Breezing down Sultan Kaboos (Street), one typically sultry evening in Oman, sometime in 2018, my charismatic date (one whom I would, in time, consider The One, despite my lack of current relationship with him), remarked that I had said ‘a beautiful thing’.
We had just survived a minor skirmish which involved some shoes. I forget exactly what part the shoes played, but they were an incidental element of the argument and were entirely blameless. However, we liked each other a great deal (The One and I – not the shoes and I) – despite the occasional fiery episode – and so relations returned to warmth and heartiness within seconds. (And he had the warmest, heartiest voice I have ever heard at close range.) Also, we had a booking at an acclaimed Thai restaurant and we were both very hungry. The ‘beautiful thing’ that I said, was that I had, thus far, done everything I wanted to do in my life. Please don’t let me be misunderstood (apologies to ‘The Animals’ and Regina Spektor); I was not announcing ‘mission accomplished’. Moreover, I was feeling at peace with my past and even basking a little, in the warm glow of my own reflections as I pictured myself trailblazing through the diverse jungle of my own life, sometimes planning, sometimes winging it, embracing all of its twists and turns, even when they weren’t in the game plan, with wide-eyed anticipation for the rest of the adventure. This is not said in arrogance, but gratitude – I am not suggesting I am a trailblazer for anyone’s life but my own. My life suits me and not necessarily anyone else. But I am grateful that at some point in my life I learnt that mostly, ‘doing’ is better than ‘doing nothing’.
As the youngest in my family, I am fortunate to have learnt to ride at a very young age. I cannot remember the first time I rode, as I rode (I believe) from around the age of three. On the one hand, I do not recall any intense emotions of excitement or anticipation; but on the other hand, I do not recall any fear, which is just as well, as I fell off a lot. It never occurred to me to not remount my feisty steed, because I was young and obedient. Despite the lack of emotional intensity within these recollections, I certainly enjoyed riding and I suspect that my acceptance of the whole shebang – with or without any real understanding of why I was sitting atop an almighty beast that seemed to me have his own agenda – has played some part in my approach to general stuff throughout my life. Given my shyness when my age was still in single figures (and some way into the ‘double-figure’ years), I am grateful for the lessons that riding taught me. That, and my mother’s persuasion to ‘do’ rather than ‘not do’. Also, my father’s assertion that ‘you’re halfway along the road to success once you’ve decided to do it’.
Fast forward a little and we leave the horses’ field and enter the theatre. (The horses remained in our lives, in fact, but I thought that flowed well.) I have three sisters and all four of us attended ballet and tap dancing lessons. Tap was great. Ballet was not. When you’re three years old, expectations are low. In fact, if you screw up in a show, the audience will adore you (unlike our dancing teacher). But as you grow up, ballet becomes less fun and more of a discipline and eventually, I was allowed to give it up, because I wasn’t that good at it anyway and just tap, which I loved to do. It turned out that a deal had been struck, when I was around three years old, that we could have horses if we all attended ballet lessons. It seems a lot happened when I was three and whereas I had no voice in this deal, I’m happy about all those lessons and shows – yes, the ballet as well! – because without a good portion of my childhood being spent in the theatre, my head would never have been turned towards those dazzling stage lights. Plus – along with my new passion for piano-playing – it was a distraction from schoolwork, which was burdensome, on account of attending an academic yet progressive establishment and being required to read an impossible amount of books every term that not only weighed heavy in my school bag, at any given time, but also on my conscience.
Despite my family being seven-strong, we holidayed regularly in Wales, Cornwall, Devon … I recall bouncing over the Yorkshire Dales once, feeling like I might see James Herriot at any moment! Holidays became more exotic as we grew up and our parents introduced us to Provence, the French Riviera and I think I remember nipping over the border to Italy on one occasion.
‘You should go back to acting!’ people say.
‘Why should I?’ I reply.
I discovered I had a bit of a knack for acting when I was a teenager. Hitherto, my theatrical experiences had involved dancing and some singing, but here was something that not only did I enjoy, but also attracted praise. And a lifetime (ok, several years) of Latin tutelage and therefore learning Latin poetry by heart, had equipped me with transferable skills for learning whopping big parts. From plays in local village halls, my sister and I moved onto big musicals in town and from there, I moved onto a scaled-down version of a complete theatre, staging high-quality productions. *CLICHÉ ALERT* The theatre became my life. (Sorry.) While I was studying for my degree, at any given time I was usually rehearsing for multiple productions, or maybe hosting a big event as well as working in a bar to fund my student life, which had started to include annual trips to snowy peaks on which to ski. This always happened in the French Alps, although I couldn’t help getting a kick out of skiing up to the Swiss or Italian border wherever possible. I think it gave me a strange Julie Andrews moment, but not once did I feel the urge to belt out an instruction to ‘Climb Ev’ry Mountain’. (Yes, I know ‘The Sound of Music’ was set in Austria and not France; it’s about borders … )
My acting continued with some earnest for another couple of decades, alongside my career as an English teacher, but my two favourite achievements during this time (and during every time, in fact) were, of course, (and still are) my children. As any fellow parent would concur, one’s children are one’s priority, especially during their formative years and I especially wanted my children to have the opportunity to experience an abundance of pursuits, from karate to playing the harp and many other random hobbies along the way. (The only pursuit I insisted they undertook was swimming and I wonder whether their adult psyches now appreciate this insistence!) I even gave my services to their school as a peripatetic Latin teacher, so that they would gain some understanding of the subject. Their dad and I took them on winter skiing holidays and summer beach holidays in S. Wales, from where my family hails. Then hubby’s job took him around the globe and we visited him accordingly, from the Middle East to the shores of Scotland or the sand dunes of Lytham St Anne’s. Sometimes, I visited him alone, for example, when he was working in New York and in those pre-9/11 times, it’s a surreal thought that we stayed in a hotel in-between the Twin Towers. Then the invites dwindled … but really it was our relationship that was dwindling and the dwindle became a long, procrastinated divorce.
But I had become accustomed to keeping my passport valid, which was useful for the burgeoning need to take students abroad for residential trips: France, Belgium, Poland … My temporary dalliance with the teaching of history broadened the scope for interesting school trips! Plus a trip to Finland with the children, as the divorce progressed, to look for Santa. We found him, along with huskies and reindeer and warming Finnish food. Light relief from the Somme, Ypres, Auschwitz and Birkenau (actually, the last two I visited completely alone, to check them out for school trips. I’m sure there is more to Poland, but that’s all the school paid for). Now the random interchange about returning to acting becomes relevant. At this time, my interest waned. I was single and working long hours at a boarding school and alongside English I was teaching Drama, with associated responsibilities such as Speech & Drama exams and school productions. Ergo, it follows that when I was not working, I wanted to be with my children who were hurtling towards their teen years at a ridiculous rate. The last time I acted, it was paid work for a large well-known company and it was lucrative, enjoyable and short. I have no desire to ‘smear my face with paint’ and I would not enjoy a ‘demi-mondy role’ (apologies to Oscar Hammerstein). I do not feel sad; conversely, I rejoice in the many years of exploring different personalities, situations and emotions, who have, undoubtedly, helped to shape the person I am. Furthermore, making people laugh, cry, recoil (or shocked at how little you’re wearing) gives you a buzz that you can live on for days, as well as the depth of camaraderie one feels with one’s fellow thespians. And where would I be without my healthy obsession with Tennessee Williams?
Firmly settled in teenland, my children hoofed it to a variety of wonderful destinations on school trips. Hence trips abroad en famille lessened, as there was not an infinite amount of holiday money. We managed a trip to Australia (with a pit-stop at Singapore) to visit friends and similarly, trips to France, also to visit friends, in the mountains above Nice and also the breathtaking beauty of the sunflower fields and lakes of central France. Scotland beckoned once more and by now, I had remarried. I don’t know why this is important to me – but for some reason it is – that I have walked along the shores of Loch Lomond with two different husbands! In fact, walking and general tree-hugging had become a common past-time for us whilst the children pursued teenage things like doing exams, going out and other such hobbies like drumming, singing and bashing out the South Downs Way. But while I was catching my breath after the onset of their teen years, they were preparing to go to university. Travelling abroad with me and the children was not an activity that second hubby particularly welcomed, so I booked a week in the Canary Isles as a send-off for my eldest child before waving him off for three years of academia. In a year, I perused, I’ll be waving off my youngest child.
This I did. But six weeks later, I waved off second hubby also, who decided that he would like to leave home too. This is where my blog started. January 2016 – just over a year after he left – I wrote my first blog post: ‘Life’. If I was the Queen, I would have named the ensuing year my ‘annus horribilis’, but I’m not the Queen, so I’ll settle for telling you that it was dramatic and tumultuous. Much happened: a failed Ofsted; a lingering chest infection; two health scares; a broken arm and surgery; debts; a destructive relationship; a crisis-ridden trip to Amsterdam and the threat of redundancy. However, I also had a great skiing holiday with the children, some hilarious Tinder experiences, a foray into the live music scene in Brighton (as both spectator and performer!), a whole new friendship group, the beginning of a wonderful relationship (even if it was the one that eventually sent me running for the sands of Arabia for two years!), my permanent status within a fantasy roleplay group, my return to writing, the start of my sideline in editing and proofreading and the beginning of my li’l film appreciation society (complete with big screen for weekly viewings). **Followers of my film reviews, they have a new home on this glitzy website: https://www.cultjer.com/LisaOConnor4 **
And then there was Oman. It began with a 12h drive down to Yemen with the fab four (well, up to the border! And technically the fab three, unless I include myself, as the fifth female flew there) and ended with a 5h drive to Dubai. And lots of driving in-between. (Turns out I love driving. Especially alone. Actually I knew this already.) But I can’t put two years of another life into a blog post. My stories of deserts, mountains, boats, singing and my incredible Arabian life with all the peaks, troughs and hilarious/terrifying stories in-between will have to wait. I returned to the UK in time for COVID (!) and recently overheard a friend of around 40 years say to a new, mutual (and incidentally, very lovely) friend of ours:
‘Lisa isn’t like us. She settled down young. She never travelled.’
Firstly, use of the word ‘us’ in the first sentence is exclusive and especially cruel because of the nature of the statement. The expression ‘settled down’ is archaic, patronising and smacks of misogyny. However, given that the term is intended to mean that someone has married and had children, then yes, I did do those things at a young age. I decry use of the expression ‘settled down’, however, as I imagine a person sitting in an armchair to eat biscuits for the rest of their life whilst wearing American Tan tights, sensible shoes and a twin-set (female) or sensible shoes and a tweed suit (male). The concluding statement, ‘She never travelled,’ is stated as if it is a result of the preceding statement, yet why is travel seen as off-limits if you have married and had your children at a young age? I have travelled. I haven’t travelled like my friend of 40 years has travelled, because his job has taken him abroad regularly. But given that I don’t have one of those jobs, I think I’ve managed to pack in (no pun intended) a fair amount of travel, including moving abroad for two years, as a single white female in an Arab country. But what if I hadn’t? What difference would it make? Are people to be judged on how much they have travelled? I have many experiences from my travels worthy of regaling: a mash-up of beautiful, astounding, hilarious, petrifying and life-changing. I also have a similar mash-up of phenomenal life experiences from right here, on the shores of my homeland. Obviously, they aren’t all here; I may not be famous, but like most people, were I to write my memoirs, it would become a hefty tome.
I stand by what I said to The One in Oman … I’m living in the moment, whilst remaining in love with my past and excited for my future. And The One is the kind of person I want in my life: someone who listens to me, who sees my attributes, who builds me up. Someone asked me what was on my bucket list. Apologies for being a pedant, but ‘bucket list’ is crass, negative and devoid of originality. It’s down there with the likes of ‘settling down’. (Friend of 40 years, there would be a teacher-student conversation about this, if I caught such idioms skulking around an exercise book.) I replied that I don’t have one, just vague ideas swilling round my head about things I’d like to do and places I’d like to visit. I prefer it like that. I’ve done ok, thanks, so far without one and anyway, as Robert Burns said:
‘The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft a-gley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain’.