© Michael Wharley Photography 2014
It’s wonderful to host novelist and actress Sara Alexander’s guest post today on the importance of nourishing yourself creatively in order to be the best parent you can be.
Sara has worked extensively in the theatre, film and television industries, including roles in much-loved productions such as Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows, Doctor Who, and Franco Zeffirelli’s Sparrow.
Growing up in North West London, Sara attended Hampstead Comprehensive School, before going on to graduate the University of Bristol with a BA honours in Theatre, Film & Television, and Drama Studio London with a postgraduate diploma in acting. She now returns to her Sardinian routes through the pages of her debut novel Under a Sardinian Sky (HQ, £7.99), available now in bookshops and on Amazon.
See more at www.evaalexander.com
Over to Sara:
Giving birth is as creative an act as you can perform. It’s alchemical (yep, totally a real word, or else should be). I have had the experience twice. My body was ransacked by the sheer force of nature and I was/am at once humbled by its power and fortified by becoming a vessel for nothing short of a miracle.
Then the babies appeared. Real, fleshy, wailing babies. Those magazine images of relaxed, spit up free mothers were nowhere to be seen, least of all in the mirror. The expressions of my family members streaked with concern and helplessness, as they watched this woman shuffle around the house, dazed, tearful, barely clothed. I reached the frays of depression.
I met its cliff edge. My sense of finite time piqued. I gazed down at those dark waters. Then I grasped at survival, at the heart of the act that had spawned this new life: creation.
I escaped into my writing. I snatched time whilst the toddlers slept. Not every day at first, but over time, like them, the practice became woven deep into the fabric of our lives. In our household, we developed code “yellow mask”. Like on planes, reminding one another to attend to ourselves before saving those around you.
My creative life is the only place I can fortify myself for the twists and turns of motherhood. It’s the place I can swim in the unknown, unchartered waters of a chapter, choppy and changeable. Writing, like parenting, requires real life to hone it and a great deal of endurance. I develop this whilst working on a manuscript, permitting me to experience the brutality of a ten-year-old in meltdown, sending venomous tornados my way, and know that it will only feel like it’s breaking me. Like when a chapter is swerving out of direction; after the panic and the disappointment comes deconstruction and imaginative solutions.
I am indebted to my husband who shares the rearing straight down the middle. He and I now know that if my creative life is not fed, neither are the kids; my mental health has a huge impact on the family. We model behavior more than we’d like to admit. If I can pass on only one message to our noisemakers, I hope it’s that a creative life has value and, like children, must be fed, nurtured and let loose at regular intervals.
Extract from Under A Sardinian Sky:
The sun began to hit the height of afternoon when the clatter of a vehicle brought everyone out from the back of the house, where lunch was drawing to a reluctant close. It wasn’t a sound any of them were accustomed to hearing there. A cloud of dust rose from the dirt track leading to the farm, which was set back almost a kilometre from the main road. The family would travel the three kilometers from town on foot or in Lucia’s fruit truck. The brothers paused to scrutinize, squinting into the near distance. As the vehicle reached the rusted gate, it stopped.
The engine fell silent.
Tomas marched over to the driver.
The family’s distrustful Sardinian glares scissored across the scorched earth. A serviceman got out of the jeep with one lithe jump. Nothing about the crisp white of his shirt, or sweat-free brow, suggested he had traveled from the base in a roofless vehicle under the unforgiving August heat. Tomas shook his hand and gave him a
welcome pat on his back. Everyone shifted.
“L’Americano! Venite! Gather round!” Tomas called out, as the two turned and began their walk toward the group.
“And that,” Lucia muttered under her breath to Carmela, “is what tourists call a breathtaking view.”
Carmela flashed her aunt a disapproving frown.
“What? You don’t make babies sitting on the back pew.”
“This,” Tomas announced, “is Lieutenant Joe Kavanagh. He’s from the base.” He gestured to the mob. “Got a bit up here,” he said, tapping his temple. The officer flushed.
“He’s promised to help me get my hands on some equipment. Wants to see how we do things.”
The bashful lieutenant smiled as if he had understood every word of Tomas’s Italian. Although he appeared to hold substantial rank, judging by the appendages on his jacket, there was something about the way his knowing eyes swept over the land that
suggested he was no stranger to farming. Carmela glanced at the faces around her but gathered little from their inscrutable, unblinking expressions. Tomas reached a warm arm around the soldier.
“Is this how you treat a guest?” he called out to everyone.
“Pour the man a drink!”
Maria, Lucia, and Carmela hurried back to the house as the men joined Tomas. Maria covered a tin tray with ridotto glasses and a green bottle of garnet-colored wine. Carmela placed a slab of pecorino onto a chopping board, uneven and scarred with scratches from years of use. Then she filled a basket with roughly torn strips of panefino, the large circular flat bread for which the town was famous, along with a handful of small paniotte rolls she and her mother had baked that morning.
Tomas led the visitor toward the long wooden table under the shade of a gnarled vine canopy at the back of the cottage. Its legs were made from two wide oak trunks, a rugged altar at which feeders worshipped Maria’s cooking.
“This is the man you told me about?” Peppe whispered to his brother, as they sat down.
A handful of local young men, hired for extra help that week, straggled behind like a pack of dogs salivating for a treat.
“Play our cards right and we could do very well,” Tomas replied. Tomas gestured for the American to sit. Carmela noted the lieutenant’s posture. He seemed so at ease, or else created an impeccable performance to that effect, even among this group
of strangers intent on force-feeding him and making him drink into a fog. The men took their places on the benches and thrust a glass into Kavanagh’s hand, filling it to the rim with Tomas’s wine.
Their glasses raised skyward. “Saludu!” Tomas called out.
“Salute,” the lieutenant replied.
That silken voice unlocked a memory.
Carmela stood by the door that led into the house, hovering between participation and service, the chopping board and basket still in either hand. She watched as the men coerced him into drinking in one gulp so they could refill.
“Going to take more than wine to make this one dizzy,” Lucia whispered, frisky. “I’m going nowhere until that collar is undone and I get myself a look at more skin than just a neck. And those eyes, no? Clear like the Chia coves.”
Maria reached into the bottom of the wooden dresser and shook her head with a reluctant smile. She passed up glass bottles of homemade liquor to Carmela, for the tray; aqua vitae and Tomas’s fragrant mirto, an aromatic, potent after-dinner drink made from their native myrtle berry.
“Give it here!” Lucia exclaimed. “I’ll do the pass with the mirto, Mari’, get me a closer look!” With that she whisked the bottles out of Carmela’s hands before she could get them onto the tray. Carmela followed Lucia as she flew back out of the door, laying out fresh ridotto glasses before each man.
“Oh, here she goes,” Peppe said, as Lucia sidled up to the table.
“Why must you always nosey about the men, woman? You stay in there and I’ll stay out here, and we’ll all go home happy!”
“Someone’s got to protect her beautiful nieces from you lot!” she replied, flashing Kavanagh a toothy grin.
The men laughed at the couple’s familiar repartee, which accompanied the end of most meals. Peppe fidgeted in his seat.
“Americano! Which one for you?” Lucia asked.
“Mirto, per piacere.”
A stunned pause fell over the merry group. His Italian impressed them. Mumbled surprise rumbled into clinking glasses.
The men slurred wishes of good health as the initiation fast approached completion. The afternoon trickled through another bottle of each digestif, alongside plentiful servings of Maria’s seadas, thin pastry-encased slices of cheese, pan fried till crispy on the outside and oozing on the inside, topped with a drizzle of the neighbor’s
The setting sun cast its ruby glow over the men as they cajoled in a soup of half languages that everyone appeared to understand. The Americano started to gesticulate in Sardinian. Carmela noticed his hands were worn, those of a man accustomed to hard physical work. The way they moved smoothly through the air, however, was more akin to an artist describing a new work than that of a worker discussing the fluctuating prices of milk and cheese. His sleeves were rolled up now, exposing his muscular forearms, much to Lucia’s delight.
Tomas looked over to his daughter and signaled for her to bring out yet another bottle. She moved to clear the empty ones first, when her father took her hand. “Americano!” He hiccupped. “You’ll forgive me, I haven’t introduced you to my daughter. This is my eldest, Carmela. Not just a pretty picture—inherited my brains too!”
Kavanagh’s eyes widened, his head cocked slightly. “Actually,” he replied in English, stretching out his hand, “I think we’ve already had the pleasure.”
Carmela flashed a brief half smile in return and gave his hand a perfunctory shake.
“She speaks English too, you know?” Tomas began.
Carmela stiffened. She was no stranger to being put on the spot by her father after he had drunk too much. Her face reddened in spite of herself.
“Go on, Carmela, say something!” Tomas cried, swinging his arm up like a ringmaster announcing the headlining act.
Carmela felt the glare of a dozen eyes. What was this fixation with her knowledge of English? It was a skill, but she was not an acrobat who lived to hear applause for her tricks. Carmela had a heightened sense for when her father would perform such turns
and now berated herself for failing to escape in time.
“Attenzione, everyone!” Tomas called out, “My firstborn is going to speak like an English!”
The blood thumped in her ears.
“Please, don’t put yourself on the spot on my account,” the lieutenant said, undoing the top button of his collar. The blue of his eyes deepened. Carmela would have liked the warmth that shone in them to relax her, but it only made her unease swell. Her eyes darted up and down the table, scanning the remnants of the food, a gourmet graveyard. She raced around in her mind for something simple to say, but it was like a bare white room. Her eyes lifted.
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