Patchwork Time – for World Mental Health Day

I had a go at stitching my patchwork quilt the other night. It’s pretty old now. Dad gave it to me years ago.

I spread it on my bed every year, around the time Dad died, because that’s when it starts getting nippy. Early October.

I’ve been meaning to repair it for ages, not wanting it to fall apart, tricking myself it’s because I think everyone should have a cute patchwork quilt that lasts for their lifetime, when really it’s simply because he touched it and touching it makes me feel like a part of him is still here.

Quite without planning the other night I found myself reaching for the sewing tin to begin to sew up the jaggedy rips. It was only as I stopped stitching that I realised it was a funny night to be doing it; the day he was found dead. Two days after he’d done it. The 6th, 7th, 8th of October are always grim days. Picturing him hanging there. This year, I’d been quietly proud of myself all day that I hadn’t been a mess. That I even felt happy. Having a daughter has been fantastic medicine for many things.  My subconscious must have reached for the blanket then; a practical way of acknowledging this new phase of grief; a cosy handling of time. In control. Not too sad. I never thought I’d reach this stage.

Dad bought the blanket for the spare bed in 1999, when my sister and I went to stay with him in Wales. It was Christmas. We were sulky to change our usual Christmas tradition of staying in our cosy burrow at home with Mum, but more than that, we were shitting ourselves. After months of bearing the load herself, Mum had told us that Dad had six months to live. She didn’t know why, he wouldn’t tell her. He wanted us to go for Christmas so he could talk to us.

So we had a sort of Christmas. But he said nothing. And then we left, got a succession of trains home to Southend, our brains so confused I can’t remember what I felt anymore. Months passed. He never talked. It was like he had never told Mum he was dying in the first place. Out of necessity, I just carried on, trying to finish a degree I no longer gave the slightest shit about. Numb. One day he gave me the blanket like a gift. Over the years it has become just another lovely thing my Dad gave me, that I’m glad to have, but really, at its source, it is the backdrop of the time I waited to hear what I thought would be the worst news I’d ever hear, not knowing the worst news would come a few years later, in 2003, when he hanged himself. Another unexpected development.

Dad was an ill man. I had been kept from the troubling spots of his bi-polar character and phases my whole life, and then shit got real. That Christmas, when we waited for him to tell us he was dying. Perhaps he was going to lie and say he’d got a massive tumour or something. I don’t know. Perhaps he was planning on killing himself then; preparing us in the only way you can without saying “FYI: I AM GOING TO KILL MYSELF. NO, DON’T TRY TO STOP ME, I REALLY AM SET ON IT. SOZ.” Perhaps having some time with his children made him realise he couldn’t do it, then. It got delayed.

He was ill. Not consistently – very often he was joy and activity and fun and inspiration and kindness and support and sharp intelligence and love – but the illness waited for him, and he waited for it. Mourning him and puzzling over the act of his suicide has made me ill many times through the years. Grief feels like a mental illness because although it might be spun from the circumstances of losing someone rather than inner chemical workings, it is still a mental trap; a dark labyrinth that takes years to find your way out of, often feeling like you don’t have the strength to keep going. Then there’s the worrying you have ‘the same thing’ as you father. The fear of that legacy.

The blanket began as uncertainty and confusion, then it became epic darkness seeming to have no end, then it became merely sadness and fondness and nostalgia and memories, until it became comfort, warmth, a winter friend. Time and I have worked together on it, not always getting along.

And now my daughter is bunny-hopping over it, it’s changing again. It will be her Grandfather’s blanket, the one she’ll never know. She’ll grow up seeing my crude stitchwork, puckering the fabric like scars. My very imperfect attempt at fixing something. And one day maybe I’ll use it to tell her that things change, and how they change, and that they can keep changing. Maybe one day it will be with her when she feels ill, comfort and warmth, maybe it will be with her when she keeps going, a stitched together reparable thing, a winter friend.

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Make it kind – Mental Health Awareness Week

I haven’t written about my father, his suicide, grief, or mental health for a while now.

I felt I should just ‘stop’. Let him rest, let it be, & stop picking the scab. But grief never really goes. It just changes.

In the last few months Dad has been present throughout my pregnancy thoughts, & now that my daughter is here my relationship with him has shifted again. During the last 15 years I have never thought ‘how could you do that to us, to me’. Tenderness battled anger and always won. Now I have a daughter, I can’t help but re-examine my feelings. How could he do that to us, his daughters? I couldn’t do it to her. I never want to leave her for a second, & the thought of being the source of her biggest sadness makes me want to be sick.

So how could he do it to me?

But of course, the answer is, mental health. It can make a man leave the loves in his life because he absolutely cannot face being alive anymore, because he cannot function, because life seems a long and unbearable journey, because it seems unfixable, because he even believes he is doing the best thing for people by leaving. Because the power of depression is sometimes so strong it even outweighs love, that beautiful thing that we are taught is stronger than anything. It’s terrifying when we discover it isn’t.

Grief changes all the time. I have struggled with losing Dad for years, the sadness very nearly made me give up myself at times, and just as grief got easier, I will now struggle with the thought that he would have had so much more love to give and receive if he could only have believed that there was help out there; in medication, in people, in good old fashioned kindness, in miraculously powerful time. I will struggle with the fact that Marcie will never meet my father, one of her granddads, but I will make sure she knows all the good things about him. And one day I will have to talk to her about mental health. I’m not sure what I’ll say yet, but I know it will be kind.

#mentalhealthawarenessweek

More things I’ve written on similar themes

Auld Lang Syne: Not Enough Hours In The Night

As a kid, New Year’s Eve was just a strange thing I watched adults doing; some strange ritual of exuberance and doilies that descended into the sloshing of booze and haphazard indiscriminate kissing. I sat, impatiently waiting to break in my new diary. It was the pencil concealed in the spine; it did things to me.

Now, New Year’s Eve is that vaguely annoying import-laden mark in the social calendar when I can never quite decide what I want to do, and always end up being a bit disappointed. You can never do everything or see everyone, there’s not enough hours in the night, and you end up worrying that where you choose to spend your midnight is not what best defines your heart. Your friends are scattered and can’t be collected together in the same room. You love too many people. In thinking of all the people you won’t see, all the things you won’t do, you have to just… let it go. Be where you are, and be there fully. You will never do your whole heart justice is such a short and silly night.

Perhaps we’re not supposed to truly enjoy ushering in a new year when we’re not sure we did all that we could with the old one. It’s like throwing out dead flowers. It never quite feels right; their buds had held such possibilities.

The best New Year’s Eve I ever spent was the first one I was allowed out alone with friends, chancing it under-aged to a pub, which ended up with me getting bundled into an old telephone box by five men who should have known better. Naturally I was wearing DMs so they paid for their lascivious joie de vivre. That night was a revel; it was freedom. Now I see it as the year I took the baton of my own time. After observing adults flick off the years like fluff from their sleeve, I was now counting my own years for myself. I never knew as I roared Wonderwall into a throng of madmen that some part of my brain was taking a snapshot of it for later. I never knew that, later, New Year’s Eve wasn’t as casual as the adults made it look.

If one thing has become clearer from all the years of merrily ticking off another annus along the road to death, it is that nobody bloody knows the words to Auld Lang Syne. No one. I suspect it is at the moment you learn the last verse that you die. It is the bell which buzzes you through to the waiting room of eternity. “And there’s a hand, my trusty friend…” BOOF. Gone. See ya.

Chancing the invitation to my own demise I googled the words, and found that most other columnists around the globe are writing something quite similar to this. Columnists talking about Robbie Burns’ famously unknown lyrics, about new years customs and resolutions, about traditions with friends. I worried that Christmas slothdom might have stolen the last wisp of originality from me. But then I felt comforted. Writing a New Year’s Eve column and feeling the trite pull to mention Auld Lang Syne is almost as unavoidable as the passing of the year itself. The song is the twine that stitches our years together; it’s as culturally innate to us as Happy Birthday, and is a darn sight less annoying.

What was strange about reading the lyrics to the song that everyone sings but no one knows was the fact that, despite never having heard them in a collected entirety amid the mumbling of drunken fools, I knew the feeling of the piece. It had made it through all the years of wrongly translated Scottish verse. It had made it through the weird cross-armed hand-shaking and ill-pitched droning – made it even through the mulsh of drunkenness.

It’s about friendship.

Allow me to paraphrase:

Cor. Life’s been a bit of a tinker so far, hasn’t it?
Let’s have a ruddy drink.
I’m glad you’re here, old chum. We’re in this together, right?
Yes. But it’s your round, you cheeky tyke.
Oh, give us a cuddle. We could die in five minutes for all we know.
Okay.

And that’s pretty much it. Sort of.

Naturally, I’ll have forgotten any lyrics I’ve inadvertently taken in by the time I come to sing it at midnight tonight. But I’ll feel its sentiment coursing through me with the wine and the time. I’ll cross my arms against my chest, and link palms with the people by my side. I’ll shake hands with Time itself; make some sort of uncertain deal. We’ll all be holding hands, humming the tune, but never quite knowing the words; not knowing what the next year will have in store for us, but together in our not knowing. And then there’ll be awkward messy kissing, and we’ll have another drink that we don’t need, but want.

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Love & Christmas: The Cath Kidston Trap

I’ve spent weeks laughing at people churning themselves into a frenzy over Christmas shopping. “Calm down dears, it’s only November”, I scoffed internally at the harried mums jabbing me in the bum with rolls of wrapping paper that have been cynically bolstering the tills like coiled harbingers of January’s pennilessness. There I’ve been – smugly tutting for weeks like I’d somehow escaped The System – until I realised with a gulp that it’s now…actually…well, pretty close. Like, a week away. And I’ve done next to nothing.

I should have learned by now to plan ahead and do it in manageable chunks, but to be honest this last minute panic is as much a Christmas tradition for me as doubling my podge and weeping in the street at the Salvation Army band. “You’re old and wearing a really big coat and playing the tuba – HAVE SOME SNOT!”

It’s an amazing pressure that swirls around us as this time of enforced happiness. Aside from the emotional obligation you feel to the nostalgia of Christmasses past, to being the same festive person you’ve always been when actually you’re mostly stressed and distracted, you also have to think about other people; family, humanity, maybe even – dare I venture – Jesus. Christmas is demanding – you have to buy stuff, wrap stuff, plan stuff, eat stuff, juggle stuff, do stuff, eat stuff, think of stuff, be stuff, eat stuff, sing stuff, wear stuff, stuff stuff, eat more stuff, and stuff. It’s like work, (if work encouraged you to always have a fortifying mulled wine in hand).

One of the hardest bits is buying stuff for people that doesn’t leave their faces looking like you just handed them a kipper on a frisbee. No one wants to see that face. You want to see the face like you just gave them a winning lottery ticket wrapped in Michael Buble’s best pants. You want the good face. You want to make those tinkers feel loved. (And, secretly, a silly little part of you wants to make them love you the most.)

But the pressure’s on, and you’re squeezing through a throng of people who are seemingly buying the best presents ever, and they’re smiling smugly at you as you dither with a battery-operated meerkat, and your brain, panicking, turns to anything else but the logic that tells you: “Your family love you, they want you to save your money so you can fix your car and not be stressing in the new year – they want to just spend time with you.”
No. The spending of Time isn’t pretty enough. You can’t put Time in a box and make people cry with it.

So naturally, I fell into the Cath Kidston trap. I wanted to spoil my sister rotten and so I found myself in a squished boutique, stylish women cooing in my ear that Cath Kidston is the best thing to happen to Britain since Hitler killed himself, and frantically thrusting my debit card into a cashier’s hand because…I want my sister to know I love her. I want her to know I am always here, that my heart is still charged by all the power in my blood which rushed me like a pre-pubescent warrior towards her doomed bullies in the playground, that I think she has the prettiest face I have ever seen on a real live woman, that I think her vegetable lasagne is the best.

So I bought her a floral bag.

And even though I know she will love it because it’s bloody gorgeous (she’d better not fucking read this or the surprise is ruined), a small part of me was disappointed in myself. Because Cath Kidston bothers me a bit. Not because she’s now astoundingly rich or is turning pretty designs and nice craft ideas into generic badges of proscribed femininity, not because she’s cynically seized upon that quiet, comfy, increasingly shameful part of most women that wants to be baking and feathering and making everything ‘nice’, not because she would probably not be seen dead out in something as common as her own designs (the ones that make it into the shops anyway), but because she is going against the whole ethos behind her floral/birdy/polka-dotty loveliness. She’s the queen of twee; the figurehead for the renaissance of vintage thrift, and the Cath Kidston empire which lures us with its shabby-chic ‘I’ve just macraméd the hair I pulled out of the plughole into a charming brooch’ is a facade. It’s not hand-woven in an English country cottage by Cath herself – no, it’s made in China. It’s about as English as Chairman Mao slurping noodles with a panda. It’s made in massive quantities to be shipped out to shops which make people feel like they’re buying into an authentic experience, or expressing some aspirational or creative part of themselves not being otherwise satisfied. Cath Kidston, and all her pricey ilk, is the opposite of tepid tea and stale jam tarts at jumble sales in honour of post-war ‘make do and mend’. Cath Kidston is sort of the new Burberry; ethos turncoat and brand flake. The symbols of qualities we admire and covet – domestic contentedness, resourceful canniness, attractive living – are made available to everyone not out of good spirit, but out of the voracity of business. Cath Kidston is not likely (nor would ever have been advised by anyone with a brain) to have limited her wares to the country stores of farmers’ wives in moneyed rural England because they were more honest showrooms for her designs. You’d have to be a fool to wilfully limit your own success.

There is a certain democratisation, I suppose, present in the dispersal of such products in the way a brand can go from exclusive to inclusive, elitist to commonplace (like when the poor could suddenly get their hands on bottom-rung qualities of coffee, spices, chocolate, and the BMW after the rich had grown ambivalent about it all) – but democratisation and class unification is not the mission nor the driving force; boundless cold hard cash is.

Perhaps Cath doesn’t like what it’s become. Perhaps Cath herself is sick of the whole look and is reclining in a minimalist Bauhaus pad somewhere sickeningly urban. Maybe she doesn’t poo in pastel colours after all. Maybe she’d surprise us all by being a messy eater and saying ‘cunt’ a lot. But her ego must be somewhat sated by the knowledge she is an image-maker of her generation, as were Coco Chanel, Mary Quant, and the dude who painted that black woman a bit greeny-blue in the 70s. Cath Kidston’s designs will one day evoke a whole era. Perhaps it will have earned it, perhaps the history of a brand is the history of a people, perhaps what is coursing through its lines and colours is the disparateness of Britain – the haves, the have-nots, the spirit, the laziness, the pride, the nonchalance, the reserve, the gaucheness, the snobbish aspiration, the humble salt of the earth; Britain in all its chequered (gingham) past.

A part of our culture all woven up in a bag for Christmas.

But.

When we were little, and one of us was sick, my sister and I used to take a plate of malt biscuits and a glass of milk to whoever was languishing in bed. I could have reminded her of the infinitesimally huge things I felt for her by spending 59p on a packet of biscuits and arranging them in a heart shape; I could have given her a bit of our time in a box – a tiny malt cow grazing on a golden brown biscuit – and she would have loved it. But I fell into the Christmas buying trap of needing to somehow quantify the immeasurable, and I bought something pretty that I know would make her walk down the street all jaunty. And that jaunt will have a lifetime of my love trailing clumsily behind it. My love is in her fibres.

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