I wrote those words just there back in 2016. It was the first time myself, friends and my husband were really discussing the questions and logistics around a bigger question;
What if I give my kid a freedom/responsibility – because they’re growing up fast and needing to detach as part of a new and natural stage – what if I do that and… and… What if they die?
The words above, in bold, are the ones I stuck down in a draft post to do a reckoning on; they were the beginning of an answer we were all kinda formulating and which has crystallised for me in the years since. In that time one of my kids went on a whole holiday to Berlin with his pals (and without me) and then went and completely moved out this summer past.
If I had a pound for the number of times I have pictured said son falling out of any one of his new top floor flat windows while simply admiring a view or opening a blind I would have a decent stack of quids, by now. My brain likes to do this worst-case scenario imagery as a special, massively unwanted, self-horror gifting exercise. It’s part of my hypervigilance which flares from PTSD now and again and I’ve learned through therapy interventions that when I bring it into focus and look hard and lovingly at it, examining where it came from and why my brain would do this kind of thing, it helps to deconstruct unhelpful behaviour or feelings that might otherwise follow, and usually even makes me laugh and feel grounded instead.
Recently, during a flare, one of my best friends and I sat and listed all the horrific ways we had pictured our fledged kids dying, thanks to the brain CGI movie that the experience of parenting adults often plays in the mind. It seemed like the right thing to do – to lean in fully to the macabre, deeply unlikely possibilities looping in our heads and torturing us, to throw light on them and see exactly what we were dealing with. We ended up in hysterical fits of laughter; hearing how ridiculous I am when I say things like, ‘Ok, well I’ve worked out how it’s possible for him to have a fatal accident while replacing a toilet roll’ is a great needle for puncturing an inflated fear with.
My son has had a word with me about it all too, as has his sister. Their points, paraphrased with swearing removed?
Some credit, please. I am fairly invested in staying alive to enjoy my new found freedom.
Mother, you are frightening me now as well as yourself.
Oh my god, shut up mum.
If you keep this up, I will send you gifs of me running down tenement stairs, wearing flip flops and holding open scissors between my teeth.
And so I have done the safety briefing, done the safety breathing, and let them go in different ways. And it actually feels really good. I’m acknowledging again I can’t control everything for my kids and that’s OK – this is a lesson I seem to revisit in different guises bi-annually, since commencing motherhood. That being the case, I think it might be good to factor this thought and behavioural change catalyst in as a constant point of mediation, for the kids and everything.
My recent free-spree from social media had been going really well right up until yesterday when I tried to pat myself on the back for dealing with my Twitter addiction so successfully then realised I couldn’t because my hands were so busy gripping my phone, facilitating my new addiction to YouTube.
Inbetween YouTube sprints, DIY this week has been all about our bedroom now the en-suite’s had a budget glow up. It’s kind of stupid to work on the bedroom at the moment as next year we’ll be adding a walk-in wardrobe, removing two built-in wardrobes (with ludicrously inaccessible space configurations) and losing a corner of the room to make a downstairs loo accessed from the hallway. It’ll be the last of the building work we’ll do in the house and it’s pretty pivotal to completing the new layout in a way that feels intuitive while also making the most of as many original features as possible. So, lots of dust to come but the room’s in such a tired and mildly depressing state meantime I’ve decreed interim fixes are justified and I’ve started with filling in plaster cracks along the edges of the ceiling and skirting boards and preparing the ceiling and walls for two licks each of paint. There’s a lovely built-in shelved recess next to my side of the bed too which we primed a few years ago to get rid of a horrible wood stain finish and I can bring that to glory now as it’s well clear of the two sides of the room that’ll be completely changed. Just like when I repainted the hall a couple of months ago, I’m working on the bedroom one wall at a time; it’s more set-up and clean-up in the long run but short-term it cuts down disruption and allows for the ebb and flow of available time and that feels good for how we live right now.
The next big tick off the things-to-do-in-the-house-makeover-list will be fitting the engineered oak flooring in the porch, kitchen and hallway. The boards arrive in about ten days, we managed to get the ones we were after with 50% off last month so I am beyond excited to see, stroke and smell them after all the years of saving, fantasising and not being very patient at all. I can’t quite believe we’re shortly going to be looking down on actual flooring rather than the patchwork of subfloors, carpet trimmings and rugs. Aesthetics aside, best of all will be the reduction in dust from the generous crawl space under the house which, thanks to essential ventilation panels, pumps miniscule historic debris into the house every time there’s a draught outside (and hello, it’s Edinburgh, there’s a draught outside twenty-three hours out of every twenty-four).
We’ve never laid flooring before so have been swotting up (on YouTube, natch) and bending joiner’s ears whenever we can about the tricks of the trade. We’ll start at the easiest section – the porch, then move into the kitchen and finish in the hallway with all it’s doorway challenges and half-hexagonal shape. That’s the plan anyway. If I’m no longer married in summer 2020 you’ll know the new flooring teamwork challenge was a push of optimism too far.
I usually listen to podcasts while DIYing but, again challenging my phone and 24/7 information addiction, I’ve been hitting Spotify hard for music only instead of podcasts and letting it do its rando playlist thing. I’m enjoying how that’s a source of stories from my imagination and memories that feel helpful and curious rather than heavy. I even walked home from the Post Office the other day listening to the soundtrack for a Broadway musical and trying to guess what it was – Groundhog Day, turns out, who knew? I hated the movie but the musical lyrics made me laugh and imagine all sorts.
Workwise I’ve been contributing to the amazing WomenBeing network’s next step which is a magazine teaming with international content and grass-roots energy as well as being a love letter to practised feminism everywhere. Editing and reading the magazine pieces in advance of publishing has been a privilege that’s made me feel so much more connected to women around the world, reinvigorating my belief that change for the better is happening faster than we think, and that for many likeminded people feminism is a whole-life, whole-behaviour philosophy and even if we don’t get to be around each other every day, we’re connected in our intentions and deep efforts. As well as checking out WomenBeing, there’s brilliant stuff on related issues here on Gender and the Economy here, too. Well worth a read, especially if you, like me, are close to death by boredom in conversations about quotas with people who are change-resistant and stuck on repeat about what they don’t want to do because they’re comfy rather than changing the topic to working out how to make things comfy for everyone.
I’m lacking motivation for chasing and developing my own new writing stuff right now. I think this is a downside of not being on Twitter; I used to gather good momentum from watching what other people were saying or doing, chipping in and enjoying the energy and validation/challenge. The lack of all that has rather left me with my own ever-quietening echo which, creatively speaking, isn’t helpful for how I build up ideas of what’s next. The motivation problem is weighted by the fact my novel isn’t getting any bites from publishers or agents too, and the fact that I currently feel pretty meh about the Edinburgh literary scene generally, having seen a totally mind-boggling amount of weirdness in it during the last eighteen months. I have the feeling something’s brewing inside me though in terms of new material, and that I just have to let that develop and see what pops out one day. Meantime, there’s editing and painting and flooring and walking with the beautiful black dog. And maybe the odd bit of jiggly cake porn.
It’s my son’s nineteenth birthday today. We sat on the sofa last night as he opened presents, one of which was a book of routes up Scottish mountains, and he said he’d recently stood in Glasgow bus station and felt the west coast wind rush at him, willing him to get on the waiting bus to Oban rather than home to Edinburgh, and then to walk, walk, walk….
I get it. I get it so much.
I think if you have the highlands in your heart but your feet are standing elsewhere there’s no time the signal pulling you back is stronger than in autumn. The light gets so full and so calm each morning is its own arresting wonder.
The flat my son moved into with his friend in summer has stunning high ceilings. Looking up in a new space made me reappreciate the walls in our lounge when I got home. Picture rails. Picture rails. I’d never really seen them as anything but dividing points on the wall, till then. I blame dado rails for that oversight. Dado rails seemed to be suddenly everywhere in the 80s and 90s, offering endless possibilities for combining wallpapers, paint colours, wood stains and accents. Bloody hell, when I think back on it, it was a fabulous time for B&Q and the evolution of excited domestic self-expression. How I longed for my mum to announce we too were going to get Austrian blinds and go for a pink, black and grey rag-rolled bathroom.
Anyway, back to picture rails which, thanks to hooks and gravity, come with the offer of never having to assault the walls beneath them with a hammer again.
Since we moved in here eight years ago I’ve hung so many things on walls then changed my mind, never quite getting it right, leaving scarred plaster and discontented sighs in my wake. I’ve lead a futile, ironic battle in failing to win the effortless vibe of creating little vignettes that tell our stories, as well as fitting with the flow of the house. So, working with the wisdom of Marie Kondo once more, I decided a few months ago to take every god-damn thing on a wall in the house off the wall, bringing them all together on the kitchen table to really decide what we had that sparked joy and what we had that needed to move on or change.
The answers were different for different people, of course, but we got there. We all love the prints below, the Danish one came from a charity shop in Banchory and the Picasso one was a birthday present from husband when I was thirty-one, I think. Till recently, they both had frames which had changed colour to a tense woody orange from pale pine over the years, so they got a lick of paint each and my forehead relaxed. I had no picture-hanging wire to match my new picture hooks, so I used ribbon instead, of which I have enough to wrap around the planet.
While all the pictures were off the walls and assembled in The Kondo Joy Assessment Zone, I took the opportunity to go on a healing mission and fill in every single hole I’d created on my crazed hanging spree with Polyfilla and then to go the full hog and touch up paint where I’d cocked that up too. It’s odd but that work shifted something big inside me. Fixing shit that’s been wrong for years feels good, as does looking after what’s in my care. It’s as simple as that, so that’s becoming a guiding focus in my thoughts too.
Giant Achillea blooms from the garden have been the outdoors/indoors stars this year. The water dried out in their vase and I didn’t notice till it was apparently too late but still, they’re perfect. A shot of mustard that brings everything else to life and sends me down a conduit of memories; lichens on Raasay rocks and Tyninghame beach tree trunks, the colour of the second walls I painted in my flat (complete with dado rail) when I was twenty-one, back in Aberdeen; the jacket I wore to my cousin’s wedding on Camusdarroch beach. A tiny velour babygro with popper buttons on the shoulders.
Nineteen years and seven hours since I kissed his forehead – warm, soft velvet – and met my son. Tea, toast and a baby swaddled in a blue cellular blanket in the lamplight of a pink delivery room. Then, a morning as clear and freshly-laundered as they come; after my first terrified post-birth venture to the toilet, I stood on tiptoes, birth day fingertips gripping layers upon layers of brittle paint on the windowsill and peered out at Banff to glimpse the beach. I felt like the world looked back and acknowledged the sweet, shrouded shift of new life beyond the pane and thick, granite walls that was ours to hold, protect and bring.
I am hooked on yellow, hooked on my kids and their dad and the friends and places that have become home, the times together and apart that got woven into stories. Hooked on change. And October light.
My mental health’s gone off kilter recently. As a health-conscious veteran of PMDD, postnatal and antenatal depressions, I know when my neurochemistry’s recalibrated in an unhelpful direction. I’m lucky SSRIs work well for me and I feel positive, mainly, about medical interventions. I like my life in full, balanced colour. So, while the palette reloads, I’m taking things easier.
Meanwhile, I’m heartened by the stigma around mental health honesty eroding. I see people responding with less shock when someone owns a decline. This rise in empathy and emotional courage really helps.
I first met Norman Gilbert’s work in Edinburgh’s Sutton Gallery in July 2016. Knowing my enthusiasm for accessible Scottish art, Norman’s son Danny, a fellow writer and Twitter friend, had put me onto the event. I’d hoped to meet the artist at the exhibition, but I guess I hadn’t quite understood at that point that Norman was almost ninety and a care-giver in his sixty fifth year of marriage to his beloved Pat, as well as a practicing artist.
Before the exhibition, Danny sent me a photo of one of his Dad’s pieces. It was woman-centered; an exercise in control, repetition and mastery revealed through pattern as both negative space and focus. Most satisfying for me, however, was the indulgent use of colour. In essence, the intro to Norman’s work was a new combination of everything I look for as someone who doesn’t ‘know’ art and has come to it by accident, discovering it a useful expressway, sometimes, to a better understanding of life.
I went to the exhibition a day after it opened. The gallery was buoyant with freshly graduated artists, their energy and the pictures creating a laidback buzz. Then, discovering the artist wasn’t in the gallery past the opening night, I allowed myself to look more closely, less inhibited about being seen to say or notice the right things. In the melee, ideas about Norman fell away and the work came forward. Face to face with huge framed boards, I took in shapes and palettes; in every case, Norman’s pieces tied together by a pared back figurative emotion, clever omissions of detail and flatness in the paint accelerating the collection’s impact.
I left feeling uplifted, promising myself if I ever had a disposable income comfort zone I’d save up and treat myself to a Norman Gilbert; a huge painting for the rest of my days, a home fixture to affirm lightness and roots in the west that can be difficult to hold close, post-childhood. Afterwards too, I contacted Danny to say if his Dad would be interested, I’d love to meet him and write about his work. ‘Great!’, Danny answered, and got right onto arranging it.
What none of the Gilbert family knew would follow so soon after, however, was Pat’s health deteriorating quickly after the show closed. When I meet Norman, just fourteen months after the loss of Pat to talk about his upcoming exhibition, he’s teary, still heartrendingly fresh in grief. We talk almost immediately about the sometimes surreal nature of death, Norman likening some of the period since Pat’s passing to driving a car alone for the first time after successfully sitting his test. ‘Suddenly you’re on your own, making all the decisions with no one to ask what to do and someone has been there, all the time, till then’. As much as someone with less than half of Norman or Pat’s life experience can, I get it and it hurts badly. Among other things, grief is brave.
Standing in Norman’s studio, I flashback to how his work was somehow familiar to me the first time I saw it in Edinburgh. Maybe it was the Glasgow light in it. Maybe it was a palette often dominated by pinks; I like the shock and awe of pink used in anyway other than Barbie-esque; as a woman and mother of a daughter, it’s a relief to meet the colour in a more expansive state. Thinking of that, I tell Norman his work seems different to the view we’re told is a stereotypical male lens and this surprises him. It’s at this point I realise I’ve no objectivity; I always over identify with work centering women, because that’s what the bulk of my work’s about. Norman goes on, regarding his work with less visible emotion than I’d presumed would be at the fore, ‘all I did was simply paint scenes from my life spanning a fifty-year period’. The truth of it resonates; Norman and Pat’s sons feature hugely and Pat’s a near constant. Pat’s friends are there too, Norman explains, as are women that his and Pat’s four sons had close relationships with and brought into the fold. Norman has painted neutral fact, as he tells it, portraying a family and a home. And yet, for the outsider, there’s so much more.
As we talk, images of Pat grace the walls and lean four deep on the fireplace and the corners of three enormous window recesses. Meticulously prepared boards, never canvases, all complete, are stacked and variously wrapped on a rack about three metres wide and two metres tall, swathed in dust sheets. I feel honoured to be invited to sit in the armchair Pat and so many others have been captured in over the years. There, in a perfectly lit nest of lifetime achievement with good coffee and a biscuit in hand, I can’t not smile; I say it to Norman as I bask. ‘Don’t think I’m smug’, he replies, shifting slightly defensively in his sparse, paint-splattered wooden chair, ‘I’ve huge self-doubt, you know. Glasgow School of Art kicked me out for being unteachable, Edinburgh rejected me because they thought I’d be a dangerous influence and it was only after a lot of resistance that I finally got my diploma in 1963. Some people there wouldn’t even look at me in the corridors, they were that angry I was there.’
Norman is, I think, familiar with telling this story of an often tortuous route to success but, understandably, not entirely reconciled to peace with it and, when I ask, he says there are no lessons for anyone else in his story, that he can only tell what happened to him. Vulnerability hangs in the air until Norman moves on to saying a nicer thing was having till he was twenty-one to decide what he wanted to do, thanks to three and a half years in the navy after school. Then, two years in as a single man studying art alongside classmate Pat, Norman listened to Pat tell mutual friends the story of how she’d hitchhiked with her younger brother down through France then onwards to Rome over the summer before third year. The impression of daring and the heart-quickening the tale inspired endures and reaches out still from Norman to me in 2017. Then, Norman explains, ‘we paid a lot more attention to each other, from there’.
Before and after we speak about her, Pat’s absence is palpable in the occasional misfiring in Norman and I chatting. He’s eager to let his work speak for itself and, having met it previously and imbued it with meanings of my own, I’m eager for Norman to speak for the art and tell me where I’m right and wrong. I think, even though Pat and I were always destined to be strangers, both Norman and I miss her interjections as we attempt to bridge the gaps.
On the easel as we talk is a work in early progress called The Chair. Norman explains his process, his words and movements around the room quicker and more fluid as he directs my attention to things I should notice to understand his meaning. First, he explains, he sketches out the subject, then the sketches become full size. Then, a clean sheet of paper goes up and he does the whole thing again, finer this time, starting to process which areas will be coloured in light tones and which in dark. The next stage is to transfer the image to a prepped white painted board, then colouring the dark areas with Indian ink, creating an arresting high contrast version of what’s been and what’s to come. Finally, the image is charcoal traced onto a final board and the work of line and colour begins, then ends.
After my time with Norman I get in the car and know I must speak to his youngest son, Mark, to get the missing pieces of jigsaw about the artist I couldn’t find in his studio and home. Norman had told me proudly Mark’s an artist and an academic at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Canada. This information’s particularly relevant because in the last week of Pat’s life, as Norman kept hospital-beside vigil, he also sketched Pat to ‘keep himself sane’ and create a record to share events with those who couldn’t be there, like Mark. In creating the sketches, Mark reflects this poignant work was the first in which his Dad assigned a clear narrative purpose in his art.
Much of Mark’s own career has been dedicated to, ‘bringing the seeable to the unsayable’. In one of several remarkable iterations of this, working with Barts and the London NHS Trust, Mark documented patient’s journeys with portraiture before, during and after serious facial reconstruction surgeries. The records created enlightened colleagues in art and medicine about the existence of an intersection where significant therapeutic benefit to patients and care-givers occurs.
Since Pat’s death, in gentle collaboration, Norman’s sketches of Pat’s last week have since been presented by Mark to several professional, academic and lay audiences in Canada, the USA and Glasgow, facilitating and adding depth to discussions around art and medicine in complement. It’s clear for father and son that marking the end of Norman drawing Pat with a beginning of Norman’s work going into the world in a new way has been affirming in loss and comforting in possibilities of making critical care more empathic.
When I arrive home in Edinburgh after my time with Norman, my teenagers want to know where I’ve been. I show them my photos of Norman’s work and studio and they all love them. ‘How old is he?’, my daughter asks, hands beckoning impatiently at the boys for her turn to scroll through the images again. I clock she’s asking how old Norman is because what they’re seeing of his work in my photos doesn’t tally with what she remembers I’ve mentioned about the artist before today. ‘He’s 91’, I answer and they all look up, surprised. ’19?’, my daughter asks, dissonance growing. ‘No. 91.’ ‘I actually really like this though’, my son chips in, frowning. The relevance of Norman’s style has made a connection over several generations and done that thing perhaps only art or photography can; it’s offered a glimmer of someone else’s reality in a world we know to be our own.
‘Do you mind when a painting gets sold?’, I’d asked Norman not long before I left, thinking I’d be devastated to let work like this go. ‘Not at all’, says Norman. ‘I think the house looks better without it standing around. Let’s the light in’. ‘You’ve created so much though’, I think out loud. ‘I think the biggest thing I’ve created is a problem for my sons’, Norman answers, nodding at the enormous rack, looking wholly perplexed then wondering, ‘I mean, what will they do with it all? It’ll take a few skips.’ I tell him I don’t think his sons will have a problem or need skips but his answering shrug says he’s unconvinced.
When asked what Pat would make of his last drawings of her, Norman gives a little laugh and says she’d probably just say, ‘there he goes again’.
Norman’s work goes again at The Tatha Gallery in Newport on Tay in Fife, from the 12th of January to the 17th of February, where twenty-four extraordinary pieces will be featured in a retrospective exhibition. You’ll probably find me smiling obsessively at a huge painting of three women. Back in the 60s, Norman saw two of the women in the Glasgow subway and stored the detail of them in his head until he got home and could start recording them on paper. There’s the protective knock of knees around a shopping bag between feet, the tightness of a headscarf over hair, fastenings on jackets, hemlines and a dog on the knee of one of the women that became a bag. Norman nods at it, remembering; ‘if I’d kept it as a dog it would’ve looked like a bad piece of taxidermy’. I’d asked who the other woman was and he’d answered, ‘I made her up. I needed her for balance and I put all three of them in this house.’ There we were, regarding three women in what was once the grand drawing room of Pats’ three Aunts, two of whom were teachers while the third kept house. Between them all, they brought Pat up while her Mum lived and worked in London. Then, as time moved on, Norman, Pat and the boys made the house their family home. We’re in a house of stories, many of them belonging to women. Pat, the kids and the plants around Norman – every living thing he saw at different ages – they and the house are the muse combined.
Then, today, there’s the maker, standing alongside and invisibly inside stories of a marriage, family and home, the meaning of it all evolving fast because, at 91, Norman’s at the wheel alone for the first time again. The privilege of experiencing those layered insights within the lifetime of an artist is, without doubt, extraordinary.
My nephew moved in with us a few months ago, all the way from a Pyrenean idyll in the south of France. It’s really interesting seeing someone discover Edinburgh, it reminds me of all the compromises we’ve made along the way as well as the rewards of the move. It’s also interesting living with a ‘new’ person full-time. It holds a mirror up to everyone’s personalities and quirks and asks whether you’ll each change or grow the things about yourself that are suddenly more visible. Mostly, it feels like an excellent challenge.
How is it October? And 2017? And, bloody hell, I’m 41. Anxiety’s a tide inside my flesh. What if I don’t have time to do it all, whatever else ‘it’ might be? Then, eight hours later, zen.
My five nights on Raasay were wonderful. Even the fall into a wide burn as if it were a bathtub was brilliant. I attempted a swing from a tree branch to cross the water and, well, the rest is history – especially the branch. It was a moment time did slow though, so, beautiful in it’s own way…