it. What an amazing woman.”

After promising I would, then having a general chinwag about Christmas lists and saucepans, we signed off – me promising again to watch the thing about the lady who wrote The Tiger Who Came To Tea. I got on with my day, but I was smiling at the memory of that book. I could see the pictures in my mind’s eye as I pottered about.

The story has stuck.

It was published in 1968 and it is still one of the best selling picture books of all time. It recently got made into a stage show, which was nominated for awards. I have read it to my nephew, I have read it to my niece. It is one of their favourites. It is still piled high in bookshops with an attendant range of merchandise. Children who could not tell you anything about 1968 could tell you the story of Sophie and the tiger.

There is something in the story.

I doubt we could even explain, really, why it is so loved. Was it the calmness of Sophie in being met by a normally ferocious beast? Was it the casual cheek of the tiger eating everything, drinking everything (even the contents of the tap!) and then sodding off? Was it the unquestioning complicity of the mother; her openness to the unexpected? Was it the father coming home in his traditional English hat, finding he had no tea, and coming up with the cracking solution to go to the caff for sausage and chips instead? Was it the inexplicable trumpet the tiger is playing on the final page, the letters G O O D B Y E wisping out of the end of the horn?
Was it something in the ordinary home greeting an extraordinary visitor; the juxtaposition of reality and magic that so captured the world?

I wonder if the Booker prize winner The Luminaries, with its 832 pages, will have such a loyal following forty years from now.

Stories are in our blood, our hearts, our minds, memories, imaginations, dreams, they are coursing through our sub-conscious. They are in the chats we have, the looks we give, the gossip we hear, the things we ignore. They shape us. We make our own, tell our own. We want to hear them, we swap them. We pay to be entertained by them in a staggering array of growing mediums. No hour of our day is without its story – even alone in a long bath or out walking or filling our basket in an empty supermarket, we are followed internally by snatches of story – true or imaginary – the filigrees of our amazing brains whirring away doing so much more than mechanising our day’s survival. If you see a young homeless person sitting beneath an ATM and you walk away to another bank, you are writing your own story – you paint an instant picture of them (their story), you choose your actions based on the stimulus (your story). If you pick up a dropped glove and place it on a railing for someone to find, if you ignore the doorbell, if you have an unexplained hankering to go to Papua New Guinea… They’re all little parts in little stories that could go anywhere.

I haven’t watched the programme about the nice lady who wrote The Tiger Who Came To Tea yet. Maybe I don’t want to know about Judith Kerr – her life, how she wrote, what aspects of her truth hide beneath the cloak of fiction in her stories.

Maybe I don’t want to spoil the magic. Maybe I still think the tiger might come back.

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The Little Notable Niggle Inside

There are lots of reasons why a woman might not have babies. Reluctant bodies, nature-defying ambitions…hating babies.

You might say one of the reasons why I might not have babies is the fact I am currently looking around the room looking for something to act as a hand puppet so I can check on a baby without going in the same room as it. I figured I could stick the improvised hand puppet round the door and get it to check that the baby’s alive on my behalf. That way if the kid screams it’s not because of me, it’s because of the commandeered cushion cover I’ve too hurriedly named Oliver Cromwell II on account of its clumpy face. This is one of many good reasons why I probably should not spawn. I’ve had it on reliable advice that it’s sort of good to be in the same room as a baby on most occasions.

My second stint of babysitting in as many months has me less panic-struck this time around, and more reflective. It comes off the back of a conversation last weekend with gal pals, where we – arrayed in age between 33 and 44 – discussed how we could not imagine giving up our lives to another being. It was a conversation weighted with a certain conviction given our ages (being well past the permissible indecisiveness of our 20s) and the fact that one of us would probably be medically advised not to try, one of us has made democratic use of the NHS’s accessible abortions, and one/three of us would rather just…have a dog.

We ranted about it all – mums, babies, responsibility – bolstered by the season’s first mulled cider. The freedom of a childless Saturday night.

We stopped when we realised we’d spent as long talking about mums as mums spend talking about their baby’s poo. One friend was as certain as she ever has been that hers is not a life suited to motherhood. One friend still felt she didn’t even have to think about it yet. And I… I joined in with equal feist, but with one notable niggle.

That niggle being – I cannot picture myself at 50 not having kids. I can’t imagine not having the greater part of my love invested in a child. But, in the common modern woman’s conundrum, I do not want to do the bit in-between just yet.

We have been told we can have it all. We cannot.
We have to choose, and are walking sand-timers all; the grains of our fruitfulness ebbing away from our southerly exits.

I used to get so broody in my early 20s that I would physically ache. I suppose it’s rather dim to only just have noted that these urges stopped after the death of my father. A parental suicide is as good a snuffing of procreational fantasies as any. It will take further consideration than this column, but perhaps in a rather textbook reaction I was protecting any child I might have from being hurt.

I have taught kids and loved them with ferocity. I would die for my nephew and niece.
And last week I avoided the stories about the rock singer who had committed unreportable acts on children. Like most people, I did not want to examine the human capacity to hurt another human, especially in its nascent development when it should be most protected.

It made me feel our chat down the pub was not just the tinny complaints of women too tardy or scared or selfish to be mothers, but a modern sort of responsibility. Our age is now more than aware of what we do psychologically to our children. Philip Larkin summed it up yonks ago with “They f*** you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to but they do.” and we’ve been grateful that a poet put aside poetry to swear so honestly ever since.
You have to really give a crap to have a kid. Like, be really serious about it. And its ugly when it’s done casually, thoughtlessly, badly, cruelly. Really unforgivable.

Maybe tenderness for your race can be expressed by not further contributing to it.
Maybe fear is a kind of kindness.
Or maybe you could nip your life at every bud by thinking too much about it all.

Perhaps the fact it’s only women who are hurried to decide means we are now, with choice, all the more reluctant to make the wrong decisions. Deciding to not have a baby could only ultimately hurt ourselves – and ironically that is the kind of selflessness that makes a good mother.

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