Thursday, April 30, 2009

What is My Body Telling Me (I) ?

I wrote this a few weeks ago, and it is part of a continuing piece that I am doing for my writing course, 'I-Lines' from the Open College of the Arts in the UK. I have been frantically busy with the field this month -- work is always flat-out in the spring here -- and have had no real time to catch up with the Little White Donkey although plenty of themes occur to me all the time...

What Is My Body Telling Me?

A blithe thirty-six, I was staying with a forty-something friend in Nicosia nine years ago. “You know,” she said. “Staying in shape gets harder after forty!” I rabbitted on about tae kwan do, work in the field, the physical activity that kept my muscles hard, my legs trim, and my figure – despite having borne two children – little bigger than it had been in high school.

Half way through my forties, I know that she is right.

I stopped tae kwan do five years ago. I never made black belt, never represented Cyprus in Seoul, despite my having been selected: a third pregnancy put paid to that. I stopped because a full contact sport guarantees injuries, and each one was taking longer to heal; strappy sandals don’t look good on feet black with bruises; and, as the only woman – and a competitive one – in a class full of young men doing their National Service, I knew I had to quit gracefully or I’d be carried out – even though the lads went easy on me. Also, my reaction to the invasion of Iraq was to explore a more pacifist approach to life, and my Western brain could not reconcile that sea change with the practising of martial arts.

I tried yoga, and loved it. For two years I attended mid-level classes in Astanga and Iyengar styles, my flexibility and strength ensuring that I could do all the basic asanas and begin some of the more advanced.

But we moved. And the yoga studio became a thirty-minute drive away. Evening classes were out due to childcare constraints, and doing a morning class meant losing a morning’s field work.

I tried home practice, but distractions muscled in. With Best Beloved’s home gym, same story: I would start a work-out, then the washing machine would ping, the phone would ring, a deadline would loom, weeds needed clearing, seeds needed planting… I found endless excuses.

And food? I have always eaten whatever I wanted. Best Beloved used to order dessert so that I could have two. My metabolism made short work of two thousand calories a day, but when the physical exercise stopped, my favourite jeans became harder to zip. Soon I was looking for a size thirty instead of twenty-eight. “You’re rounder!” said my mother-in-law, and “Your wife’s put on weight,” a friend of Best Beloved’s said. “But it suits her.”

I disagreed. I dislike the feeling of my thighs rubbing when I walk, the bulge of flesh hanging over my waistband. Orange-peel thighs? I sighed when I saw them and thought: “I can’t wear short shorts any more. I’ll start exercising again next week, next month… when I get back from England…”

“Your legs are going, Manamou,” Best Beloved informed me one evening. “Your stopping tae kwan do really shows!” (“He actually said that to you?” gasped a friend.) Oh, yeah… More than once. And “Try the weights. I know how hard it is to get into a routine, but it’s vital.”

I tried tae kwan do again, but gently. The Master encouraged me to join my older kids’ class, although I said that I didn’t want to fight any more – just to do the movements and the forms. But I immediately had trouble with my knees. So I stopped, thinking the problem an old ligament one, to be cured by rest.

The discomfort didn’t go. It got worse: not pain, but a weak feeling. I couldn’t quite trust my left knee not to give way, and kneeling was out of the question.

I went to the physiotherapist. “Trousers off,” he said. “Stand straight.” I stood as I have stood for thirty-five years, ever since one of my sisters pointed at my feet and said: “Look!”

“No, relax,” Nicos, the physio said. And my ankles collapsed.

“My goodness!” he said. “How long have you been compensating for your ankles like that?” When I said thirty-five years, he shook his head. “Back pain? Neck pain?”


“Pain descending stairs?”


“Then I can treat you,” he told me. “Your problem is showing now because you have been so active that your legs were always strong enough to compensate. Now you have no muscle tone. You have cartilage, ligament, and meniscus damage. Arthritis has already set in, and you will have to wear orthopaedic supports in your shoes for the rest of your life. You also have scoliosis, by the way, and one leg is shorter than the other.

“Fortunately, you came to me in time to escape surgery. We can correct it, I can treat you, and we can work on strengthening your legs again.”

So I go to be measured for my arch supports today, but this episode makes me think. Our bodies, our shapes, our injuries, our illnesses are indicators. Something needs to change in my life. “Exercise” is too simplistic a solution. “Eat less,” likewise.

I have to change the way that I do things. To bring listening back into my life. So that I can hear warnings before a situation becomes irretrievable.

Kay’s temporary absence has, in one way, been a blessing. It has forced me to spend more time with my children, especially the Little Ones, the minutia of whose daily lives I often miss. For these past few days I have been sitting with them at lunch and listening to their adventures at school (usually Kay feeds them as I have to go and pick up the Big Ones), while the Big Ones have had to wait an extra quarter of an hour. I have been driving The Littles to and from their lessons, admiring the art work that I often don’t get to see, or hearing about the exploits that Kay usually hears because she’s the one there.

Sometimes I find the pace frustrating. A six-year-old and a nine-year-old don’t express themselves with the fluency of an older child. My mind often tunes out their fumbling and hesitations, turns to its own obsessions, races at its own speed. (“What else do I have to get done today? What has to be planted? Do I have to pick an order today? What deadlines do I have?”) I am used to rushing past the details that consume their days. But I must not ignore them, as I ignored other details: my sister’s exclamation, my tightening jeans, my husband’s comments, the twinges in my joints.

The Yoga Journal magazines (my subscription has lapsed, but I kept every issue) on my shelf and the Wisdom newsletters that arrive in my Inbox remind me to listen; to set up a ‘me’ space, a ‘me’ time; to breathe, and listen to my breath; to think, and listen to my thoughts; to reach for the knowledge that is as near as my fingertips; to be forgiving, yet gently relentless; to relax and accept. I cannot fix everything, but I can learn from everything.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Work Force

The Nepalese are back in our lives.

Three years ago last Christmas, Best Beloved and I were walking around our old neighbourhood and two small, brown-skinned men greeted us in polite English and asked if we had any odd jobs that needed doing. They washed the cars for us, and I took the younger one, N, to the field fairly regularly.

They lived in a small community of migrant workers and Asian asylum seekers a few hundred metres from our old house, and as spring became summer and the cricket set that Zenon had been given for his birthday began to be used regularly, N often joined us for evening games. Alex taught him to skateboard, and he borrowed my copy of Louis Fischer's biography of Gandhi and talked about joining my yoga class. The others found more regular jobs, but N did a morning or two each week with us, and Zeen in particular became very fond of him.

N had come to Cyprus on a student visa, but it was a sham. He had had no intention of studying hotel management in Nicosia. Instead, he skipped out as soon as he could, applied for political asylum, and started working in the hope of making enough money to leave Cyprus for ‘real Europe’. “There’s no future for me in Nepal,” he often said. “I miss home, but I never want to go back there.” He spoke about getting work as a graphic designer, and seemed to know something about the work. He was not unintelligent, but “Not clever enough, Manamou,” Best Beloved reported. “And yes, he can speak English, but to get any kind of a break in design here, he should improve his language skills by 500%. And he should lay off the booze.”

Sometimes he'd show up in the morning with a liberal sprinkling of cheap aftershave barely masking the smell of stale alcohol, but he was generally reliable and cheerful and worked hard. Then he disappeared. I went a few times to the place where he and the others had lived, but no-one in that fluid community knew where he had gone, so I assumed that he had managed to get on a boat to Italy as he had often spoken hopefully of doing, or had sorted out his papers and managed to find steady legal work.

Last spring he called me looking for work. He and two older Nepalese had moved on to another flat in Paphos near the Big Ones' school, and I would drop the children in the morning and pick up N and his friend P. They did about three weeks work on the house and in the garden, then P got another job and N drifted back to drink. I wanted to give him a break, but he became too unreliable to hire.

Before N's relapse, I spent an hour at their apartment one afternoon with the Little Ones. I had dropped N and P from work and they invited me and the boys in for tea, P rushing out for a packet of biscuits while N did a quick clean up. They showed me photos of home in Pokkhara, N's neat middle-class house; his retired civil servant father, a mother small and beautiful in a sari; a sister (now married to a Nepalese in Australia) in jeans and a short-sleeved top; a brother home from his studies in Texas.

But after he called me repeated mornings ‘too sick to work today’ we saw the Nepalese lads no more.

Until two weeks ago when the 'phut-phut' of a moped broke into Sunday afternoon and P and another man in his thirties were wondering if we had any work. “N had your number,” P told me, but is drinking all the time and lost it, so I thought I'd bring L and come out and see you myself.” Few people, he said, are paying for odd jobs these days, and work is thin on the ground. We had some things for them to do, so we arranged that they would come the following Saturday. N, it seems, is living on his state allowance and has no interest in much else. His friends take care of him, but need to survive themselves, and send funds home to support their families. Although the political situation has improved in Nepal over the last twelve months, life is still difficult there.

L showed up promptly with a younger man and they went to work. Best Beloved was cautious. “That young one's eyes look like he's on something...” But they put in a steady nine hours, taking only a short lunch break, so he told them to come back the following week. This Saturday, they almost finished the job.

I spoke with L a little about his family as our different jobs had us working side by side for a while. His parents and sister are in London, and his wife and daughter ('She's nine?' I said. 'Just look what you have to look forward to!' – I gestured at Sophia, throwing a teenage strop, in the kitchen. 'I know,' he laughed. 'She already drives my wife crazy!') are in Nepal.

We talked about the Gurkhas, and he said that several of the lads based at Dekhelia had visited him during the week. “They do a tour in Afghanistan, then come here for a rest, then are sent back out again.” I didn't realise that. “Quite a few of them really like Cyprus, and now that they have the right to live in England on completion of their five years' service, they plan to bring their families over and settle.”

When they tried to leave, L's key broke in the ignition of the bike, so they called out a friend – on another 'phut-phut' – who knew how to hot wire. Wildly excited, Zenon and Leo helped – rewarded at the end by short rides up and down the dirt road. “How old is he?” L's friend asked as he dropped off Zenon for the last time. When I answered “Nine on Wednesday”, the tip-tilted eyes crinkled and he threw a wistful glance at Zenon's back. “I have sons of one-and-a-half and nine at home.”

Then he waved, twisted the throttle, and 'phut-phutted' off in L's wake, a bottle of wine that Best Beloved had given and a big bag of vegetables from the garden stowed safely under the seat.

“Can't they stay longer and play cricket?” Zenon wanted to know. But I told him that they were tired after a long day's work. “Can they come to my birthday party?” I realised that although they would probably love it – souvlaki, cake, and balloon towers go down well for all ages and cultures – I don't have a phone number.

“Maybe next time,” I said. “But at least we should save them some cake for when they come on Thursday...”

Monday, April 13, 2009

What's Been Happening


The Little White Donkey has been bearing the burden of spring and agricultural work lately – hence that recent silence.

Spring is a busy time for me. The fields and the garden are 'good and green again', to use E.B. White's phrase. The time is here to weed and plant, and thank goodness Alex is strong enough now to use the big Stihl strimmer; strimming was always my job, and since I get bad hay fever, it made me miserable.

A goat was born. One of Mili's pair of Damascus she-goats gave birth last weekend. None of your doe-eyed, soft-coated European goats here. Cypriot goats are of the Arab persuasion: yellow-eyed, long-eared, tough, with long brown coats. Last summer in the Greek Islands, the children marvelled at how mild and small the goats were compared to ours.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

The Word Cloud

Yesterday morning I climbed aboard The Word Cloud. It had been hovering around for a while on the edges of my consciousness, the occasionally appearing line in my In Box: ‘The Word Cloud: Where Writers Meet’ reminding me that a community of writers is just a few keystrokes away. A metaphorical rope ladder, , dangled enticingly: meet poets and writers, read and be read, critique and be critiqued, share tips on publication, agents, workshops.

Yesterday morning I grasped the lowest rung of that dangling ladder and hoisted myself hand over hand, toes seeking hold, up into the fluff.

But wait… No fluff! I spent much of the day there, and saw nary a whisp. I saw many faces, smiled at people, returned their greetings, sat in on snippets of conversation, began some good reads: Steve’s account of his Australian journey, Miss Marsala’s Tails from India. I read critiques – most meaty, but all respectful. I even found the courage to post, myself.

The Word Cloud is a small but thriving community of writers in all genres. I really look forward to getting to know it better.