Cats and dogs and middle-age and music and parenthood
As always, I’m listening to some new music when writing, because, contrary to many other writers I know, I need sound to put my words together. It’s so wonderful to be writing to you again, and I’m sure some of the songs I’m listening to right now will find their way onto the CD I always send you at Christmas.
I think what you call mid-life honesty I would, in my case, call mid-life melancholy. You see, I find it very hard to accept that my body is slowing down (even in the modern-day context of knowing that I am not yet very old for the times we live in), and I hate looking into the mirror and seeing not just my chin sagging, but my face looking more and more like that of my father, although he didn’t bleach his hair. I find it frustrating to have to accept that I won’t ever again get back to the heady days of 8-minute miling, not least because I still smoke and drink too much than I sensibly should, and I really don’t want to change my ways. And that I won’t be able to go without sleep for days (but that short-term sleeplessness plagues me).
Sometimes, often, I think you have a more definite sense of self than I do. And because I lived a very sheltered childhood, I find I’m still kicking against things that maybe I shouldn’t be kicking against. I don’t think I’ve ever known who I really am.
On the other hand, the way I feel now is very much what you describe as swimming against the tide. And I feel that not just politically, but metaphysically (if that’s the right word), too, because I see many of the people I know who are the same age as me deciding to mellow, deciding to take things a little more easily, letting life take its course, while I’m still trying to fight to get something out of life that I can hold on to. The insecure fat boy I was when I was ten has turned into the insecure skinny-ish 56-year-old in need of affirmation.
I don’t know if what I feel is nothing more than middle-class angst, or if it is actually being very aware of the fact that I’ve lived over half my life now (although I keep telling everyone I’ll live to be 125), and that time is running out for me to do all those things I want to do. And by that I don’t mean the getting famous bit (although that is always still there in my head somewhere), but turning all the ideas I have for books into books, for finally again having a physical space of my own that looks and feels the way I want it to, and becoming the parent my children deserve to have.
I get the picture of the six-year-old so well, and I was often the parent with his arm outstretched, and, although I swore, before any of my children were born, never to say no to them, that’s exactly what I ended up doing, because I was afraid of the world for them, because I wanted them to be safe and protected and not exposed to the dangers of real life in any way. Even now, a few days away from my oldest’s 24th birthday, the one thing that keeps taking me by surprise about parenthood is the emotional vulnerability it has bestowed on me.
Added to that now is the realisation, with every birthday, with every birthday poem I write, that time is slipping away, ever more quickly. The children realise that, too, and when they talk about it (or, more to the point, when they ask me not to talk about it), I use what you call us striving to be myths as a kind of comfort for them, that the words I write now, the words I have always written for them, and the words in my books which are not directly for them, will still be around when I’m gone, and that with those words I’ve created some kind of immortality, and that they’ll still be able to turn to my words when they feel all alone, and I’m dust, half-spread in England and half in Norway.
On the dog front, I do like your old lady, whom I met for the first time when we came over to your wedding in June, and I did used to hang out with a black Labrador who belonged to one of my long-gone girlfriends. But I don’t think I could ever live with one. Maybe it’s because I’m instinctively lazy and commitment-averse (he says, having been married for over 25 years) that I like sharing my life with similarly lazy and commitment-averse creatures.
Coming back to the myths – I don’t actually think that either you or I are trying to become myths. We write because we need to write, because we’re driven to write, because we need to get out of what’s inside, because too often in our lives we have left it inside to gnaw at the very souls of us. That’s not myth-building; it’s therapy. And, to be really honest, us starting this correspondence is bringing back to me the power of creation, because I haven’t written properly for almost 6 months, depriving myself of the therapy that actually allows me to deal with life.
Bet you weren’t expecting such a long letter in return. I am still trying to fix in my head the exact date you first emailed me (it would have been sometime in 2003, I think), and became an indispensable part of my life. As I have said, and keep saying, to be such good friends with someone in whose company I have spent less than 24 hours in 13 years is a blessing. And yes, I miss you, too, and those daily emails we used to send each other, before social media became so ubiquitous.
M sends her love back to you, and I send mine to you and E, and the boys.
This is one of a series of open letters to my friend Ren Powell. We are writing to each other on our own blogs. Please click through.