As any good English teacher will tell you, a comma can be the difference between life and death. Look no further than the classic, “Let’s eat Grandma” vs “Let’s eat, Grandma”… And if you have read any of my blogs to date, you will know that I am a self-confessed commaphile. I love commas almost as much as much as I love earrings. And I bloody love earrings. A comma for me is the metaphorical neon arrow, illuminating the presence of a pause between ideas; the introduction of some additional information that enriches your sentence. And if I may extend this metaphor a smidge further, the last 10 months have felt like the parenthesis between commas in more ways than one.
I am currently a matter of weeks away from turning 38. Not a significant number on the face of it. Except to me, getting past the age of 37 has always felt like a milestone, much in the same way the ages of 18, 21, 40 etc feel to others. My own father died 3 days short of his own 38th birthday, some 38 years ago last month. The fact that dad, aged 37, died before I was born has loomed large in my existence; a fact as integral to my own identity as say, my gender or sexuality.
Mum never shied away from sharing Dad’s life with us when we were growing up. We asked about photographs, we watched projections of his cine films on the kitchen wall, we talked about his life before and after they met. The age of 37 back then seemed like an age; a life lived. He had had a life as well: leaving his home in Bristol aged 17, joining the Australian army, returning to train at theatre school, life as a jobbing actor, and then, aged almost 30, marriage followed by 6 kids. It sounds full to me, and yet, at exactly the same age as my father when he died, I wonder what my husband would tell our children if I was to go tomorrow. One thing I know for sure is that my life if is well truly not lived to the full. Quite the opposite (and excuse the cliché here), I feel like I am just getting started.
The reasons I left full-time work 10 months ago are well documented; grief, stress, exhaustion- you get the idea. But despite finding myself at sea career-wise, this year has given me an opportunity to take a breath, a pause, to consider myself and my interests and abilities. I have begun to look after myself physically, joining the gym and learning to be a better swimmer. I have started to take my writing more seriously, setting up this here blog and going to creative writing workshops. I have put myself out of my comfort zone, acting in a friend’s play set in a working market (I worked on the knicker stall in case you were wondering). In short, not being committed to a vocation in education has allowed me to breathe and, more importantly, grieve.
Now at the precipice of overtaking in age someone who has been as significant to my being, as much as he has been absent, I wonder what is next. I don’t feel fully restored to my old self before my most recent bereavement last June, and yet I still find myself striving to do something of significance. What that something is, I am not yet sure, but I do know that losing my father and two of my sisters before any of them reached their early forties has left me with a stirring that nags at me: Don’t waste time. A burning desire tells me to, ‘Write it!’ as Elizabeth Bishop* puts it. This feels both absurd and exciting. Anyone can write, I tell myself. Very few people make money from writing, I concede. You don’t know what you are doing, I whisper. But then a conviction rises in me that says, life’s too short, love. What’s the worst that can happen?
And so, even though I may well find myself back in the 9-5 (actually make that 7.30-9.30) some time soon (that new kitchen won’t pay for itself), I am going to promise myself that I will try to keep on striving for that something that will make what time I have count. Turning 38 means that I am lucky to be breathing, lucky to be thinking, and planning and loving.
Perhaps I am reaching the end of that parethesis between commas, which means only one thing: it’s time to introduce a new idea and enrich what time I have left. Because you never know when a sentence will reach its full stop.
P.S. If you want to read a fabulous poem, read on Macduff**:
One Art by Elizabeth Bishop
The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.
I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.
—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
**Apologies for the terrible teacher joke…