All The Lives I am not Living, and A Lie about the One I am 

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. 

And instead? 

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


  1. Alex Chisholm

    When I was early teens I really wasn’t sure I’d ever want children – I did know I wanted to be a theatre director & I didn’t think the two were compatible (I’m still not sure they are but I’m trying…) I had two ideas of what sort of parent I wanted to be if I did have kids (I thought I’d have 2 kids – getting 3 via twins was a bonus). The first idea was I would have homemade cookies in my kitchen. And the other would be I’d have a home where my kids & their friends would always be welcome & they could come & go & hang out as they pleased. There are A LOT of challenges to being a parent I never imagined but on those two points I think I’m actually nailing it.

    • matildaleyser

      Wow. I am so impressed – I mean, you always impress me, but that you are nailing it on those two scores! I can do the biscuits, more thanks to my daughter’s obsession with baking than my own initiative, but the second I have not yet achieved. Partly because none of us have enough friends for them to come and go and hang out. However, that is definitely part of the aim of the next life chapter. Watch this space or, even better, come and visit it!

      • Sophie Besse

        My other mum dream life was full of control and perfection I realise now. No room for messy house, bad or hard feelings. Looking back at it, this dream of what motherhood should be made quite a bit of my life with three actual “real” kids really difficult especiallyvwhen some of them have special needs. So much pressure on my shoulders. So much sadness, fears or difficulties I never dared sharing. SO much guilt. Until that day where I broke down and somehow rebirth. Tuesdays were hell, I just couldn’t cope with them anymore. They made me anxious from the Suday already. A marathon that included school run in 3 different schools, therapy for one kid, capoiera for the other, running back home, homework, bath and diner. There were ALWAYS tears and screams at some point. Until the day were I just couldn’t do it anymore so I stopped preparing diner on Tuesdays. I said Tuesdays would be cereal nights from now on. And yes in their bath if they wished. Why not. Too tired to care. I completely let go. And that’s when I discovered what their other dream childhood was. Eating cereals in the bath for diner. To this day it’s their fondest memory as sibblings. “Do you remember the Tuesdays mum? They we SO cool! The 3 of us eating cereal diner in the bath.” I find it fascinating that happiness emerged from me collapsing. Because it was only the very begining of the big great fall of the whole “perfect mum-woman-wife”. 2 years of tears and depression followed by 1 divorce and complete change of carrier and lifestyle. 2 friends of mine moved in and I reshuffled all my cards little by little. I got rid of all these pressuring women images in my life. Of course problems were still there but there was a bit more room and time for my needs.

        • matildaleyser

          That’s a great story – about Tuesdays and cereal in the bath. I know it may not have felt like a choice at the time but thank goodness that you were finally able to collapse and let another story start. And many thanks for sharing it here.

      • Alex Chisholm

        I REALLY want to come visit!!! Let me know when you’re ready to receive visitors & me & the kids will come down.

  2. Mary

    Thank you for this, Matilda. I really enjoyed it and very much resonated with that sense of nostalgia, especially as an intensely imaginative child with multiple future lives mapped out in detail, none of which could possibly have come to pass, because, it turns out, that’s not how life works! I’m currently reading ‘Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life’ by Adam Phillips. I recommend it.

    • matildaleyser

      Thank you. Hadn’t heard of ‘Missing Out’ but it sounds entirely on point. Thank you for the recommendation – I will definitely check it out. And I hope that at least some of your unlived lives become books, and you get to live them that way.

      • Hannah

        If you ever do a workshop on that process Matilda, turning the unlived life into a lie that might have the power then to change your life now, sign me up. I need to do that. Am in a dangerous feeling zone of midlife potential resentment and regret when there is so much to celebrate and embrace, but those whispers of other lives that I can’t seem to silence risk jeopardising this one. I think they whisper louder now as they’re on the cusp of forever dying as a possibility and I’m not yet ready to accept that this is it.

        • matildaleyser

          Sorry for slow reply Hannah but YES – that is one workshop I would like to lead. I love this exercise. Sending love to you for all those other lives. I know how painful they can feel, in their out-of-reach-ness. xxx

  3. Suzanne Daigle

    Like sitting on a front porch, rocking back and forth on a cozy piece of outside furniture, I let myself enjoy your words, the feeling of them, the story of them and the messages between the lines. It was lovely as was your writing.

    • matildaleyser

      Thank you Suzanne. I am so glad.

  4. Deborah Claire Procter

    Loved reading this. I had a feeling that anything with blackberries in it was going to be good but not quite this good. My fingers have gone purple as I read and my head is swimming with custard stained pink by attacking blackberry crumble, made so lovingly and consistently by my mother. Yes there needs to be lies that allow all those lives to merge, staining each other like blackberry juice. You have hit a beautiful chord.

  5. Kara

    I’ve smiled and cried at the poignancy and honesty of your story here.
    Thank you.
    It reminds me that at one point I was writing a science fiction adventure story. The story (your idea of “lie”) has elements about a young woman in the far off future, uncovering and discovering her past including those paths in her family that came before her.
    For me, ever since starting the story, it has been strange and fantastic to witness the story coming alive in my own life. IRL! 😉
    Some parts of the story appear literally like finding lost journals with buried answers and some story aspects appear more figuratively like finding seeds from a long ago place germinating and taking hold, and presently growing into something the world has never seen but is necessary in the unfolding of a new life on earth.
    And so—my In Real Life adventures continue!
    Thank you for the reminder to keep creating or reimagining (story, art, my life) —as this simple act bears fruits we could never imagine. And that these seeds will germinate and grow far into the future.

    • matildaleyser

      Thank you. I find it on-goingly fascinating to witness the relationship between what we make and what we live, and how these two speak to each other in surprising ways.


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