Saturday, February 11, 2017

42

My parents had me when my mother was 30 and my father was 31. By the time I was 10-years-old and at the age where you begin to observe your parents as strange and increasingly embarrassing individuals rather than just an extension of yourself, they were in their 40s. I remember going to see 'Back to the Future' with them and afterwards my father complained about how loud the film had been and my mother disdainfully maintained that it was “a lot of rubbish.” I, by contrast, had thought it was utterly awesome. My ten-year-old self appraised the situation as follows: Being 40 means you are old, inflexible, and incredibly boring.

I am now in my 42nd year and have two children of my own. My six-year-old son, who has been listening to Roald Dahl’s ‘Charlie and the great glass elevator’ at night, recently asked me: “Mum if you could take a pill and be 20 years younger in an instant, would you do it?” I asked him if he was talking about going back in time, or if I would still be me as I am now but in a younger version of my body. He said the latter. I immediately started thinking about how wonderful it would be to have another 20 whole years with my husband and children. And how I’d look after my 21 year old self, and go to the gym, and get a really tight butt and stuff, before remembering how lazy I am about exercise.

It was an interesting question though, because my first thought was  - sure I’d like to have a younger fitter body, but I would still want my life as it is presently. My children to be the ages they are now - endearing, interesting and interested in the world, great company. My relationship with my husband which I greatly value, including the rocky patches we have weathered. And of course my journey as an artist. Plus of course all the wonderful friendships I’ve built over the years. Then there's the experiences I've had and the maturity I've gained that's brought with it the confidence to say no to people, to have informed opinions, to stand up and fight with the builder who is trying to fob me off with a shitty job. To know what I like and don’t like and not worry about what I ought to like. The empathy I’ve developed from living through a variety of circumstances and experiences and understanding that not everyone has what I have or sees the world in the same way that I do. Being shaped by the places I’ve travelled to and the people that I’ve met from different cultures. The books that I’ve read. I wouldn’t want to erase any of these things - things that come with getting older - and certainly many of which I was lacking at the age of 21.

Another year has passed since I wrote my last birthday post. My career as an artist has started to grow, and I’ve painted some portrait commissions with more lined up. It’s very exciting and fulfilling and I feel supremely fortunate and thankful to do something for a living that I love doing regardless. And that there are people out there that actually like my work and are prepared to pay for it - that still surprises me somehow. There are times when commissions can be a bit stressful like any job, but the satisfaction and meaning painting gives me makes the entire enterprise worth it.

I paint every day - some things go on to be completed paintings others turn out to be studies or exercises, but whatever it is, I am painting. I continue to be inspired by Hemingway’s work ethic - irrespective of what damage he had done to his liver the night before, he sat down each morning to write. Recently I've had a chest infection so painting became drawing, and I realised how much I enjoy it and that I really ought to do more of it. I’m also becoming a lot more patient with my work, which I think has a lot to do with getting older and also the influence of my portrait painting teacher. He says to me in his beautiful Italian accent: “When you paint you ‘ave a lot of h’energy, you need to focus that h’energy and slow down.” I can get excited to start something and dive straight onto the canvas, which is absolutely the right way to go with some projects, but it’s not right for all paintings. Sometimes capturing certain people is difficult and you need that drawing time to think their faces through. With commissions you also have to plan and sketch so that the client has an understanding of what you are going to do and the direction that things are going in in order to sign off on a painting. While there are those who are happy to leave you to it, it is my experience that people enjoy feeling a part of the process.


As a family we travelled to two parts of Greece last year, including Corfu which I loved. There are hundreds of stray cats in Corfu. Each day my daughter and I would walk to a spot a couple of blocks from the hotel which a motley crew of them would frequent. We soon learnt that despite their indigent status, they had discerning palettes preferring the tasty protein leftovers from dinner or lunch we had saved for them, and the wet cat food we bought over the dry cat food we also offered. And while we enjoyed feeling like we were making a meaningful impact on their lives, it was evident they were fed by the local restaurant owners too, and what we offered was a welcome extra. But my daughter loved those cats and she had names for each of them. We also came to know which of them were friendly and safe to pet - interestingly quite a few despite being born feral.  We talked wistfully about buying a rambling house in Corfu and setting up an animal rescue shelter  - I would paint and she would be a vet/custodian, while my husband and son would have to hope for a good WiFi connection. I think the experience left an indelible impression on her.

I also stayed in Rome for two weeks undertaking a painting workshop with the artist Hollis Dunlap as part of the Rome Art Workshops. That was an incredible experience and helped made possible by my husband who arranged things at home so I could go off and not worry about the children. Even at the time it occurred to me that it’s very easy for people to be generous about things that are convenient for them, but it takes a special sort of person who not only says yes but encourages you to do something for yourself that will inconvenience them to some extent. His words were to the effect of: “I travel for my work all the time. Painting is your work, and this will directly benefit that, so you should go.”

And so I remain thankful that I had the great fortune (because I appreciate that so much of it is dumb luck) to have met someone who is loving, kind, generous, and supportive of me, who is a wonderful father, and whom I still get such a kick out of being with. I think a lot of it also comes down to timing though. I often say to my husband that had we met in our early 20s I would probably have messed it up and he says the same. You know stupid shit - not being able to stay in the room with an argument - storming out dramatically instead of working things out. Not being particularly empathetic. Being overly critical, selfish, vain and sensitive about things that don’t matter. I think in life as in painting, you’ve got to simplify things and know what is important (ergo worth arguing about) and what’s not. To acknowledge when you are being an assehole and say I'm sorry. And having kindness and empathy for the other person is at the heart of everything. The rest is just stuff. I appreciate that there are plenty of people who invest a lot into their relationships and love their partners a great deal and things still don't work out. At our age there are increasing breakups related to mid life crises, the inevitable changes we go through, and many other complex factors. I could be in that position myself one day and I proceed with cautious optimism.

I continue to learn about myself through my children. I hate myself for lacking patience when my son messes around while we are doing homework. Rationally, I know he does it because he finds certain things difficult and so he becomes frustrated and acts out - but in the moment, and depending on how tired I might be or the kind of day I might have had, I sometimes have to bite my hand to stop from getting angry. And that anger, and where it might come from, always surprises me. I try very hard not to be overly precious about my daughter continually losing her belongings and forgetting her homework at school, but it’s tough. I guess some of that comes from growing up with parents who were not very patient or tolerant, and because money was often tight things were not easily replaced. But I continue to strive to be supportive and kind and patient, even if it doesn’t always come easily to me. And I want my children to know that they can come to me about anything - and I won’t lose my shit, at least not visibly. 

This New Year’s eve was a quiet one. We had a small dinner with family and friends at one of our favourite local restaurants, before my husband and I retired to the sofa and then bed. I remember one NY’s eve as a teenager being devastated because my friends were on holiday and I had no one to celebrate with. Having no plans on any given Friday or Saturday night was equally torturous for me. And I recall my father looking at me with a smile on his face and saying sympathetically, “I remember that feeling of not wanting to miss out,” before retiring to the sofa with my mother and a bar of Dairy Milk chocolate probably to watch an episode of ‘The World at War’ - happy as Larry. These days I also relish a Friday or Saturday night when we have no plans, and I can settle back with my husband after dinner with a glass or two of wine and some cheese. We’ll listen to music, talk, and maybe watch a movie, knowing that the following morning we can get up at our leisure - bliss. Sometimes we’ll travel through central London on our way home after dinner with friends, and I see all these late teen/20 somethings queuing up in the cold to get into a club, or smoking outside of one, or drunk on the sidewalk eating a takeaway and I think ; “Oh my god, not for all the tea in China would I do that shit again.” But many years ago I too was there, ill dressed for the cold weather, and loving it. It’s not so much that I don’t like excitement anymore as I value comfort and safety over it.

A noticeable change in myself is that I’ve come to care about politics a lot more - in a way I was deeply apathetic about until even recently. I view politicians in much the same way I do fellow drivers - cynically, anticipating that they are potential hazards and need to be observed closely. I’m very conscious that we elect these individuals (whose real motives we can only guess at) to make grave decisions on our behalf that affect our lives and those of our children. These people have the power to remove our rights, to take us into wars we do not wish to enter, to damage our planet, to misuse our taxes, and they need to be watched, policed, and held accountable. What continues to astound me is that despite the horrors of the second world war, continued racial and religious wars - just horrific genocide, seeing the damaging effects of continued persecution and prejudice in all it’s guises, it feels as if we have learnt nothing at all. In fact in the last year it occurs to me that we are moving back to a time of us versus them thinking, intolerance, ignorance and xenophobia. This worries me deeply. 

My daughter is introducing me to current music - I like this. While I paint I’ll often listen to Paul Simon or a radio station that plays a lot of 80s and 90s stuff - I think the presenters are the same age as me. As a result I don’t often hear current music except when she says: “Mum I want you to listen to x”. She has good taste and likes upbeat stuff, sometimes we dance around the kitchen and she laughs at my moves. She is also a voracious reader and suggests books for me to read, most recently, “The 13th Goldfish’ by Jennifer L. Holm which I thoroughly enjoyed. My son questions everything and is a deep thinker - science, religion, politics - our conversations are unrestricted and always lively and thought provoking. And thank god for Google because when I was a child my mother’s response to all of my questions was: “Because Y is a crooked letter and you can’t make it straight.”

I worry about my health a lot more than I used to or ought to - something I never did in my early 20s. I’ll get a an ache or pain and suspect the worst. It’s tied in with anxiety which I unfortunately suffer from which is in turn related to having experienced a lot of sudden death in my family. One of the things people don’t tell you about having children is you spend a lot of time being terrified that something is going to happen to them or you. Fortunately my husband does not have my neurotic streak. He’s refreshingly optimistic, rational and easy going. The yin to my angst-ridden yang.

I wake up early these days and I cannot get back to sleep. Even on the weekends, and even if we’ve had a latish night. When this first started happening I felt aggrieved - my children are finally past the whole baby/toddler crazy early waking up thing, and they also like to sleep in - but there I am waking up early. I’ve gradually come to quite enjoy this time of the day when the house is quiet and I get to reflect on things. I make a cup of tea, cuddle the cat and look at whatever painting is on my easel with fresh eyes. The calm before the storm.

Like my father did before me I spend a lot of time switching off lights in the house, telling my daughter not to take such excessively long showers, and turning off taps while people brush their teeth. My father, who was an electrician, was probably concerned about the energy bills, while I am concerned about the planet and I despise waste. It’s one of those things that I often find myself thinking about early in the morning along with whatever painting I am working on.

Three weeks ago my husband and I went out dancing with friends - following a dinner. An incredibly fun and rare evening where we were out until around 1am, which is late for me these days. I’m not going to pin this on ‘being old’ because the 40s aren’t exactly old, and 1am isn’t exactly late. It’s more to do with the fact that for the last 9.5 years I’ve had relatively small children who need taking care of the next day.  I can’t be going out on the lash and spending the next day nursing a hangover. I tried this on one or two occasions and let me say this: Children have absolutely no respect for a hangover - it’s all “me me me” with them. But I digress …

So we go out with friends to this fabulous dinner with cocktails followed by more cocktails and dancing,  and the next morning everything hurt - like I’d run a marathon. I vaguely recalled some questionable dance moves where I was shimming against my husband  - down to the floor and then up again. Those kind of slutty dance moves you, or rather I, start doing when I’ve had a few drinks. I’m just awash with relief that there were no sober witnesses and no cameras were allowed in the club. At around 12.30am it started to get really rammed with people, and I began to feel claustrophobic. Eventually we called it a night and I brushed past all the incredibly beautiful young people - an endless supply of which still appeared to be streaming in through the front door with hopeful expressions on their faces. I by contrast, most likely had a boozy stressed look on mine, feeling nothing short of relief once I felt the cold air on my face outside. I gratefully folded my 41-year-old self into a cab next to my husband, and said in a very indignant middle aged kind of way “Who the hell ARRIVES at a place at 1am? Precisely the sort of thing my 40-something old
, inflexible, and incredibly boring parents might have said.