Perfectionism and Longing
30th June 2016
On nostalgia, expression, death and longing.
Tomorrow will mark eight months since my mum died. This fact has just occurred to me while I sit in a beautiful silent room at the library located in one of my favourite places in Madrid: El Parque de El Retiro. Mum would have loved this place. She would have marvelled at the view and thought ahead to the winter months when these little glass additions to the original edifice will be delightful suntraps. She’d flick through the interiors mags or Hola! upstairs in the reading room even though she couldn’t speak Spanish. Maybe she’d read her novel or simply be and enjoy the view.
How can she be dead?
Outside it’s hotting up but here it’s cool and I’m in the shade; through the window pane the grass is brilliant green and the sun spotlights particular tree branches. This building did not exist when I lived around the corner, nor was it here when I last visited with Mum seven years ago. This is what I hear: a sneeze, a twittering chorus of birds, footsteps on tiles and the sound of my own breathing made noisier due to the pollen that dances through the air.
Much has changed in the Spanish capital and, reassuringly, much has not. I came to the city to show it off to my cousins from California. They left yesterday for Barcelona and I am here in my old neighbourhood with memories appearing everywhere. I file everything away with a mental note ‘to tell Mum when I get back’. I long for that conversation with her. Instead, I ask myself who’ll express surprise when I say the area has gone a little upscale and that the Tio Pepe sign at the Puerta del Sol has been moved? Who’ll nod wistfully when I comment that my cousin’s husband, who has Parkinson’s disease, is definitely slower than when I saw him just a few months ago for Thanksgiving? Who’ll groan when I say the best pasteleria ever has closed down but all the shoe shops are going strong?
In life, all the shorthand and little anecdotes that we share with friends and loved ones seem redundant in the moments after the relationship has ended or the spirt has left our loved one’s body. They become precious memories but ones that stab painfully at our heart because they represent what has changed. For instance, being mildly shocked at the deterioration of my Spanish language skills matters only to me now. No-one is here to witness it and my American cousins had no knowledge of my previous ability against which to benchmark my current capacity to express myself in Spanish.
When I was younger I was desperate to become fluent in Spanish and French. I thought I just had to do the grammar exercises, learn about the culture and build the relationships necessary to become perfect. I visited each year after I moved back to the UK and, in recent years, I became great pals with a gay Madrilenan living in London. I kept my Spanish up, until I didn’t. During this trip I have observed the decline in my language skills and let go of my desire to be flawless. So long as I can convey my message, does it matter if the grammar is clumsy or the syntax a bit off? No, because my purpose is to order the drink or make the enquiry or pay the compliment. This perfectionism is something I carry about with me in other areas of my life and it no longer serves me.
My intention since my cousins left town had been to work a little and enjoy the people-watching. The fact is, concentration abandons me when my longing for my living breathing beautiful mother threatens to overwhelm me. Because this is a city of family and friends. Tapas are to be shared and a stroll in the Retiro is to be done with your whole family or a group of friends. Grandmas coo over newborns, uncles chuck toy dogs under the collar, children howl with pleasure, girlfriends gossip and make every expression on the spectrum from aghast to elated. These collectives of noisy, laughing Spaniards is endearing. I’m sure these relationships are not perfect – their lives are marred by the ugly and rendered wonderful by the beauty of life. Just like mine.
Outside the glass pane in front of me is a white butterfly. I watch it weave its way through the foliage flittering and dipping then rising. I wait for it to come to settle on something. It does not, it can’t decide. This is how I feel. ‘Me too, me too little mariposa,’ I want to tell it. Here in this library I enjoy the sunlight and the stillness despite the busyness of my mind. I vow to release my desire for perfectionism. The longing is something that will stay with me forever. May it lessen with time.
I wrote this yesterday in sunny Madrid and today I am back in grey stormy London.