They say it’s one of the most stressful things a human being can experience – up there with divorce and bereavement.
We’ve just moved house.
Uprooted. Left behind all that is comfortable and familiar and feels like home and built a new nest. And we’ve done this two days before the start of our teaching term, with a six month old who won’t sleep, after a summer of book launches and edits and MA dissertation writing and planning for a move and looking after that darling little wakeful girl. It hasn’t been easy.
And yes, we’re stressed. I’m so frayed that I find myself embarrassingly close to tears whenever the tiniest thing goes wrong. Hugh’s got that bloodshot–eyes-hair-sticking-up-like-a-mad-professor thing going on and Tennessee’s cried so hard in the last week that she’s beginning to sound like Mariella Frostrup.
But we’re in. We’ve painted the walls. Unpacked the boxes. Filled the wardrobes and cupboards. Bar a few curtains and rugs and pictures and bookshelves – we’re there.
Only it’s not home – not yet.
The new nest hasn’t moulded itself to the shape of our bodies; twigs stick out and poke us in the ribs just when we’re settling down for the night; the feathers feel too new – shiny and squeaky and full of air; we haven’t got used to the swaying of this particular branch or to the sounds drifting up from under this particular tree. And we keep bumping into things. Into each other. Forgetting where things are. Losing things.
I miss my study. The stillness of the small, back room. The wind in the poplar trees. My tall bookshelves. I even miss the woodpigeons whose song never failed to make my heart lurch in its uncanny resemblance to Tennessee’s cry. Here, my books lie on the floor like scattered teeth. I don’t have curtains. The window looks out onto the mini-bus depot. Even my faithful Costa is different. In Costa Crowthorne there’s loud music. And Anna and Marchin are missing. And I don’t have the warm company of Waterstones’ high-stacked shelves.
Moving is hard because home is where we rest, where we allow our hearts and minds and bodies to relax. It’s where we feel safe. Safe because it’s familiar. Because our homes take on our scents. Our imprints. They adopted our quirky domestic habits – where we place our toothbrush, the front door keys, our favourite mug; how we angled our bedside lamp; adjust the height of the showerhead. In a new home, our senses are confused. We feel like we’re writing with the wrong hand. Looking through the wrong glasses. Stumbling around in clown shoes.
Of course, as I mentioned in a previous blog, human beings – ‘paradox-beings’ – need change as much as they need stability. Our resistance to the new competes with our itchy feet. And so, as my little family moved house last weekend, and continues to settle in, I’ve been thinking about how this change is feeding me as well as unsettling me – and what it’s teaching me about writing.
One of the most unnerving experiences of moving is the clashing of our new world with the old. A painting we know and love on a new wall, lit by a new window, adopts an unexpected tone. Our bed pressed against a different wall changes our experience of going to sleep and getting up in the morning. Sharing a bathroom, bringing our towels and toothbrushes (and bath toys) together – brings a new kind of intimacy. It’s as though the pieces of an old puzzle have magically remoulded themselves to create a new picture.
And, as life looks both familiar and new, I realise that no matter how uncomfortable it all feels, some things are better. The ceilings are higher, the windows bigger, Tennessee’s nursery lovelier, the garden more enchanting, the walk to work shorter. We have a whole community of neighbours. There’s life here. I love the chiming of the clock-tower every hour. The sound of pupils walking past, threads from their conversations slipping in through the blinds. And some of our old things have taken on a new life. Two tall bookshelves that stand like proud pillars in the dining room rather than crouching in corners under the roof. We have a pantry! I can cycle again.
The old and the new have come together and given the essence of our lives a new shape.
And that’s what happening as I’m editing the novel that will follow What Milo Saw. I’ve written a draft. Lived with it. Grown comfortable within its walls. I know where the chapters fall. How the characters respond to each other. The rhythms of the story. But now, I need to move house. To shift scenes around. To make rooms bigger or smaller. To change the light that falls through one window – to close the curtains on another. The essence is the same because the life, the characters, are still there, as is heartbeat of the story. But the changes, the edits, will push me move things around until the life and heartbeat of the story grow stronger. And just as I hope that my novel takes on a new life, so I hope that when the smell of new paint recedes in our new home, when the scattered pieces fall into their new places, we’ll come to see that the stress – and the risk – has paid off. That the new is, in the end, better than the old.