The Mystery of “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus”

We are on an all inclusive summer holiday in Hampshire, aka a staycation at the grandparents’. There are enough bedrooms for everyone to have their room, including estranged separate beds. There’s space on the driveway for the seven million cars* parked outside. There’s a separate tv lounge for the girls to sit in, with a complementary line of parcel tape granny has stuck on the carpet to indicate how far away the children must stay from the television (in case of toppling). We have the run of the cupboards, and much to his chagrin I used up all my dad’s nice Leerdammer slices making a picnic to take the zoo. After five hours at said zoo with the girls and my dear friend who joined us for the day, I then drank the lion’s share of the bottle of prosecco my dad opened to celebrate Persie’s third birthday. Prosecco goes very well with Minion birthday cake.

We are lucky to have people who love us. My not-wicked stepmother, who known as Granny Bee to the girls, always makes a big effort for our visits, putting children’s bedcovers on their beds, getting out the garden toys, stocking up on turkey dinsoaurs. This time around, she also lovingly arranged some magazines and a book on my bedside table.

The book was “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus”. I saw it and laughed, assuming that either she’d left it there as 1) a joke or 2) because she thought I needed it. I was reading-wise already occupied re-reading “Happier at Home” by my guru, Gretchen Rubin. But I thought I’d ask my stepmum about it.

Me: Thanks for leaving Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus by my bed. Was it a joke?
Stepmum: No, it was your mum’s, so I thought you might like to have it.
Me: That book wasn’t my mum’s.
Stepmum: It was!
Me: Erm I am pretty sure that edition wasn’t published until after mum died. It’s definitely not hers.
Stepmum: I’m sure it was…

My brain remembers rubbish like when famous bookcovers changed. So, book nerds, we’re talking about the cartoon cover edition of the famous relationship self-help book. Published in 2002. Three years after mum died.

The next day…

Me: So I checked that book, and that version was published after mum died so it definitely wasn’t her’s.
Stepmum: Is it yours?
Me: Nope. It must be yours.
Stepmum: It’s not mine. I didn’t buy it and I’ve never read it. [The book has a cracked spine. It’s been read].
Me: Well maybe someone gave it to you?
Stepmum: Erm…
Me: Maybe dad bought it when he was doing his counselling course?
Stepmum: I don’t think so.
Me to Dad: Is this your book?
Dad: Non committal response.

So this book, which I suspect has been in the house for about fifteen years, is unwanted and unloved! Nor will anyone admit it’s theirs! I’ve decided to adopt it. Frankly, I do think I need all the help I can get when it comes to communicating with the opposite sex. And can’t help but wonder if that was my not-wicked stepmother’s game plan all along. Even if she didn’t say so.

*Tiny hyperbole but there are currently five cars parked outside. Only two of them belong to us.

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Harry Potter is Twenty 

Or rather Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is Twenty, because Harry himself is my age (ish). Oh the shock I had when, at the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, it is revealed that Harry was born in 1980. Of course! No wonder he felt like a kindred spirit, he’s a fellow born-in-the-eighties member of Generation Y! It does explain why the books never troubled with explaining the internet. Can you imagine what Mr Weasley would make of wifi?

Regular readers will know that JK Rowling is one of my muses. I don’t like snobbery about writers, I especially dislike snobbery about popular writing. JK gets it a bit, for the quality of her writing, her popularity, her prolific output and her liberal views. But I don’t doubt that Harry Potter will endure.

I came to Potter late, Book Three, in fact! I remember devouring the first three Harry Potter books on a train to Durham, on my way to a Classics Summer school. I always loved school stories – Blyton, Chalet School, The Worst Witch, and Harry Potter was to me as comforting as a blanket, nostalgic as crumpets, and sweetly inventive as a sherbet lemon. I’d never read The Lord of the Rings, but I had been obsessed with The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. And had I mentioned I studied Latin? I was already a nerd, I was bound to like Potter!

That summer, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was released, and that was when the phenomenon kicked off and got really really massive. I worked in our local Asda over the holidays, and the front table was piled high with thick hardback books. Everywhere you went, people were reading that brightly coloured brick, and Potter suddenly became part of the national lexicon. In the winter, the first film came out. I went to see it three times, in a north London Cineworld, when the matinee tickets cost about three pounds each. Potter, along with His Dark Materials, is one of the reasons I chose to study Children’s Literature – both series were, to my mind, part of a resurgence of a genre with the power to change and influence like no other. Scientists have conducted studies on the effect of reading Potter on readers. Less likely to support Trump apparently…

I think back to reading Potter for the first time. (I’m jealous of people who’ve never read it, who have that pleasure ahead of them – I feel the same way about all my favourite books). I remember, through the lens of Potter, what it was like to be nineteen. To have watched my friends go off to university for their first years away and taste of freedom, while my life was also changing but not in the ways I had expected. To have experienced my first romance, my first heartbreak, my first failures. Reading Harry Potter that summer was one of the ways I coped with my grief and deep sadness, with loss, with frustration, with powerlessness. The scene when Harry stands before the mirror of Erised, and see his parents, well, I still cry now when I read that. The deep inner sadness that comes from losing a parent… when I read about JK Rowling losing her mother to MS before she wrote the Potter books, so much of it makes sense. I am sure that is why she is one of my people. It’s a long and varied list and subject to change at times, because I’m fickle, but she’s up there on the laminated, permanent part.

By the time the final Potter book came out, I was more grown up, living in my second-to-last houseshare, in my second ever real job. I woke up early and drove to a local 24 hour Tesco to buy my book from a pile on a table in the entrance of the supermarket, and I read until my eyes were red and sore and I was hoarse and snotty with tears. I love that book so much. Not because good triumphs over evil – although that’s great – or because I realised that Harry would have been in the year above me at school. It’s not Snape’s death, either, although when we went to Harry Potter Studios we looked for Alan Rickman’s wand in Ollivander’s, to pay our respects.

The part that resonates is when Harry brings out the resurrection stone from the Snitch. He is about to meet Voldemort and he is prepared to die. The spirits of his parents, Sirius, Remus and Tonks appear. Rowling doesn’t call them ghosts, not like the ghosts who inhabit the castle. These are something different – and as the scene takes place, it’s clear that the spirits were always there with him, he just didn’t know it. And they won’t leave him, even when he drops the stone to the floor. Just thinking about that scene gets me. We can’t bring back the people we love, but they never leave us. It’s a paradox; beautiful, sad and true.

***For those of you who so kindly got in touch to ask why I’ve been so quiet – just busy, is the honest answer. But I’ve made a list of all the things I want to tell you about, so I hope that there will be more regular posts again in the coming weeks.***

Muses 

​My muses are two women who never allowed “the pram in the hall” to stop them from creating. Here’s a picture of the double aperture ampersand frame on what I laughing call my “writing desk” – my two muses, pride of place, reminding me that I ought to stop procrastinating and start writing. Cause, you know, there’s no excuse. That’s why I chose two quotations by them as the descriptions for this blog.

Sylvia Plath, obviously. Enshrined by some in popular cultural discourse as shorthand for some kind of overwrought hysterical wronged woman, the poetry gets glossed over too often for the story behind the headlines. And I’m as susceptible to that as anyone, I think I’ve read all the main biographies, the journals, and then there’s Birthday Letters… At the painful quick, Ted Hughes was a serially unfaithful husband and Sylvia Plath was mentally ill (BPD? Bi-Polar? We’ll never know). Two flawed people, their failed marriage and their children. It’s the poetry that makes their story so unique, the power of the words left behind, speaking through the years. I’ve never really understood why some fans chiselled the “Hughes” off her gravestone. I get that it was in protest at the patriarchal oppression her husband inflicted upon her in death (rearranging the order of her last collection of poems) as in life, but that for me implies a level of public ownership of the poet that just isn’t actually real.  
Sylvia Plath is, for me, sixth form, finally getting poetry, grief, love, and aspiration. She’s in a little part of me, my writing… there is enough of her work assimilated within my own voice me for me to feel the burst of pleasure you get when you recognise an old friend when I read her work.

But as I grew older I put Plath aside as a childish thing, as if I was beyond that intensity, that passion, that longing. Then I came back to her, and developed a new found appreciation. There’s fresh realisation, and another layer of recognition. Re-reading the Wintering poems with renewed interest as bees are one of my own personal symbols of happiness. After years of struggling to improve my own writing, appreciating how she clearly was an immensely talented and accomplished poet. But I admire Plath most now because she wrote her Ariel poems when she was a single mother of two young children.

The world was different back in 1960 and you could live in North London in lodgings for nothing in comparison to today etc and even then Sylvia Plath was part of a creative liberal elite and would have probably had the money for household help but… She did it. She wrote. She wrote, I suppose, because it was her calling, because of the flames of pain and rage that licked inside of her that made her burn so brightly, so briefly, fuelled her. I admire her so because she did it despite being a mum. Despite having to do the baths the teas the park the bedtimes the face-wiping spill-clearing monotonous drudgery of motherhood. Because if there’s one thing guaranteed to get in the way of creativity it’s the inspiration crushing relentless exhaustion of caring for young children.
And so to JK, national treasure. Queen of the Twitter put-down. She’s a bit marmite, you know. Some people don’t appreciate her (yeah, you know who you are). I know she’s one of those lefty liberal rich types and that’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but she gave so much of her fortune to charity she slipped off the rich list. Above all, there’s something about her that reminds me of a form teacher who’d give a Year 9 girl really good advice, probably because that’s kind of what she is.

The pictures of JK Rowling when she was first published show a woman with long red hair who really could have been Harry Potter’s mum from the description in the book, posing in the cafe where she used to write. I secretly love how glamorous she’s got as she’s got older, blonder, more polished. Yeah, it’s to do with being rich, but also, she’s clearly so confident, she found herself. And she deserves to feel proud of what she achieved. JK did it too. Wrote because there was no option for her but to write. Coffee shop, baby in the pram, she has described so many times how she hit rock bottom, felt like a terrible failure, and… out of it came something magical. She’s not the best writer in the world, but what she’s achieved is amazing.

So since this is *write more* live more, I thought it was important to check in with the writing bit. I haven’t written enough. I haven’t written nearly enough. All the stories, in my head, unwritten. All the ideas in my own personal cloud. This blog. The unfinished novel. Got to crack on and do it. What if I die and no one ever has read my writing? Maybe that’s what the whole of my 35-year-old midlife crisis has been about. Maybe I need to learn a bit from my muses, make the most of my inner fire, and go for it.

On Sighing

Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more.
Men were deceivers ever,
One foot in sea, and one on shore,
To one thing constant never.
Then sigh not so, but let them go,
And be you blithe and bonny,
Converting all your sounds of woe
Into hey nonny, nonny.

Sing no more ditties, sing no more
Of dumps so dull and heavy.
The fraud of men was ever so
Since summer first was leafy.
Then sigh not so, but let them go,
And be you blithe and bonny,
Converting all your sounds of woe
Into hey, nonny, nonny.

(Shakespeare – Much Ado About Nothing)

I have a sighing habit. And it has been noticed. My first day in a new role, many years ago, I remember Aussie Nicole saying that I hadn’t stopped sighing, and it was driving her crazy. Recently Colleague 1 told Colleague 2 that she’d just have to get used to my sighing, and it didn’t necessarily indicate I was pissed off but did potentially have a myriad of meanings, including the sometimes correctly identified “sigh of disappointment”. Then the other day the woman I sit next to at work said “I’m going to start a tally chart of your sighing today! I reckon we’re up to at least ten already!”

So to save my colleagues and my papers from gusts of air and huffy sounding interjections, I did a bit of research into sighing and why we do it. Obviously, since a sigh is just a really deep breath with an audible exhale, it’s not surprising that sighing is really all about breathing. It originates from a life-saving reflex. We all sigh without realising we do it, just to open up our lungs and get enough oxygen in. There are theories that sighing acts as ‘a mental and physical reset’ – who hasn’t done a bit of deep breathing before something they’re nervous about? A sigh acts in the same way. For example, I know that when I’m tense my breathing gets more shallow, and as a result, I sigh more, in an attempt to get myself on an even keel.

Unfortunately, people perceive sighing as, in the main, an expression of negative emotions. Hence the “sigh of disappointment”. We think of sighs as being associated with frustration and difficulty. But actually I find that when I’m concentrating I sigh. And that’s a good thing for me. And what about sighs of satisfaction, or pleasure? How does a happy out-breath really differ from a negative one? Can you hear tone in breathing?

Anyway, I’m sure that despite my new-found self-awareness, sighing will continue – I don’t want my lungs to collapse, thanks very much. But as ever Shakespeare’s advice holds true today. In the spirit of “act the way you want to feel”, I won’t be sighing, but will instead continue to listen to my Happiness playlist, which is surely the modern version of singing “Hey nonny nonny”.