There are times when life comes at you from all angles, and this week was one of them. Everything was happening so quickly that my head was spinning. Below, pictures taken after a rainy afternoon shoot – Bethesda and I had just returned and were in the process of morphing from Styled to Widely Yawning: makeup still half-on, arches aching after tottering about on ankle-strangling 13cm black leather wedges (me), and hair – well, the hair is always a riot. The madly exciting news? Australian readers only: Mama: Love, Motherhood and Revolution will be excerpted in The Australian on Monday, so do buy a copy as it won’t be available online.
I was reeling from a severe head-cold – the usual upper respiratory catastrophe involving a disturbing depression in my forehead (infected sinus), antibiotics, and so on – when a heavy parcel arrived. I plonked it on the dining table and, having loudly blown my nose, opened it and squeaked. A lot. And then I blew my nose again. The book is so beautiful.
Thick, smooth, sustainable paper (Martin, thank you).
An absolutely rapturous design (Anders, I love you).
A long, long foreword by Michel Odent (merci, cher Michel).
Luxuriously long interviews with Gabor Mate, Laura Markham, Steve Biddulph, Lysa Parker, Tom Hodgkinson, the late, great Sheila Kitzinger and many others.
My essays on a lot of things – love, sex, marriage, loss, motherhood, fatherhood, culture.
Bethesda’s first byline.
And updated with a fat new introductory essay and a fat new afterword.
So here it is, from me to you: Mama – Love, Motherhood and Revolution.
Orders taken here!
My Lovely One,
You write, “It’s not that there is anything wrong with anything, I’m just going through this weird thing. It’s hard to explain. I’ve always been really into reading, but over the past year I’ve begun to get really really obsessive over books and stories and anything that doesn’t exist, and I’ve started reading everywhere: in class, when I’m supposedly hanging out with my friends, all night, EVERYWHERE!! And it’s started to really hit me just how insanely boring life is, because I’m probably never going to converse with dragons, or make life-threatening deals with demons, or find out I’m secretly a shadowhunter, or be turned into any species of downworlder, or fight a bald noseless evil guy, or anything mildly exciting. I’m just gonna finish attending a boring school, go to college, become a form of artist, yada yada yada, without even riding a broomstick or running from a single vampire. So yes, I guess I’m just bored.”
I so wanted to embrace you when I read these words, because you don’t yet understand that adulthood is all about conversing with dragons, making life-threatening deals with demons, running from vampires, and finding out that you’re really a shadowhunter.
Dragons and vampires and demons come in all forms – in the shape of lawyers and mothers-in-law and ex-husbands and bus-drivers and reflexologists. You just have to look a little harder to discern, beneath the face-lifts and layers of small talk, the fangs, red eyes and forked tongues.
Boredom isn’t an option when you’re dealing with demons and vampires and dragons in adulthood, and the only possible solution is to be a shadowhunter.
The evil you fight may not be bald and noseless, but you will fight it nonetheless, and there will be tears and pain and all those unfun things that come with fights with evil, and you will feel everything that Harry and Ron and Hermione felt and so very much more (including the realisation that the best possible author for this life would be Enid Blyton and not Cassandra Clare, because Blyton is all about strawberries and lemonade on sunny afternoons and Clare trades in disintegration and suffering and exclusivity, which grows old real fast in adulthood).
I’ve been watching House of Cards, a beautifully written and acted series about evil in the guise of vanity, pride and ambition. The show reminds me of Roy Cohn’s quote from Angels in America, my very favourite play: “This is gastric juices churning, this in enzymes and acids, this is intestinal is what this is, bowel movement and blood-red meat, this stinks, this is politics, Joe, the game of being alive.” You may watch House of Cards and think it’s boring, but it’s not at all – it’s about dragons and vampires and demons in a different dimension, if one in which justice reigns.
“Justice?” you ask. “You call this justice – this boring world of school and work and politics?”
I do. Death is just in that it comes for all of us, whereas in the universes created by Clare et al, death is punitive in essence, or the hallmark of the weak. But death isn’t ever punitive, not really. I suppose it sometimes seems punitive just for want of variety – how tedious it would be if we all died in bed – but it’s just death: nothing more, nothing less. The one really great thing about this life is that all the evil you will confront will one day die, and then you can dance on its grave and write its epitaph in glorious detail, which will, of course, be a great deal of fun.
Or paint it, as you undoubtedly will. Think of Hieronymus Bosch or Francisco Goya. Start from there. Or maybe you’ll start painting them before they die. Why not?
Remember one thing: truth will always out. Always. And part of that truth is this: life is a fantastic adventure, all of it, even when it doesn’t seem to be any kind of adventure at all. Like Edmond Dantès, you may merely be in the Château d’If chapter of your life, seemingly without hope. That kind of bleakness feeds not only art, but wisdom, as does evil in the end.
Above and below, photographs of Bethesda, who is, as you know, only nine. She is years away from confronting her Château d’If chapter, but it will come. In the interim, she finds dragons and demons and faeries everywhere. Like you, she reads all the time – everything from J K Rowling to Charles Dickens and political pamphlets (this election, she forced me to vote Green). She thinks of me as her moon and stars, but it is she who has brought magic to my life and not the other way around; she just doesn’t get that yet. And you have done the same for your father, whom you saved from the Château d’If chapter of his life, although you may not know that.
So, you see, you’re already a hero; you just have to change the way you perceive your life. And if you still can’t see the dragons and vampires and demons, call Camila Batmanghelidjh’s crew and ask if you can volunteer there teaching or helping with art. You’ll hear about all manner of dragons and vampires and demons there, I promise, and you’ll have a lot of fun, besides.
If there is one thing I know, it is this: your life is going to be so rich and textured that one day, you will – however briefly – wish you’d settled for the colour-by-numbers prism of school and work and politics. But then a broomstick will land beside you, and you’ll be off.
My love to you,
In between teaching Bethesda about seven-digit subtractions and Mayan art this afternoon, I pulled on a frock and applied mascara and lip gloss. We then had a lot of fun taking pictures. (Bethesda loves photography, and has been practising making stop-motion films and documentaries.) This is one of the resulting shots, and – somewhat aptly – I’ve decided to run it as my author shot in Mama: Love, Motherhood and Revolution. The credit? All hers.
here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart
i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)
- e. e. cummings
Pornography has not only changed the way we relate to each other, but the female paradigm. These days, you can’t turn around without knocking into a brace of female celebrities with their secondary sexual characteristics hanging out. They legitimise the nudity by working only with the photographic elite – Steven Klein, Terry Richardson, Ellen von Unwerth and so on – as if that made any difference. There is an element of apology involved in this nudity, and that apology is now expected. Nudity is the new atonement for female achievement. In some cases, the nudity is in itself the achievement. As Kim Kardashian recently explained, “When someone asks me, ‘What do you do?’, under my breath I want to say, ‘Ask my fucking bank account what I do.’”
Here is Kardashian, the 34-year-old mother of one, showing us what it is she does:
Here is Madonna, the mother of four, at the age of 56 in Interview:
And this is Paz de la Huerta, aged 30, in Love Cat Magazine (and others):
The message is clear: debasement – and the trivialising of intimacy is debasement – is now de rigueur for women in the public eye, lest they find themselves charged with cultural irrelevance.
This is Leora Tanenbaum, whom I like a lot:
“Motherhood had long been the central feature of normative femininity, according to Bartky, but in the 1980s, when she wrote her analysis, she argued that motherhood had given way to the sexualized body as that which defines femininity. Three decades later, the self-regulation of women’s bodies has become truly oppressive in the mirrored hallways of social media. Today, the aesthetic of pornography determines the ideal of sexiness; achieving a sexy appearance involves mimicking the grooming habits of women who work in pornography. Women involved in sex work have become mainstream stars, even role models.
“When Jenna Jameson promoted her book ‘How to Make Love Like a Porn Star’, thirteen-year-old girls came to readings to tell her she was their role model. Although Jameson’s book relates a story of resilience—Jameson overcame rape, drug abuse, and alcoholism to become hugely successful in the adult film industry—her teenage fans seemed to have overlooked, or been unaware of, the book’s message. Jameson told the Los Angeles Times she was bothered by the fact that her young fans looked up to her as a porn star and not as a three-dimensional person. When Tracy Quan, a prostitute who also wrote a book, shared a meet the author event at a Barnes & Noble with Chief Justice William Rehnquist, she told the New York Times, ‘If that’s not being part of the Establishment, I don’t know what is.’
“Since so many heterosexual boys and men fantasize about women who look like Jameson and Quan, many girls and women come to believe that they should look like Jameson and Quan themselves. Jennifer Keishin Armstrong and Heather Wood Rudúlph, the authors of the book ‘Sexy Feminism’, point out that because of pornography, ‘huge breasts, platinum hair, and hairless vaginas seem standard,’ and with the popularity of so-called Brazilian bikini waxes, it is now ‘a routine occurrence to pick your legs up over your head, approaching yoga’s plow position, and/or turn over on your side and spread your cheeks for the nice lady making you pretty.’
“To be sure, bikini line maintenance is not necessarily a form of pornographic grooming. Many women want to wear a bathing suit in public without displaying errant pubic hairs, and a normal bikini wax, which strips away the hairs at the top of the inner thighs, is the least uncomfortable method of removing those pesky hairs. Brazilian waxes are different not in degree but in kind. In a Brazilian, every single pubic hair is ripped out. Hairlessness is popular because porn stars are hairless; many ordinary women and men associate sexiness with hairlessness. As pornography has gone mainstream, so has the porn aesthetic.”
“Your hand and your mouth agreed many years ago that, as far as chocolate is concerned, there is no need to involve your brain.”
― Dave Barry
I can’t eat wheat or chocolate any more, but couldn’t care less about the wheat; it’s the chocolate that gets me. There are days I buy chocolates for Bethesda just so I can inhale the fragrance. I love to make her chocolate and pear porridge for the same reason. Similarly, I love to bake her rich chocolate cakes, if with slightly different spins. Rum and chocolate. White chocolate and raspberries (fresh, plump). Dark chocolate and dried fig. Chilli and chocolate. Rich milky chocolate. The word itself is so ridiculously seductive. Schokolade. Cioccolata. Chocolat.
This weekend, I had the excuse of a guest. I never have time for guests – my life at the moment is a maelstrom – but this guest was imported, and she had urgent things to say. So I baked her rich chocolate wholewheat cupcakes with vanilla buttercream icing sprinkled with shredded coconut. Here the oven-hot cupcakes are cooling beneath my pretty Villeroy & Boch flycovers.
Wholewheat flour never makes for airy cakes, but the flavour and the texture are so pleasing, particularly to a child. And then there’s this: it’s good for them. Home Brand will do.
I fed Bethesda a cupcake and asked her for the score. “Mama,” she said, “this one is a billion out of ten.” (Her endorsement assumes even greater gravitas when the fact that the icing had not been applied is taken into account.) Bethesda ate the thing so quickly that it almost burned her tongue. Within an hour, she had eaten five. (She takes after her mother, you understand.)
The secret ingredient: Nutiva Coconut Manna. It blends like solidified oil – chunky, white – giving a significance to the cupcakes they may otherwise not have had. I slowly creamed it with the butter before adding the sugar, until the batter assumed a gorgeously fat sheen. It dripped like liquid silk from the spatula. Bethesda stole a spoonful when I wasn’t looking.
Once the cupcakes had cooled, I packed them in the fridge for a few hours until they were ready to ice. I made a rich vanilla buttercream icing – just a drop of natural yellow food colouring (additives are the devil) – and added the shredded coconut (fresh would have been better, but c’est la vie). And then I refrigerated them for a few hours. It was a ridiculously hot day.
I took the cupcakes out of the fridge five or so minutes before my friend was due. Bethesda ate another two. I stood and stared at them, remembering.
As a child, I restlessly lusted after the icing-thick cupcakes friends had in stacks at their birthday parties – lushly buttery and sweet, nowhere near as luxurious as the cupcakes I now bake Bethesda but still very good. My mother, never one for expanding her culinary repertoire, would not bake cakes. Northern Italians are not big on cake, which is why dessert menus in Northern Italian restaurants are so uninspiring. Tiramisu, maybe. Boring almond breads. Panna cotta, which I like. But nothing like the intense pleasure of a freshly-baked cake with creamy icing.
Surprisingly, vegan cakes are insanely good, their bases made from coconut and cashews, their fillings rich with agave, fruit pulps and fresh berries. But I still love the traditional cupcake best.
I picked white roses from the garden – my simple $15 iceberg is now the size of a small tree, and throws forth hundreds of blooms every summer and autumn – and unfolded a lovely Ralph Lauren tablecloth I had run through with rose-coloured dye. Bethesda set the table. I brewed vanilla tea. My friend was on time, and amused to see that she and Bethesda were both wearing leopardskin scarves, if to different impact: my friend in urban black, Bethesda in jeans and a loose white t. Bethesda is going through an Audrey Hepburn phase, all big black sunglasses and headscarves and ballet flats and with her long and slender legs in rolled-up jeans. (In this respect, she does not take after her mother. My legs rightly belong on a piano.)
My friend was shocked by the cupcakes. “I’ll eat one but I really shouldn’t,” she said. Her terrible boyfriend, who in his misspent youth seduced scores of models and gap-thighed It Girls, had told her that she must stop eating chocolate. “I dated the daughter of a movie star,” the sadist said, “and she was hot.” My friend made some kind of rejoinder about the movie star’s daughter being “as dumb as a Coca Cola can”, but his comment hurt: she ate her cupcake very, very slowly, looking very, very guilty. “I can’t eat chocolate any more,” she sadly said. An intellectually rapacious woman, she is also very much in love. I wanted to advise her to return her boyfriend to the store for a refund, if only because I could never love a man who doesn’t love food in all its forms – whether a chocolate and coconut cupcake with rich vanilla buttercream icing, or the silk of a full female thigh – but I relented to the inevitable. I would simply have to find another friend through whom I can vicariously luxuriate in chocolate.
Tonight I can write the saddest lines.
Write, for example,’The night is shattered
and the blue stars shiver in the distance.’
The night wind revolves in the sky and sings.
- Pablo Neruda
One of the people who helped shape my life died today. I only just replaced the receiver after crying on the phone for an hour with her husband of 34 years. They were ridiculous together. I’ve never known a love like it. He was everything to her: sun, moon, stars. She fell in love with him after moving to Norfolk Island, a place she mostly hated. He was working on her house. She saw him with his shirt off and that was it. She learned to love Norfolk Island because he loved it; she would love everything he loved. In the wedding photographs, she beamed and beamed.
I always told her that her face was like a beautiful currant bun.
Ric was patient with her through a decade of unimaginable illness – blindness, deafness, strokes – caring for her with tenderness and devotion to the end.
We used to play game after game of Scrabble together, each game fiercer and more laced with expletives than the last. Ric always won. He’d pull out seven tiles: a seven-letter word. He’d pull out another seven tiles: another seven-letter word.
Words like uxorious and abalone, boozily and defused.
“You bastard,” Colleen would hiss. And to me: “I hate his GUTS.”
And Ric would glance at me and then at her and then he would begin to laugh – a long, slow, deep, infectious rumble that built up until we all began to giggle.
Goodbye, old friend.