Directly outside the home which we will soon be leaving is a hedge – a tangle of hawthorn, holly and blackberry. At present, whenever I open the door the blackberries look at me – the segment of each berry, a shiny dark pupil. I look back at their many eyes and feel something like nostalgia. But it’s an odd kind of nostalgia, not for what has been and gone, but for what never was.
Once my son, at the tender age of 5, claimed that a certain song, took him “down memory lane,” which was endearing, but also profound, to realise that even a child carries maps of their past inside them, and that these maps are complex – many lanes, leading to many things, remembered, half-forgotten and imagined. And our lane, outside our house, in blackberry season, leads me to remember the mother that I thought I’d be. You know the one: the mum who ushers her children out the door in the morning, with baskets swinging on their arms, and we spend early September getting our hands pricked, our mouths stained purple, readying to make crumble. The one in which I bake bread rolls each day, and we sit down to meals together, and then run out to the woods to play. The one in which I know the names of the trees and wildflowers, and I teach them to the children. And in the evenings, I sit and read the Secret Garden to them and all the other wholesome books I loved when I was little. And they fall asleep while listening.
You know, that mother. That childhood.
Well, half an hour ago I bought a medium sliced white from Tescos, and now we are back home, sat inside – me at my laptop, my son powering through Tears of the Kingdom on his Nintendo Switch and my daughter engrossed in Mario 3D World on her WiiU. The blackberries are outside, unpicked. And this isn’t bad. Just different. Just not what I had planned.
These moments of transition – shifts from one life chapter to another – do this. They stir up old stories. To buy a house you must get a survey done – an analysis of the condition of the walls, roof, windows, the hidden damp, the structural flaws, that are not visible in the glossy pictures in the sales brochure. To buy a house, I must survey my life, and my inspection reveals all the cracks, the hidden longings, growing in the dark, behind the day to day façade – the lives I could have led, thought I would lead, but didn’t. Because I never thought, at nearly 50, I would be looking forward to moving to a townhouse in Kent, with my husband and two children. Never imagined this being my ultimate destiny. Which implies that somewhere I had an idea of what my ultimate destiny might be, a plan against which I hold up my present reality, and take note it doesn’t match.
But letting go of the plan is a practice that I know about, or thought I did. In August we led the Improbable Summer School – our first in Kent, at Bore Place (where some of those on site actually do know the names of every wildflower)- and we taught, of course, ‘One Word at a Time’- the Impro game where two people try to speak as one person, to tell a story, one- word- at- a- time, and where you watch as your mind makes plan after plan, none of which are followed through, because the story always goes another way. And the skill is to stay happy with whatever happens, to say ‘yes’ to it, not to try to wrestle it back into the direction that you think it should be going. I understand this. I love it – the endless difficulty is part of the fun and fascination of it. So it is startling to realise how much, in life, in secret, I hold onto the plan for ages – years – long after it is clear that things have gone quite another way. Long enough that an unpicked blackberry can make me feel nostalgic.
I hold onto my plans in secret, in part because I feel guilty that they are there at all. The lives I didn’t lead seem like a judgement on the one I’m living. Because it isn’t just about me and the mother I was going to be. Everyone else is inevitably implicated too. It implies that there was a different kind of man, or woman, that I was going to marry, some other kinds of kids that I was going to have.
These secret plans reveal themselves in awkward ways – not just nostalgia at the blackberries, but outright jealousy, when I see that the author of my daughter’s book – The Girl of Ink and Stars – has written ten novels, won multiple prizes and is only 33. Or another moment – not jealousy but a tug of something, harder to name – when I receive an email from a theatre-maker, who is living with her partner and their two children, off grid, in a yurt in North Wales. Because there was a plan I formed when I was very young – my daughter’s age – 6 or 7 – to be a writer, living in a wild place, making not only jam or crumble, but poems from those blackberries.
And to be clear, that plan – let’s call it the wild blackberry one – isn’t my only other life. There’s the plan I had to have children young – lots of them – five or six at least, but preferably eight, and the older ones would look after the younger ones and it would be easy – much easier than having only two. And there was my plan to be an actor and get cast as the first female Doctor Who (long before Jodie Whittaker got the job). And the plan to live on a boat and swim the channel – twice. And the plan to be a world class rope artist.
So what to do, with all these un-lived lives, which surface in the cracks within the one I’m living?
I think I have a few options:
First, the short-term fix, Marge Simpson’s recommended tactic:
“It doesn’t matter how you feel inside, you know. It’s what shows up on the outside that counts. Take all your bad feelings and push them down, all the way down past your knees, until you’re almost walking on them. And then you’ll fit in, and you’ll be invited to parties, and boys will like you. And happiness will follow.”
It’s what most of us do, most of the time, with these troublesome other lives we are not leading. Dismiss them. Suppress them.
Second, the more aware, rational approach – be thankful for the life I’ve got. Recall exactly why I didn’t shack up with someone in a rural shelter but am instead with a man who likes a solid house, with high-speed internet and a good coffee shop around the corner. Enumerate the reasons that, after university, I didn’t buckle straight down to writing books, but did other things, before, at 40, beginning, slowly, to write my first. Because, although my life has deviated from my plans, there are sound reasons as to why.
The only problem is that neither suppression nor reason are particularly effective, in easing the nostalgia, jealousy, or illicit longings. The blackberries are still looking at me, every time I open the front door.
So, I am playing with a different option. One that came out of another exercise we did at our Improbable Summer School, a more ecologically sound option, in which none of my other lives go to waste – in which I re-use, re-purpose them. It’s an exercise that comes from The Shaman’s Body by Arnold Mindell: an invitation, a provocation, to tell a lie about your life. Don’t suppress your other lives. Don’t argue them away. Instead, turn towards them, dive into them, go further into the fantasy of a life you might have lived, be living. To an extent I have done this already – I wrote a novel, didn’t I? A work of fiction, and what’s that, in essence, but a great long lie? But the look those blackberries are giving me, suggests there is another that needs telling.
It’s surprising, this exercise. First off, once I let myself dive into my other, alternative lives, write them out, they quickly start to lose their glamour – in fact, they become rather boring. One thing I have learnt from writing my novel – though it’s something I will have to learn forever – is how to listen for what has energy on the page. Where’s the wriggling thing? The thing that’s trying to get away? The wild thing. I am dreaming of a life in a wild landscape, but as I write out my lies, my lives, I realise that it is wildness itself I want, and that it’s too cliched, too tame and tidy an idea, to think I will find it only on some desolate coastline in a rugged shack.
So what I end up writing, instead, is a lie in the form of a story that is, to a large extent, true. About how I was a fearful, anxious child – terrified of bad things happening, of taking a wrong turn, of being harmed. But, I remember, one thing I used to do that soothed me- a thing I couldn’t get wrong – was making mucky mixtures in the safety of the back garden, using a big silver pot- tipping, stirring, staring into potions. How one year, when I was 8, at the end of summer, I made an extra special one – ingredients from the store cupboard: uncooked rice; a spoonful of golden syrup, three strands of saffron. But also foraged things: dandelions; willow leaves; a swallow’s feather; water from the outdoor tap; blackberries. I left the mixture overnight, and it went a gorgeous, golden-purple. It looked so beautiful, I sank an empty jam jar in and tried it. And it was good – cold, metallic, leafy. So good that I drank down the lot – jarful, after golden purple jarful.
The effects were subtle, slow, but indisputable – it changed me, that mucky mixture. Somehow, incredibly, quite by mistake, I had managed to make a real tincture, which had a kind of homeopathic impact. It endowed me with a strange strength, unlike any you could get from visiting a gym. Nothing so neat as a six pack. It was a wild strength – the kind of strength grass must have to push up between paving stones. The kind birds have when they migrate a thousand miles. At first it alarmed me, this change. I felt I had to feign weakness still. But slowly I learned to live with it, to use it. And it has lasted, this change. It is this that enabled me to climb a rope with my toes when I was an aerialist, to birth my son over a five day labour when I became a mother, and to write a novel over the last twelve years, sat on the children’s bedroom floor. And it is this secret, wild strength which means that nowadays I can walk alone through any landscape – city, woods, fields – at any hour of the day or night, unafraid.
‘Consider your lie to be true,’ says Arnold Mindell.
‘Act like the person in your lie.’
What would this mean?
For me, right now, it would mean saying a more wholehearted ‘yes’ to the move we are about to make. It would mean less worry about house surveys and mortgages. A greater sense of trust in myself, my life, my family, and in the world.
I love this exercise – recycling jealousy, longings, secret wishes, making them into a myth, which in turn becomes a medicine for you to take. But before you try this for yourself, one warning: it works. In big ways and in small. Don’t do it, if you don’t truly want to change, be changed. I have been working on this lie all week, and this morning, while my son was at his Dungeons and Dragons club, my daughter and I hung around on the track nearby. She spotted some hawthorn berries and asked about them. We started to pick them. We found rosehips too, and then, blackberries. We brought our hoard home, and though my daughter is back on her WiiU now, before she did this, we made a blackberry crumble.
What are your other, secret, un-lived lives?
Take note of them, and experiment with telling a lie about your life. See what happens….it might not be what you had planned. It might be better.
And if ever you need a holistic bouncer or bodyguard – I’m your woman.
Images by Mika Rosenfeld