What I wished I’d realised twenty years ago


I have written this blog inspired by a woman, a friend of my friend Alice, who I met two days ago in the Sound Art Radio Studio. I didn’t get her name. I don’t think we got that far. She has eyes that are clear and sparkling and full of fear (NB: maybe I am projecting here) of not being good enough, or fear that the other will not like her or will disagree. Beautiful, clear eyes, light blue. I could have swum in them. I spoke briefly with her – but to be honest I was all over the place. So I couldn’t really talk in a straight line long enough to properly talk. I’d just performed and was in that post high. So I was doing a lot of one-liners. She didn’t speak much at all. Smiled a lot. I liked her instantly.

I know Alice lives in a caravan, like me. But her friend doesn’t know I’ve been living in a caravan. In the midst of many words that were sparkling and exciting about myself, like a true spiritual hero, I suddenly remembered through the rush of post performance hormones that I am not the only person valid here to talk about, and asked her, ‘Do you work here?’

‘No,’ she says, looking at Alice who does. She seemed apologetic. Like maybe she should.
So, without information forthcoming I take another guess, ‘Do you live in the caravan up the top?’
‘Yes,’ she says, clear beautiful eyes tinged again with I ‘only’ live in a caravan, a shyness to her eyes, a trying to cover-overness of herself and what ‘shouldn’t be’. I caught a vibration of: I have not got it together to get a brick and mortar house.

The caravan on the very last night.

My reactions to her could be projection again, but I don’t think so. I had already explained my heroic adventures with the four mice to Alice, that her and I knew were all staged in the caravan. To Alice and I it was clear we were all in the same boat (so to speak) but the woman with the clear, sparkling eyes perhaps it wasn’t obvious.

I love living in a caravan. I feel proud of it now – of being able to make the most of it, of being a strong enough personality to cope with the inconveniences, so to be able to enjoy the pure beauty of waking up every morning to the sounds of birds, river, wind in the trees. Of going down to the river in wellies, half asleep, to wash a dish, get washing up water or to wash my face.

Morning mist.
Silence weaving into the habituated gurgling of the river.
Watching the seasons fall off the trees.
Ducking back up under the washing line.

The view from the kitchen with the river on a high

I wanted to be in a sort of gang of caravan dwellers. But it didn’t happen. I sensed she was afraid of what I would think of her for living in a caravan. And it affected me. What got me was the difference between my eyes looking into her beautiful, beautiful eyes and the eyes she was expecting to feel and therefore (more than probably) did.

I wanted to write this for her. And for me, on this the day that I am sailing out of England on another adventure. Blissfully free. My life packed once again into a suitcase (note the upgrade from a backpack!?), a trumpet case, a computer, a kindle and a tennis racquet. As I reduce all my stuff back into bags I feel life expanding out again.

What I wished I’d realised twenty years ago

I have just looked in the mirror and realised: I am too old to be a mother. Or rather I suddenly get that the women entering into motherhood – a stage I have always considered something for the future – are all (except in very extreme circumstances) much, much younger than me now.

I look in the mirror and see the lines. It doesn’t help that for a couple of days I’ve been packing my life up again, worrying about getting everything into bags and boxes, worrying about the long hitch to the port (which turned out to be a dream of a journey) and this morning waking up to the stomach wrenching sensations of the early hours to get myself on the ferry (which I nearly missed). With all that and slight sea sickness, I’m not looking my best.

However there is no denying: time is moving on. It is strange when, like last night in the AirBnB, I watch English television and see the same people on the screen as I saw as a child. But they are not the same – not at all. In fact their heads are slightly deformed, ears protrude, white or no hair, shrunken, shrivelled. They are old and about to die.

And I have entered into middle age.

Enric once told me that the basic foundations of one’s personality are developed in the years up to the age of seven. I believe him. And in those years you are asked a lot about the future. Who do you want to be? Those tender responses go deep. And they are responses also to please the adult. To get a smile. To be able to move on and get back to the Lego before my brother finds the piece I’m looking for. I’ve never heard a little child say, ‘Robber’ for example, or, ‘It sounds really good fun to be a hooligan,’ (perhaps because at that age they already are). Answers are normally more in the range of something successful and so socially acceptable they could easily slip into a child’s bed time story.

And so on the occasions when I go back to my childhood home, middle aged and not ‘successful’ is actually, quite terrifying. The eyes of that seven year old gain power all over again – eyes that were borrowed from the then adults in my life: my mum, my dad, my teachers, my Brownie guides’ Brown Owl, the priest.
‘Who have you become?’ is now the question. And suddenly I begin to crumble.

It doesn’t matter how many self-development workshops I’ve done. How many Vipassana’s I have sat. How deep I have gone into myself. I tremble.
This year, my mum celebrated 70 years on this planet. It was the first time in three years that I was to see my brother after him going into radio silence with me. He doesn’t like that I haven’t become someone. Told me he feels he needs to protect his children from me.

So, like flour, eggs and milk make cake, whisk all these ingredients up – no motherhood, no job, no fixed idea of life, family reunion – and you get a dribbling, panicking Julia. Someone who was perfectly ok and happy in life and feeling blessed is suddenly attacked and felled by the inner thoughts of ‘failure’, of ‘trouble maker with those wacko ideas’, of ‘wanderer drifting her life away’, of ‘never did much with all that she was given’…

It is gross and it is ugly. It is black and vile and it can get hairy. I do not contain all this horribleness to myself, ohh no, I spread it about all around me. Fabián knows only too well. As do all of my ex’s (evidence that it has nothing to do with them, though at the time I am convinced they are the root of all evil).

I begin to imagine myself hanging from a tree: a blissful end to the onslaught of this darkness, of these cursing emotions and sensations that threaten to not only bring me to my knees, but to destroy me. And I logically, but unwisely, conclude: better to destroy myself, at least then I am in control.

Through the snot and the tears and the wailing of, ‘I should die’, ‘I am worthless’, and ‘How did it ever get to this?’ Fabián, a true trooper, stands firm, dodges bullets, does not, in some miracle of psychological strength, blame me for being so horrible.

Instead he says, ‘See yourself through your own eyes.’

I have no idea what he means.

I go back to the idea of dangling on the end of a rope.

Through the mind fog I hear echoes of him saying, ‘You are wonderful, you are a genius, you write so beautifully, you are great company,’ (Great company?! Look, look now! You are only as good as your last game. I am making your life hell), ‘I love you, you play the trumpet, you speak languages, you are wise,’ – it all seems so naïve – ‘Look at yourself! Look in the mirror. Stop using your father’s eyes.’

That wakes me up.

‘Stop using your brother’s eyes.’

I stop in my victimhood. The eye of the storm. I open into the brief inner silence.

I am OK here, in this little caravan by my caring man, but what about when I go back up north? ‘But what can I say when they ask, ‘So what do you do now?’’

The winds pick up. Panic. New sob. The addictively exciting tingling of hysteria coming on…

Memories of past disasters. Of sly looks. Of quiet slights. Of disappointment.
I was brought up with middle-class, well to do, conservative ideals. I mean my father (still) proudly voted for Margaret Thatcher. I knew from an early age the advantages of laissez-faire. We were taught to be adventurous within the realms of what is correct, but not to step over the line. We were brought up Catholics with the fear of going to Hell to control our unruly instincts. Dad’s garden is still a perfect green, mowed crisscross. Mum was head of flower arranging and church cleaning. My brother always wanted to be a priest.

‘Tell them that you have just written a book, that you are living in a beautiful place, that you have a lovely relationship with me, that you are enjoying life,’ Fabián whispers with soft force.
‘But the book isn’t selling well?’
‘But a few people have said that it was life changing…you’re proud of the contents, you said so yourself…’
‘They are only interested in if I’ve made money…and we live in a caravan…’

Fabián stays bravely in his soft voice and says, ‘It is beautiful here, silence, we can listen to the river, we live between trees! It is a privilege to be here!’ I begin to come out of my hell mind, back into the world where there is this kind man whose face is flickering in and out of the candle light.
‘But they mean, ‘What do I do as a job, how do I get money…’’
‘Tell them… ‘I sell books, I do psychotherapy sessions with patients, I model for art school and sometimes get paid for playing music, but what’s great is that I’ve learnt to live so very basically that I don’t actually need a lot of money…yes…things are going well.’’

It is like falling into a soft comfortable clean bed after a hard day.

‘But,’ I panic, suddenly sitting up again, ‘What if my brother asks me?’

So, somehow we end up role playing it. And Fabián (who is me) and I (who am Adrian) have a practise conversation. I know what to say as Adrian, it is ingrained in my cells. ‘So what are you doing now with your life?’ I use the right tone: derogative, but pretending to be interested. Images of no children, no house, no car, no real income, nothing…waste of a life, ‘I’ve just written a book, published it, I’m pleased with it, especially the contents…’ says Fabián who is me, pathetic me, stupid me, airhead me.

The conversation goes on and I can only see in front of me some ridiculous girl-woman who will not settle down, can’t get her life together, who is never going to get anywhere, who will not listen to reason. I’ve tried to help. Tried to give her support. She won’t stop doing what she is doing, running around like a headless chicken, and she is just really, really annoying. Ever looking for adventure. If you won’t change, please get out of my life. Fabián continues to tell me how ‘she’ is enjoying living in nature, working in some phony art school, written some book that can’t keep ‘her’ alive… blah blah blah. Get out of my face!

It is terrible.

‘Swop,’ says Fabian. ‘Find some answers like I had…’ he says in a positive voice that I just can’t believe.

So, for the sake of getting to know myself workshop style or perhaps out of desperation, faced with the army of rightwing do-gooders who are all successfully wealthy and keen to compete, I swop roles. Who are you? Are you better or worse than me?

I am me. Fabián is Adrian.

He asks me the same questions. I answer, not how I think I should based on what they want to hear but how I feel. I am enjoying life. I have written a book. I play in a couple of bands that I love. I actually have enough money coming in to cover my costs. Actually I am pleased to be able to live so economically – it really takes the pressure off. Especially having no car. Hitching has helped us get to meet a lot of people, we connected with Miguel who helped Fabián with wood sculpting tools and deep friendship, we were in a cabaret thanks to meeting Traci hitching, we met so many interesting diverse views of life.

I think, but don’t mention, the young woman with dreadlocks who has 28 dogs on their farm, and when I asked her how they manage to feed them all she told me about how her mother got into breeding grey parrots, how she herself works in a supermarket in the morning and walks dogs the afternoon, how in the summer she specialises in lama sheering in…England!

I love how meeting so many people opens horizons to what is ‘normal’ what is ‘real’ what is an ‘acceptable way to live’.

I don’t actually say any of this. What I suddenly see is that the person I am talking to cannot see or hear any of the value of what I am saying, even when I reduce it, simplify it. It is too far over their horizon.

And as I feel all of the juice of being alive in my life, I feel satisfied just saying, ‘Yeah, things are well. Thanks.’

Actually that is enough. I don’t need to defend, show, prove. I am happy with where I am at.

That was a big lesson.

But a bigger lesson was seeing how closed down and narrow minded ‘the person’ I was talking to, the ‘person’ I had just embodied. So afraid. As I express myself 180 degrees in a rainbow of colours, he is seeing a 10 degree view in black and white – actually much more black than white. And that incomplete vision, that segment of who actually I am not, will not really change, regardless of what I do or what I say.

I cannot change that level of vision that is bordering on terrifying – for him, for me. I suddenly ‘see’ how he will never be able to see me as anything other than ‘failed’ or ‘not quite right in the head’ or ‘messing up her life with ‘one more adventure’’ – or worse still, given we were brought up together – as a ‘traitor’.

I get it.

A light turns on in the dark room of my mind.

I suddenly realise I am impotent to change his vision of me. It is his and it is, unless something big happens to shift it, it is fixed.

My choice is to either take his vision on as my own or stick with my own richer, more rounded vision of myself.

To see with my own eyes, or not?

How absurd suddenly! Why would I ever see myself as someone else’s partial fractured view of me? How can we ever know what it is like to be someone else? How can anyone ever know what it is to be me? Why would I look at myself with an impartial other person’s view?

I am happy with myself.
I like living in nature.
I love living with Fabián.

I actually am really proud of writing the book, or rather letting the book be written through me.
I love having so much free time.
I DO have enough money.

I do like hitch hiking and meeting interesting people and not having to park, or pay for MOTs and petrol and breakdowns in the middle of the night.
I love being forced to get fit on my bike.

And though I am very rarely asked (with delicate respect to those women who wanted and couldn’t have children) and though I will never actually know the answer because one cannot live both answers, I believe I am happy with my decision to not have children. I like quiet. I like being able to be selfish.

And though when it is cold and raining and I have my hands full and have to open and close cattle gates to get to a little caravan at the bottom of two wellington-boot-slippy muddy fields – I love living in nature. I actually like the challenges and steadily staying more and more comfortable and stable within the ‘hardships’. My comfort zone is expanding. It feels like my system is waking up again, coming into its nature, into what is my true nature. I mean what a privilege to be able to live in nature, with nothing but a thin un-insulated tin wall between us!

Down stream 2 minutes from caravan

Zoom on a week. I am in the party. I am slightly high. I am excited to have been able to connect again – if only briefly – with my nephews who, bless them, have not forgotten me. They have honoured the bond we created. I feel the familiar excitement, the creativity, the being alive together feeling we’ve always had. We shot some videos together of being cool on the climbing frame. They came out brill.

You’ve got to admit this photo is kinda cool for an 8 year old, with an aunty and one of those springy things that normally bounce down stairs…

And I go into inside to where the ‘adults’ are. The room is full of all the individuals that I had imagined as a single mass (an army) of right wingers who value money more than living: they are all the adults I grew up with. Neighbours who I still call Aunty someone, the mums and dads of my first two boyfriends, aged 5 and aged 9. The mum of my best friend aged 8. My best friend from college when we were 16 and her husband who was in Geography class with us. And they are all each with their individual lives, wading through their own issues. And they each ask, ‘How are you?’

And I answer.

I answer truthfully, with my own eyes. Who I am. What I am doing. How I love living in a caravan. The book – contents and people’s reactions to the book. ‘Couldn’t put it down,’ says my friend’s partner, ‘You could say it is life changing,’ said a friend, actually two friends, ‘I had a messy unclean house for days, I couldn’t stop reading it,’ said another friend.

‘Ohh the caravan! It is so beautiful to live there! We have candle-lit meals every night. We ate in the summer by the river. It’s so relaxing.’

People look at me, happy, admiring. Aunty Jenny from round the corner says, ‘I’m so happy for you.’ Aunty Maria, who told me fifteen years ago when my bro got married, ‘You’ve got to stop searching! Settle down…’ said, ‘You’ve only got one life, kiddo, keep living it!’ All these people who, from a young age have loved me, who I love in that strange I-hardly-know-who-you-are-these-days-but-hey-43-years-later-here-we-still-are sort of way. Christmas days together. Nativity plays gone wrong. Chinese take-aways. Games that we would all like to play now, but don’t have time for. Memories, memories, memories. Sweet memories of from before we all had to be someone, get somewhere.

I am transported back to when we would all sit on sofas together, the only distraction the wooden rimmed television that wasn’t allowed to be turned on and the occasional ring of the land line that we didn’t call land line because there weren’t any other ‘lines’.

We would play silly games that we would all laugh over together. We had songs that we all knew the movements for. We each had our own magic trick. The delight of getting the cork out of the wine bottle with a handkerchief. ‘Do you remember?’ I ask Aunty Christine. That was Chris’s speciality. Chris being my boyfriend, who I jumped on in the Wendy house.

We would laugh at each other messing up, laugh at not getting it, laugh at the absurd, laugh at our humanity – forming relationships between us without knowing it that are indelible. I will probably go to many of their funerals. Real life long relationships.

Dad, nephew Joshie and the neighbour Evi calling out bingo numbers at mum’s do.

And here they are, for the first time, not worrying about me, not asking me awkward questions, but having discovered that despite travelling for a second time, despite leaving my fancy job in London, despite moving around and living in economy stricken countries, despite living for the day, I am alive, I am well, I have lived.

I stand there in my mother’s party and feeling the present and the past mixing in floods of happy memories, also feel the pride of being able to show up as I see myself rather than hiding behind someone else’s dogma. I stand in my own truth, vulnerable in being different. And I see, feel all these smiling faces egging me on to live my own life. To go for it. The sparkle in their eyes. The hugs.

I guess they are softening with age, like a good wine.

But suddenly I don’t mind what they think. That’s their prerogative.

5 Replies to “What I wished I’d realised twenty years ago”

  1. You are amazing Gringa. I couldn’t stop reading the post, even if my stomachache was trying to divert my attention.
    So clearly expressed, so beautiful they way you share your processes.
    I know what you mean, a lot I think.
    I went back to Argentina for the first time in 5 years… and… I know what you mean… What really helped me recover fast was the clear knowing that THAT they want for me, I truly don’t want it AT ALL… That life they projected for me, would be a nightmare for me… And I choose living something worth living, despite the “un stability” and “lack of security” that for them means living in the present without the fantasy of control….
    Chapeau to you for this post, and I am so happy to read you like this, I feel you very near.
    Thank you Julia.
    Greetings a mi compatriota.
    Y bravo!

  2. I walked past the tennis courts. There’s a big space where you used to be……
    I’m going to print this piece out for my wall. A reminder to see through my own eyes.
    Thanks for the nudge, friend.
    I love you so much.

  3. I loved reading this. You swim against a tide but you’re swimming in the direction of your fulfilment! Im glad you haven’t changed direction for anyone else. That would be daft as you’re route to fulfilment is personal to you! Why would it be the same as someone else’s! We all need something different from our life. I consider you a John the Baptist character. You wander, don’t need possessions, what you give to the world is wisdom from all your learning and experience. It is given through the kind and carefully chosen words you say. No one can ever take those riches from you because they are safely stored within. The world is blessed by Julia, you special lady! x

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