All Posts By Catherine Oughtibridge

On woollen socks and in-the-box thinking

washing line covered in snow
A washing line in the snow – picture taken for the Mother. I hope she appreciates it!

At some point I realised that I had everything the wrong way round.

I was talking, in that absent-minded way, about socks. Saying, with a slight air of complaint, that we just don’t have proper woollen socks in England. At the time, in my hands, I grasped a large pair of thick woollen socks my friend had given me to wear over my normal socks to fight off the sub-freezing temperatures outside. What I wanted to say was just thank you. What I ended up saying was that in England, we don’t have socks. You go into a shop and all you find are socks made of synthetic materials. Even Marks and Spencer’s posh socks are only part cotton.

And my friend just stared at me as if she didn’t speak English. Except she speaks almost perfect English. Her typical use of the language is, without doubt, closer to ‘standard British English’ than my own. Apart from the occasional v/w sound that give her away as being Scandinavian, she sounds like she grew up playing lacrosse. It’s probably safe to say that the grammar pedants would have fewer qualms with her spoken English than my own.

I repeated myself, because most of the time I can get by such failures of comprehension with simpler phrasing, a slower pace and by pronouncing my ‘t’s and ‘h’s. It didn’t work. She looked at me like the French look at me when I’m trying to ask for more than one thing at once. Completely blank.

And then, she decided to use the reliable tactic of demonstration to prove the point that I was being a naïve idiot. She leant over to a box, removed the lid and pulled out a ball of wool.

“This I bought in England.”

I’m worried about becoming like one of those city kids who don’t know milk comes from a cow. I stared at the knitting needles and realised that I had a few things to learn about life. Most of which is about attitude.

If I want such wonderful socks, I need to learn to knit socks, not complain at the lack of woollen socks in the modern British culture. Or, to extrapolate from socks to life: I need to wake up myself, not expend energy complaining about the culture being asleep. Wasn’t it Gandhi who said one ought to be the change one wants to see?

Playing. Nothing but good, wonderful, delightful play.

Sliding in snow
Me meeting real voluminous snow for the first time.
Photograph by Kaisa Vänskä, used with permission.

We go for a walk around the neighbourhood, in a perfectly civilised fashion

Two young women who haven’t seen each other for some time, who never have spent all that long together, but whom somehow fit together as if we’ve been friends for years and years. Conversation goes back and forth: life and its tribulations; philosophies and their failings; the weather. Being pen-pals we know about each other’s lives, we understand each other’s stories, and so this conversation is a continuation of an ongoing discussion of life.

And then, as we’re reaching the apartment, I spot a washing line and decide what I want is to nip inside and grab my camera. Bemused, but accepting, my friend grabs her camera too. The washing line is covered in snow, more snow than that sprinkling England had, and I’m thinking suddenly of the Mother. I want to take a picture of this washing line specially for her. I imagine she, and possibly only she, will appreciate it.

And then we’re outside again, and the blue-haired Finnish photographer, who has welcomed me into her home, is laughing at me.

A grin forms over my face when I look at the snow

The air here is fresh, quiet. I was a witness to this landscape on the train from Helsinki. I travelled north. The sun rose and the snow deepened. I saw the white roads, the banks of snow, the tall trees and frozen lakes. My friend met me at the train station and we took a road trip with sandwiches and a flask of tea. I marvelled at how she drove on ice, how the tyres just worked. How everything was white, and yet, at the same time, in the ever changing sunlight, nothing was. My delight continues. I cannot quite believe my eyes. There is so much snow – less she says than years past – more than I could imagine.

She’s a wonderful photographer

Her pictures capture the quiet silence of this place. The shadows and light of the low sun. The sparkles in the crystals of frozen condensation. The small glimpses of life through the flutter of a bird’s wings. Nature’s sculptures – buried trees – worthy of a permanent position in a sculpture park.  And, between laughing at me and my disbelief, she’s teaching me. Showing me that to make the snow appear white I need to have the histogram for my photo closer to over-exposed than underexposed. Warning me that when I take my camera inside I must keep it zipped tight in its bag, so that it warms slowly, for preferably at least an hour, and doesn’t get damaged by the moisture.

And I snap away. My photos under-exposed, then over-exposed as I switch from taking pictures in the shade of the building to pictures dominated by the sunlight bouncing off the bright, sparkling snow. But in time I find balance. The controlled, yet imp-like smile of my friend gives me permission to take my time. There’s no rush here. She laughs at my delight as I squeal about the snow being like glitter, or because at last I have managed to take a picture of her that’s not a silhouette. I sound like a child, amazed and free.

Then she points to a mound of snow, which some local children have made into a slide

She suggests that I try sliding down, although she doesn’t try herself. She plonks herself and her camera down in the snow, as if the snow were a sofa that one could sink into with ease. Cautiously I climb up, taking care of my footing, I sit slowly, and then, gently I slide down.

And then I run up, my boots springing off the ice. And slide down.

It’s somewhere between minus seven and minus twenty but I have forgotten about the cold. I run up and slide down.

My dear friend gets me a plastic bag. And I run up, lay the bag down on the ice slide, sit upon it and go. Again and again and again. Until my clothes are sticky with sweat and my breath catches in my chest. And I’m laughing. Frost forms on my scarf. I’m talking in quick spurts, occasionally checking that still buried in the cold snow my friend is happy for my to be so indulgent. But she grins as she snaps more and more pictures and tells me I can go again, if I want. Like a grandmother who has seen it many times before and yet is still moved by the childish delight.

I decide I love snow.

At what point do I get a spreadsheet out for my travel planning

travel planning for hiking (Rota Vicentina)
The colour of the cliff against the sea made me want to rub the dirt between my fingers. Rota Vicentina, Portugal.

When the Midget and I did a three-week train adventure in Eastern Europe I booked our flights, the first two nights’ accommodation (in a hostel dorm) and the overnight train travel that would get us to Amsterdam on the right morning to meet the Dutch Kiwi – who kindly invited us to stay for a few days.

For some people, an attitude of planning as you go along must seem abhorrent

It certainly does have its downsides. After all, you spend a significant amount of your time staring at maps and trying to get good enough wifi to make a booking for the next night (or at least you did in the past when foreign data was so expensive). This is precious time that you’d prefer to spend staring at gargoyles or petals. If your holidaying time is limited, then there’s often a feel that you need to be looking outward not down at your phone. And perhaps, particularly in busy seasons, on tight budgets or in unusual locations then there’s not all that much choice to begin with.

Even less at the last minute.

Urgency however, has a value. It forces you to make a choice. When you’re running to a deadline it’s often easier to get things done. Being able to book accommodation without excessive hesitation is a skill that has come with practice and has now saved me hours.

Sometimes, having this flexibility pays off in a big way

I went to France for two weeks and stayed for two months. I went to Spain for seven weeks and stayed for three months. Imagine if I’d had a flight booked, or accommodation booked, and had therefore turned down the opportunities that developed around me? On both occasions I could have stayed longer, I was invited to stay even longer, but I had plans made elsewhere.

On some occasions though, a solid plan makes a trip

For me, this includes almost all travel done with anyone else. I’m used to my own stress and have coping strategies in place for being lost in train stations, unable to find the right bus and sat on the doorstep waiting for someone to let me in. What I find much more difficult is having someone else there beside me, tapping their foot, rustling the papers or bemoaning the situation. When you are with someone else, you are, in part, also responsible for them.

I’m also keen on having plans when I’m hiking. It’s tiring, physical work and the truth is, I don’t want to be walking and worrying about where I’m going to be sleeping. It can be difficult enough just with the blisters between your toes.

Last year The Grump and I walked a section of the Rota Vicentina on the coast of Portugal

It’s a stunning walk down to Cape St. Vincent, and for someone like me who prefers the walking to the map reading, it’s a gift because it’s so well marked. Since we were changing accommodation almost every night, and staying in small villages, it made sense to book everything in advance. I believe that the Grump would be happier if we also had the location of the nearest market, nearest bakery and reviews of all local restaurants all researched before either of us set foot in an airport, but where we’re sleeping and how we’re getting there tends to be enough for me. When you’ve got so many nights, each in a different place, having a spreadsheet becomes invaluable. Hiking is not meant to be a stressful endeavour.

My spreadsheet looks something like this:

Date__/____/__
Location
Address
Contact Number
Name of Host
Kitchen
Breakfast
Cost (Euro)
Cost (GBP)
Amount Paid
Who Paid?
Notes

Location is the name of the place as we remember it. Pronounced wrong. The address is what we’re going to google when we’re lost. The contact number is rung when we discover that the address on google has failed us. And the name of the host is another way of keeping nights separate in our brains.

If we’re splitting the cost, we can need columns for settling money – sometimes multiple currencies – and a statement of whether or not we’ve actually paid. Then there’s the weird notes, like that we can get the key from the grandmother who lives two doors down.

The kitchen column exists because quite often I prefer to book somewhere that I have access to a kitchen. Eating out every day is expensive, and sometimes you’re not seeking something fancy. All you want is a bowl of soup heated up in the microwave, somewhere that you can kick off your boots and curl up on the sofa.

However, a plan is just a plan

It’s a model of the situation you expect. But during travels you are, from time to time, going to happen upon the unexpected.

Breakfast, for example, is a word with a different meaning depending on where you are. If you book somewhere in England and it includes breakfast, you probably can skip lunch. If you book somewhere in Italy or Spain, you might fine what you actually have is a mug of coffee and a biscuit. You have to be at ease with some unknowns.

Even when you think you’ve got everything organised and multiple copies of the spreadsheet printed off, it cloud-stored and emailed back to yourself, you can still find yourself wandering around the wrong village (Arrifana) at nine o’clock at night. Plans don’t always play out as smoothly as a spreadsheet suggests. Sometimes you grit your teeth, try your hardest not to say anything unkind to your normally lovable companion, and call someone for help.

Asking for help is a much more important skill in travelling than making fancy spreadsheets

If you want to get better at travelling, get better at asking for help. You might find that someone’s willing to rescue you when you’re drowning in the Yorkshire Dales or that when you’re desperate for a cup of tea, the hotel receptionist will fill your mug with boiling water, even though it’s midnight and they normally charge for hot drinks. Having a tidy spreadsheet doesn’t keep you dry or your tummy full.

There was a miscommunication at the final moment of our Rota Vicentina walk

At the point I thought I’d finished my 150km walk and sat down with my ice cream to celebrate, there was still 5km left and it needed to be done asap as otherwise we’d miss the bus. The Grump set the pace, I trudged along behind. By then, my feet really hurt. And yet, the next morning, we found a bakery where the Grump had savoury crepes which came with a huge helping of chips and I tackled the pastries and coffee. Although it was raining outside and we were both tired, we laughed at it all and appreciated what we’d achieved.

Despite this, or maybe because of it, this year the Grump and I are switching Portugal for Italy and are walking a section of the Via Francigena. Although it’s a few months away, we’ve booked our accommodation, the Grump has booked his flights and I’ve made a beautiful spreadsheet. Now I don’t have to worry about it until just before I leave when I remember I need to pack.

This is perhaps not how other people plan travels.

train travel on a ferry
This was the train from Naples to Catania. It took a ferry to cross from the mainland to Sicily which amused me more than taking a plane.

Often, I’m asked where I start when I’m planning my travels

When you’re thinking about travelling it’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the options. I’m lucky, in that now I have done some travelling, and met people from all over, I can build trips around visiting people I care about seeing again. There are a few other factors that orientate me within a plan. Primarily, I’m currently keeping to Europe. There’s a lot in Europe, and since I’m a young naïve woman who travels mostly alone, Europe is where I’ve decided I can push the edges of my comfort zone without jumping overboard.

This post demonstrates some of the whimsical thinking that goes on behind my travel planning.

A friend invited me to go stay with them during their spring holidays when the university is closed

Without really thinking about it, I said yes. She’s up in Finland and although I’ve driven as far as Sweden, I’ve never been to Finland. Ignoring how cold Finland is in March, it seems like an excellent idea. After all, I’ve never been to her town; I hadn’t heard of it until she moved there to study.

The two of us met in Sicily working as carpenters and have written to one another regularly ever since.

Another friend invited me skiing

I said yes despite never having been skiing before and knowing nothing about skiing. I’m sure I’ll learn, and I know I’ll have a great time since the friend in question is the sort of friend who has me giggling and chatting until the early hours of the next day – and it’s always about wondrous trivia and calamitous romances whilst eating much too much chocolate. She’s so accepting of me, and non-judgemental, that I find myself feeling comfortable even when I’m saying the most ridiculous of things, and this is despite our strong, differing opinions on odd socks. Skiing is in Austria. I’ve got new gloves, but I still need some good socks to keep my toes warm, I’ll need them for Finland anyway.

Paris is one of those cities I wish to see more of

And since another dear friend is starting work in Paris very soon, it would be a waste not to visit her and her partner and their sofa-bed to celebrate their move. I’m already imaging us in a Parisian patisserie, my mouth already watering. Then there’s the art galleries that I haven’t spent nearly enough time in and the streets which require some aimless wandering.

Which is the basis of the odd framework for my next trip (next big trip)

Which I’ve then bulked out with more whimsical intention. Since I’m going to Finland, I figured Estonia’s capital Tallinn is on the way. I read something about Tallinn long ago in a book, which I then promptly forgot, but which has managed to lodge an odd bead of curiosity in my mind. Then I learnt about the Singing Revolution which started in Tallinn in 1988 and which is the sort of thing I wish I’d been taught about in school.

It’s often entirely on gut feeling that I start off my plans for visiting places or seeing things. A painting in an art gallery can be a catalyst for my spending three months in one village in Northern Spain. A friend’s postcard spent too long staring at me and I had to go see the original again. It doesn’t take much to get me inspired, but when there’s a travel idea in my mind it takes root and won’t budge until I’ve followed it through. I’ve been to the same ice-cream shop in Italy on at least three, but probably four, entirely separate trips. All this goes to show that motivation is a complex topic. To me it feels whimsical, but simultaneously like the most obvious common sense.

Latvia and Lithuania happen to be between here and Estonia

Although I’ve been to a fair few European countries, I’ve not been to either. Lithuania particularly caught my attention because of a tour I did through Warsaw last May. From 1569 to 1795 Poland and Lithuania were joined in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which at its largest also contained Latvia, that odd extra bit of Russia, a bit of Estonia, considerable amounts of Ukraine and a tiny bit of Moldova. This commonwealth was notable for its quasi-democratic government and tolerance of religious differences.

Managing the logistics of this trip requires the full application of my analytical mind. Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital, is proving an interesting challenge to get to. It has a train line that only seems linked to the rest of the world during weekends (look up Rail Baltica I). The main problem seems to be a lack of standardisation of gauge. With EU funding, this part of the world is slowly becoming more connected.

I don’t know when I decided that I was going to do the whole lot by train

I think it was when I started considering the number of planes it would take to get back and forth: England to Helsinki, Helsinki north, back to Helsinki, off to Austria… It feels excessive and I’m not in a rush. Plus, leaving the obvious planet saving point aside, I prefer trains to planes. Often, the view out of the window is better. In a plane you get a breath-taking view on take-off and landing, and occasionally when the clouds clear as you’re passing over the Alps or along a stunning coastline. Most of the time though, what you see is cloud and often. Lots of cloud. And clouds are impressive, but not necessarily any better than passing through a quaint little village station. The windows are bigger on trains, and people rarely try to sell you a glass nail file for more money than you’ve spent on your entire lunch. On the Berlin to Warsaw train you get a free cup of coffee.

I also find trains soothing

There’s something about the motion of the train that has a calming effect on me. As long as you avoid the busy trains, and frantic crowds, you can have an easy afternoon, not doing a lot, just watching the world go by.

Writing, and reading, on trains I find comes easily to me. It’s like the motion of the train sets my mind moving. When I’m in a new place learning how to fit in and ideally create a temporary sense of belonging, then I often don’t pause long enough to get my thoughts and feelings and all that stuff I’m reflecting on scribbled out. A train can, in its own peculiar way, be a place of pause and sanctuary.

What’s your favourite way to travel?

The words I do not say (and pink birthday roses)

pink roses
Pink birthday roses – playing with fairy lights.

There’s a picture on the wall as you enter my family’s home which shows my family at my sister’s graduation. On my birthday, a new friend who dropped by to take me out for lunch saw this picture for the first time, and remarked on how incredibly young I look in it. The Photographer, for since I’m writing about him I best give him a name, had difficulty accepting that the picture was taken only eighteen months previous.

The Photographer stared at the picture in disbelief. I suggested it was the amazing effect of my tan, as before the picture was taken I’d been living in sunny Spain, but really that’s just my insecurities speaking. Nobody wants to suddenly look older. You want to age gracefully, not in sudden spurts caused by life’s brutal stresses.  I know that in the last year and a half I have aged disproportionately, and by the time the Photographer brought the picture up again in conversation again a few days later, I was feeling more accepting of this fact.

However, I’m pretty certain that I do look a lot better now than I did this time last year when I looked (according to the Mother) horrendous. She has such a beautiful way with words.

Last winter my overwhelmed subconscious conducted a revolution in my mind

Shit happens, as one dear friend would shrug his shoulders and say. It does happen, moments that feel cataclysmic, that shake your beliefs and leave you quivering in your skin, feeling like your heart will explode.

I could say so much, but a lump arises in my throat, blocking the feelings from developing into words.

Perhaps I haven’t been writing here so often because I feel like I’ve lost my voice. It’s wrapped up in a cocoon, growing slowly, developing as I look out from within and learn to pay attention to what I’m doing and where I’m going.

Stop, breathe, what’s going on here?

This isn’t an easy idea to implement, but the last year has taught me that identifying that what’s in my best interest is something only I can effectively do, and that I’m bad at it. Anyone else, who might believe they know better, can tell me what they believe is in my best interest, but following someone else’s instructions on how to live life is cumbersome and leads to resentment and confusion and blame. If my mind is going one way and my emotions another, I’m going to be intensely uncomfortable.

There’s a reason why my psychotherapist prods me with questions and waits for me to join the dots. Knowing what I want is my job. She sits back, nestled in her many cushions, and enables me to do the necessary work.

What are we doing? What are we wanting? What do we fear?

They look like such simple questions, but stopping and remembering to ask them, not just chase habits off the edge of the cliff, is not easy.

Each week, the psychotherapist unsettles the ground on which I stand with her little questions. And those weeks I don’t see her, I’m in foreign lands, taking on a role that’s often new to me, fitting into a group or family of strangers, learning how to belong. Learning how to be me against a blank canvas. At the same time, there’s the me of old that’s learning to breathe again: stories skip through the pages of my diaries; I’m painting with watercolours, acrylic and my favourite oils; there’s a click as my camera shutter blinks.  It’s an experiment; I’m playing.

It may sound simple, slow, boring even, but it’s surprisingly hard being gentle to yourself. It’s a gracious act of re-sculpting my mind that I’m undertaking. I’ve never known anything so difficult, nor so full of wonder. This revolution was a reaction to horror, but it is also a beautiful thing.

The year ahead dances in front of me. Tantalising with its potential.

The seasons change, and so do I

process of change
As the seasons change: Berries, on a walk in the snow.

“And what she said,” the Father continued, “Is that before someone gets any better, they always get worse first. They have to unlearn before they can learn.”

Driving back from the grandparents’ house after dinner, we were talking about the wisdom of an archery instructor. It was comparatively warm compared to other nights, a balmy 8 degrees celsius, and cosy in the car with the heated seats on and our tummies full. Encouraged by the Grandfather, I’d had a glass of wine and a couple of rich chocolates. The stars were out.

Sometimes you really need a quiet moment like that. With the Father talking, telling me stories, his voice calm and reassuring I felt relaxed, and although still exhausted, less like my tiredness was a problem. I’d been out all day. In a new place with new people making art in a new way. It had been fun and exciting, but the fear that rides in my blood was a little closer to the surface than I’m comfortable with. The more tired I get, the less vigilant I become at silencing the thumping anxiety.

The phrase about unlearning in order to learn stuck in my mind

Over the next few days I turned the idea over, upside down and back to front. It occurred to me that unlearning is uncomfortable, and that we resist the command to have faith.

In archery, as someone tries to make a correction to their technique, they find themselves initially piercing the target further away from the bullseye (or missing it altogether). They’re thinking about what they’re doing. It’s the muscles pulling back the string that unlearn how to shoot the arrow, and then relearn. The teacher can demonstrate, prod your muscles to make you conscious of them and keep up some encouraging rhetoric, but it’s the archer, both mentally and physically, who makes the shot. It takes time for the knowledge stored in the muscles to change.

I imagined the ensuing frustration. Like learning to drive on the right of the road when you’re used to the left – suddenly you’re forced to think harder, and inevitably you’re slower, you make more mistakes and you find the simple things more difficult. In moments of panic, when driving a foreign car, I reach for the gear stick and bash my hand on the door.

Is this change really a good change?

Was the technique not better before? The fears and uncertainties go round and round in your brain. It’s uncomfortable not being able to do the things that you used to be able to do with ease. If the archer keeps with the new technique though, they begin to improve again. And this time, when they plateau, the arrow is hitting its target with more consistency.

Theoretically, as a concept I get it. When you’re trying to improve though, and things keep going astray, it’s tempting to quit rather than see the frustration as part of the learning process. Only after working through the frustration, do you get closer to owning that smug smile.

Of course, the instructor smiles a knowing smile having seen the process happen over and over, but there’s nothing much they can do but calmly wait for the internal battle to take place, and hope that it’s won.

My psychotherapist has that smile too, the one that she smiles when I finally connect the dots that she’d been purposely not mentioning. Her eyes brighten, and she leans forward slightly, a positive affirmation of my conclusion.

Sometimes it’s not two steps forward, one step back, but one step back, two steps forward.

No, I’m not playing quidditch…

Quidditch hoops
No, not Yorkshire. This photo was taken one summer in Italy, but it does show you the three hoops that you can find at each end of the pitch.

This is another account of me admitting to being changed by a sport – played on broomsticks – that I do not play.

1. When the ball goes through the hoops, raise your arms

On a chilly Saturday in November, at the Northern Cup held in Sheffield, which, if you’re too muggle to know, is a quidditch tournament for those teams who are based in the north of the United Kingdom, I was a goal referee.

It was only for a couple of minutes as the previous goal referee was needed off-pitch. The snitch was already on pitch, held in its sock, bouncing off the bum cheeks of the snitch runner. The seekers were fighting over it. The beaters were attacking with their bludgers (dodge-balls) to disrupt the battle for the final snatch. The quaffle (a soft volleyball) had already leapt through the hoops thirty-eight times. All thirty-eight times being at the other end of the pitch to the three hoops which I monitored.

Now, if you know me well, you might think that I chose the hoops that had been so neglected because the chance of me having to wave my hands in the air to indicate a goal, or at my knees to indicate no goal, was slim. But no. I had no idea who was winning (or even playing) when I went on pitch. The low, incredibly bright, winter sun was my bigger concern. I didn’t want to screw up the first time I did anything quidditchy. I needed to be able to see.

There was one moment, when a chaser had the quaffle (I only really watched the quaffle as it was the only ball I was responsible for knowing about) and seemed to be heading in my direction. I tensed ready, determined to know with certainty if the ball went through a hoop (forwards or backwards, both count), but the chap was tackled before he got close enough to lob the ball in my direction. I was kind of disappointed.

Then the sock was pulled out of the snitch runner’s shorts. The snitch was held up in the air, and the game was suddenly over.

If you’re overly interested, there are some excellent photos depicting the role of a goal referee on the QuidditchUK website. Goal refereeing is apparently something that anybody can step in and do, and when these big tournaments happen, there’s always a great demand for referees. Which brings me to the weird realisation that even I, with my unexplained aversion to team sport, have managed to find something that possibly makes me more than just an awkward person sitting on the sidelines. I wore a skirt and boots. I didn’t have to dress up strange or demonstrate my inability to throw a ball. And it was all kind of nice.

2. They/she/he… a gender rule violation

Quidditch is a mixed gender sport, with a maximum of four of any one gender playing for a team at any one time. When I first, sceptically, discussed this rule with my sister, I assumed that, because life’s unfair, the team on the pitch would almost always contain four guys and three lasses. Watching one of the matches though on Saturday, I heard the whistle blown and it was announced that there was a gender rule violation. Too many women on the pitch at once. I laughed at myself, and shook my head. Wrong again.

I’m learning a lot about gender through quidditch. Gender is not the same as sex. Sex is biological. In most cases it’s binary, but not always. Gender is a choice.

If, like me, you are privileged to never have needed to actually think about what gender you are, because you’re quite comfortable being the gender that matches your sex, it’s likely that, like me, you’re lacking the mental flexibility to really get your head around the genders represented on the quidditch roster. It’s not easy. There are many players for whom gender identity is not what was originally written on their birth certificate. All those normal indicators that we cling to for defining gender, and not just long hair and pink nail varnish, but the contrast between a bobbing up and down walk and a wiggling side to side walk, have to be put aside in favour of the individual’s preference. Which you aren’t going to know unless you’re explicitly told. Some people define and own their gender for themselves. The rest of us accept what our elders assumed.

On the quidditch pitch, whatever you feel your gender to be is how the others are willing to see you. That makes a quidditch tournament somewhat unique. I asked my sister how the referee knows who counts as what: the captains tell the head referee before the call for brooms up. Simple really. I don’t know why I felt it would be more difficult that that. No, perhaps I do. I like to think of myself as an open minded, inclusive person, but the truth is, that much like everyone else in this world, I am inclusive when it regards things I know. What I don’t know, and aren’t comfortable with, makes me feel uncertain. I naturally gravitate towards people like me.

Until recently, nobody has ever asked me what it means to be a woman. For me, gender and sex have always been one, interchangeable idea. When it comes to talking about being female I’m at a loss. I’m missing the vocabulary. Looking at my nails, which are practical nails, a guy recently remarked that I wasn’t very girly. My soft hands are apparently rough. There’s a callus on my finger. I’d prefer to be chopping logs to painting my nails, but that, I’m sure, makes me no less girl. Are girly and feminine synonyms? Clearly not. So when people talk about gender, what are they actually talking about? Is it more about perception? Could someone be female in one culture and male in another based on how they are more comfortable dressing and working? Ancient Egyptian men wore jewellery, make-up and excessive perfume. They didn’t have trousers. Three and a half thousand years ago, Hatshepsut gave birth to a daughter but was portrayed as a man. It was what fitted her role and the needs of her people at that time.

So maybe what I really took in was this: I don’t need to know the gender of the person I’m sharing brownies with or gossiping about the game with to share brownies or gossip about the game. If in doubt, I can always use peoples names instead of assuming they/she/he or whatever other pronoun is in the mix. The captains and the head referees need to know peoples gender to make sure that the game is played to the rule book. But really, what difference does it make to me?

Previous things I learnt through quidditch:

On quidditch

 

 

 

 

When dropped, does it ring true?

'rings true'
Would you recognise an authentic coin?

All good books are different but all bad books are exactly the same. I know this to be a fact because in my line of work I read a lot of bad books – books that are so bad they aren’t even published, which is quite a feat when you consider what is published.

And what they all have in common, these bad books, be they novels or memoirs, is this: they don’t ring true.

– Robert Harris, The Ghost

The title, The Ghost, refers to the art of ghost-writing

I picked up the Robert Harris novel from a charity shop some time ago, and packed it in my suitcase when going to Madeira with my family, assuming rightfully that I wouldn’t be the only one to enjoy it. It’s a book about a ghost-writer, hired to write the autobiography of a fictional former British prime minister.

As one does on holiday, I read The Ghost quickly and obsessively over two days. Sometimes I fall headlong into book and allow it to absorb me completely, and that’s what happened. A book can be a safe place in which you can hide. A sanctuary away from thoughts of reality and feelings of supposed to. This is one of those books which you can just devour like that, and I did. Although on reflection, I still probably prefer Harris’ Pompeii or Imperium.

This quote though, about bad books, stopped me. I scribbled it down in my notebook wondering, what does it mean for something to ‘ring true’. Apparently, historically it was a phrase used to describe the sound of an authentic coin when dropped. Nothing to do with bells. It’s recognition of authenticity. Authentic, of course, being the word we use to differentiate things in a market place of fakery, look a-likes, and marketing charades.

Who would really expect a ghost-writer of a prime minister to stick to the truth?

But actually, does one ever expect the truth?

Thinking about biographies of figures with power, I’m reminded of reading the Dalai Lama’s autobiography and how I was amazed at the detachment that he showed to his younger self. As I read, I despised the young Dalai Lama for being so unlikable, and I despised the older Dalai Lama for not writing about himself with more gentility. This is despite me having some awareness of Buddhist beliefs around attachment and impermanency.

One of the parrots was very friendly with… Master of the Robes. He used to feed it nuts. As it nibbled from his fingers, he used to stroke its head, at which the bird appeared to enter a state of ecstasy. I very much wanted this kind of friendliness and several times tried to get a similar response, but to no avail. So I took a stick to punish it. Of course, thereafter it fled at the sight of me. This was a very good lesson in how to make friends: not by force but by compassion.

-Dalai Lama, Freedom in Exile

The belief that a story rings true, I think, has much to do with a feeling of connection. You must trust the author, and the narrator, not to hide too much from you. But at the same time, some truths feel too harsh. The protagonist in The Ghost doesn’t claim to write the truth, he knows how much more profitable an untrue, but flawed and human story is over something boringly reserved and factual. He knows that a cohesive story can be much easier to believe than a disjointed and incomprehensible truth.

It’s easy to forget how much we love our own narrative

As we learn, we match things into the narrative that we understand. Everything needs to link together, and our minds are often happy to make the connections within our subconscious without our awareness. If you believe you’re an idiot, then you will identify the things in the world that prove your belief to be true – the things that ‘ring true’ – and unwittingly discard praise for your competency. You don’t need to consciously wander around life thinking ‘I am an idiot’. It happens easily beneath the surface.

In a way, the brain’s modules are like specialists in a movie production crew. The cinematographer is framing shots, zooming in tight, dropping back, stockpiling footage. The sound engineer is recording, fiddling with volume, filtering background noise. There are editors and writers, a graphics person, a prop stylist, a composer working to supply tone, feeling – the emotional content […] And there’s a director, deciding which pieces go where, braiding all these elements together to tell a story that holds up. Not just any story, of course, but the one that best explains the ‘material’ pouring through the senses.

-Benedict Carey, How We Learn

We believe that which fits with what we already know about the world.

It’s intriguing then how readily we suspend our beliefs for entertainment. Fiction requires us to accept the unreal, for just a moment. This though is where craftsmanship comes in. We struggle when a protagonist acts against our beliefs, consider Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, or the fictionalisation of a world that does not obey our understanding of nature, but we’re also drawn to these dark protagonists and impossible futures. I know too well the discomfort of watching science fiction films with indigent, squirming physicists. For a story to ring true, we only need to believe it for the short amount of time that we’re absorbed in it, but to be absorbed, we have to believe willingly. Beneath the fiction, there has to be something we see ourselves in.

My truth is different to your truth

Inevitably, if our fundamental beliefs are wrong, then our narrative we’re trying to make things conform to is going to be skewed.

According to The Psychotherapist, there are certain things I believe, because at some early point in my life it was convenient to believe them. She calls this magical thinking. I understand these ideas to be logical and reasonable, but they’re innate. They came prior to my obsession with analysis. They came before language. When she questions whether my magical thinking is based on anything substantive, it’s not so surprising that I develop a tight defensive feeling in my gut.

The narrow mind is always defensive, it’s a case of self-preservation.

I’m trying to pay more attention to the feelings that accompany my beliefs. Emotions acts as deep knowledge, and feel more concrete than can be written in words.  I’m a bit apt to haphazardly believing them wholeheartedly to be the truth and the only truth when I’m caught by them intensely. When emotions drown you like a tidal wave, it’s difficult to have any other perspective.

We learn how to stay alive through trial and error and extrapolate. What ‘rings true’ is, at heart, is the sound of conformity.

On holiday I swapped The Ghost for Paulo Coelho’s The Spy. The similarity of the titles amused me. The two books though are very different stories. The Spy is a fictionalised account of the life of Mata Hari, an exotic dancer in early 20th century Paris, who was executed for being a German spy. She was escorted into a woodland by a couple of nuns, and then shot by a firing squad. Years later, the prosecutor of the case confided to a journalist that, “Between us, the evidence we had was so poor that it wouldn’t have been fit to punish a cat.”

On moving house

moving house
Some things you have to leave behind, like a pair of knickers painted on the kitchen wall.

My parents are combining two, fully furnished, over-crowded houses into one house.

You might think that having all my belongings here would be an inconvenience. Especially if you have even seen me move to a new house. However, the impact of me having things seems to be negligible. I might own a few tables, my gorgeous desk and many books, not to mention a few items of clothing, and enough kitchen equipment that we could easily run our own Great British Bake Off, but this has negligible impact.

Yesterday morning the father and I set out in the big van to go and collect some more of the furniture. The day was always going to be chaos for me as it involved me switching beds. However, the father assured me that we would be fine when it came to packing up the books from the wonderfully big living-room bookshelf. He’d packed six suitcases for them.

I couldn’t hide the scepticism from my face. Six? Last time I measured my books in suitcases I could fill eight of them. And I know that I have a lot of books. Half my allocated space in the roof is a combination of mine and my sister’s books. Then there’s the 6.6m of books on my bedroom wall. And the Ancient Egypt collection which is currently in my wardrobe. But my parent’s bookshelf in the living-room takes up most of the wall, only just fit in the large van if tilted, and has only one place it will fit in when it finally gets into this (smaller) house.

We had to resort to cardboard boxes.

Understandably, this morning, before we take the big van back to get more furniture, I’m hiding. My own room is chaos. I swapped beds yesterday and the bed drawers in the new beds are smaller than the ones in the old beds. Today I think we’re going to switch over my wardrobe. I’m trying, very hard, to accumulate the smallest furniture so that I can put up my easel without causing a major problem in getting to bed. It is a very nice bed.

Ideally, I wouldn’t be here at all. I’d run away somewhere with sunshine. The furniture lifting would be done by The Midget, with her muscles that make many men look weak, and The Blacksmith with his, which make the Midget look weak. And should I be passing by, then I’d be sat on the floor in front of the bookshelf half engrossed in reading something. Lovingly putting books on the shelf.

But reality is that there are two dining-room tables, multiple sofas, too many wardrobes, cabinets and pictures and me. Reality is that I am here and the Midget isn’t. It’s my muscles which are the ones that ache.

Amazingly the Mother is taking this all in her stride. She’s flourishing in the chaos.

But I’m reading Ruby Wax’s A Mindfulness Guide For The Frazzled.

Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby

football
Football pitch, taken in Nitra, Slovakia.

I don’t ‘get’ football. I imagine I never will. That moment when the whole crowd stands up with an almighty roar – I find it disconcerting. The gestures, the singing, the sense of belonging with a weird bunch of fanatics, no, I don’t get it.

I’d go further and state that I find football alienating. When people are getting all pent up about which team scored against whom, I’m wondering if I’m the only one who hasn’t lost the plot. When football funks last not minutes but hours and days (and since my family support Leeds United, sometimes years) I’m not going to pretend not to judge you. I find that eccentric bouncing off walls after a rare win similarly annoying. My favourite result: 1:1. You can’t complain that nothing happened, there were two goals, but it’s also (mostly) an emotionally neutral result. Pretty forgettable.

I don’t, despite my family’s joking, hate football. I always enjoyed playing football. I’d say I’m crap at it, but in my short history of playing for a team I was part of a defence which kept a clean sheet in every match we played. I admit I was about nine at the time and didn’t play often. At a similar time in my great footballing career, alongside another friend, I made a case for us girls being allowed to play football to the primary school headmistress. We won the right to play and chased down the pitch with great glee.

However, what was always clear was that the Midget was simply better. She was faster than me, despite being a head shorter, and could coordinate the ball going into the back of the net. She also remained interested.

And my sister’s interest fuelled my mother’s interest. And my father dutifully paid attention. And so began a family love of football that involved everyone except me. The Saturday afternoon division began when the Father decided that he wasn’t paying for me to attend another match after I’d spent the entire 90 minutes plus teaching myself to read back to front and upside down with the assistance of the program. It escalated as the Mother became more obsessed. I enjoyed the Saturday afternoons left to my own devices, but dreaded the emotional implosion that would come through the door in the evening.

Why am I thinking about all this now? Because I’ve been reading Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby. It’s a book about obsession, and his obsession happens to be football.

I recognise the truth of the fact that in a good football match, where both the team and the fans have bothered turning up, you can close your eyes and feel what’s going on by the sound and motion of the crowd. The Mother talks about this as you might a religious experience. Perhaps, if I could allow myself to shut my brain off and just join this, then I do believe that I would feel some great sense of belonging. After all, it’s not ‘You are Leeds and I am a fan’, but ‘We are Leeds’.

Instead it all makes me mildly anxious.

I’m fascinated though with the concept of belonging. It is a weird need which so many people I meet seem to struggle with. If football stands in for religion or village communities and satisfies a basic human need, who am I to argue with it. In a way, I have a deep respect for football’s ability to create a sense of belonging. I just can’t be part of it. For unknown reason, I’m not wired that way.

But I enjoyed the book, Fever Pitch, probably because as much as it talked about score lines and players to whom I cannot relate, it also tackled masculinity, depression and identity. Nick Hornby blended his mental patterns with the character and history of his own, intimate relationship with Arsenal, and allowed him to write how he felt. Quite an achievement when feelings are so tricky to truly grasp.