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As if I would really write a blog post about American football?

Grief / American FootballThe Midget and I watched a film on the subject of grief yesterday evening. It was about American football which is a sport where they use their hands.

I shan’t pretend to understand the sport, or my sister’s interest in it. But like Quidditch and the MotoGP it’s infiltrated my life. My limited interpretation tells me it’s not a game of half measures. The culture of American football appears to be all-or-nothing. You’re in or you’re out. The key succeeding appears to be making sure everyone knows what their role is and making them perfect that role.

I’d make a terrible American football player. It’s not just that I don’t want to dress up in pads and a helmet that smell of sweat and blood. And it isn’t that my two X chromosomes make me comparatively physically weak. I’m hopeless at the cheering and the jumping up and down, I’d be uncomfortable with the level of prescription, and I’d be a bore on the bus as I get travel sick and hardly know any lyrics suitable for a sing-along.

There is part of me which dearly believes that if I would just pay more attention to the music and follow the rhythm to which others seem to wave their arms, legs and life, I’d fit in better and things would be easier. Maybe I wouldn’t find myself in a different country to the people I love struggling for a sense of belonging with my dreams of the future turned up-side down. I know though, this is a lie. Every time I try to control the situation and make people happy I have the opposite effect. I’m not the sort of person who can sit on the sidelines. I’m going to fight to play the game by my rules. I always do.

Control, and believing you have it, are apparently vital to well-being according to my current psychology reading: Me, Myself and Us by Brian Little. I figure the sort of control you have matters. For me, it matters that I have control over how I spend my time. I dislike a sense of urgency and the pressure that goes with it. I dislike doing things just because someone else, some-when, thought it was a good idea. For some it’s control of knowing things are moving in the right direction. The bank balance is creeping up and the job title shifts a little every now and again to accommodate the inevitable and necessary change in time. Grief happens when something suddenly snatches way our sense of control.

In the first few minutes of the film, almost the entire American Football team was killed in an aeroplane crash. The story was how do you rebuild a team and community. The grief is overwhelming and yet the remnants of the team that remain keep pushing forward. Not smoothly, not elegantly, but with fits of anger and bursts of uncontrollable rage. Grief hurts. It is individual and incomprehensible. Success had to be redefined because you can’t win matches when you’ve lost your team. You can’t be strong without a solid foundation and the foundation – the talent, the coaches, the faith – had gone.

The Midget is on a winning streak. I can see it in her grin, in the twinkle in her eye and the tone of her enthusiasm for life. It delights me to see her so happy. I’m less stable. I’m haunted by grief so my successes need to be smaller. They include recognising my pain and voicing it. Accepting I’m never going to know the lyrics of the songs being played on the bus and that’s okay. Knowing I’m a thousand miles away and most often alone but that’s where I want to be. Trusting the love in my heart isn’t a bad thing sent to cause me trouble but is my greatest strength.

Bad days are those where I can’t see how my actions can resolve my problems. When someone dies, gets diagnosed with a terrible illness, hurt or betrays you, you inevitably feel helpless. As much as you say ‘this isn’t my fault’ or ‘I couldn’t have done anything’, you can’t actually change the situation. The only thing you can do is choose to respond to the situation with faith.

The college football team lost a lot of matches in the years following the plane crash. When you suffer a significant knock back you can’t just jump back on your feet. The rebuild is a long slog. The team though was rebuilt, and as the credits of the film rolled round, the later eventual successes (the putting the ball beyond the right line and the winning of shiny things) were recognised as the result of the long stint of grunt work.

[The film was ‘We are Marshall‘ and is based on a true story. Yes, there was a delay between writing and publishing.]

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Prove yourself wrong with a diary

snake skin

I keep a diary. Like everything else in my life right now, my habit of writing in it does not obey a regular pattern. It’s not an eloquent journal of events and intelligent observations. It’s a raw first draft bashed into being as I process my emotions. It consists of traditional diary entries, less traditional letters, quotes I’ve enjoyed, violent rants, considered plans, lists and maybe slightly intrusive observations of strangers made on trains, planes and from the corners of coffee shops. This makes it the closest I’ve got to an honest reflection of how I actually think.

Primarily, I keep this notebook because it allows me to experiment with words and and ideas on a page which magically enhances my clarity of thought. An unexpected benefit however has recently emerged: my diary entries are more accurate than my memory.

The memory that lies

Recently, a friend told me (and it was implied by another) that I had approached a particular situation with a less than ideal attitude. Because such an attitude matches with my known past behaviours I didn’t question it. I absorbed the criticism and let it sink in. I chastised myself for repeating the same mistakes as I have time and time before. I felt guilty and that I was making a bad situation worse by my childish and selfish ways. Was this weakness becoming more prominent with time or was I just becoming more aware of it. In either case, how did I overcome it. I constructed a reading list and an action plan.

When, later, I flicked back through my diary, I read my description of my emotions preceding and proceeding the event in question. It surprised me. No, stunned me. My fears, apprehensions, desires and other emotions contrasted with what had been assumed. Assumptions I’d unquestioningly believed. My attitude had been both much more complex and appropriate.

My memory was wrong. My friends assumptions were wrong. Decisions were being made on faulty data.

Now a wise friend questioned whether or not I perhaps lie to my diary. This is a good question asked by a good scientist. As far as I’m aware though, whilst I might omit details because I’m not yet ready to write about them, I don’t outright lie. If I write ‘I had a great day today’ I believed what I wrote at the time I wrote it.

The uncomfortable necessity of assumptions

No understanding can be made without assumptions but there’s a point when we stop recognising assumptions as assumptions and start thinking of them as facts. I’m probably guiltier of this than most people. Finding patterns is an obsession. I want to understand the story. However, making assumptions based on out-dated presumptions about someone else’s motivations is damaging. It stops us asking the question of what’s really going on here.

Assumptions are necessary if we’re going to imagine the stories that allow us to empathise with one another. I’m all for empathy, but the most important piece of the empathy puzzle, as I see it, is acknowledging that our feet don’t fit someone elses shoes. My sister’s feet are similar enough that we typically wear the same size shoes. Sometimes I use those squidgy insoles that stop your feet aching if you’re strutting around in heels for a long time, but other times my sister complains that I stretch them. My experience walking in her shoes is very much different to her experience walking in the same shoes.

On discussing how to approach a study of a subjective experience such as happiness, psychologist Daniel Todd Gilbert in his book Stumbling on Happiness states, “In short, if we adhere to the standard of perfection in all our endeavours, we are left with nothing but mathematics and the White Album.” Therefore, we can expect to make some mistakes from time to time about others.

The future of the diary

Yet what I believed I’d felt like and the words I chosen to describe the experience as it was happening to me were so astoundingly different. This experience has shaken me. It threw me into a Socrates feeling of I know I know nothing. If I know so little about how I felt a mere two months ago, how can I make decisions based on what I thought I felt years ago?

Why does it happen? My hypothesis is that I’m most susceptible to remembering my emotions wrong when I am insecure about how I feel. In other words, when there’s a contrast between what I think I should feel and what I actually feel. This is particularly acute when the behaviours/motivation relate to my recognised weaknesses.

In hindsight, I’m likely to label my memories as selfish, manipulative, bossy, controlling or clinging because I’m overly fearful of such descriptions. In the moment, I’m going to feel independent, clever, determined, organised or attentive.

Unwinding these practices is an impossible task, but maybe using my diary is a start.

I must stop this silliness and start being curious about what’s actually going on in my mind. What do I actually believe? Repeating mistakes of the past isn’t inevitable. Maybe actually I’ve learnt more than I give myself credit for, I just can’t see it.

The difficult part is believing in the change.

Have you tried anything similar?

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We need each other: asking for and receiving help

we need each other

“The bottom line is that we need each other. And not just the civilised, proper, convenient kind of need. Not one of us gets through this life without expressing desperate, messy, and uncivilised need. The kind we are reminded of when we come face-to-face with someone who is in deep struggle.

Dependence starts when we’re born and lasts until we die. We accept our dependence as babies, and ultimately, with varying levels of resistance, we accept help as we get to the end of our lives. But in the middle of our lives, we mistakenly fall prey to the myth that successful people are those who help rather than need, and broken people need rather than help.”

Brené Brown, Rising Strong

The magic of conversation

I’m tearing a croissant apart, getting the buttery grease on my fingers. Opposite me sits my sister. She’s sipping her coffee and contemplating my expression as she battles for emotional control in that careful processed way that adults do.

She’s younger than me by only two years which makes her most definitely an adult. Yet, sometimes I struggle to see her as grown-up: I chastise her for leaving a light on, for being absent minded about sun-cream or for being oblivious to her surroundings. She gives me a reprimanding look as she silently switches the light off, a guilty grin when she gets burnt, and an expression that says ‘well what did you expect’ when I ask her which way to go. Other times I’m in awe of how fierce she is. It seems to me that she will fight for what she believes in, quietly and unassumingly, with the strength of a whole herd of rhino.

Sometimes she stuns me with her wisdom and insight. I can unravel in front of her and she picks up the sprawled threads of my emotionally distraught story and patches them back together. She lays it out in front of me and navigates as I turn it over and spin it around to see who I am. She watches me cry with an intensity that normally leaves her with tears rolling down her cheeks.  When I feel as intact as my half-eaten croissant, she shows me how strong I am inside. And I believe her.

Leaning on each other though is something we’ve had to learn for ourselves. The emotional dependence has taken longer to  develop than the logistical. It’s taken a lot of time. Death helped, multiple times. Me screwing up badly with communicating about heartbreak helped. Fear of what will happen if we don’t talk created an urgency that can’t be ignored. But joy helped too.

We talked about talking. Or, more precisely, we talked about not talking. Not talking kills. I told her about how I feel, and how I’ve felt. She flared between anger, hurt and glee. We marvelled at the faults in the fundamental beliefs we have about each other. Before, we didn’t have the courage or maturity to be candid with each other without causing hurt. However, in the past few weeks, we have learnt that we have both been excruciatingly wrong in our assumptions. We redrew a map of our relationship and recognised a vast unexplained, unexplored territory.

It felt, to me, like playing a strategy game for hours and wondering how you can possibly succeed with only one gold mine. Just as you’re beginning to think you are totally incompetent and a failure as a human being, or that the game is botched, one little foot-soldier stumbles across a whole mountain of gold hidden along that dark, unexplored map edge. You feel like a fool, but suddenly know you have the resources necessary for success.

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Sometimes you don’t see a door until your nose is pressed up against it.

open minds open doors

I live, temporarily, on the side of a mountain, just north of Barcelona in Catalonia. It’s a beautiful mountain. Although I have fallen and scraped my knees on it, it is not a rugged place. Stone markers indicate the boundaries of the villages and those villages take responsibility for the mountain. There are benches to rest on, a cabin for hikers to sleep in and water fountains to provide cool refreshment. Cacti and wild asparagus grow here. It smells of rosemary.

mountain-4I’ve been away from the village for ten days and have missed the mountain. Living here, I’ve stared out at it from the balcony as I’ve munched my morning cereal, admiring the dark green of the foliage against the bright blue Spanish sky. I have glanced up at it, through the window from the sofa as lightning strikes and a thick mist blurs its edge. I have run, time and time again, up the steep paths, slowly building a courage to push myself. It’s been a safe place to practice self-belief.

My first run back in the village was a gentle one. The footpath weaves up the side of this mountain towards a statue of Jesus – his arms stretch out as if blessing, or laughing at, the village below. For me he is a touch stone. I reach him; I’ve done a good job. In that moment he and I are equals.

Beside me ran S. We met at the local paella cooking competition and for the next three weeks she has kindly undertaken the job of feeding and providing a home for me. Her wish is to improve her English and for her young daughters to have the advantage of speaking English without thinking about it. My challenge is to instigate a desire in them to master the challenge of becoming bilingual. Being bilingual opens closed doors.

I talked as we ran, providing a conversation that was valued on multiple levels. I rambled a bit as I had to focus on not falling over, again, and try to talk in sentences that are coherent and whole. It’s amazing how difficult speaking slowly is. It’s crossed my mind that clarity of thought may be tied up with the rhythm of speech. I wonder if anyone has tested this? S asked questions, smiled, laughed and on occasion dispelled wise advice. There’s something special and free about talking to someone who is only temporarily invested in your life. Their judgement carries less weight, and they often offer fresh insight. The advice is more likely to be philosophy orientated than results orientated because they know they will never bear witness to the outcome. Our run reminded me how lucky I am to have such a strong network of these temporary advisors.

Family friends came over for dinner and asked me if I am studying.

I laughed and with a smile told them “I’m deceiving you with my face, I’m older than I look.” I explain not only do I have degree, but also I have been a traditional employee. The question always comes though, what’s next.

I think of the sugar packets my mother once brought back from Italy in a gesture of open minds open doorsacceptance. Each had a word on the back: ‘Think’, ‘Draw’, Love’. At dinner I explain I will write, in the sunshine and I will be happy. I used to say such things with hope, now I state them with a belief that makes people lean forward intrigued.

And then?

“Be happy.”

I’m told if I’m looking for a job, there in Spain, using my education, to say.

In my life I have been given many open doors. Right now I’m in a great place. Not only am I free from responsibilities, but I have this fantastic combination of education and experience which makes me atypical and therefore able to see in ways other people are not. I have some really great people supporting me, even though they struggle to understand me at times. What’s more, I have faith in myself and my ability to adapt. Despite whatever the future throws at me, I believe wholeheartedly I’m going to be able to smile.

The secret, perhaps, is to embrace the uncertainty of what might happen next. I have to select my doors with care. If I’m walking through, I need to believe it leads somewhere that fits with my values and life philosophy. Sometimes you don’t see a door until your nose is pressed up against it.

Originally, I didn’t go looking to move to this village, I was invited here. I was so unsure about it that when the first offer came up I was hesitant about committing to staying six weeks. By the time I go home I’ll have been in Catalonia for three months. It doesn’t feel long at all.

Staying so long was not planned. In this second part of my trip I’m living with a family I met at an event that I went to because a friend I’d made a few days earlier had suggested I came along to see what was happening. There I could have spoken to anyone, but I ended up briefly speaking with S. In the short conversation that we had that day, S asked my thoughts on her quest to find an au-pair. As I was leaving, I suggested we swapped numbers. The chance of everything lining up was slim. If the dates hadn’t worked out right or if I’d already had booked my flight home, I wouldn’t have ended up offering to stay for a few weeks.

Discovering doors is a beautiful thing.  Initiating and nurture the conversations by which you find them takes an open mind. Walking through is a risk. But, if you don’t have the courage to say yes, you stay between the same walls you always have.

I am so grateful that I have the courage to smile and say, “Yes, thank you.”open minds open doors

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On making a decision that’s true to who I am

busy-bee

[Before you think, oh no, Catherine’s going crazy with the writing, remember that the writing is the evidence I’m not going crazy.]

I have made a decision, but still every now and again I find myself doubting it. I wonder at what it is I’m trying to achieve and what it is that is driving me. My motivations are probably not all good, and that there are probably some faulty goals hiding within the good intentions. That said, maybe I’m underestimating myself.

Option One

Option one is to make certainty. It’s to draw a line. It’s to say there’s no looking back. It’s time to move on. Turn my back and walk away.

In a way, being about certainty and control, this is the safest option. It’s a sharp pain but then without quite so many triggers of what has gone before, the healing becomes easier. It’s no longer taking a risk but taking a decisive course of action.

Some friends advise me along this route although they hide from acknowledging the true amount of sacrifice they would be forced to make because of my actions. Cutting myself free can’t be done in a half-hearted measure. If I wield the knife, I break their toys too.

This is not what I would naturally choose as I believe a stronger healing comes through talking and working though problems rather than avoiding them. I want to grow and learn, not keep repeating old mistakes. It kind of feels rash and desperate to me just to run away because you’re too much of a coward to hurt a bit. So far in this decision taking malarkey I’ve found that even though not running away leaves me open to occasionally tripping up, it’s given me the opportunity to learn to laugh at the situation. Nothing heals faster than laughter.

Option Two

Option two is to numb, everything. Option two is not really an option but the inevitable place you end up if you don’t make a choice. It’s a pit of misery and despair. I refuse to go there again.

Since I can find humour in the situation and can laugh at myself, there seems no risk I’m going to head down this path. There is no need to worry about my mental well-being.

Option Three

Option three is what I’ve been trying to do. It’s the choice to let go of any control. It’s to trust that I’m going to find my way back to my feet without trying to stand. It’s to watch the trigger being pulled, feel the emotion as it hits and then, with great difficulty put myself back in front of the gun and relax.

This sounds hard, but it’s just a matter of iteratively improving your self-awareness. Since I’ve taken control of my happiness, rather than put it in the hands of anyone else, I’ve found that the time it takes to get back on my feet has become shorter and shorter. This weekend for example, I was laughing at a situation within less than 24 hours that not so long ago would have left me miserable for weeks. Just 72 hours later and I’m wondering why I bothered being so upset about something that on the grand scale of things doesn’t really matter.

Acknowledgement

I have to be able to acknowledge what it is I feel and think. The two often contradict but that’s ok. There’s no theory of everything when it comes to what’s going on with me. I can’t be understood by a series of beautiful symmetrical equations. I’m the sum of a whole heap of irrational constants and unrelated variables.

The contradictions are the interesting points. My feelings come from fierce self-preservation, the claws-out catfight to avoid pain, the struggle to find comfort and my values being thrown into the arena.

My values set me apart from other people, but my values also include a heavy weight of caring what others think of me. Getting to the point where I’m not making my choices based on other people’s values, but instead on what I believe in, is taking considerable time and will probably be my version of Sisyphus pushing a boulder up a hill for eternity.

Improvements are however noticeable. I might feel a mess right now, but in action I am focused. It’s not like my last months at work where I didn’t want to get up in the morning. My experience of forgiveness has illustrated this, as does the fact that I wake eager to live the day ahead and make something happen.

Still though, feelings of shame exist because of my thoughts about other people’s expectations. Like everyone else, I want to be seen as strong and confident. Instead I am very much aware that when I’m exposing my fears, sobbing on the floor, reaching out to friends with a bouquet of pain that I look neither strong nor confident, despite genuinely believing I am both.

The problem comes with the contradiction between what we grow up thinking strong and confident looks like and what the courage that makes both illusions possible actually is like.

When I look at my life now, and compare it to my life of the past I see how much more courageous I have become. Not only have I opened up more in the last few months to some of the people I love most dearly, but I have also been to Egypt, refocused my life on my writing and what I want to do and be, lived abroad for a considerable amount of time and much more. But when I imagine what other people see, I think of the mess that I must appear to be.

Wider social expectations are problematic for me too. I’ve made considerable mistakes trying to fit inside boxes when what I want is freedom and my own independence. My perfect day of today is incredibly similar to my perfect day of ten years ago. The only difference being that now I’ve got more experience to flesh it out with. It’s taken that much time for me to realise that I don’t need a piece of paper that tells me I’m clever, to possess a few square metres of ‘my space’ or to please anyone just for the sake of their devotion. Such awareness helps me understand what really matters to me, and what is worth fighting for.

Acceptance

The ‘not good enough’ terror surfaces. Like a jack in a box, it catches me by surprise. You can sharply slam down the lid to make it go away, but it eventually it springs back up. Instead it can only be conquered by looking hard and realising it’s a doll on a spring. It’s not real. Such fears of not being ‘good enough’ are just fabrications too.

Everything is impermanent. Even in my long ago moment of blackness when I was incapable of seeing that any change could possibly happen, change found me.

At that time, I did not have the strength to wield a knife. But by not wielding the knife I accidentally saved a friendship. (I also caused damage to numerous others.) At that time, I didn’t have the choice, I was too cold and numb to react in any way but that which in the moment seemed to give the most instant protection. If it had been a friend’s life and I was sharing a thought out logical opinion, I would have said take the knife with two hands and save your imminent self from all the future pain.

Not everyone gets such an option. Often the knife is plunged in for them. The bonds are severed. The friendships are torn apart. Being given the choice as a blessing.

I have to accept reality. It won’t always be so painful, but right now it’s going to hurt from time to time. I think of it like holding your arm out for a blood test. Despite the prick of the needle, you know it’s in your best interest. My veins though are tricky things. If you look at my arms you can barely see them. The nurse removes the needle and says they’ve failed to get any blood. They need to try again but with the other arm. Acceptance is holding the other arm out too, even when you know what’s coming, and that they probably won’t get any blood from the other arm either.

The funny thing is that blood tests never hurt as much as you imagine they will.

I’m working on accepting the difference between what I want and what I have, or what I think I should do and what I am doing. I also have to accept that other people are different and that I do not understand them, must not judge them and must not draw them any boxes. It’s letting go of trying to control others or myself.

I must move forward without wearing a mask.

Faith

Reading Erich Fromm’s Art of Loving I initially thought that what I was absorbing from the book was a lesson that love is a combination of ‘care, respect, responsibility and knowledge’. He describes love as ‘the active concern for the life and growth of that which we love’. Such a definition certainly helps me widen my understanding of love. It adds to my understanding from The Road Less Travelled by M. Scott Peck where love is described as the allocation of importance. To clarify here, I’m talking of love as that which I feel for all those people I can deeply about, not the lusty or romantic love of infatuation.

And then, in Fromm’s book, I came across a paragraph that struck me hard.

“To have faith requires courage, the ability to take a risk, the readiness even to accept pain and disappointment. Whoever insists on safety and security as primary conditions of life cannot have faith; whoever shuts himself off in a system of defence, where distance and possession are his means of security, makes himself a prisoner. To be loved, and to love, need courage, the courage to judge certain values as of ultimate concern – and to take the jump and stake everything on these values.”

Faith is important. It’s an action not just a state of being. It’s not a blind hope for a fantasy outcome it’s a belief that it’s worth it to love all those people you care for. This faith is an awareness that things are changing, and that if I keep my heart open for long enough, continue even though I might be played like a fool, keep breathing steadily through the pain, then the friendships I cherish more than anything else in the world, will not only remain intact, but will grow stronger.

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The best of friends

Today I realised I have been sorely underestimated. It’s easy to equate being emotional with crying and misery, but being emotional is about much more than that. It’s also about being able to laugh so much you have to hold your sides because they hurt.

The laughter started with a call to my sister, who delighted me with her stories and let me tease her for a while. All big sisters like such an opportunity, especially when the little one is loving the attention too.

I followed this with a call to the Noph. For anyone who might have not read my many mentions of the Noph before, she is my best friend and has been since we were three years old. Such a long and intense friendship, filled with hours and hours of challenging conversations, numerous overlapping love interests – particularly in our teenage years – and so much laughter you could flood a small town, makes for an incredibly resilient support system. We don’t have a showy friendship. You won’t find a thousand selfies of the two of us together. We don’t have a friendship that involves being attached together, always shopping together or going out together.

It’s easy to underestimate something that looks so dull and ordinary on the outside. Together though we make diamonds look weak. Today, as if by magic, the Noph somehow managed to dress up my insecurities to make them not my enemies, but my strengths. The more we talked, the more I realised that I have in her both a shield, a sword and a jester’s costume. Since the hurt had already impacted, and getting angry and waving the sword around would just make the situation worse, she took to entertaining me. I, of course, reciprocated.

Women giggling has certain connotations. It’s occasionally thought that they talk about anything, but in my experience, there tends to be some highly respected boundaries that are held in place for the protection of an outsider’s privacy. This is due to respect. Neither of us have ever pushed the other to go over such a line, we’ve never really had any desire to. It’s not like we’re naturally gossipy girls.

Typically, if you fear we might have talked about something personal that affects you, you can be safe assured we haven’t.

In the circumstances though, what with a lack of respect being the main cause of hurt in the whole curfuffle of the last few days, we both seemed to independently come to the conclusion that the benefits of pushing the boundaries a little was worth it.

And what an insightful conversation it made.

When you find yourself opening up, talking about the shame that haunts you like it’s a comedic sketch, healing comes fast. Talking about shame is the way to beat it. After a while you start to realise that you don’t need to keep carrying it around. Hours later I’m still grinning like the Cheshire Cat. I am free, and tonight I know I will sleep soundly with a grin on my face.

I am the luckiest girl in the world.

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