We used to go on these holidays to Wales - we borrowed a cottage off of some family friends. It was small and damp and full of spiders and we loved it. The best thing about the cottage was that it had a barn. And in that barn there was a rope. We spent endless summers swinging on that rope. Me and my brothers. We would jump off the ledges or the hay bales and swing on the rope. Or pretend to be Pirates and swing on the rope. Or just swing on the rope. Never did we think we were wasting our time or that we could be doing something more constructive. We just swung on a rope. And sometimes sat in the collection of old baths that all barns seem to have and watched the rope swing.
One summer we went back and the rope had gone. The farmer who owned the cottage was trying to stop people going as he wanted to sell up. So he got rid of the rope. And he was right. Once the rope was gone, we didn't really like going. We spent all year long looking forward to that bit of rope. We had computers and toys and hobbies and treats but really, all we wanted was that piece of rope.
I don't enjoy playing board games. Mostly as they are rarely played - they are fought and won or lost. But I will always have a soft spot for a piece of rope. Because there isn't much you can do with it, but play.
An edited version of this article first appeared in The Guardian on Dec 26th, 2018.
’Twas Christmas day and the Evans family had decided that it was time they gave back to their community. Or rather I, the 2nd eldest, had decided we should. I was desperately in love with Jesus at the time and I decided my Lord and Saviour would want us to help the homeless on Christmas Day. I wanted Jesus to see I was the best of his many fans. He’d be like “Yeah, Pippa Evans. She is basically Jesus the 2nd!”
So on Dec 25th, 1997, my parents, my brother, Charlie, and I all went down to the soup kitchen. My naivety was high - fuelled by too many Christmas movies and that song from Bugsy Malone - and we walked into a reality that I was not ready for.
It was a big church hall - I had been a Brownie there. Not for long - it was one of those troupes that was run by a Brown Owl who felt small girls should learn how to use paper doilies to full effect rather than anything useful like plumbing or how to start a fire using only a flint and a rubber band. Not the happiest of memories.
The hall was decorated with some paper chains, a tree and lots of pictures of Jesus, in many of his life stages - Baby, Preacher, In Death, In Resurrection. Why are there never any pictures of the Carpenter? No one cares about trades anymore- just the sensational stuff.
A cassette tape of carols played. But not very loud. There was not much chat, I remember. Joy To The World felt ironic as it blasted out the BoomBox.
And then they were there - the guests. But it wasn’t anything like I had imagined. Not grateful, grubby faces of bearded rapscallions, holding bowls of soup and meekly thanking us, but instead whole families. People of no fixed abode, frustrated by their place in the world. Children filling their pockets with biscuits hoping no one was looking. An old man in a paper crown, swearing in the corner whilst eating stuffing balls.
And little 15 year old me, with my Reebok hat on, trying to look like Louise from Eternal, was struck by fear. This isn’t what I was promised. I have everything and they have nothing and now I have to look them in the eye and say Merry Christmas. It was my first confrontation with the unfairness of life and I didn’t want to see it.
My family got stuck in, dishing up and cleaning and chatting, but I just froze. Then, I did the only thing I could think of - I asked myself “What would Jesus Do?” and when the answer came “sit with the people and treat them as you would anyone else” I panicked and hid in the kitchen. I thought I was scared they might find out I was not like them, but actually I was scared that I might find out I was.
In the kitchen, Geraldine enlisted me with buttering bread and heating custard. She was a short, stout woman in her fifties. Geraldine was everything Victoria Wood had prepared me to find in a church hall, which was a great comfort to me. “Just serve the food and keep it coming. That’s all we ask of you. And don’t accept any tosh!” The only legitimate use of “tosh” I have ever heard.
Geraldine went to get something from the pantry, just as two men fell into the kitchen, arguing about something. Hearing the commotion, my dad followed behind them.
A word on my dad - he looks like Basil Fawlty and speaks like an American’s wet-dream of an Englishman. And so as it looked like a fight was about to break out, Dad stepped into the scene with a loud “Now look here!” and received a swing to the chops, which missed. Dad fell and a hole was ripped into his jumper as one of the chaps tried to catch him.
Geraldine appeared like a force of nature. “Get out of my kitchen! You can come back when you have sorted yourselves out. You ridiculous men!” They retreated, looking crestfallen.
She picked my Dad off the floor and as she brushed him down, I asked “How come you aren’t scared of anything?”
“Me?” Geraldine replied. “I was brought up by huskies.”
We finished our shift, thanked Geraldine and went back home, where an enormous Christmas Dinner was waiting for us. We all looked at it and felt sick. We had just come from school dinner portions and misery and now we were going to eat Goose and chocolate coins and unwrap all our presents.
It’s hard when you are confronted by your own assumptions about the world. By the realities which we can ignore from behind our curtains. At 15, I wasn’t quite able to look them in the eye yet, but it was a stepping stone to realising that perhaps I wasn’t the little saviour I wanted to appear to be.
I am no longer part of the Jesus gang, but I do think of him from time to time. Is it a Christmas I want to forget? A little. But it did teach me a great lesson - help others because you want to help, not because you want 5 stars from Jesus.
At the beginning of the year, I had the joy of doing an improvised show for a private party.
It was glorious and hilarious and freeing and all the things improv gives you when you trust yourself and the form. Afterwards a man came rushing up to me to say how wonderful he thought we were (thank you, I like compliments) and then asked the quite common question “What do you do when it all goes wrong?”
It rarely actually goes wrong, is the true answer. Because it is a team effort.
So it takes a lot for it to go horribly wrong, rather than just a bit of turbulence every so often.
Which I said to him. He said ‘Come on, you must sometimes not know what to say. It must go really, really wrong some times. What do you do then?’ His eyes were gleaming, waiting for the outpouring of me re-living some miserable moment from my past.
And I stopped and thought about it.
Eventually I said ‘The only real thing that I can do is to say to myself DON’T PANIC. Because most of the time, we start to sense it is going wrong and so we PANIC and then the thing that was just a bit wobbly gets thrown by the Panic into being something that does go wrong. So actually, it wasn’t what was happening on stage that was going wrong, but rather the response to what was happening on stage. So we need to be with the moment, no matter how sticky and not panic about the moment. That will stop if turning from ‘not exactly right’ into ‘wrong’.
The man was clearly disappointed that I didn’t just say ‘Oh yes. Sometimes I want to kill myself, but that’s improv!’ He politely thanked me again for the show and left.
It stayed with me, this idea of Don’t Panic. So much so, that when I was teaching improv a few days later to a new group of would-be improvisers, I said the only skill you really have to master to be a top improviser is Don’t Panic. Easier said than done, but what a skill to master.
I was listening to an interview with the non-dualist thinker, Rupert Spira, of whose work I am a fan, in which he recalled a story of his pottery barn burning down (not the American home furnishing store, but his literal barn where he keeps his pottery). His friend and mentor called in that moment and told him ‘Don’t try to change this moment.’ Which I understood to mean - in literal terms - don’t panic. We don’t want the barn to be burning, so we panic. But the barn is burning. Sure, call the fire brigade. Get out of the burning building, but don’t add panic on top of that. To panic would be to suggest that we can stop the barn from ever burning or my brain from not having a moment where it doesn’t know what to say. But the barn is burning. My brain doesn’t have a word. Panicking elongates that moment.
It strikes me that 2022 is the year where our mantra needs to be Don’t Panic.
We are at the end of two years of locked in and up and out. Of Vaccine arguments and mandates. Of Brexit wars and climate anxieties. And then we are trying to live our lives with all the normal worries and struggles, whilst the world is opening up and learning what it is to live with the continued battle of Covid.
Like WW1, we thought it would only last a few months, and here we are, still fighting years later. Not sure if we took the right route, but it is a route we have taken. We cannot live in the routes we didn’t take. We can only notice the decisions that have been made, the place we are right now and move from here. If we panic when we make those decisions, then we make decisions we regret.
We go into the burning barn.
We force a word into a show that makes no sense.
We choose dubious solutions because we panicked.
There is, of course, nothing worse than someone telling you not to panic when you are panicked, so think of it as a mantra rather than a command. Something to meditate on. Something to consider when you have a brain fart.
Don’t panic, my friend.
What’s this phrase you’re chatting on about?
Been going round my head for a while.
Trying to express where I am at with my uterus and all the rest of it.
Funny thing, motherhood. You don’t know if you can be one till you are one.
And we’ve had a go. We had a miscarriage. That was sad. More about that another time.*
But no actual baby, see. And no medical reason why it can’t happen.
So we just have to be patient, cos it might happen.
But we also have age and time against us.
Old eggs and dusty sperm.
I mean, we almost got there once.
So we sit in limbo.
Living our lives with an eye on a possible alternative .
If it doesn’t happen, it isn’t the end of the world (for us).
We’re not desperate for kids in the same way we aren’t desperate not to have kids.
It can sound kind of flippant but really, it’s just being in Motherhood Limbo.
Some people are in limbo, heavy with the potential of a broken heart.
So clear that motherhood is the only way for them.
Sometimes I envy those who have always known they didn't want to be a parent.
A calling to be a different kind of elder.
Yet I can’t be in the #ChildlessGang because I have this other wish
and I can’t be in the #MotherhoodOrBust gang because I don’t feel that neither.
So here I am, in Motherhood Limbo.
I got pushed into saying I didn’t want kids for a while.
People asked me so much and when I said ‘I’m not sure’
people said ‘Oh you’ll need to make up your mind’
or ‘Don’t be silly, you’d make a great mum’
or ‘When you meet the right man, you’ll change your mind’
and other things that sort of made sense but also didn’t make any sense
but I just nodded because I was tired.
Then I got annoyed and I would say ‘I don’t want to bring kids into this messy world’
and to be honest,
a bit of me still feels that on some level.
I became the Queen of avoiding children questions.
If someone asked, I would say ‘no’ to having children and then look away.
They would assume there is a sad story and most people can’t cope with a sad story.
Or know it's weird to pursue such a story with someone you just met in the self-checkout queue.
Not everyone is awful. In fact, most people are kind. We are all trying our best.
Sometimes we just aren't ready for the question we thought we wanted to ask.
I don’t mind people asking me, actually. What I mind is people not be prepared
for an answer other than ‘Yes we have kids and we can’t wait to have more’
or ‘No, we don’t have kids because we didn’t want them’.
There isn’t space for ‘We had a miscarriage so we don’t know’ or
‘Well, it depends what the universe wants really’.
Not that I think the universe is pulling my ovaries with bits of wool
going ‘Maybe, maybe not’ but rather there is a mystical element to pregnancy and birth.
Your body takes over.
The doctors can’t explain a lot of fertility.
That’s why you get diagnosed with ‘unexplained infertility’ - cos the science can’t know everything
when it comes to the magic of creating life.
Have I gone off topic?
I think I might have.
Maybe. Maybe not.
We don’t often hear about this space, Motherhood Limbo,
because we like sharing stories when they have an ending.
‘We never wanted kids so that made it an easier conversation’
‘We tried but it didn’t work out’
or ‘We just looked at each other and I was pregnant with twins!’
And I wanted to tell my story in the middle of the story, rather than in the nice tidy end bit.
Which there will be, one day. Not right now.
So here I am, in Motherhood Limbo. Maybe you are too.
Maybe you have a child and you are in 2nd child limbo.
Maybe you are waiting for a partner to arrive and you can hear that clock people talk about.
Maybe you are in adoption limbo.
Maybe you... *insert your limbo*.
And I salute you.
Anything where we have to sit and wait for the world to give us the answer is hard.
It’s one of the few things you can’t Google.
‘Will I have a baby?’
So we sit in Motherhood Limbo.
You might be in motherhood limbo,
or fatherhood limbo,
or parenthood limbo (or some other kind of limbo),
where you have opened yourself to something and you are aware that it might not happen.
It is not the outcome that is necessarily the difficult bit, but the limbo.
The holding of both spaces. The moving forward with your eyes on two prizes, being open to both.
I thought you either had kids or you didn't.
I didn't think you sat in limbo.
I thought a doctor would say 'You are barren'
or 'We predict a baby in 9 months'.
Yet here we are, in limbo.
I wouldn't describe it as a sad place. I mean, sometimes it is.
Mostly, it's a tricky place to stay. To explain to people.
We are not distraught at (potentially) not having kids, we are not actively trying not to have kids,
and I don’t want to go down the IVF fiddling about route so am I trying hard enough you say?
Well what a thing to ask with your hand in a tube of Pringles.
But mostly the answer to those questions that appear at parties
and family things or in people’s eyes, because you can see when someone wants to ask
but has been told it is rude to ask so they don’t ask even though they want to,
the answer to whatever your question was, is probably
‘I don’t know, because we are in limbo.’
Motherhood Limbo. It's a strange place**.
*I will write about my miscarriage another time, because it was quite the ordeal.
Not even Fleabag had prepared me for it.
**Some of you will be desperate to send me some advice.
Very kind, but please don't.
I have enough advice.
I have good friends and a therapist.
If it is really good advice, please write a blog post and share it for the world to see.
I will see it there.
Improvised human woman.